Sunday, February 25, 2024

20 Questions with Comedian Justin Shaw

Last year, comedian and storyteller Justin Shaw’s 70 Mile Yard Sale became the sleeper hit of the Hamilton Fringe Festival. While only a few people attended his first performance, by the mid-point of the run, audiences were lined up around the block well in advance to hear his intimate and humourous retrospective on traditions from Prince Edward Island, his home province.

Over the past year, Justin’s star has continued to rise with regular hosting and performing gigs. He returns to the Hamilton Fringe Festival this year with a brand new show, A Creature is Stirring. One of two shows at Mosaic Bar running from July 20-30, Shaw’s holiday-themed story focuses on a rodent problem in his Hamilton apartment that revealed his insecurities. Given Shaw’s talent and warmth for storytelling, there’s no doubt that this will be another in-demand Fringe show that will have audiences lined up for Mosaic’s limited entry.

Beyond James posed 55 questions to Justin Shaw from our question bank, and asked him to pick and choose which questions she wished to answer (minimum of 15). The unedited responses formulate the interview below.

1. Where did you go to school?
I went to the National Theatre School of Canada in their Acting program, and I also have a degree in History from the University of Prince Edward Island because in a previous life I was going to teach history.

2. At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to pursue the arts professionally?
In university on PEI, me and my roommate Ben and I ran our school’s improv troupe, and we needed a name. We read an AV Club article that suggested “name your troupe after the thing that made you laugh the hardest.” One day while my roommate and I were watching Family Feud (because we were true taste-makers of our campus) a contestant was asked “What is one thing you NEVER want to see your father wearing?” and without missing a beat, Mr. Jenkins of the Jenkins family buzzed in and yelled “SUSPENDERS!” I have never laughed harder before or since. It was nuts. Ben’s head exploded. Windows shattered. My pants fell down. Toilets were flushing backwards. It was epic. So we named our troupe The Suspenders. We were terrible. Our origin story was funnier than our actual troupe. But Ben and I tapped into some serious magic that year and we knew we were going to pursue this foolishness for the rest of our lives.

3. Name a Hamilton-based artist that inspires you, and why.
Anthony Mlekuz and Devin Bateson are two guys that are wildly creative in their comedy. Anthony is a wild animal on stage, and his commitment to a bit is second to none. Devin is one of those frustrating jack-of-all-trades that can do a bit of everything: he writes, he draws, he produces music, and is a singular voice of weirdness. 

4. Who do you follow on social media?
Too many comedians. For every comedian I follow, I should have to donate a dollar to charity. I also follow a lot of cartoonists. Asher Perlman is so funny, he does some New Yorker-style drawings. Chris Simpsonartist and Pants Pants are also genius in their weirdness.

5. What is the strangest road you’ve ever traveled?
Is this a literal question? Barton Street is high on the list, and I say that with total affection. 

6. What do you like to listen to?
When I was like 18 to 20, I had an insatiable craving for East Coast Canadian music. Joel Plaskett Emergency, Two Hours Traffic, Matt Mays & El Torpedo were my holy trinity, and they still have a shrine on my record shelf. I’m also big into PUP, The Avett Brothers, and The Weakerthans. One Headlight by The Wallflowers lives rent free in my brain. That chorus is impossible to not scream along to.

7. What are three things that make you love living in Hamilton?
Two of them are beer and donuts, but I feel like the third one should be something culturally important because saying “I love beer and donuts!” makes me sound like Homer Simpson. I really love Hamilton’s grit. It’s a hard working town that has zero pretension and can laugh at itself. It’s not “Toronto Junior” – it’s its own thing. 

8. What relatively normal piece of clothing do you believe you look ridiculous in?

9. What three people would join you for your dream dinner party?
Jim Henson, Jim Henson’s wife, and my wife. It’d be a double date.

10. What is your signature meal to cook at home?
Chili. I make a mean chili. (the secret ingredient… is friendship) (and booze)

11. What television show could you watch over and over again?
The Simpsons, seasons 3-8. I can contribute at least one deep-cut Simpson quote to any conversation. I am told I’m also good at “ruining conversations.” 

12. What are you the most proud of?
I’m really glad I stuck it out when I moved to Hamilton. I arrived one month before the pandemic in 2020 (because the key to comedy is TIMING.) A lot of my friends and peers in Toronto migrated back East, but I had JUST arrived and didn’t want to give up on what I thought could be a great opportunity. There was a tone of uncertainty at the time and I knew it would be a gamble, but I’m really glad I stuck it out because I made so many new friends and memories with lots of great writers, performers, and not to mention stellar businesses.

13. What is the best way to die?
You remember that scene on The Simpsons where that demon tries to get Homer to eat all the donuts in hell? That’s the way to go! By the way, this interview is just me talking about The Simpsons. Dental plan.

14. What is your favourite part about A Creature is Stirring?
I love that I get to work at Mosaic Bar again – they have been so kind and supportive since I moved to Hamilton and are letting me take big swings at honing my craft. Plus, we’ve been running a monthly comedy show together called Mosaic Comedy, so the Fringe is a great chance to cap off a year of hard work making that venue a destination for entertainment.

15. What was the hardest part about writing A Creature is Stirring?
It’s a very personal piece – it’s 100% true, so sometimes I am procrastinating because it means I need to dig deeper into the material, which, at times, can be uncomfortable (but always rewarding). 

16. What is it like to write and perform your own work?
You know when you’re a kid and you draw a picture for your parents and you’re like “Look I made this for you!” and your parents are like, “you’re a GENIUS,” and put it on the fridge next to the grocery list? In actuality, the picture is very bad and the parents don’t have the heart to tell you that your drawing sucks.

Well, in standup comedy, the audience ABSOLUTELY has the heart to tell you that they do not care about your hand-shaped turkey drawing. Some audiences might be so inclined to post on Facebook saying “we hate turkeys!” And in your heart you’re like “oh man I made those turkeys with my own two hands – if they hate my turkeys, it’s like they hate me!” But then eventually, you find some folks that are like, “hey we think your turkeys are actually pretty good.” And, over time, more and more people come forward and are like “more turkeys please!” and you’re like “are you sure? Did my parents tell you to say that?” and they’re like “no this is a legit love of your turkeys.”

This is not a perfect analogy, but the real journey is finding your audience, and learning to own your success. 

17. What was the luckiest moment in your life?
A few years ago, I submitted a story to Mike Birbiglia’s comedy show Working It Out – it was a Zoom comedy show filmed in his office with like 4 different cameras and 800 people regularly tuning in. It was awesome. Anyways, Birbiglia’s work has influenced me a lot, and I thought, “hey he’s asking for stories, why don’t I submit?”

Sure enough, his producer picks my story to share on his show! It was a goofy little story about me falling in a tub of home-made liquid soap in some nutty farmer’s barn back on PEI. No one asked WHY the soap was there, by the way. Nevertheless, this unlucky event ended up being the story that led to me meeting my hero and having my luckiest day. Woo!

18. What is one thing you would do in Hamilton with a friend who is visiting for the first time?
Take them to Mai Pie (which I have done when my old roommate came to visit!)

19. Under what circumstances would you join the army?
Picture this: AI has gone too far and we are now facing the war of Man vs Machines. The Human Dispatch requires a team of weirdos and oddballs who need to blowout the interface of ChatGPT by stringing together personal stories, dated references, and the occasional non sequitur. This team requires a captain… and they can think of only one man… 

20. Name three things that have no monetary value that you own, but you love dearly and will keep forever.
I have a picture of my wife in my wallet. And Mosaic Bar last year gave me a beautiful PEI-themed gift following the run of our show. And lastly, I often jingle my keys when I’m waiting to go on stage. I only need ONE key to my place, but the rest of the keys were keys to my friend’s place on PEI who let me crash in their guest room while I did gigs touring through the East Coast. It was a great nudge of support and I know they’ve changed their locks twice over, but the keys are a reminder of that support. Also so I don’t look like a dork with one key on a keychain. (“I have one key! I am allowed one place!”)

Justin Shaw performs his original show A Creature is Stirring at Mosaic Bar nightly from July 20-30. Tickets are available now at the HFTCO website.

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