I think meeting Judith Mackin may have been the turning point in my Saint John love-affair-of-a-life. Since meeting Judith, I have welcomed so many great people into my circle of friends that love Saint John as much as I do.
Imagine my surprise when I started following James Mullinger on Twitter and Instagram. Who is this stranger that seems to love Saint John as much as I do? and… (*shocker*) … how can I meet this guy? OF COURSE – it’s not a few weeks later and I’m invited to a meet and greet with James and Pam to welcome them to Saint John – newly arrived from London, England.
Since meeting the Mullingers, my eyes have also been opened to the comedy scene in Saint John. A thing – I’m ashamed to admit – I knew nothing about. Now I’m adding “Comedy Show” to my calendar on the regular.
I hope you enjoy the interview with James Mullinger, new Rothesay resident!
Living the Dream at the Barrel’s Head
Hi James! Tell me about yourself and what you do.
I’m 36 years old and I’m a stand up comedian and writer. I spent 14 years working for GQ magazine in London and almost 10 years as a comedian on the UK comedy circuit. I now live in Rothesay, New Brunswick. Which also happens to be my favourite place on the planet. I have an office at home where I work as GQ’s Comedy Editor and I travel all over the world telling jokes. I am also the Senior Vice President of Richwater Films North American office, who are the leading independent producer of British crime thrillers.
You, your wife Pam and your small children recently made the move across the ocean.
How did that come about?
The short answer is that we wanted a better life. And there is nowhere better than New Brunswick. In my last job I had to spend a lot of time in New York and LA. As a comedian I travel the world. But I can honestly say I have never seen a view more beautiful than across the Kennebecasis River, which is right in front of my new home.
Don’t get me wrong, London is a wonderful and amazing place to visit. But when you have lived there for almost two decades as we did and have two young children it just doesn’t make sense. We had a good life there but my wife travelled a lot for work and I was on the road constantly. We never saw each other and were spending a fortune on childcare. Most depressingly we did not see enough of our son Hunter. So when our second son River was born we knew we needed a change. My wife is from the Kingston Peninsula and had the happiest childhood imaginable. I wanted that for my children.
How did you and your wife meet?
We met 14 years ago when she worked for Vanity Fair magazine. It was my first day at GQ and a mutual friend who was working with her introduced us. Every year since we visited Saint John and spent time with her amazing family who are in Fredericton, Sussex, Saint John and the Kingston Peninsula. I love them all very much and always felt sad when we had to leave. Beautiful people in a beautiful place.
I had a life that some would envy. Parties in glamourous places, photo shoots with supermodels on sunny beaches, interviewing famous people, crap like that. But I was always jealous of my wife’s family and the amazing life they have here.
We knew we needed a change. We debated New York. We debated a suburb of New York. We debated Toronto. I was keen on LA. But ultimately why not come to the most beautiful place in the world with the most lovely people in the world? So one day I suggested we move here. More than a year of heartache and hassle, here we are.
It took a lot of work to get here. Telling my family and our friends was heartbreaking. Dealing with dodgy shipping companies to get our treasured possessions here, the insanely difficult process for me to come and work here and we had a very disappointing experience with our realtor here in Rothesay so the last six months have been rather traumatic. It’s been a very rough ride but we are here now and it’s all been worth it. Not a day goes by without me waking up and realising how lucky we are to live here.
Not only is this the most picture-esque place in the world, it has everything and more that you could want from a city. An amazing theatre, cool bars like Happinez, the best interiors shop I have ever visited (Judith Mackin’s Tuck Studio) and politicians that really care. I honestly feel like the people running Saint John love the city and love the people. That is unique. I have been lucky or unlucky enough to meet and, in some cases interview, lots of politicians in my life: one American President, four British prime ministers, two London mayors so my bullshit detector is pretty good. Mayor Mel Norton is the real deal. A decent, honest, hardworking man who cares about people. And unlike almost all of the politicians I have met, he has charm and style too.
With the exception of our truly terrible realtor experience (which I will happily share with anyone who is interested on what to avoid), every single person we have met and dealt with here has been a joy. In England it is very rare that you get good service. And any time we had work done in our house it was hell. A full-on total nightmare – shoddy workmanship, theft, damage, you name it. Our house in Rothesay is currently being worked on by Dave Walker of Wham Design (who was brought to us by the incredible Judith Mackin who is doing wonders with our interior design) and I have honestly never met a more professional or talented contractor in my life. Dave and his team are actually making the process pleasurable, which I never thought was possible.
Tell me about how you got your start in journalism and comedy?
Well, a lot of this forms part of my Living The Canadian Dream show but to summarize, I spent my childhood as a massive movie buff. I have been collecting movie memorabilia since I was 11 years old, a hobby encouraged and supported by my parents. I used to make my own film fanzines using a typewriter and pictures cut out of other magazines and photos I took of my VHS tapes. I was obsessed with trashy B-movies like The Toxic Avenger and devoted a fanzine to that. I never thought I would be lucky enough to work for a magazine but after securing an internship at GQ I worked my arse off and they offered me a job. I stayed there until a few months ago when I moved here.
At 11 years old, I went to an English boarding school where I was bullied quite badly. We weren’t allowed to see our parents very often (once a month at most) and were not allowed to watch movies except for once a week on movie night. I used to seek solace in comedy tapes, sitting in my room listening to recordings of Steve Martin, Woody Allen, Bill Hicks and English comics like Ben Elton, Mel Smith, Rowan Atkinson. I just loved the art form. As a child who could barely muster the confidence to speak to a girl, I couldn’t understand how these amazing people could be on stage so calm and at ease and on top of that make people laugh. It became a dream to do this but I never thought I would ever be able to get on a stage and speak.
In my mid-twenties I had something of a quarter life crisis after being turned down for a promotion at GQ. I decided I had to try my hand at stand up. I remember the exact moment I made the decision and bizarrely it was here in Saint John. It was New Years Eve 2004 and I was in Steamers enjoying Dinner Theatre with my wife and her parents Barry and Wilhelmina. I was depressed with my life in London, with what I was doing. I looked at these talented young people performing and admired them but was also jealous of them. Whatever they were doing during the day in their day jobs, there they were at night – stars of the stage. Wowing and entertaining us. I decided there and then that 2005 would be the year I did my first open spot. Thanks to my best friend Julian Tuddenham who made us do it, we started in May 2005. He was and is the funniest person I have ever met but gave up doing stand up. I think he hates people too much. Which is fair enough. He is currently writing a script, which I cannot wait to read. It will probably be about how much he hates people.
I still collect movie memorabilia and especially VHS videotapes. My happiest memories as a child are of me scouring a video shop in Maidenhead called Video 83. I still love the musky smell from a video box. It takes me back. I am lucky that my parents encouraged this pursuit, very lucky.
What is the comedy scene like in the London area?
How different/similar is it from the comedy scene here?
Well, there is no doubt that there is a comedy boom right now in the UK but it’s essentially a Ponzi scheme. A dozen or so stand ups at the top are making tens of millions due to arena shows and appearing on every TV show going. The club comics are suffering because clubs keep closing due to the public choosing to spend their hard earned cash on arena shows.
I did alright because as well as doing clubs and universities, I made my own work – toured my own shows and promoted them myself. No agent, no tour manager, no PR. So the shows were exactly as I wanted them and I didn’t have to pay most of the money to someone else.
Now, I had heard from Canadian comics that things were much worse here in Canada. That the comedy circuit is dead. I beg to differ because you just have to make your own work, do it yourself. Don’t just sit back and wait for an agent to do it. I have found as much stand up work in the three months I’ve been here as I did in the UK. Possibly more. And moving to Canada has brought me many opportunities I would no have had in England. In March I opened for one of my favourite American comedians Orny Adams in Edmonton doing seven shows in five nights. I would never have got that opportunity if I was still in England. I am travelling all over Canada doing Yuk Yuks gigs and all over summer I am doing a show in a vineyard. Yes, a vineyard. Talk about living the dream.
And let’s not forget, Canada has the greatest comedy event in the world in Montreal every July. Just For Laughs is simply the most wonderful celebration of comedy. Forget Edinburgh, which is designed to bankrupt comedians and has no filter on it, Montreal is the best of the best while also championing new talent. I love that festival, there is nothing else like it.
Before we met, I had no idea that there was this huge comedy scene here in NB.
but I see that every week you’re working – playing clubs, theatres, bars, pubs, vineyards.
How come I didn’t know all of this was going on until you got here?
Very good question. I don’t know. But to be honest I have been surprised how much comedy there is here and how many brilliant up and coming comics there are here. I was aware of a handful before I moved. Neal Mundle and Lloyd Ravn are two of my favourite comics and are from Moncton and Sussex respectively. And Shane Ogden is a powerhouse of a stand up, hugely respected all over Canada, based in Grand-Bay Westfield and he along with Lloyd have done so much for comedy here. Shane has for five years been organising stand up shows eight times a year featuring the best headliners the world has to offer. Lots of people are certainly aware of him and what he does because his shows are always sold out why don’t more people know about them? It’s odd that these shows don’t get much press coverage.
In other places that I perform a lot (i.e. LA, New York and London) comedy is taken very seriously. Shows are reviewed by the local papers, they have sections devoted to comedy listings. It is strange to me that you don’t have that here.
Obviously I wish there was a Yuk Yuks here, the closest ones are Halifax and St John’s (both of which I am playing in August) which are amazing clubs. Yuk Yuks is a real seal of quality when it comes to stand up and Mark Breslin is a genius but I just wish there was one here in New Brunswick. The market is clearly there. Tickets are selling very fast for my solo show at the Imperial Theatre, which has over 800 seats. Shane’s shows always sell out with more than 300 people packed in. Comedy is big here. And it’s getting bigger. I have edited a comedy issue for British GQ for the past three years. Prior to that GQ had very little comedy on its pages. Now it has a whole issue devoted to it. I wish that the Maritimes media would do the same and devote more coverage to comedy. Then more comedians would come here and more clubs could open.
As we know this is a beautiful place, it is also a great place to do comedy. That’s why I’m here. I spoke with Jerry Seinfeld shortly after his show at the Harbour Station. He loved it, said the audience were exceptionally smart and that he would definitely come back. Let’s celebrate comedy a bit more, highlight the incredible array of homegrown talent here and make Saint John and New Brunswick a real comedy destination for all stand ups. There is such a deep pool of talent here, it’s amazing. Ask me to name you ten stand ups that I would recommend who live in the Maritimes.
OK, recommend ten stand ups that you…
… (Said straight away with no pauses) Jimmy Mackinley. Debra Steeves, Glen K Amo. Darren Elmore. Shane Ogden. Clint Gardiner. Lloyd Ravn. Neal Mundle. Martin Saulnier. Scott Campangna. Trevor Muxworthy. Marcel Richard.
I think that’s twelve.
Well there you go. And there are loads more. I went to Trevor Muxworthy’s gig at Wilser’s Room in Fredericton with my wife’s cousins a few months back and we honestly pissed ourselves laughing non stop all night – it was one of the consistently brilliant nights of comedy I’d seen in ages. About ten acts. All from Fredericton.
There are very few other places that I could name you ten brilliant stand ups other than LA, New York and London. In short, the Maritimes is crawling with awesome stand ups. And yet, here’s you Barb, a very culturally aware and intelligent person who loves going out, had no idea this was all here. Clearly something is very wrong. Why are people not aware of this incredible thing that is happening here right under their noses?
Who are your favourite comedians in the world?
My favourite American comic of all time is Jerry Seinfeld. My favourite British comic is Frank Skinner. I love Katherine Ryan who is a Canadian comic, not very well known here but a huge star in the UK. She is one of my all time favourites – profound and profoundly filthy. And she somehow skilfully weaves feminism into her set as well. Genius. I also love Chris Rock, Doug Stanhope, Carly Smallman, Scott Capurro, Orny Adams, Adam Bloom, Derek Seguin, Allyson June Smith, Tony Law, Andrew Doyle. I admire all comedians, I like most, but those are the ones I love that I can think of right now.
Tell me about “Living the (Canadian) Dream”
(and your upcoming show(s))
It’s a show I toured all over the UK and am doing in Montreal for a week in June. It’s a show I worked very hard on and audiences seem to like it. With other tours I have had the occasional bad show. Every night performing this was a joy. I am very proud of it and I hope everyone at the Imperial likes it. It is all about the notion of Living The Dream and how some of my childhood dreams came true and I messed them up. The aim of the show is to make the audience laugh at my misfortune and leave feeling happy that they aren’t as much of a loser as me. Previous shows I turned were darker, this one has dark moments but is ultimately uplifting and joyful. The first half of the show however will be all new material about my life in New Brunswick. Why we came, who we’ve met, my observations on Saint John and Canada as a whole and anecdotes and funny stories about things that have happened. I pride myself on the fact that the butt of every joke in my shows is me. I don’t like bullying in comedy. I won’t be doing lazy jokes targeting people, or groups of people. The show may be crude at times but the victim is always me. People pay to come out and have a good time and they don’t want to feel uncomfortable or offended. So I am the target of all my jokes. No one else gets abused. Is it the best stand up comedy show you are going to see this year? Not for me to say. But lots of people have told me it is!
Do you still get nervous?
I don’t get nervous as such but I do get, how can I put this, apprehensive. I want the gigs to go well. And I work hard on every facet of the performance and stage persona to make it work perfectly. It sounds pretentious but is a fine art and one slip up on stage because of something you say or do, and you lose the crowd, then it’s all over. So because I take all of this so seriously, I do become obsessive about ensuring the gigs go well. Sometimes this can be nerves, panic, whatever. I may spend a lot of time in the bathroom before particularly big shows. But it is all healthy. It means I care. I take the responsibility very seriously that a lot of good people have paid their hard earned money to laugh and have a good night. This is not something I take lightly so I want the gigs to go well.
When was the last time you were really nervous?
I know that nerves are not my friend so I do try and fight them. But equally you don’t want to appear too cocky on stage either because that can be a turn off for audiences. Last time I felt properly nervous was on 10th March performing for 3,600 people at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. It was a charity gig I had organized for a women’s charity named Eaves. The show was celebrating the third annual GQ comedy issue, which I had worked on. It was 11 of the best comedians in the world… and me. The most people I had performed to prior to that was 800. So that is a hell of a leap and I was, to be honest, shitting myself. But equally I had been nervous my entire career that an opportunity like this might never happen which is a far worse feeling. My dream had always been to play that room. The same room I have seen Chris Rock, Frank Skinner, Louis CK. I never thought I would get the chance to play that room and I did. So that’s what I told myself as I stood behind that curtain about to face 3,600 people. I sought advice from a British comic named Romesh Ranganathan who is one of the best comics and he had done the same venue for a TV gig a few months before. He said when you walk out and do one joke and get the laugh, it just becomes like any other gig and the nerves subside. And that was exactly what happened. It was just what I needed to hear and it helped me immensely.
What’s next for you?
More of the same I hope. I am loving life here in New Brunswick. As I say, I honestly believe it to be the most beautiful place in the world. I hope I never stop appreciating how lucky we are to live here. I guess what is next is to spread the word the word about this wonderful comedy scene in New Brunswick. Get the word out. Because a lot of the stand ups I have mentioned are planning moves to Toronto so they can get more work. That is a real shame. We should be celebrating their work here so that Saint John, Fredericton, Moncton, Sussex don’t lose all their comedy talent to bloody Toronto. So that’s my main mission really: to keep these talented people here by ensuring everyone here knows that this scene is happening. And get people out of their armchairs, away from watching reality shows and into venues like The Somerset, The 3 Mile, The Saint John Theatre Company, Wilser’s Room, Dunham’s Run and others to see live stand up. After all, even though we live in the greatest place in the world, we could all use a good laugh sometimes right?
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Awesome. Thanks James. This was a really great time. I loved chatting with you about your move to Saint John. Thanks again.
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James will be performing throughout the summer at Dunham’s Run Winery (see his Facebook page for Details) and is doing his critically acclaimed solo show at the Imperial Theatre on 9th October. Tickets here.
You can check out additional dates on his website.
Follow him on twitter:
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**All photos submitted save for the sweet selfie <3