An interview with the comedienne
By Leslie Phelan
She picks up my call on the other end like, “Hi! Glad to hear from you; so happy we’re doing this!” and for a brief moment, I forget that I’m on a call to LA with my favorite comedienne of all time. That raspy, animated voice, that jokester’s cadence– it was all so endearingly familiar, I might as well have been on the phone with an old friend whose smile I can hear through the receiver, and whose deep and riotous belly laugh has the power to light up a room two thousand miles away.
I first became a fan back when Debra was on the panel for Video On Trial, ripping on pop stars through her light-hearted but hilariously on-point dissection of the lyrics and videos on Much Music. There was a warmth to her, a friendliness through the teasing that made you just fall in love with her straight-shooting, playful, and relatable persona. She was like that funny girl you couldn’t help but overhear in the hallway, causing people to erupt into laughter without ever resorting to meanness. It was easy to see that she was special, and that she would be someone to watch for years to come.
Over the last decade and a bit, Debra’s fans saw her scoop up multiple Canadian Comedy Awards for Best Female Comic, star on panel shows like the remake of popular 70’s show Match Game, film celebrated stand-up specials for the Comedy Network and land among the top eight in Last Comic Standing, even scoring a Gemini award for best televised comedy performance. Not bad for a girl who had actually moved to Toronto from the small town of Tillsonburg, Ontario to pursue a career in fashion illustration and merchandising (more on that below).
Throughout Debra’s bits and performances, there has been frequent mention of a kitty called Franklin, a sort of mascot for the crazy, single, spinster persona that shines through her act and makes us all laugh at the cliché. Franklin may be gone now (may he rest in kitty heaven), but Ms. DiGiovanni is still the same unflinchingly honest, contagiously candid and majorly funny cat lady we all know and love:
HOW ARE YOU FINDING THE SUNNY CALIFORNIA LIFE?
“Moving to LA has made me feel more patriotic than I ever even knew I was, though. You’ll never know how much you adore Canada until you move to America. L.A. just feels like its own entity . . . it’s its own little country – and just L.A. – not California. It’s a physical thing – like a punch in the face. It’s an energy – the most concentrated population of entertainment industry workers anywhere on Earth. Everyone here is in the industry – whatever anyone happens to be doing with their life, they’ll tell you they’re also an actor. Life down here is everything you’d think it is – it’s weird and real and lovely and different. I’m here now, and it’s my home – No! I should say, it’s where I live. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve ever found home. And I’m in West Hollywood, which is just lovely. One of my rules for moving anywhere – when I moved to Toronto, when I Lived in Vancouver for a spell, and now here in L.A. – I instantly gravitate to the Gay neighborhoods – anywhere I’ve lived. These are always just beautiful, gentrified, safe places to live.”
WAS A MOVE TO LOS ANGELES ALWAYS THE PLAN?
“Actually, Toronto was always the plan. As a young girl, I wanted to live in a city. I appreciate growing up in a small town, but I like busyness and lots of people around me. The first weekend in Toronto when I was 19, I took the subway by myself and right when I was starting to feel proud about how I was striking out on my own, a man vomited all over me. It was like, Welcome to the city, Debra. I knew I’d found my home for the next bit.”
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START IN COMEDY?
“My story that led me to comedy was that I did two years of fashion illustration and merchandising at Ryerson University, and was in the middle of figuring out how to make a career out of my art. In those two years, though, I had two different professors come up to me saying Debra, you are a beautiful artist, but you should be out entertaining people. They saw my personality through my presentations et cetera, and told me, we don’t mean to be rude, but you’re in the wrong field. I was 20 at the time and was like, whatever, thanks. I didn’t start comedy until I was 27 . . . it didn’t happen right away, but their words definitely planted a seed, and now here we are!”
WHAT WAS IT LIKE SWITCHING UP YOUR CAREER, AND GETTING ONSTAGE FOR THE FIRST TIME?
At 27 I got my nerve to get on stage by myself. I got the gumption to do it . . . the first time on stage is a scary, scary moment. But then you get up there, and it’s fabulous, (laughs) and then you’re absolutely addicted. People laughing, people applauding… oh, the applause!! It’s the greatest feeling in the world.
HAVE YOU EVER BOMBED UP THERE?
Oh yeah, I’ve stuck out on stage! You have to, in order to get better.
There’s an unwritten rule of comedy that says if you meet a comic that says they never bomb, they’re lying. If they say they kill every time, you can be sure they’ve never killed before in their life. A comedian needs to bomb enough times on stage to stay humble, and I think that’s important.”
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR STAYING STRONG AND KEEPING AT IT AFTER A LESS-THAN-STELLAR SHOW?
Not everyone is going to like you. Once you’re able to learn that, accept it, and move on, it changes everything. At the beginning of my comedy career, I wanted to make everyone laugh but I realized I’m not going to. I’m not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and that is fine! I don’t like everyone; why would everyone like me? That’s just the way it is – comedy is so subjective. Just because you don’t think something is funny, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t, and what’s funny to you won’t be funny to everyone.
Sometimes you just have off-nights and it doesn’t go well. If I didn’t have fun, then to me, it wasn’t a good show. But the bad times won’t faze you, if you know there will always be a good show ahead.
IS THE DEBRA WE SEE ONSTAGE AND IN YOUR BITS THE SAME DEBRA YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY KNOW YOU AS?
When you first start doing comedy, you’re looking for who you’re going to be. You develop your persona through the trial and error of what makes people laugh, and what feels right to you. And when you start to trust yourself and just wing it, that’s when your stage persona develops.
I’m the same Debra [up there], but multiplied by a thousand. In real life I am the Debra you see onstage, but a little bit calmer. [Before my career in comedy] I was a little hard to take, I would say. That energy and craziness – you get it out onstage. It’s therapeutic.
People think that because I tease myself and mock my own shortcomings, I must be sad, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Maybe there’s an element of sadness to my life, like everyone has, but the outlet of the stage really helps.
If I was sad, I wouldn’t be able to get on stage – I’d live inside my bedroom and never come out. I think it’s sweet and kind that people worry about me, but I’m happy.
WHAT’S IT LIKE BEING KNOWN AS THE CLASSIC CAT LADY?
Animals are so funny and relatable. They become a huge part of your life – people talk about their pets like they do their relationships or family. If you’re a performer, they’ll inevitably make their way into your material, for better or for worse.
I don’t take ‘cat lady’ as a negative thing. I hope I get to be a cat lady with twenty cats one day! People like to make it sound like a bad thing but I just don’t think so. A woman is lucky if she’s surrounded by cats; the more the better. I think you get your 30’s to not be considered a cat-having spinster, but in your 40’s, you don’t even care about the title. You embrace it, and everything that makes you happy.
I think I’ll get two cats the next time . . . I’ll get two, both boys, and I’ll name them Husband and Boyfriend . . . and then my transition into a full spinster will be complete!
WOULD YOU CONSIDER A CAT YOUR SPIRIT ANIMAL?
I think my spirit animal is an otter. I follow an otter on Instagram . . . I watch videos of him eating and taking baths. It’s ridiculous but it makes me so happy; otters are so funny and cute.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
I’m always working away, trying to write new material. I’m creating a new hour of material right now. Stand-up is not enough anymore, with all the different platforms available now…you can go do something with Hulu or Netflix, or online with YouTube. You can do classic pieces or shorts, anything. I’m trying to figure out something I can enjoy doing by myself. Stand-up is my true love, but it will be nice to try new things.
I have a little Canadian run coming up in September: Ottawa, Montreal and Winnipeg.
I’ve started over down here, and I’m slightly more anonymous in this neck of the woods. I’m starting over, but I already know what I’m doing – it’s like starting kindergarten all over again, but with a high school degree. Comics know me now, and I’m feeling accepted, but the first two years here were lonely. It’s a warm community once you’re in – of course, there are a few jerks but generally, everyone’s really friendly, no one is from here, and we’ve built a little club. There’s so much brilliant comedy here, and I’m honored to be a part of it.
WHAT, IN YOUR OPINION, IS A GOOD MEASURE OF SUCCESS IN YOUR INDUSTRY?
When people really make it, they relax a little, and showing kindness and generosity is not a problem for them. When people are desperate to make it and are busy climbing that ladder, they can be insecure and it comes off as egotistical. Real celebrities that are comfortable in their position are lovely and sweet and would never be snobby or put off by a fan stopping to say hi.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT FRANKLIN THE CAT, AND CARRYING ON WITHOUT HIM:
Back when I worked on the Morning Show at CityTV, the Humane Society would come in every week with animals that were up for adoption. Franklin was brought in one day, and the first thing he did was strut over to me, crawl up my body, and fall asleep on my shoulder. I knew right then he was coming home with me.
We spent 18 years together. I still miss him – that was a lifetime together. I haven’t gotten a new cat yet because – it’s silly – but he was the best cat in the world! [Saying goodbye to him has] not changed my status as a cat lady. People ask me why I don’t talk about Franklin anymore, and I let them know that my boy has died and they’re always sad and we hug it out. Now, when I talk about Franklin, I just talk about him in the past tense. It’s like giving a eulogy onstage: I get the opportunity to eulogize my boy and talk about him in that way whenever I like, and it helps to honor the time we spent. The support I got after announcing that Franklin was gone was so nice. People knew him, through me.
It took 6 months to stop calling his name in my apartment. It took a while to remember he isn’t here anymore. It was hard but I’ll tell you, not having cat hair everywhere made it a little easier (laughs).
If you ever meet someone and tell them your cat passed away and they give you a flippant response, like, ah, whatever, get away from that friend; they’re a bad friend. They’re sociopaths. I’ll never understand people who think it’s fun to hate cats. I don’t care if you prefer a dog to a cat, but cat haters are just bad people, in my opinion. I definitely think cats have another sense to them. They’re on a different plane of existence, and are here to teach us how to love.
When a pet passes, it’s a loss of family. Our 18 years together was a lifetime – he was my life partner for that time. He enriched my life in a way that’s hard to explain. Pet ownership changes your life. It should be on the list of natural remedies that cure illness and depression. The unconditional love is impossible to replicate – there is nothing better than having someone be excited that you’re home. You are loved, and safe, and they make you happy. Knowing you’re not alone, but also knowing it’s not only about you anymore, is good for the soul.
Watch a snippet from Debra on ‘Cat Relationships’.