Being funny in un-funny times: Comedian Ed Hill coming to Helena – Independent Record

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Vancouver, BC based comedian Ed Hill will be in Helena Sept. 25. 
You’ve never seen anything like “Candy and Smiley.”
The debut special from Vancouver, British Columbia-based stand-up comic Ed Hill is bold and inventive, both in its jokes and the innovative way those jokes are delivered.
Hill, who was born in Taiwan to Taiwanese parents, immigrated to Canada when he was 10. His parents took the names Candy and Smiley when they moved, even though, as Hill points out with a half-amused, half-exhausted sigh, Smiley never actually smiles.
Jokes like that are all over “Candy and Smiley.” Hill’s stand-up is deeply interior. He tells stories that are intimately about his own life. And yet, they feel like universal truths. Your life might not be anything like Hill’s, but he’s such a committed storyteller that you wind up relating to him anyway.
It’s comedy that’s closer to oral storytelling than it is street jokes. Which isn’t to say that this is some egghead, college lecture type stuff. Hill is funny. He’s got a quick mind, and he wields self-deprecation like a knife.
“Candy and Smiley” would be a great special anywhere, but the way it was filmed really sets it apart. Hill’s special isn’t in a club, or a theater. It’s a nondescript conference room. And the audience is just six people, gathered around Hill in a V-shaped pattern. A chyron introduces each one. There’s his manager, a colleague, his best friend. And that’s it. They provide the laughter.
Hill provides the jokes. The space is big. It’s empty and it echoes. Hill performs sitting in a steel chair. No microphone, no stool, no crutch. Hill’s material has to soar to work in an environment so antithetical to comedy. It does. “Candy and Smiley,” which in the States is streaming on Prime Video, was a hit. Jesse Thorn, a longtime trendsetter on the southern California comedy scene and host of NPR’s “Bullseye,” called it one of the best specials of 2021. Paste Magazine agreed.
Hill is currently working out his next hour, hopefully to be filmed early next year. He’s got four upcoming shows in Montana, including one scheduled for 7-10 p.m. Sunday at Lewis & Clark Tap Room, 1535 Dodge Ave. in Helena. Tickets to the Helena show cost $25 at the door or $20 online and are available at eventbrite.com. The shows are presented by Bone Dry Comedy, a production team out of Bozeman that’s been bringing live comedy to four of Montana’s biggest towns over the past year or so.
Hill has performed in Billings before. He competed in the 2012 Big Sky International Comedy Competition. He said he’s “really excited to be back in Big Sky Country,” although he’s hoping we won’t have snow the last week in September (never a guarantee around here).
In advance of those Montana shows, Hill sat down with the Billings Gazette to discuss his special, his approach to touring and being funny in an un-funny world. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity).
Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing while you’re in Montana?
I’m not a touristy type of person. I’m more interested in the local experience when I go somewhere. So one of the things I like to do is really connect with the locals and meet some people. I usually find that most rewarding and I know that’s where you hear the true stories. Sometimes I’ll hear stories from people who work at the hotel, or the restaurant, or just people in the streets. And those are usually the most interesting stories. As much as the touristy stuff can be fun, it’s sort of a barrier. There’s a presentation type aspect. We’re going “Look, here’s who we are,” but that’s not really who we are. I live in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s great. But you can go see the suspension bridge or the Science World museum or Stanley Park. But nobody actually goes there. If you live here, you avoid those places, because they’re not what the city is about.
What’s the first time you remember being funny?
I don’t think it’s up to me. It’s up to other people to determine when I’m funny. I can tell you the first time I connected with an audience through humor. It was about four years into my career. That’s when I started taking my act on the road. I did 15 shows straight, through Boston, San Francisco, Los Angels. And it just didn’t work out. Nobody connected. And I realized it was because my material was just about the place I lived in. And most people don’t live within 100 kilometers of you. I called my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, and I told her I didn’t think I was very funny. And she said “I know you’re very funny, it’s just that your material really sucks.” So I went home and revamped everything.
I thought about what I could talk about that wouldn’t change no matter where I was, and that’s who I am. My material got more introspective, more inward. And my connection with the audience started to change. They were laughing with me, not laughing at me. Even if we don’t have the same background, we can still connect on a level. That’s the human condition. That’s usually what I want to tap into. Because I’m going to be me, doesn’t matter where I am. And people are going to be people. We’re all human beings on this planet. There are more similarities between all of us than differences.
What was your path to comedy?
I started by taking a class during graduate school. I was a nightclub DJ to pay my way through university, and I hated it. But I missed the stage. So I took a class to see if this was something I could enjoy as a side thing, and I decided to keep doing it.
Your special is so unorthodox. Was that always the plan?
Of course not. As a comedian, you want to perform in a club or a theater. The original plan was in a very nice theater. But the shoot was scheduled for March 2020, two weeks after everything locked down. Our original idea was to postpone. We’ll do it in October, this thing will probably blow over. And then it was like “I think this is gonna last forever.” When there’s a world crisis, it doesn’t just end. I went back and thought how we could capture the emotional essence of what we’re experiencing. So I selected a type of story circle. I got the idea from Aboriginal cultures, and it was also therapeutic to have everyone, my friends and family, sitting in the circle. It fit the health requirements. And I’m glad it happened the way it did. It really captured the emotional experience people were having during that time. And at the end, everyone cried. Which is interesting in a comedy recording. And everyone in the circle knew me, so they had a specific connection to every moment I talked about during the special.
I definitely didn’t want it to be that way, but I’m glad it did. If we were in a theater, it would have felt like we were pretending, like we’re not participating anymore. By not accepting reality, we would have made it worse.
Have you found it difficult to be funny in the last few years, as it feels like the world is increasingly un-funny?
It’s morphed into a circumstance where we have to acknowledge what’s going on around us. Prior to the pandemic, you could detach. You could be authentic while detached from what was happening in society because a lot of it doesn’t involve you. And now we have this phenomena that impacts every single human being on the planet. It forces you to actually accept reality. That was the biggest barrier. There’s all these different things you need to start paying attention to, where you can no longer detach. So I don’t think it’s any more difficult to be funny, but you have to painfully aware and mindful of what’s going on.
What are your next steps?
The hope is to record these new shows I’m touring on right now as my second special. I’ve been doing a number of fringe festivals, to experience different audiences. Since it’s not comedy audience it’s a good way to present your material. And ultimately I’m going to end this run on an off-off-Broadway run next March, as a sort of final residency for the show. What’s going to happen after that? I don’t know. I live one moment at a time.

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Vancouver, BC based comedian Ed Hill will be in Helena Sept. 25. 
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