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Ben Cannon talks Students’ Union politics and being the Beyoncé of Calgary comedy

By Gurman Sahota, March 28, 2017 —

Getting his start at University of Calgary open mic nights, local comedianBen Cannon has gone from Students’ Union elected official to Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club headliner. The Gauntlet sat down with Cannon to talk Donald Trump, Tig Notaro and trying to crash through the mainstream media.

The Gauntlet: How did you get your start in comedy?

Ben Cannon: It was here at the U of C where someone from the Gauntlet — Brent Constantine,  who’s another aspiring comedian living in Vancouver and is doing shows out there — he was the one who kind of spotted it in me. Then [it was] trying it out initially on open mic nights in That Empty Space as a slam poetry character at first and then doing stand-up properly in the weeks and months after. You’ve got to build up a lot of courage for it. I was glad to have the initial shows here, it’s kind of the incubator.

G: How has university affected how you do comedy?

C: I did student politics when I was here. I was in student government and that made me think a lot about what kind of clan I wanted to be a part of when I went out into the world. I hung out with a lot of politicians and got to dip my toes into that sphere a little bit. I like to think of comedians as Jedis out in the world who have some grasp of this intangible source that they don’t quite understand but they just hope to serve it in a higher purpose. And then hopefully, if they do well, they’ll be rewarded.

G: Do you have any inspirations?

C: Ever since I was a kid, people like Robin Williams and John Candy — kind of outlandish character guys. My favourite stand-up comedian right now is Maria Bamford because there’s nobody else who can talk about mental health issues in comedy like her. She’s this whole new paradigm in comedy for that reason.

G: What do you usually talk about when you’re on stage? 

C: Trump. It’s unavoidable. I think in a different, better, parallel universe, comedians in general wouldn’t feel the need to talk about him as much but just because as overbearing as he is on the culture, so too is that subject matter that kind of dominated [the comedy] sphere. You see it on every late night show — [Stephen] Colbert is doing better than Jimmy Fallon because he can do political stuff, whereas Fallon fluffed up Trump’s hair and humanized him. You try to find your own angles. In the last couple years working on comedy, I got better at writing jokes. So you want to write the best jokes you can about things that people care about the most, so why not make it about the most important stuff? It’s gotten a lot of people going crazy — artistically and creatively — which is hopefully a good thing.

G: How do you come up with your material?

C: I pace around my house and read Facebook comments on news articles. Maybe it’s not the best substitute for actually talking to people and figuring out what’s important to them, but it’s a good way of getting the most extreme and therefore absurd viewpoints that people take on things. This fuels most of my characters that I’ll do on stage. They say in comedy there’s two ingredients to a great character which is just confidence and stupidity. Like Trump, if you just go and do that on stage, you’ll have some success hopefully.

G: Where is your favourite place to perform?

C: I just did a weekend at Calgary Yuk Yuk’s — that’s my home club. I feel like the Red Sox at Fenway Park — [I] just got the home field advantage. As similar as Calgary and Edmonton are as cities, [in] Edmonton, I’m never quite able to connect on the same level. Calgary in general is a great scene right now. I’d say in the six years I’ve been doing it, there’s been a huge amount of younger people doing [comedy]. I think they have a greater connection to people who are really successful in America, in New York and Los Angeles. I remember in the first couple years, listening to podcasts of comedians of just how seriously they take it and what are the exact steps in creating a good room, a good show, in a good city like New York, L.A. or Chicago. And because there’s enough crazy nerds like me who obsessed about that kind of stuff and have applied those kinds of tactics to our own shows in Calgary, it has led to a much more active community. We’re all growing and getting better together and have unique perspectives on things.

If you are going to do political comedy, what greater fish tank to have than to do shows in the middle of downtown Calgary for hipsters, but then on the weekends, going to Drumheller, Camrose and Black Diamond and doing shows for unabashed Trump supporters? You have to try and go up there for 20 minutes and say ‘hey, can you acknowledge my humanity? I don’t agree with you on these things but hey, have you thought about it like this? Let’s laugh along.’ And sometimes, that doesn’t work out quite as planned.

G: How has comedy changed from when you’ve started to now?

C: [Comedy] is supposed to be the thing that brings levity to people. We have same darker issues that a lot of other entertainment industries have. [There’s been] a lot of uncomfortable, peeling back of difficult issues such as when we talk about the statistically lower amount of female comedians overall, across Calgary, Canada, America [and] everywhere.

[There are] barriers that exist for women to feel comfortable performing comedy, but [if] there’s more people doing comedy [and ultimately] there’s more women doing comedy, there’s shows produced by women. The worst issues are then avoided by there being better lines of communications across shows [and] between comedians and better support systems in place. It’s shitty that you have to say that that is the way that we have to do that stuff but I think that is a larger thing in our society that everybody’s dealing with. It has gotten better in the last couple years. Where those issues have always existed and have been a problem, they are improving and it’s something that I’ve talked about publicly before and gotten some flack before. I would say across the board and in Calgary, as far as putting checks and balances in place to make sure that stuff is avoided in our scene is important.

G: Have you ever considered recording anything?

C: I try to record longer sets, but I’m nervous about it. It’s like feeding this great beast and you think about your material, if you record it professionally, then you put it out somewhere then you can never repeat those jokes again on stage. Churning and burning like Louis C.K. versus preserving this 30–40 years honed, golden set like Jerry Seinfeld — those are like the two ideological camps I find in the realm of recording. And then all the different options you have on putting stuff out like YouTube clips so that hopefully you get booked for other shows, or do you want to preserve that stuff to put it on an album? Everybody’s got different answers to those questions. I just want to get better at the comedy because I guess maybe I’m still self-conscious — still in this adolescent phase of not quite a brand new, first-timer comedian but still not an old, good, master. Nobody’s the boss of comedy. Nobody’s going to tell you when it’s time, you just have to say, ‘okay, I could probably say 60 minutes worth of stuff that might be compelling to people,’ but I’m not there yet. It’s got to be something pretty interesting.

Tig Notaro probably has the best comedy album of the last decade. It’s because it was just an impromptu record of one of her sets where in the days leading up to that set, [this] tsunami of circumstances happened and then she goes up and just talks about all of that for an hour. It’s just this crazy, awesome comedy special that all comedians now hold her as this folk hero for doing that in the midst of all her tragedy. Unfortunately, even she has been unable to pop the bubble of mainstream success of some other comedians.

I want to develop something compelling and important enough that it’s relatable to a large amount of people, therefore inherently means mainstream success. Then the question becomes ‘are you selling out,’ ‘are you going to get lucky and get some big break?’ I want to bend the mainstream to my end like Adele, like Beyoncé, like Ed Sheeran — these weird, atypical people who are achieving this mainstream success. That’s what I like about people who are doing it because they’re climbing to the top and adding their own twist to it. Beyoncé is only as powerful as she is because she climbed her way to the top of music and then transformed as an artist in the way that is iconic.

G: What do you have planned in the near future?

C: I’ve got a show in Medicine Hat coming up. I’ve got some more shows in Calgary — just the shows around town, Cafe Koi every third Monday is the Cannon Comedy Show. I’m going to be one of the co-hosts of the 150th Canada Day celebrations happening at the Genesis Centre in Northeast Calgary. What better way to celebrate Canada day than our multicultural mosaic?

Edited for brevity and clarity.

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