Only the scattered few knew of John Sheehan before he walked out, a rookie among the crowd of funny people looking on from the side of the stage at the 2008 St. John’s Comedy Festival, and stole the show at a relatively packed Mile One Centre.
Truth be told, the Harbour Grace native hadn’t entertained the thought of a career in standup comedy until 2007, but a decade of comedic dinner theatre acting set the stage (pun intended) for an unexpected turn in his career. Now Sheehan enjoys a reputation as one of the province’s funniest people, and he’s only getting started.
He first paying theatre gig was in 1997. “At the time I thought I was gonna be an actor,” he says, speaking to The Independent in advance of his Nov. 15 show at the Gander Arts and Culture Centre. “As it turned out I wasn’t terribly good,” he laughs.
Improv at the crossroads of the world
Sheehan was then hired for another gig, this time in Gander, after responding to an ad in the paper by a theatre company. “When I got out there I thought it was going to be dinner theatre work…but the artistic director at the time, she told us we had to write some sketch comedy, which I hadn’t done before so I was kind of reluctant,” he recalls.
“So I started doing it and it turned out I had a bit of a knack for sketch writing, so I ended up writing all the time. I had always loved standup but I never thought of it as something I could do. We started doing improv nights out in Gander once a week at Reflections Lounge, and the audience grew from, I think it was a dozen the first night to 200 every night, and we had to do two shows a night. And during those improv times, that’s when I developed my timing and reactions, which came in handy when I made the turn to standup.”
The turn to standup (and a call from a guy with connections)
In 2007 Sheehan was asked to do a 10-minute solo routine for a fundraiser event. Having never held the stage on his own as a comic, he decided to wing it. “I really enjoyed it,” he recalls. “Some stuff worked, some stuff didn’t…but it was enough to get me interested in it.”
Later that year he did a show at a bar in Carbonear, which he recorded and submitted to a few comedy festivals. Then came the first call — from the director of the Halifax Comedy Festival. “I guess with my agent and everything they thought I was after doing it for a while,” he jokes. “A gentleman from Yuk Yuk’s noticed me at the Halifax Comedy Festival and offered me a tour of Ontario with YukYuk’s, (and) I had very little to no experience before going on that tour. Halifax was really my first time in front of a crowd, so touring for a month with Yuk Yuk’s not only got me eager to do this full-time, but it also helped (me) develop my act.”
Pleasing the hometown crowd (and Louis CK) with Newfoundland observational humour
The following summer, in 2008, Sheehan earned a spot in the St. John’s Comedy Festival and had the crowd in a fit of laughter during his spot at the gala event. Then, in 2009 he was personally selected by American standup comic Louis CK to open his show at Holy Heart Theatre in St. John’s. It seemed Sheehan had come into his own in all of a year or two. He didn’t need a playwright and a cast to make people laugh — he was quite capable on his own.
A good number of his jokes stem from observations about the quirks of Newfoundlanders and life on the island (see video below for a funny example).
“When I do shows off the island I rarely do any Newfoundland material,” he explains. “Newfoundland material generally works with a Newfoundland audience. We like to hear our fallacies sometimes when they’re pointed out on stage. We all know there’s Newfoundland stereotypes and people know that you’re just playing with them and it’s never anything serious. And generally the Newfoundlander always comes out on top anyway,” Sheehan jokes.
“When I do stuff off the island I’ll mention that I’m from Newfoundland, but that’s it. Other than that it’s observational comedy, whether it’s on pop culture, or whether it’s on family, relationships or politics, whatever. You try not to limit yourself to a specific genre — you kind of want to weave a lot of stuff into it.”
Into his own and back to Gander
Sheehan has been laying low lately, doing the odd corporate gig and working on new material. While juggling responsibilities as a husband, father and public figure, he says he’s learned a lot about himself in the past five years and is feeling comfortable in his shoes, even if they’re on the wrong feet sometimes.
“Standup is you with the volume turned up, you know what I mean? And there’s no characters or anything — you gotta try and find your own voice and your own way of delivery that works for you,” he says. “Some people just stand at the microphone, hands in their pockets, and that works for them. Other guys are running around like a chicken with their head cut off and that works for them, right? For me, I wasn’t sure the first little while…(but) I think I am now the comic I would have been if I had started 15 years ago. As far as energy, I’m feeling physically exhausted after a show because I’m putting a lot more energy in and moving around a lot more on stage. That comes with time; you find out who you are.”
Having shared stages in Gander with other actors, Sheehan is finally returning to his old stomping grounds for a solo performance. “It’s where I really got my start (and) I’ve always wanted to do standup on that stage at the Arts and Culture Centre,” he says. “It’s where I met my wife actually, so Gander’s always had a lot of significance for me and I’ve wanted to do a show on that stage for a while and just decided this was the right time.”
‘John Sheehan: Live and Uncut’ takes place at the Gander Arts and Culture Centre, Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. Local comedian Luke Lawrence will open the show. For show and ticket information visit the Arts and Culture Centre web site here.