David Heti Montreal comedy comedian

All about David Heti

We spoke to the Montreal comic about the local stand-up scene and being offended by comedy.

David Heti has been telling jokes in front of Montreal audiences for almost 15 years.

Live and on his albums recorded at Grumpy’s, Heti’s touched nerves with jokes about a variety of taboo subjects, touring across the continent, as well as in shows in Paris, Berlin, London and Amsterdam. Over the past four years, Heti has decided on a more settled life. He’s started doing sets again, since restrictions have relaxed.

His first child features in a sketch in the hour of sketch comedy that he and Lori Braun created for the CBC during the pandemic, Absofreakinglutely. In Look Who’s Talking, Heti’s baby complains in subtitles, “I’d rather catch COVID than live with these two.” She tries to escape the apartment. The baby even has lines. “I’m leaving” she says, in the lisp of someone who’s just learned to speak. “Finished. Finished.” And she runs away. 

I asked David Heti a few questions about comedy and his life lately.

Elisabeth Gill: Has settling down and having a family changed how you think about comedy?

David Heti: My mind is more focused these days on the day-to-day realities, and in particular how I can reconcile my idea of what it means to be a “comedian” (i.e., miscreant, critic, outsider, someone without any attachments) with that of a decent person, father and partner.

EG: How do you feel about the discourse about comedy online? Do you ever find yourself arguing with people about their judgements about comedy?

DH: It reminds me of the whole idea of, like, you wrestle with the pig, all that happens is you get covered in shit and the pig likes it. The pig enjoys himself.

EG: Yeah. Do you feel that your comedy is polarizing for people? I’ve heard it said that people either love or hate your comedy. What do you think?

DH: I mean, I suppose, yeah, I don’t think it’s for everyone, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s not designed to be for anyone, so it’s not expected to appeal to anyone. Certain people love it and that’s always like a bit, a little bit unexpected sometimes, like you hope for it, but it’s kind of a pleasant surprise. That it angers people is also shocking. I think it angers people less than it did initially. A friend of mine said that you can’t get angry at art, really. If art somehow is able to anger you, you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t get it. It’s fine, it’s fine for people to have whatever response.

EG: Are there any jokes you’ve told in the past that you wouldn’t tell today?

DH: Yeah, I guess there are. But it’s funny, you would print those ones? Then they would be retold, that’s the only way they’d be retold. And the jokes that I think I wouldn’t tell today are not jokes that I think were wrong at the time or should not have been told at the time, but if you were playing with certain ideas, which, society’s understanding of these ideas has evolved, or issues that most people were unfamiliar with, and we weren’t really certain of its conceptual demarcations or its implications for the world, if those have shifted and become more concretized, like, I don’t know, queerness, or transgender identity, or what privilege means, or how tired people are of words like cancel culture, or safe space. Those words at first are novel or kind of new, and then they become kind of weak, or over-politicized, or they reduce more complex ideas. They become used to signify something greater. So, the jokes don’t work in that sense, because society’s shifted.

EG: What is Montreal’s comedy scene like compared to others?

DH: I suppose that there isn’t really so much of a — at least on the anglo side — like an established commercial comedy scene. It’s rough around the edges, and it allows for a little more experimentation early on, and more individual voices to emerge. At the same time there’s less at stake because there’s less to be gained, and that leads to a little less professionalism. There’s less polish. It’s still beautiful. But I think at a certain point it can be a hard place because typically people leave when they want more opportunities, and they want greater variety. It’s also sad that the [Comedy] Works shut down, because you want a greater community, you want more voices and you want a little bit of competition, not competition in terms of corporate, but just in terms of more voices. 

EG: How do you want your comedy to affect people’s ethics?

DH: The nice thing is to kind of create a little bit of questioning, self-questioning or uncertainty, where people are a little thrown off, as opposed to kind of confirming for others the belief they already have. I think that’s inherently an ethical way of trying to engage artistically. People walk away with a little bit of confusion, or displacement. I also think that tends to make for good comedy, because you disrupt something in their worldview. Something unexpected and incongruent, and yeah, questioning what’s actually serious, what’s grave, what can be taken seriously.

EG: Are there sorts of jokes that you think are funny or work as jokes, but they actually offend you?

DH: Yeah, definitely. They offend me. 

EG: Yeah, not just like, you can see how they would be offensive, but they actively offend you.

DH: Well, even, if a joke actively offends me, I don’t let it bother me. I can recognize it from an objective standpoint or a detached standpoint, that I have this response of feeling offended. But that’s okay. I’m just like, I don’t care for that joke. I’m not going to take it up with the comic, really.

There was one time I told a comic, I don’t want him telling this joke on a show that I was hosting. I don’t like telling comics – I don’t like comics who [sighs] who like, try to enforce — I guess I have my own ideas about how comedy ought to be done, but I really don’t like it when comics rag on other comics for political differences. I don’t like comics who express a desire to confine what comedy can be. I don’t like the narrowing of comedic expression. That comedy certainly offends me. So you’re calling for the reduction of your own craft? You’re hating your own people, you’re hating your own self, you don’t understand what you’re doing! ■

David Heti performs at the Art Loft on Friday, May 27. For more on David Heti, please visit his website.

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.