‘I give Stewart Lee credibility’
Jay Richardson talks to Canadian comedy enigma Baconface
The Stand unveiled its Edinburgh Fringe programme today; and among the many familiar names such as Alexei Sayle, Mark Thomas, Stewart Lee and Stephen K Amos is a more enigmatic character … Baconface. Described as ‘a cult Eighties Canadian stand-up’, the gruff-spoken figure in a Mexican wrestling mask has made only a handful of appearances in the UK but is credited as programme associate on the forthcoming third series of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. But who is he? Chortle sought to find out in this exclusive phone interview, granted from his home in Chilliwack, British Columbia.
How would you describe your comedy for anyone unfamiliar with your act?
I give a voice to a necessarily Canadian sensibility that's not really reflected ...
Not reflected by Canadian comics in the UK?
Well, reflected in as much as they saw me when they were young and a lot of what they do is inescapably influenced by me. But it's a watered down, dishonest version.
Have you confronted any of them about it?
No. There's no need, they know. And you'll see how immediately obvious it is when you see me in the summer.
But you feel it's time the public knew?
No, I don't think that, I had no desire to come to your country. But I was offered work here which … it would not have made sense financially to not accept the offer. I have no desire to be known here, I'm doing the smallest room I can in Edinburgh. There wasn't a smaller one available.
Yeah, I came over and went in The Lumberjacks show, just to check it out. The audiences there, well, they were ok. I think I can get my own crowd at The Stand. You've got to start off small. But I'm back for this writing job in the autumn and I've been over since doing that, so I may as well do some gigs.
How do you know Stewart Lee?
I don't know him. He saw me 20, 25 years ago he tells me as a teenager in Cantaloupes comedy club in British Colombia. And watching film of his early act, I can see what he took away from it.
In some ways his offer of work is an admission of guilt. Guys like him, they like to appear magnanimous by praising some unknown fuck no-one else has heard of, because if they're seen to patronise their peers, it creates problems in the pecking order. So they invariably rave about some guy no-one's heard of as their major influence. And I seem to be fulfilling that role. I accept it with a degree of understanding that my obscurity is being exploited - to create a degree of credibility for Stewart Lee as an artist. I resent that but I roll with it.
Time is passing you know, I've been doing this 30 years. There wasn't a stand-up scene as you would understand it in Canada until I started to carve it out. Just a lot of improv guys coming out of Chicago pretending to be lumberjacks.
Has Canadian comedy improved since then?
No, it's worse, everything's worse. It's appalling. The Montreal Comedy Festival is a parade of nothing really. It can't be a coincidence that I've not performed there.
Why do you hide behind a mask?
I had an accident in the late 70s. But actually the mask is a hugely liberating thing. I talk about this in the show, though, so I'd rather not repeat it here. I have to buy fresh bacon to put on at least every other day. It represents the texture of my actual face, which is underneath the mask, I don't want people to see that. You call it a mask but its a mask that looks identical to my actual face. But it is concealing my face.
I don't know what people will make of it but it's liberating for me to know that people are not looking at me but what they are looking at, does, in fact, look very similar to me. All comedians say they don't operate behind a mask. But they do. The mask is identical to the face it conceals.
So it's empowering …
Well, it's hot, it's a hot mask to wear. In a 40-minute headlining set, the bacon can become very sticky and fall off. But I pick it up and stick it back on, that's the beauty of it. It's all bacon. Canadian bacon of course as well, one of the great Canadian exports. So make of that what you will! The mask is a mask but its also my face. I don't know what people will make of that.
Are you worried about your true identity being exposed?
No, because if the mask is taken off, the face underneath is the same, so I've nothing to lose. I’m not concealing my identity, I seek to amplify it. The mask was actually given to me by a young Asian comic 30 years ago. South American guy. It just seemed the right thing to do. He gave it to me as a gift because he'd seen me do a set and realised people were having trouble, there was a distancing effect created by the hideousness of my actual face. He suggested I wear a Mexican wrestling mask to conceal it. To me that seemed dishonest, so that's why I put the bacon on, so it would be the same to look at as the face underneath the mask. But the mask really isn't that important.
Where did your catchphrase 'it's all bacon!' come from?
It's something we used to say in Chilliwack as kids. It's a philosophical acceptance of life, the ups and downs whether they're good or bad, it's all bacon. But I've noticed recently Louis CK, who, again, is very influenced by me, talking about bacon. He seems to see bacon as one of the things that makes life worth living. He's putting more of a positive spin on it. And its probably why he's so popular, that feelgood kind of act he does. But with me saying 'it's all bacon', it's like you get used to this shit as you go along. We said it as kids without really understanding it. As I get older, it seems almost like a Zen-like understanding of life.
So who were your influences?
The Calgary Roughneck where I live was always one of the great local newspapers, very funny columns. But its circulation is down to zero... great comics write for it just for the exposure now. The Calgary Roughneck's Allan Fotheringham was one of the great wits of Canada and probably more of an influence on my act with the printed word than any comics I saw. Fortheringham is fantastic.
And Rush's bassist Geddy Lee is a fan of yours ...
I'm pleased to be liked by Geddy Lee. But for me Canadian rock peaked with the generation before that, I grew up listening to my older brother's records and his friend's albums. My sensibility is very much informed by Canadian hard rock, folk rock and psychedelia of the late 60s and early 70s, particularly the band Chilliwack, who I think under their second eponymous album really began to synthesise a kind of distinct Canadian identity, as opposed to a more North American one.
Chilliwack, The Collectors and It's All Meat, all those really fed into my thinking. The Band, I regard as traitors. The last time we had a chance for a distinctive Canadian sensibility was around '72, '73, around the time of the second Chilliwack album and it all went wrong after that. Native Canadian melodies and Irish folk tunes.
A lot of what I write is about the landscape and my interactions with the wildlife, its often sexual, though that's not intentional as you'll see when you see the act. It's something that tends to happen by accident.
I don't just come on and say 'what we do is this and what people in England do is …' I'm not interested in what people in England do. I'm interested in bears, salmon and the ptarmigan. No-one else is doing material about the ptarmigan but they will be, undoubtedly, if my track record over the last 30 years is anything to go by. It'll be all young guys talking about ptarmigans by the end of August.
It shouldn't be me saying this, a journalist should have said this or somebody should have owned up! It's demeaning and degrading to have to make a case for yourself when you're being brought over to a foreign country as a sort of adjunct to some other guy.
You've set up a Facebook and Twitter account to publicise your shows, even though some older, grumpier comics shun such technology ...
Well, The Stand comedy club insisted I use Twitter and Facebook. They said that I was an unknown and while they're happy to take my money and charge me for the room - as you know they're one of the more expensive and brutal spaces in Scotland - they said it would help if I had an online presence. But at the moment I don't actually know how to use the Twitter account, I haven't sent anything out. We'll see what happens. Its all bacon.
From what you've seen of the forthcoming series of Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, how's it shaping up?
I can tell you why he's come to me, because here is a guy who to all intents and purposes is in danger of disappearing entirely up his own ass. What he got from me 25 years ago, there's a straightforwardness about it, there's an unpretentiousness about what I do. It cuts straight to the heart and he's hoping that I'll be able to bring some of that to some of the essentially self-indulgent material he now peddles to uncritical audiences. I think bringing me over, its not just an awareness of the debt he owes me when you look at his early stuff. Its also an awareness that he's in deep trouble and looking for a way out. I'm a lifeline.
Who else can he go to? He's burned a lot of bridges. You know the movie Where Eagles Dare? British intelligence bring in Clint Eastwood because they know he's not corrupt, he's not likely to be acting as a double agent. I'm very much him in relation to this third series of Comedy Vehicle. So we'll see what happens. Contractually, I'm obliged to stress to you that I'm not writing the material, I'm merely helping to shape it. I'm a programme associate.
Do you worry about Stewart Lee's mental state?
Well, it's all bacon and whatever processes it would take to get himself out of the hole he's dug himself into, then that's absolutely fine. If its helpful for him to refer to himself in the third person, then that's fine, if it's a process. What would be worrying would be if he were to pretend to be someone else entirely and to insist that no-one refer to that when it was patently obvious it was him. That would be a cause for concern.
At the moment though, I think he's pursuing an entirely legitimate creative strategy. What I think is interesting is that he's always generated his own material. Whereas most of the bigger name comics, the amount of material they're required to generate in a year means that they rely very heavily on writers.
Although I'm not writing the third season, I'm just shaping material, even bringing in the notion of a collaborator of any sort is very dangerous to him - for the integrity of the brand so to speak. And I'm very surprised he would do that, because it just leaves him in the same bracket as all these other hack guys working with writers. But sometimes its useful to bring a second voice to bear upon your own.
Do you reflect much upon your career?
I'll be 50 at the end of August. It's a long time. See these guys coming through. I don't envy them. I don't envy anyone. It's a long time to be wearing a mask with bacon on.
- Baconface: It's All Bacon is at the Soho Theatre from June 10 to 14. Tickets for Baconface's Edinburgh run go on sale at 4pm today from The Stand.
Posted: 1 Apr 2013