“It was just like any other night, waiting tables at the Macaroni Grill on Davie Street…”
For Sam Mullins, that’s how his particular story begins, but not where it ends.
In one breathless sentence, the Kalamalka Secondary School graduate, who studied drama with Kal’s Shon Thomas, played junior B hockey and then ended up at UVic, where he studied theatre, was horrified to go on stage in blackface, then ended up in Vancouver waiting tables after a nervous breakdown, has seen his star rise.
It all started when a customer at the Vancouver restaurant where Mullins worked asked him to make a tinfoil dinosaur.
The retelling on that story, which Mullins has shared on a live taping of CBC’s DNTO (Definitely Not the Opera), paved the way for Mullins to have a career as a storyteller, comedy writer and producer of several successful one-man shows.
Mullins has since won acclaim, and awards, with his stories and has been performing on the North American Fringe Festival circuit for the past four years. Two of his more recent tales, The Untitled Sam Mullins Project and Grandma’s Dead, are about to be told in Vernon, Sept. 23 and 24, by the man himself.
The Morning Star recently interviewed Mullins, via e-mail, about his story, so far.
MS: Would it be safe to say that Tinfoil Dinosaur changed everything for you and how prolific was that time for you?
SM: “Before I’d performed my first solo show, Tinfoil Dinosaur, on the Fringe circuit, I literally had no projects/accomplishments/credits to my name as a creative artist – at least outside of the UVic theatre building. I was a no one from nowhere.
But having those initial minor successes at these quirky, independent theatre festivals changed the trajectory of my life in a big way. Every opportunity I’ve had in my career in the last five years stem directly from performing my solo work at the Fringe. It got me hired at CBC’s The Irrelevant Show as a comedy writer, and it got me attention from big NPR (National Public Radio) programs such as This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour. The Fringe gave me the opportunity to showcase not just who I am as a performer, but what my voice is as an artist.
I got my degree in theatre from the University of Victoria in 2008, but I feel like my real education didn’t start until I started performing my solo work on the circuit.”
MS: Since we last spoke, you’ve moved to Toronto. Was it a whim or did you move to T.O. for a specific purpose? What’s your take on the city?
SM: “To steal a line from Michael J. Fox’s memoir Lucky Man: ‘If you’re going to be a lumberjack, you might as well go to the goddamn forest.’ Which is to say: if you want to be a comedy writer in this country, Toronto is the only city in which this is viable, whether you like it or not. So when I succumbed to Toronto’s gravitational pull, I chose to like it.
I’ve always been drawn to big, smelly, culturally-rich cities. And Toronto is very much that. It feels like a really exciting time to be involved in the arts and comedy scene there right now. There’s a lot of exciting things happening there that are gaining international attention.”
MS: You’ve taken on a lot of projects and now have a day job, with CBC’s The Irrelevant Show. What led you to get that gig, and what’s it like writing with some of Canada’s top comedic talent?
SM: “The Irrelevant Show is produced in Edmonton, so every year, their showrunners, Peter Brown and Neil Grahn, seek out as much comedy as they can at the Edmonton Fringe Festival. Peter approached me after seeing Tinfoil Dinosaur in 2012, and asked me if I’d ever considered writing sketch comedy before. I told him that I’d been doing sketch comedy in Vancouver pretty much full time for the past two years and had written over 200 sketches. So I promised him that I’d send the three funny ones.
Sketch writing is the easiest thing in the world when you’re surrounded by smart, funny people like we are at The Irrelevant Show. We laugh so much – some would even say TOO much. Sure, there are days where you’re trapped in a sketch, trying to save a flat premise and it feels like real work. But most of the time it feels like exactly what I want to do with my life.”
MS: I see the show is up for best multimedia/audio show series at the 2015 Canadian Comedy Awards, but even more awesome is that you are up for the best one-man show for The Untitled Sam Mullins Project. How did Untitled come to be, and what’s with that title? Some would say it’s genius.
SM: “Yeah, the Canadian Comedy Awards are happening on Sept. 13 this year, so I’m anxious to see if Untitled will be able to go the way of my show Weaksauce and pick up the award for Best One-Person Show. Once again, I’ll be up against some tough competition (all of whom are my friends), so we’ll see…
If I knew how off-putting the title would be to people, I would’ve called it something else. It’s one of those titles where, by the end of the show, audiences go, ‘I get it now! Wow! What a perfect title of that particular show.’ But before the show people are like, ‘I don’t get it. He didn’t come up with a name for his show?’ It’s just what I called it. Everyone relax!
The show is all based on a Word document, which exists on my computer, in which I deposit all of my deepest, darkest thoughts. It stemmed from an exercise given to me by a therapist in an attempt to quell my anxiety and depression. So the show is me sharing with the audience some of the stories and writings that were born in that top-secret document.”
MS: You mentioned performing for The Moth, which features true stories told live, as well as for the NPR ( did you talk to Garrison Keillor?!) Do you see yourself as a comedic storyteller or do you prefer sketch/improv artist? How does one describe what it is they actually do? It must be hard as a comedian.
SM: “I didn’t meet Garrison, unfortunately.
One really cool thing that happened this year was The Moth came to Toronto to do the very first Moth Mainstage on Canadian soil. They sold out a 700-seat venue overnight, and I was fortunate enough to be booked as one of their five performers. I actually ended up telling a story about growing up in Vernon.
I made my mom fly out. I was like, ‘Mom, I know you don’t like Toronto, but this is going to be a big one.’ As it so happened, there was a big live recording in Toronto of The Irrelevant Show that week too, so it ended up being the most idyllic mom-friendly week ever. She had a blast, and she got to see her baby be a public-radio star (which is probably an oxymoron).
Yeah. I guess I’m a comedic storyteller. I always say I’m a comedy writer and storyteller.”
MS: Who do you look up to in that vein?
SM: “My biggest heroes in my genre are almost all stand-up comedians who deal in long-form storytelling. People like Tig Notaro, Marc Maron and Mike Birbiglia. In Canada, I look up to TJ Dawe. He’s sort of the guy who paved the way for storytellers on the Canadian Fringe Festival circuit, and is just generally one of the most intelligent and talented and kind people you’ll ever meet.”
MS: I hope Grandma’s Dead is not autobiographical, and sorry if it is, but tell me about this show and what people can expect when you perform it in your hometown?
SM: “Grandma’s Dead is a completely new type of show for me. All of my other shows to date were storytelling pieces, whereas, this one is a more traditional iteration of the ‘one-man show,’ which means that it’s more of a play.
It’s sort of a buddy road-trip comedy in which I play multiple characters (and animals and iPhone’s Siri). It’s based on the true story of my brother and I on a road trip to our beloved grandmother’s funeral in small-town Saskatchewan.
At its heart it’s about sibling relationships. Or more specifically, it’s about navigating a sibling relationship in which the two share almost nothing in common.
It’s important to note that while it’s ‘based on a true story’ it is almost entirely fictional.
It’s been getting great reviews and some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever gotten for my solo work. I’m excited for Vernon to see it.”
Mullins presents The Untitled Sam Mullins Project and Grandma’s Dead at the Powerhouse Theatre Sept. 23 and 24 at 8 p.m., respectively. Tickets are $20 per show available at the Ticket Seller, 250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.