By Kyle Poluyko
Gerry Dee was successful long before he competed on the fifth season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing. Specials on The Comedy Network, appearances at comedy festivals including Just For Laughs and at clubs such as Yuk Yuks were already on his resume, leading to DVD releases and a book. Before embarking on his stand-up career, Dee was a teacher for 10 years, the impetus for his CBC Show Mr. D. Engaging and gracious, Dee spoke to The Walleye in advance of his February 22 appearance at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium.
The Walleye: Season 4 of Mr. D. premieres on CBC January 20. What’s in store for Mr. Duncan and the cast at Xavier Academy?
Gerry Dee: You know, we did a lot of fun things this year. We tried a lot of different styles in the 13 episodes that I think people will find interesting. A couple of nice guest stars, something we always try to do. Nathan McKinnon is back and he enjoys doing it and we enjoy having him. I think it’s our strongest season and we’re excited about it.
TW: Sometimes a comedian develops a character, brings it to the screen, and it’s a one-off. It’s a limited run series or a special event and an audience doesn’t get to form a relationship with that character. You’ve managed to create, establish, and develop an entire series that is popular and highly rated. What elements make Mr. D. the continuing success it is?
GD: Well, it’s surrounded by funny people—writers, producers, and actors. And I think everybody can relate to a school environment. It’s not a hard thing for us to tap into because everybody has had teachers and been in school so it’s a wide demographic. The difference is I lived it for real. I was a teacher and I can point out a lot of the inside scoop which I don’t think has ever been done—a teaching sitcom co-created by a real teacher. So we have that advantage and we have a tremendously funny cast. They’re all capable of doing their own shows and we have them all on one. We’re very lucky.
TW: Mr. D. is a teacher. It’s well known that you were a teacher. How much of Gerry Dee is in Mr. Duncan?
GD: There’s a lot, but a lot of it is exaggerated on the TV show and that’s what makes it work. Yeah, sometimes I took attendance for twenty minutes one November when I knew every kid by name. Just to kill time. That sort of thing. But what I found was a lot of teachers do those things. Once you’re in that classroom, there’s no boss in there. If we all taught with principals sitting at the back of the class you’d see different teachers. But we don’t.
TW: You have to be able to control a classroom in order to deliver content and to be successful as a teacher. To that end, how important is storytelling in teaching?
GD: Very! And that’s a really good question. The real Mr. D – me, in real life – I was very good at classroom management and controlling the kids. I never sent kids to the office. And you’d look next door and you’d hear a teacher screaming or losing it, and you’d always see kids in the hall. I never was that guy. I very much had control of the kids. They didn’t always like me but I was very big on the discipline. Very much the opposite of what you might think when you watch the show. But it is essential in being able to teach. The problem I have with the education system is we put out all these straight A student teachers who are great and know their subject matter so well but – you either have it or you don’t. When you get in that classroom, if you can’t relate, manage, discipline, control the kids – I don’t care if you have a PhD in your subject, you aren’t getting anywhere. That (storytelling) is easily the most important part of teaching and not enough in education training is focused on that.
TW: Fans have seen you on late night, comedy specials, awards shows, and festivals, Last Comic Standing, your own DVD releases including Let’s Be Honest and Life After Teaching. Would you say your particular stand-up delivery style has evolved and, if so, how? Physicality? Tone? Content?
GD: All of the above, really. You try to find your voice in stand-up. You spend so much time trying to find a presence on stage and what you realize as you get older is, it just happens. I went through different stages, as most comics that are headlining do. You try yelling, you try the mic in, you try the mic out. You try pacing, you try quiet. You try everything. Eventually, you get to where I’m at now which is a very relaxed father and husband and guy on stage. I’m just myself and I’m not trying to be anything different. The content? You just get better at deciphering what’s funny and what’s not. Like any craft you get better. I feel it takes 20–25 years before you get even close to being really good at stand-up. I’m not there yet.
TW:You’ve said that, in terms of touring, you are lucky because you can pick your spots. You’re returning to Thunder Bay for the fifth time. What makes Thunder Bay one of the spots you pick?
GD:There’s a market there. I think a lot of performers may tend to miss it because it isn’t easily connected to other cities. It’s really important for me to reach cities that don’t get as much attention and, to be fair, Thunder Bay has been very good to me as far as the response. If I keep going back, I know that people are still coming. It’s a good city for me so I have no reason not to do it.
TW: You perform February 22 at the Community Auditorium. What can you tell us about the show?
GD: Well it’s tricky now with Mr. D. because there are people who are coming for the first time who didn’t even know I did stand-up, so you’re trying to please them. Then there are people who come every time I’ve been there and you’re trying to please them. It’s really a balancing act of trying to give everybody something. That’s the best way to describe it. There’s a lot of new stuff and a mix of some older stuff. I try not to delve back into material that’s more than two years old. I also try to get the crowd involved, and I have a great opening act who travels with me now. There’s something there for everyone.