Arthur Simeon (right) and Dave Merheje will be performing tonight at the Randolph Theatre
Arthur Simeon’s stand-up career has taken off since re-locating to Toronto seven years ago. Since arriving from Peterborough after growing up in Kampala, Uganda, Simeon has performed on CBC’s the Debaters, Just for Laughs, and the Strombo Show. Tonight, he’ll take the stage at the Randolph Theatre alongside fellow comedian Dave Merheje to perform Legends in the Making for an upcoming album and DVD release. Toronto Standard spoke with Simeon last week about hecklers, parents and banana muffin addiction.
How did you know that you were making the right choice with doing stand-up?
The first time I did half an hour on stage. Thirty minutes of performing is a very long time — it’s a lot of material to write. When I did it the first time and it wasn’t horrible (it wasn’t that great, but it wasn’t horrible) in my mind was – if I can get over this now, it can only get better.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
I never fight writer’s block because then you end up writing really shitty stuff because you’re trying to force yourself to do something. I always tend to just be very social — I hang out with my friends, I talk to a lot of different people, and somehow, somewhere, something they say will trigger something — and I’ll go home and start writing. Half of it might be good, half of it might not be, but it’s one of those things that when it comes, it comes in quantities. It could range from anything — social commentary, or sex, or politics or dating. Someone will mention something and I’ll think oh, that’s funny or interesting. And then I’ll try to flip it — try to find a way to make it accessible to everybody.
What was your worst job?
This one? No. Haha. In University [at Trent studying Economics], I worked for Physical Resources. We went and cleaned up the residences. You had to sand the writing off tables and stuff. You had to wear this special suit in the middle of the summer with no A/C. That was pretty horrible. I would lose, like 20 lbs easily every day. Just sweating in that suit.
How’d you like Peterborough?
I loved it. I didn’t know what I was signing up for. I grew up in Uganda and came here to go to school. Most of the friends I have now I met there. It was a small town, a very pretty town. I’m used to a big city but it fostered an environment where I could thrive.
What is the biggest misconception people have about you?
That I like the attention — that I do comedy because I like the attention. I do it because I love making people laugh — which I think is two different things. Everyone that meets me through my friends who have known me a long time — they introduce me as a stand-up comedian and people are like, “Oh really? But he’s not funny and he’s not loud.” Some people that think I do this because I’m like oh, look at me! Obviously, there’s a part of me that wants that. But I want that under controlled circumstances. When I’m on stage, I’m want people to listen to what I have to say and hopefully enjoy it, but after that — I’m good.
How do you deal with hecklers?
I don’t get heckled often. But it depends on the situation. Hecklers come from different places. I’ve learned to take a beat, figure out what’s going on. There’s a dude trying to impress his girlfriend, there’s a dude trying to impress his guy friends, there’s a drunk girl that wants attention, there’s an old woman that was offended by something; so you try to figure out where that person is coming from and then figure out how to deal with it.
I had a guy once who was out on a date with his girl. He was in the front and had it in his mind to impress her and do a macho man thing. I came up and was talking to the audience. In the middle of a set-up, he had an empty pitcher of beer, and he taps it on the table. So I turn and say, “Is everything OK?” And he says, “Please get me a refill. Oh, I thought you were the help.” It was one of those alpha male moments, but I’m very comfortable, I grew up playing sports, so I’m used to a lot of alpha male posturing. But I also grew up with three older sisters, I listened to a lot of Whitney Houston, so I’m very comfortable in either role. I looked at him and said, “If you say one more word, I’m putting my foot in your face.” Everyone was like… whoa. What happened.
It took me a while to get the crowd back, but I got them back. And then I made fun of him, and he was quiet. And then I made fun of his girl — and then I felt bad — so I came back and said “I’m sorry I made fun of you. Let me buy you a drink. The only mistake you made was dating this dude, you really need to do better for yourself.” I was doing a lifestyle piece in the middle of the comedy show. The guy doesn’t realize we do this for a living — we’re always on the microphone, we perform in front of strangers. We’re very comfortable being idiots or being serious, we’re comfortable with silence. It’s one of those things you learn. I could be in front of a room of people and they’re not laughing, but I have to do my job.
How has your act evolved in the last few years, and where is it going?
When I started I talked alot about my migration. Because it was a focal point. I also told a lot of jokey-jokes, with set-up, punchlines. I’ve moved to tell a lot of stories about me, about traveling as a comedian, about the friends that I have, about the family I grew up with. Sometimes I exaggerate a little to make them interesting. For the show, I’m going to put a lot of that old material to rest. It’s a way to re-invent and move on to — now I feel like people are coming to see me. For me, to give them the best show, they have to know something about me. The people that I enjoy watching — the comedy I enjoy listening to — I get the sense that that’s who this person is. Sometimes it’s difficult, because it’s very personal and you feel very vulnerable sometimes. But I think that’s what makes it interesting from both sides. From my point of view of performing it, and from the audience point of view of getting a glimpse into your mindset.
Have your friends or family taken issue with you talking about them onstage?
No. Because I’ve never come from a point where it was mean. I never tell a story to ridicule any of my friends. The stuff that they’ve done that is funny — they know it’s funny, and they kind of acknowledge that.
My parents were visiting me in the fall of last year so I put together a show. And I told stories about my parents. My dad kind of likes being the center of attention so he thought it was pretty funny. But my mom was mortified. And I told this story about how she lived in the states for about a year doing a post-graduate program, when I was eight or nine years old. While she was away, she was recording all these things on VHS tapes to bring home, all the shows, animated cartoons, movies for my older sisters — but she’d just leave a VHS tape in, and it would record like three hours worth of programming. And then put another VHS in. It was so random — a sitcom, then a drama, everything. I did this joke about how I never understood about movies, because I watched it all off television which had a lot of commercials in the middle. And as an eight year old kid, I never understood that why, in the middle of E.T., they were telling me to buy a Mazda. While I’m telling the story, I could hear my mother laughing. A few in the audience were chuckling, but she was dying. She remembered that — she also knew how ridiculous it was to record all these shows and bring them home to us.
Who are your current favourite comics?
Bill Burr — for the honesty with which he’s approaching comedy. More locally, I’d say Dave Merheje (who I’m doing the show with) is one of my favourites. It’s very different, very high-energy. Most comedians feel the need to shelter a certain part of their life – I mean, I do it. I don’t talk about my relationships, there’s very few things I’ve talked about from my dating life. I’ve always felt that it’s tacky to be talking about my ex-girlfriends on-stage.
Dave brings everything — his family, his dating, and it’s all there for you to listen to. Who he is onstage is who he is offstage.
What do you like about Toronto?
I love the diversity of Toronto. I love the comedy scene. It’s grown so much. In this neighbourhood alone (College/Bathurst), I could name at least five or six places that have been running comedy nights. And people are coming out. With social networking and Facebook, you can get 25 to 30 people, in a small room that’s all you need. You don’t have to rely on the comedy clubs to build the act. It’s more independent. And there’s so much talent in this city. On any given night, any room you go to, you’re performing with some of the very best. You can’t slack off. Everyone around you is giving it 100 percent, and that’s what the audience is going to remember.
I can’t stand the streetcar. I don’t know why we have it. It takes forever, it breaks down all the time, you can’t go around them. It’s the worst thing.
Favourite city to perform in?
St. John’s, NFLD. The people are the sweetest human beings you’ve ever met. It’s one of my favourite places to go.
You know those two bite banana muffins? Keep them away from me. I’m addicted. I would go into a rehab program where everyone around me is talking about meth and cocaine and sex addiction — and I’d be like, two bite banana muffins, guy. Dont judge. Anybody? This is a safe space. Can we talk about this?
What’s your advice to seven-years-ago Arthur?
Don’t give up. When you’re a performer, there are dark days. There are very many days where you question why and how and what’s going to happen. I would tell myself to just be patient, it will work out. Every single time I’ve gone into a moment where I thought, “Is this worth it? I should move home,” then something happens — I get a phone call, I get a show, I get a sign. So work through those dark days and accept them, it makes the journey worthwhile. I would also tell myself to enjoy every moment. As comedians, we are very lucky — our job is to be silly and stupid and funny. If you don’t take the time to enjoy it, you’re missing out.
What was your proudest moment?
Performing for my parents. It was difficult to tell them what I was going to do for a living. My mom was very cool about it. My dad wasn’t. He didn’t understand why I didn’t want a nine-to-five that was secure. But I explained to him: I don’t have kids, I’m not married, I don’t really have any responsibilities.
This is the only chance I have. I can’t have a mid-life crisis and say, “I want to be a performer now!” if I had all these responsibilities in my life. I realize, the only thing they care about is that their kids are OK. So when they came to visit, saw where I lived, met some of my friends, they saw the lifestyle that I was living — my mom was like “I just wanted to make sure that you’re OK. I’m glad you’re happy, I’m glad things are working out.” And so performing for them — I’m just glad to give them some peace of mind.