Sometimes there’s so much great comedy I don’t know what to do with myself, and that’s just counting the extraordinary comics in my stateside backyard. And then I’ll happen upon international comedians, like Jen Brister, Susan Calman and Urzila Carlson, and remember that it’s probably about time to get my passport renewed. Never have I found a group of comics harder to track down, then again, never have I been waging communication wars against multiple oceans, time zones and comedy festival schedules. Whether performing on the festival circuit, creating podcasts, headlining shows or appearing on national TV, these women are some of the hardest working comics I’ve ever had the pleasure of creeping on the interwebs. Join me, won’t you?
Since stepping on stage at 16, Sabrina Jalees has become one of the most recognizable faces in the Canadian media. She’s crossed over into acting, hosts a Canadian reality series, as well as a national radio show (CBC’s Laugh Out Loud) and is best known as a fixture of the most popular show on Canada’s version of MTV (Much Music’s Video On Trial). She broke Mike Myers’ record as the youngest improviser ever hired by Second City and, most recently, moved to the U.S.
Jalees is very open about being as she said, “Who you are without making it all you are. My racial diversity—half-Pakistani, half-Swiss—and sexual diversity are big parts of my identity and I make a point of not shying away from either. I was flying to LA last week and my plane partner was this very conservative Indian lady. We got to know each other and she told me, ‘You know you’re the first gay I’ve really met.’ It’s amazing.”
“I had an impossible time taking the leap and coming out onstage,” she said. “It took me years to realize that avoiding this big important truth onstage was leaving me completely blocked creatively. Once I accepted that if I was gonna be honest onstage, I was gonna be real about my sexuality, I had a resurgence. Jokes came easier, not just the ones about sexuality, and my act saw a huge growth spurt. Regardless of what makes you unique, being open and proud of the things that make you different transforms that once ‘embarrassing’ thing into an empowering thing.”
Did I mention Sabrina is also a motivational speaker? No joke!
You can catch Sabrina on the next season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing and her Just For Laughs Gala hosted by Eddie Izzard should be airing this spring (Comedy Network in Canada and Comedy Central in the U.S.) She’s currently working on a new podcast called My Sexy Podcast.
“I think the film Ace Ventura had something to do with it,” Mae said in regards to her becoming a comedian. “I became obsessed with Jim Carey and begged my family to take me to a comedy club in Toronto called Yuk Yuk’s when I was 11. They eventually agreed. I sat in the front row and one of the comics got me up on stage and made me sit on his lap and be a ventriloquist dummy—he thought I was a little boy (I had a bowl cut and was wearing a suede vest and corduroy pants) and he made me say filthy things about Pamela Anderson. At the end of his set I said, bluntly, ‘I’m a girl’ and got a huge laugh. After that I was hooked.”
Currently based in the UK, and starting her own comedy career at 13, Mae was the youngest ever nominee for the prestigious Tim Sims Encouragement Fund Award and, this year, she won Best International Performer at the Brighton Fringe and received stellar reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
“There are lots of great queer female comics in London,” she said. “We don’t cross paths that often because people are reluctant to put us on the same bill! As if people might be confused and unable to tell us apart: ‘This girl was just on in the first half, why have they put her on again?’ But I do feel like I’ve always been surrounded by tons of inspiring, talented female comics on the live circuit. There are thousands of us knocking around. What REALLY needs to change is the number of female or female-friendly TV commissioners. There is a massive shortage of ladies being given screen time.”
I’ll be the first to say, give this girl a show. Mae is getting excited about this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and gearing up to record her first comedy album. “My nasal, muppet-like voice will be on BBC Radio 4 a bit this spring, as well.”
photo by Kristian Dowling
South African born Urzila Carlson moved to New Zealand and started doing comedy in the late 2000s. Since then, she has received awards as the Best Newcomer and the Best Female Comedian at the NZ Comedy Guild Awards and in 2013 she won People’s Choice Awards at the NZ International Comedy Festival. Seems she found her calling, considering comedy wasn’t something she ever considered as a child.
“I didn’t really aspire to be a comic,” Urzila said. “Comedy happened to me, I didn’t happen to it. I started doing comedy on a dare and I was hooked. Thankfully people kept booking me for gigs. Now it has a life of its own and I can’t imagine my life without it.”
As a quick-witted storyteller, Urzila has a commanding stage presence and isn’t one to shy away from her personal life on stage. “I’ve never done comedy in South Africa but I’m sure it would be an open and accepting environment, that’s how it is in New Zealand it’s not an issue ever.” I think I’m the same on and off stage but my friends and fiancé say I’m a little different.” It’s not always so easy to be yourself, but Urzila brazenly keeps herself open, no matter where she performs.
“I was in a small town New Zealand in Katikati and I’m always a little nervous about doing gay material just in case of trouble, but that day I thought oh well take it small town NZ and it went well and afterwards an old lady called Mavis came up to me, she was in her 80s and she gave me a hug and said we love you we don’t care about your sexuality. It was great, I was putting the stress on myself meanwhile they had no problem all along.”
Having just finished performing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Urzila will tackle the NZ festival and then head back to do the Sydney and Perth comedy festivals. “So it’s a busy few months,” she said. “I think the next time I have time off is in July and I’m planning a wedding in the meantime too.”