Comedy Spotlight: Bill Davern
The “Steelworker Comic”
I recently had an hour-long telephone conversation with veteran Canadian Stand-Up Comic & Documentary Filmmaker Mr. Bill Davern. Bill and the author, David Reuben, have only crossed paths a couple of times over the last 30 years, but have many friends and colleagues in common.
The conversation was lively, honest, and a bit vulgar. Within 5 minutes you feel like Mr. Davern is your lifelong best friend. So how did this Hamilton ON Canada Steelwork become a successful “Road Warrior” Stand-Up Comic/ Impressionist, Associate Producer on CHTV’s “Comedy at CLUB 54”, and an award-winning Filmmaker?
This show biz journey started in Hamilton ON 62 years ago where Bill and his older sister were raised by his mother after his father passed away when Bill was 5 years old. Mom has a ripe sense of humour, was a big George Carlin fan, and loves cult movies such as “Sid and Nancy, “Blue Velvet. “Texas Chainsaw’74” and “Jacob’s Ladder”. Bill remembers; “I hold her responsible for inspiring me into Stand-Up...or becoming the next Norman Bates”. Mom is now 97 years young and still inspiring her talented son.
The Canadian Comedy Community can thank “Russell Steel” in Hamilton ON for preparing Bill for the world of Stand-Up Comedy. Bill states: “oddly enough "Russell Steel" prepared me to deal with those battlefield ‘road gigs’ we all must tour".
“By becoming the 'shop floor comedian’, I avoided many an 'ass kicking’ in a work environment peppered w/ ex-cons, bitter immigrants, ‘juice and "hop heads’. The ‘boys’ challenged me if I ‘had dah ballz,’ to take ‘my big mouth’ to the stage at the local Yuks. I had to comply or be considered a... you know - what's that English slang for cigarette”?
Mr. Davern’s early material was based on his job as a steelworker and went over well at Yuk Yuk’s in Hamilton ON. Owners Donnie & Lydia Coy encouraged rookie comic Bill Davern and this led to winning some competitions, being profiled by CHTV news and several newspaper articles.
The early years also brought lifelong friendships with other young comics including Darren Frost, Johnny Guardhouse, Dave Hook, Rodney Pentland, Mark Crocker, and Bob Gilbert. Mr. Davern says. “we were a uniquely 'ego free' group. Seemed everyone wanted everyone to do well".
Longtime friend Darren Frost comments: "Bill Davern is a throwback to an era gone. Due to his hard work and his ability to see something not many can see, not only through his standup but his films as well. One of the few comics that has held my respect for decades".
Bill Davern reminisces; "I'm so old I remember if you did an 'open mic' spot, you got 4 free beers"! A weekend opener was $40/show and middles $80/show with outside gigs offering far more with rooms 'comp-ed'! I had a big ‘66 Impala SuperSport - 2 tons of Detroit iron w/dual exhaust poppin' holes in the ozone - that could seat 6. We would roll this tank into town, get paid to perform, party to dawn, trash the hotel room then make our escape. I so wish I had videotaped some of those crazy nights but made the idiotic assumption we all did - it would go on forever. Now all are just fleeting memories. Sudbury, North Bay, Timmons, often a Friday and Saturday show".
Bill Davern eventually graduated to paid spots mainly working out of the Donnie & Lydia Coy Hamilton and Niagara Falls Yuk Yuk’s. Some of the Canadian Comedy Royalty Bill worked with included Russell Peters, Jeremy Hotz, Brent Butt, Stewart Francis, Wes Zaharak, Kenny Robinson, Ron Vaudry, Steve Levine, Matt Disero, Mark Crocker, and Roger Chandler. All these men not only became colleagues but also friends.
The "impressions" came accidentally. As a kid, Bill Davern loved the b.g. movie scores-"Bridge on the River Kwai, "Planet of the Apes", "Cool Hand Luke" etc. - and since there were no VCRs back then, Bill would record full movies off late night TV showings onto his trusty little cassette recorder. Bill states, “I even sneaked it into theatres - fuckin' nerd that I was”.
On playback the music often included some dialogue so gradually Bill began mimicking the actor's voices. “At 12, I was entertaining my fellow nerd friends reciting Roddy McDowell, Alec Guinness, Charlton Heston, etc”.
One of Mr. Davern’s favorite touring partners and dear friend was the late great Dave Hook. Dave and Bill were a regular team of “Road Warriors”. Bill says, “we developed that special brotherhood of road warriors. Whenever I was bombing, he would shout out his favourite line from Saving Private Ryan; (Don't shoot! Let him BURN!)”.
The author, David Reuben, recommends that the readers check out Bill Davern’s documentary on Mr. Dave Hook.
In 1996, Mr. Bill Davern, summitted at self-produced performance tape to Ben Guyatt who happened to be the producer and host of “Comedy at Club 54’on CHTV out of Hamilton ON. Again, good things happen to Bill Davern because of Hamilton ON. Ben Guyatt had Bill audition live at a dive bar in Niagara Falls ON.
Bill survived the audition, and Ben Guyatt gave him a TV spot. Over the years Ben gave him 5 TV spots on "Comedy at Club 54" as well as dozens of outside gigs, fundraisers and more than his share of nightmare corporate gigs that Ben had the good sense to avoid.
Bill soon became the Associate Producer of “Comedy at Club 54’on CHTV. Bill’s main function was to walk the talent through the expectations of the TV shoot and be on set in case an act bailed. “I was also able to recommend to Ben some club comics I knew so helped "pay it forward" by giving others the chance I was given”. Bill Davern proudly states; “Ben and 54 owner Gene Quondamatteo kept me on stage as a regular act these last 2 decades and are overall most responsible for my career or to blame”!
Ben Guyatt comments; "Bill is the most humble and nicest comedian I have ever worked with. Few comics are as funny off stage as they are on stage. Bill is one of them. I am proud to count him as a close friend".
The author, David Reuben, asked Mr. Davern how he survived in the tough business of Canadian Comedy? “Truthfully, David, after the first few years of learning the ropes on club and especially road gigs, I kept at it simply because the jobs/gigs were offered. Always amazed me those 'big" shows' when I'd make as much in an hour as I'd make in a week bustin' my balls in the factory. But I stayed grounded by maintaining whatever day job(s) I could score”.
Bill continues; “Those truly talented Canadian comics who made the transition to big fame I worked with and witnessed nightly just rockin the clubs - Russell Peters, Brent Butt, Mike MacDonald, Mike Bullard, Jeremy Hotz, Ron James - also have that unique persona/charisma for mainstream media.”
The author, David Reuben, asked Bill Davern how he got involved in the documentary film business and as with comedy he went for it!
After High School, Bill took a job in an office mailroom. He considered the monotony and autonomy as an office drone to be the path to suicide. With nothing to lose, Mr. Bill Davern took a chance and enrolled in film school at Conestoga College in Kitchener ON. The course was truly hands-on with only the bare minimum time on theory. “I was always a film nerd with a great passion for socially conscience cinema, so I buddied up with fellow students with a practical interest in the technical. We'd party together and formed a crew”.
Bill’s movie “Galaxy" a tale of an apathetic office drone getting sparked with passion by a pinball machine. Mr. Davern says, “BTW; I now own that machine and still play it regularly”! The movie won the Norman Jewison Award of $2000. “At the "award’s dinner, not only did I have a "meet and greet" with Jewison but also his 'friend" Michael Crichton who was taken aback when I complimented him on his 1973 feature "Westworld".
"You saw it?" he joked. Both those huge successes were humble, regular guys who did not patronize this steel city goon”.
Most artist start out making films about what they are familiar with, and Bill Davern was no different. “Prime Time” is about a guy driven to suicide by mass media overload. “Just For Laughs” delves into the secret world of voice impressionist, years before Bill tried Stand -Up Comedy.
As early as 1980, Mr. Bill Davern was toying with the idea of doing Stand-Up Comedy. He filmed a documentary at the Legendary Original Yuk Yuk's in Yorkville in Toronto ON. Who would have thought that a few short years later Bill would be on that same stage? Life has a way of adjusting itself once people put out their desires into the universe.
Check this video from the early days of Comedy in Canada. #CanadianComedy #TorontoComedy #StandUpComedy
Thank you Bill Davern for producing this video.
In 1998, Bill collaborate/co-direct a TV "pilot" in 1998 called "Gigs". People always asked not about the successful shows but of the 'tough rooms" so me and a fellow film grad paid 5 independent "News" camera guys to film a complete show in a small Ontario town with a colourful audience and even the town "drunk". It showcases ventriloquist Mark Crocker and the great Ron Vaudry in scathing, winning bouts just castrating the hecklers and winning the crowd.
Bill reminisces; “We shopped "Gigs" around to all the TV networks and everyone loved it, laughed out loud...and passed. It's great but too much for TV. That whole talking to the camera and roaming about approach is too raw." It was one of the first reality TV shows, and hey, that style never caught on, did it”?
The author, David Reuben, asked Mr. Davern what is next for him after over a quarter century in Canadian Show Biz?
“I performed far less these last 10 years - mostly at "Club 54” - but did the odd 'fundraiser. It's taken over a quarter of a century, but only now I'm able to relax and enjoy performing by not performing if that makes sense. I've always been a stickler to a set list and tight premise/punch recitation and will remain so on big paying gigs. I still practice ahead of every show. But on the later 54 shows, I now enjoy "off the script" bantering with the audience, tossing out 'new bits" - more or less "being myself" - which maybe odd for a voice impressionist”.
“With all the great responses from the tribute documentary on Dave Hook, I am planning to continue doing "Profiles in Canadian Comedy" to preserve the great talents I've known putting them on the internet forever”.
“How many others at 62 years old can have weekends being the center of attention at a big flashy night club, banter with beautiful waitresses and be free to express myself publicly and even tell a rambunctious audience of 300 to go fuck themselves”?
For more information on Mr. Bill Davern visit: http://davernproductions.com/
Mention you found out about Bill Davern on www.thecomedygreenroom.com
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