From teacher to celebrity Gerry Dee talks about the windy road to success
We all know him as Mr. D from CBC’s hit show, the ridiculously under qualified teacher who’s left us laughing for seven straight seasons about his misadventures at Xavier Academy. But now it’s time to get to know him as a teacher, a struggling artist and family man who kept going even when the going got tough.
Gerry Dee was born and raised in Scarborough Ontario and studied Kinesiology at York University followed by Education at St. Francis Xavier University. After his education he settled into teaching physical education and coaching hockey at De La Salle College. Many of the hilarious situations from the hit show were exaggerations of his own personal trials. Transitioning from a teacher, to a comedian, to a creating a hit TV show wasn’t as glamorous as you would expect. Mr. D was faced with his fair share of set backs, but the star of the Canadian Comedy Award winning show never gave up on his dreams.
If you’re looking for an evening full of gut wrenching giggles you can catch Gerry Dee December 8th in Brockville as a part of his stand up tour. Can’t make it? Keep a lookout for his Ottawa tour in the works for the New Year. You might even catch a glimpse of him skating on the canal, his favourite thing to do in Ottawa.
Faces Magazine: Tell us a little about what life was like for you growing up in the GTA. When you look back at your childhood, what are some of your favourite memories that you feel have helped shape you into the person you are today?
Gerry Dee: I think it was just a different world back then, now with Facebook and cell phones people have a different childhood. For me it was all about playing road hockey with my friends, golfing in the summer and hitting the tennis ball around. I was always very involved in sports, I remember my whole days being filled with golf, tennis and road hockey. It was great.
Who were some of your favourite comedians growing up – and what is it about them that attracted you to their style of comedy?
I never followed comedians until I started stand up in my 30’s so I wasn’t really that well versed. I liked John Candy and Michael J. Fox and more comedic actors. I really had no intention of doing comedy until I actually started doing it.
Prior to getting into comedy/acting, you were a teacher – what did you enjoy most about teaching and do you feel any aspect of teaching helped prepare you for the entertainment business?
I loved the kids that you got along with and just connected with. I still keep in touch with a lot of my students who are now in there 30’s or late 20’s. That was the best part, they made me laugh some days and other days I made them laugh. It was about being around good kids, that was the best part and I think that helped me start stand up. I was already in front of a class talking, and kids are a tough audience to keep attentive which draws similarities from the stand up audience.
Tell us about your transition from teaching to comedy. Were you working as a comedian while you were teaching – or was there a moment that you realized you had to pursue this dream. Was it a difficult decision for you to walk away from the job security for the uncertain world of comedy – or did you just know that this is what you needed to do?
I walked knowing I was in a position to make money, I was very strategic with my stand up and my teaching for the first five years, I did both together. Then I waited for just the right moment to try it. I took a year sabbatical, then another year and then that was it. I think the last push for me was that I was teaching a grade 12 class and one of my students yelled out you should try stand up and it was as simple as that. I still keep in touch with that student now.
Can you describe your first time on stage as a comedian? Were you a big hit – or was it a tough night at the office for you?
It was terrible because nothing was really funny and then I had a musical clip that I was supposed to play but they couldn’t get into the office to play it. They never played it and I was basically done. It was awful
How hard was it for you to get back on stage the second time?
I think I knew going into it that it wasn’t going to be easy and I had a challenge ahead of me. The biggest step was getting up the first time, so when I had done that I thought I’ve already come this far. You cant quit after one night, you cant quit anything after your first time if you want to succeed. It was really that simple, that if I wanted to do this and think I can be funny I can’t quit after one night. There was something that told me keep to going and I knew I had to keep trying even if it wasn’t easy.
You first became familiar to many Canadians through your Gerry Dee: Sports Reporter segments on sports channel The Score. How did this opportunity come for you – was it something you applied for – or was it an idea you had that you pitched to the network?
They called me actually, I had talked about ideas with the guys working there and they asked if I had any ideas to joke about in the sports world. I always had this idea for a sports reporter characters that wasn’t asking the typical questions. I created an off the wall kind of guy and we decided to try it and that’s what we did.
What were some of your favourite Gerry Dee: Sports Reporter segments and what was it about them that made them special for you – and were there any athletes that simply just did not get your style of comedy – and were not fans of you when you came around?
In the early stages no one knew who I was, my first interview was with Matthew Stajan from the Calgary Flames and I think he thought I was an idiot but that was the purpose, that was the point. I wasn’t supposed to be likable I was supposed to just make it awkward. Barkley was a good one, there was lots I liked but Barkley was the most notable one that I think people enjoyed the most. Every interview required three things. Part one was big stars, part two was how good was I, and part three was what they brought to the interview. If they were funny it made it even better. A lot of people didn’t get it so It would depend on the person.
Your show “Mr. D” is now in its 7th season on CBC – which is one of the longest running TV shows on Canadian Television – can you tell us about how this show came to be? Were you sitting there one day and decided you wanted to develop your own television show – or was this an idea that was pitched to you – and can you explain the process that takes place for an idea to become an actual network show.
I was sitting in my buddies office, he produces Trailer Park Boys and we were trying to come up with an idea for a show and we had this idea about a life coach and it didn’t seem to be working. I had the idea that the show should be about my act. It took a while, we pitched it and it got shut down, then we pitched it again, and it got shut down and the third time they liked it at CBC. This was over a two year period and probably three years until it aired. It was a long, long process, with a lot of people changing their minds and lot of no’s before we got to where we are at now.
How similar is “Mr. D” to Gerry Dee – and for anyone reading this that hasn’t seen the show yet – how would you describe it?
Well he’s just a baboon teacher that cuts corners and my character represents all the teachers out there that wish they could do these ridiculous things, and that’s kind of the joke within the joke. Not that a regular teacher could get away with this stuff, it’s always border line stuff that could get him fired. I do think a lot of teachers relate because they’ve wanted to do these things and that really connects to the school population. Being a teacher is really stressful job, it’s a thankless job and as a teacher this is a way for them to have their own show.
Who was the first person you called when you found out you were getting your own CBC show? Why was it important to you that you called them first?
It was my wife for sure. She has always been so supportive especially during the trying times when we had a newborn and I was off touring trying to make it. She was definitely first, then my parents and brother and sister.
You recently began a stand-up comedy tour that will bring you to Brockville on Friday, December 8th – how is touring for you different today than it was when you first started out?
Well people are coming to see me now, before they were just going to a comedy show, now they are coming to the comedy show for me. There are also bigger crowds, because of the TV show. Other then that I probably have a bit more time on stage, I connect better with the audience, the two hours goes by and I don’t even realize it. In Brockville I’ll also have an opener which is exciting.
Do you have a preference between stand up comedy and acting? Why do you prefer one form over the other?
No I don’t, I get that asked a lot. Ones my team sport, and ones my individual sport, and as guy that loves sport it’s really important to have both, and I’m lucky to have both. I definitely like them equally, when one is done I can’t wait for the next one and vice versa.
How do you come up with material for stand up? Do you have someone or a group of people that you use as a sounding board – or do you just go with your gut and try the new jokes on stage and see what the reaction is?
I have a group of people sometimes friends that will float me ideas. I’m also always on the lookout for ideas and writing notes in my phone. If I’m inspired by something while I’m out I’ll grab my phone right it down. Our car got stolen last year and I turned it into a bit, it’s really taking everyday life and turning it into something funny.
Do you remember the first joke you told onstage that bombed that you were sure was going to get laughs – and how do you handle it when material doesn’t go over as well as you would like? Do you just laugh it off and go on to the next one – or does it ever bother you when a crowd is tougher than you would expect?
Something about my brother using voice messages saying “pick up your phone” and I was like if I was there I would have picked up, I’m obviously not there! It would be fun to go back and look at that content and re-work it now that I know how to write a joke and see what happens.
How do you handle it when material doesn’t go as well as you like? Do you just laugh it off?
Yes, for sure, its less embarrassing now because I realize I have stuff coming up that I know will work. Sometimes it works on paper but it doesn’t work for a crowd.
What accomplishment are you most proud of to date – and why?
My family is my biggest accomplishment, my three beautiful kids and my wife. Professionally the sitcom would be the big one since I know how hard it was to pitch and how much harder it was to stay on air. There’s a lot of people behind the success of the show and we’ve done something right to keep it going for seven years.
Tell us about the role your family played in your success? Were your parents always supportive of your dream to be a comedian?
Not always. I think my mom was, but she was more happy if I was happy. My dad was pretty antagonistic. He’s proud of me but I think he was more sceptical about it. My parents didn’t go to university so for myself to graduate was a big deal and my dad thought teaching was the greatest job in the world. It was secure and it had a pension. My dad was a bus driver and wanted me to have security, but obviously it all worked out and he’s happy for me.
Do you have any pre-show rituals that you like to do before each show? Is there a particular meal that you eat or anything you like to do before an after you go on stage?
I say a little prayer. I’ve done that for as long as I can remember, thanking my family and everyone that’s close to me I don’t know when I started, its something I’ve done every show. It’s a private moment and sometimes people look at me like “is he talking to himself?” But hey that’s just my little thing.
What sort of music would we find in Gerry Dee’s playlist? When you are on the road, what do you like to listen to – and what would you say was the best concert you’ve ever seen live?
I haven’t seen a lot of concerts live but I loved Blue Rodeo when I saw them. On my playlist would be The Tragically Hip, Rick Astley, John Denver, it’s a diverse mix. I’m weird with my music, a lot of it takes me back to different times in my life, one song to grade school the next to high school. I like that the mix lets me live in the past for a bit.
Your Ottawa fans will have to make the 45 min drive to Brockville to catch you on this tour – but when you do come to the city, is there any places that you like to visit – favourite restaurants or things like that that you enjoy most about Ottawa?
I just love Ottawa as a whole, but I really enjoy the canal in the winter, just going for a skate. I think that’s one of the most amazing things in Canada, being able to skate to work. It’s always so cold whenever I’m there. I’ll probably do a show in Ottawa in the new year, most likely next April but then the canal will be closed. I can’t seem to win with the canal!
What advice would you have for young aspiring comics reading this – is there anything that you can tell them that you wish you had heard when you were starting out?
I think just getting up, there. Just getting up on the stage is a big thing. Try starting out clean and just being yourself. No matter how big or small the room is just get on stage as often as you can. Also just trying everything out, but for the first year you’re really just working with 7- 10 minutes. Focus on mastering 10 minutes in your first couple of years.