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Every debate needs a little levity

by Sheldon Gordon

When Steve Patterson was earning his BA in Administrative & Commercial Studies at Western in the early 1990s, he made a point of starting his oral presentations with a joke relevant to the topic under discussion. “There’s room for some levity in every presentation,” he says.

In fact, this experience proved good training for stand-up comedy, which he started performing once a week at the local Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club. “Western students were supportive in coming out for my shows,” he recalls.

But not every audience was receptive. When Patterson, BA’94, did his comedy set in a London pool hall one night, he joked about the pool players, “not realizing that wit and repartee weren’t their two weapons of choice. They came at me with their pool cues.” The two comics who organized the evening had to calm them down.

Flash forward to 2013. Fortunately, the venues and the audiences for Patterson’s stand-up humour have improved spectacularly. Every Saturday afternoon, the 42-year-old jester hosts “The Debaters,” a CBC Radio show that has run since 2007 and draws half a million weekly listeners.

Quick with a quip, Patterson moderates debates between some of Canada’s best stand-ups on offbeat topics such as, ”Is the Order of Canada really such a big deal?” and “When are you too old to accept money from your parents?” Patterson also hosted a television version of The Debaters that ran for 26 episodes in 2011-12.

What’s not up for debate is that the Richmond Hill, Ont. native has become one of the country’s funniest entertainers. When he hosted the 2011 Canadian Comedy Awards in Toronto, he was named Best Male Standup, an accolade that eluded him on two previous nominations.

Capitalizing on his higher profile, Patterson began touring a 90-minute one-man comedy show in theatres across Canada in 2012. The 13-show Ontario leg of the tour concluded in Kingston in November and engagements in other provinces happened in early 2013.

Patterson’s career wasn’t always this promising. An early job as a copywriter at a Toronto ad agency lasted only a year. “I got the nickname ‘The Battler’ at the agency because I would always battle to make the ad copy funnier,” he recalls.

Eventually, when a mock-up that he’d prepared for his own amusement found its way to the agency’s client, Patterson’s “Mad Men” days came to an abrupt end.

So, in 1996, Patterson hit the comedy circuit full-time. “There’s no prerequisite for comedy,” he says. “I don’t think you can teach someone to be funny. They either have it or they don’t. I knew if I could be funny enough on stage, I had a good enough business sense to make a career out of it. I knew if I worked for myself, I wouldn’t fire myself.”

Jerry Seinfeld, playing a standup comic in his hit 90s sitcom, became Patterson’s role model. “I saw his lifestyle as a stand-up comic and said to myself, ‘I could probably do that.’ Other people watched the show for the funny scenarios, but I watched it for the stand-up clips at the beginning and end. I watched the work that when into being a stand-up.”

He paid his dues, criss-crossing Canada, Ireland and the U.K. repeatedly between 1999 and 2004. The gigs were plentiful, but the downtime far from home was lonely. He then began writing for The Jon Dore Television Show, a mockumentary-style sitcom that aired on the Comedy Network. (His work on the show earned him a Canadian Comedy Award for Best Series Writing.) The Debaters followed.

Although the radio show will continue until June and perhaps beyond, Patterson would like to host a Stephen Colbert-ish TV talk show for Canadians. “We don’t have an intelligent, nightly comedy show that we can call our own,” he says. “I’ve learned that, in this country, if you want it done, you have to do it yourself, so I’m working with a production company to develop it on our own. But I may have to start my own network – like Oprah!”

This article appeared in the Spring 2013 edition of Alumni Gazette
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