Lorne Elliott: The comedy is in the writing

Celebrating 40 years as an entertainer, Lorne Elliott returns to the Okanagan with his new Break out Your Spare Funny Bones.

It’s true, humourist Lorne Elliott can spin a yarn.

A veritable renaissance man, in the same vein as Jean Cocteau, Elliott may be known for his wild mane of hair, but he is also an acclaimed author of numerous award winning plays, a novelist, folk musician and stand-up comedian.

And the former radio host ekes out a living through these different mediums on his own.

In fact, he makes it look easy, but like Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier and composer/musician Noel Coward before him, Elliott has suffered from that terrible affliction known as stage fright, aka glossophobia or performance anxiety.

Celebrating 40 years as an entertainer with a  tour of the Okanagan just after Easter, Elliott can remember feeling sheer terror, and not much else, when he stepped on a stage for the first time with his guitar, and that curly shock of hair, somewhere in his native Newfoundland.

It turns out the affliction ran in his family, as he recalls an incident that happened to his sister, also a musician.

“The first time my sister got on stage, she was going to do a song and had put the words on the side of her guitar, so she wouldn’t forget them. After the second line, she looked down and saw nothing. Turns out the words were on the wrong side of guitar,” said Elliott.

It’s that unnatural social situation of being the centre of attention, and not the crippling nerves, that has helped Elliott survive on stage.

“It’s about controlling nerves, but controlling nerves takes nervous energy,” he said. “There’s the direct focus and the mantras that you repeat.”

Elliott ruminates on some of those observations in his latest book, The Goat in the Tree, released last month.

Part fictional travelogue, part love story, the novel is set against the backdrop of Morocco and France, where the titular hero travels in pursuit of both an audience for his stories and his next meal.

The book follows Elliott’s debut novel, Beach Reading, which was selected as a finalist by the Quebec Writers Federation for the Hugh MacLennan Fiction Prize.

Calling them branches from the same tree, Elliott says his writing has helped him reach down into a deeper place, but comedy has helped him make a living, and harness that nervous energy.

“Writing is radically different from stand-up as there isn’t that immediate reaction. Novel writing is deeper. There’s not a room of people laughing. That alone can be deceptive,” he said. “Everybody has funny ideas, but (as a comedian) we’re put in a position on whether others will find them funny as well, and you get that immediate reaction.”

As the former host of CBC’s Madly Off in All Directions, Elliott was able to test his material on a live audience on a weekly basis, while introducing new comics to the fold. Although he misses his former gig, he says he doesn’t miss the corporate agenda on the part of the entertainment industry to serve up the latest trend. He’s happy to swim against the mainstream.

“As a singer-songwriter, we can control our own expression. That’s what attracted me to comedy. You could say what you wanted and not have some sort of corporate agenda. It was attractive and had a lot of integrity. Now seeing people coming in, it seems they want to become film directors and go through that by doing stand-up. It’s a bit damaged now and not as fresh. It needs to have more people doing it for the right reasons,” he said.

“The good thing about being outside the mainstream is that you perform your own material. If you have the opportunity to do that, then why the hell not? It’s about freedom and meaning – two important things that are difficult if in you are in the Conservative Party.”

Elliott makes the segue into politics as easy as tuning his guitar, and notes that comedy can be serious as well as funny.

Known for keeping the tone of his act at a family-friendly level, Elliott believes comedians and writers don’t  have to rely on what he calls, all that edginess, to be funny and appealing.

“If it’s good, it’s going to good, new, and edgy. That word bothers me. It’s presented by people who are not edgy, just angry, like a venting spleen. The best way to get into an emotional place is to write,” he said.

In that vein, Elliott promises there will be no blood on his new Break out Your Spare Funny Bones tour, which stops in Armstrong and Vernon along with Kamloops, Lake Country, and Salmon Arm.

The tour is a selection of his current monologues and songs dealing with life experience. Creating “new” stage material about having to redefine priorities in view of life events is a welcome challenge to this writer and stage performer who enjoys shaking the perceived wisdom of the world around him.

“You are going to be seeing somebody who has 40 years of doing it,” said Elliott. “You will see something you are not seeing somewhere else. It will be radically different from show to show, which is rare to see. It’s possible to have a show like that. It’s like blowing some jazz.”

Produced by Ken Smedley, Elliott’s appearance in Armstrong’s Centennial Theatre takes place Tuesday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at Chocoliro in Armstrong. (Call 250-546-2886 for info.)

His April 23 performance takes place in the lecture theatre at the Vernon campus of Okanagan College. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are at The BookNook on 30th Avenue, Vernon. (Call 250-558-0668.)