Cover Story

Funny Girl Elvira Kurt  by Karen X. Tulchinsky
Funny Girl Elvira Kurt

We 'd barely sat down, Elvira Kurt and I, for double moch-a-cinno lattes (don 't laugh-this is Vancouver, after all and there 's an espresso bar on every corner) at a funky Yaletown cafe, when we were hounded (or rather, she was) by a small group of fans wanting autographs.

They 'd recognized her from her television show that aired on the Comedy Network, called Elvira Kurt: Adventures in Comedy. The producers toured the country looking for new talent. Budding stand-up comics were given the opportunity to showcase their work on national TV. And Kurt was the MC; her comedy interspersed with the newcomers.

For many viewers, it was the first time they had seen Kurt perform her sidesplitting comedy. To them, she may have seemed like an overnight success. But like all overnight success stories, it took her 15 years to get there.

Kurt took to the stage right after university. She 'd seen some local stand-up comics and somehow just knew she could do it. She spent a year studying the craft, sitting in the audience at comedy clubs, just watching. She noticed that some of the comics weren't really that good, but what they had was guts. She knew she was just as brave, so she started doing amateur nights at Yuk Yuks in Toronto. Her timing couldn't have been better. This was the mid '80s and a Canadian comedy boom was just around the corner. You couldn't find enough comics to fill the venues. She realized she could make a great living crossing the country, playing at clubs.

"You get really good when you perform that much," Kurt says. "It's a working education."

And she was having so much fun, she barely noticed that she'd been staying in cheap, crummy hotels with two guys somewhat lacking in basic social skills. Bad hotels or not, she kept at it, perfecting her craft, touring all over North America and doing a stint with the Second City Improv Troupe.

By the early 90s she was cruising in her career and made an important decision. She outed herself on stage and then, in 1993, was the first lesbian comic to be out on national television -on a CBC talk show called Friday Night! With Ralph Benmergui . It was a few months before American comic Lea Delaria came out on Arsineo Hall, a little known fact, because, says Kurt, "If you want to hide from a crime you've committed, slip into Canadian show business, because nobody'll ever find you."

Perhaps because of this, in 1996 she moved to L.A. "I felt like I was doing really well in Toronto and I used that momentum to go to L.A. I hit the ground running," Kurt says of the move. "I knew I was going to another country, but I had no idea I was entering another culture." The L.A. Culture. Where everyone has come from somewhere else for the same purpose: To be a Star. "No one 's eager to welcome someone new. You can see in people 's faces, the recognition that you 're all there for the same thing, but nobody really wants to extend themselves too much, because you don't have that much to extend."

In her first six months in L.A. Elvira says, "I ran through my savings, ran through my backup, the RRSPs, everything. I maxed out all my credit cards. I was relying on the kindness of strangers to keep me from sleeping in my car and came close to selling the car I would have needed to sleep in, without the kindness of strangers."

Then she landed an agent and hit the road, touring all over the U.S., playing at colleges. It was lucrative. She got out of debt, even made some money.

"But the price I paid was every relationship and every friendship." They proved impossible to maintain on such a grueling schedule. Then she hit the "big time."

She 'd just done a show with Betty Degeneres, Ellen Degeneres' mother, at a PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, pronounced 'Pee-flag ') event. The first Ellen show had just been cancelled and she was thinking of doing a new show. She wanted to do a pilot and an HBO special. After the PFLAG event, Betty Degeneres was so impressed with Kurt that she suggested that her daughter take a look at Kurt 's tape.

"Totally unknown to me," says Kurt, "she got a hold of it, watched it and called me out of the blue and asked me to write for her." She had no experience writing for another comic -it 's a different process than writing material you 're going to perform yourself. You know your voice, you understand your own stage presence -but Kurt figured he was up for the challenge. She said sure and ended up working with Degeneres, writing for the HBO special and some material for the pilot.

When I caught up with Elvira in Vancouver, she was touring with her newest show, a one-woman comedy act that is somewhat different from her earlier work. After 15 years, her voice has changed.

"It 's becoming more distilled, less traditional stand-up. I 'm taking on themes so much deeper than typical stand-up comedy," she explains as we sip our coffee. "Like disappointment, for example," she says.

This is a theme that 's personal to Elvira. She learned about disappointment from her eastern European parents, who, she says, "have no joy in their lives. To them, the world is a bad place and the sooner you learn it the better. If you don't ask for anything, you won't be disappointed when you don 't get it." Kurt worries that she learned her parents 'lessons so well in the first 20 years of her life, she'll be spending the rest of her life (as we all will) overcoming these lessons. She worries that these deeper themes make her show less funny. Like all artists, she questions her craft.

Before she gets too carried away, I find myself leaping in to contradict her. After all, I was there, sitting in the front row, at her sold-out concert during Vancouver 's Comedy Festival in the summer. Yes, her themes were deeper, but didn't that just make her funnier, I argued, because everyone knows, comedy equals tragedy plus time. And she was dealing with issues we all think about: disappointment, aging, terrorism and the inappropriate use of cell phones.

"When you 're on your way out of your 30s,it's not just about disappointing your parents, it 's about disappointing yourself," she counters, "so it 's hard to go up on stage and make people laugh, because while they 're laughing, they're also thinking about their own lives." Yes, and isn't that the best kind of comedy? The kind that makes you think? She doesn't concede, but she takes a sip of coffee and thinks about it. A truce?

These days, Kurt has altered her personal life along with her show. After six years in L.A., she 's now based in Toronto and keeps an office in L.A.. "After September 11th, I came back home. The timing coincided with a new relationship and new realizations. I needed to come home to find a way to work different- ly."

After spending the better part of 15 years on the road, she realized she needed to stop, to sit still and take the time to face her demons. Yes demons. She 's a stand-up comic, a 'funny girl,' but one who ponders. She thinks about her show, relationships, her life, politics, the environment. Kurt is serious. Serious about issues. Serious about her comedy. Serious about communicating with her audience. And she 's seriously funny. If you missed her show on this latest tour, do yourself a serious favour.

Catch her the next time she performs in a town near you.