You can’t get much more Canadian than John Cullen – as he laughingly agrees.
In addition to being a frequent contributor to CBC Radio’s popular wit-fest The Debaters, the Semiahmoo Peninula-raised stand-up comedian, high school teacher, writer, podcaster, and sometime musician, is also a lifelong hockey fan who has written extensively on the sport and has participated in competitive curling since 1999 – claiming two silver medals and three bronze at the B.C. provincials, and winning six World Curling Tour events.
As well as humorous and sports-oriented podcasts, he’s also a familiar face across the country from appearances at the Just For Laughs, Winnipeg and Halifax comedy festivals and as a regular at the Just For Laughs Northwest festival.
That and having grown up in White Rock and South Surrey (he’s a Semiahmoo Secondary grad, and his parents still live on the Peninsula) just might make him a perfect member of the team for the City of White Rock’s experimental Virtual Canada Day By The Bay celebration on Facebook and YouTube Live.
In the live-streamed concert from Blue Frog Studios – which will begin just before 7 p.m. with an anthem sing-a-long with White Rock’s ‘Mr. O Canada,’ tenor Mark Donnelly – Cullen will join headlining Canadian country sensations The Washboard Union, the alt-rock-jazz of opening act Ludic, and introductions by event host Michele Partridge. Cullen’s contribution will be a 25-minute comedy set already recorded at his home studio.
“I’m a very Canadian man, it seems,” he chuckled, noting that the invitation to perform at the event follows his successful stand-up set at Islands Café as part of last year’s White Rock Busking and Comedy Festival.
“Being from White Rock I guess I caught the eye of people in town,” he said. “I’m pretty flexible and it’s also a family show – there’ll be people of all ages and all backgrounds watching.
“I’m a pretty clean comedian anyway, and White Rock was really cool about it – they just wanted the jokes to be appropriate and family-friendly.”
Interestingly, Cullen was also tapped to appear in the City of Surrey’s own live-streamed event – Virtual Surrey Canada Day, which runs from 6 to 9 p.m. July 1 on Facebook and YouTube Live – but for a much shorter set.
The White Rock event has gone through so many revisions since it was first discussed in April, he said, with the city ultimately suggesting he pre-record his segment.
“It’s been kind of a weird thing how it developed. They got in touch with my agent about two months ago and the original plan was for the bands and myself to go down to Blue Frog Studios and do it all live from there. There would be a small crowd that would be able to laugh and react – it would be a different kind of show, but it wouldn’t be super-weird.”
As restrictions to limit the pandemic evolved over the last couple of months, the initial plan proved overly optimistic, he said.
“Then they said, maybe we won’t bring you down to the studio after all. Ultimately, they settled on my filming myself and sending it in.”
But while that way of working is the antithesis of what Cullen would expect in a club show or a Debaters broadcast – lacking the opportunity to pick up on and riff off the energy an audience supplies – he says that years of doing podcasts have given him an advantage in knowing how to work without the usual live vibe.
“And fortunately, the producer of my podcast is an acoustics wiz and a video wiz, so there was no problem from a technical standpoint,” he said.
“Obviously it’s weird in one way, because there’s no energy to tap into, there’s no immediate reaction. But I know the jokes are funny, and some of them have worked for a long time. Once you get over the initial strangeness you get used to giving yourself some space for laughs, and also when you’ve done some of the jokes long enough, you’ve tended to figure out how to deliver them and where the pauses are.”
Experience is a great teacher in the endless process of refining comedy, Cullen said – which calls for a great deal of self-editing, and discovering the right combination of words and attitude to set the audience up for each joke.
And all of his writing experience – including sports writing and musical criticism – has helped build those skills over the years, he said.
“I’ve referred to it as ‘unlocking’ a joke,” he said.
“When I started out, I got some very good advice. Someone told me that, if you trust yourself and know that you’re a funny person, if you think an idea is funny and the audience isn’t laughing, it’s not that it isn’t funny. It is funny – you’re just saying it wrong.”
It’s taken time to develop and master a storytelling style of comedy in which most of the ‘bits’ are five to eight minutes long, Cullen said.
“It’s a matter of letting it breathe,” he said.
“I think there’s a tendency to rush comedy, particularly when you’re starting out, to try to fill up every space. But silence isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it can often mean that you have reached the audience and you’re bringing them in with you.”