PAT THORNTON guest hosting SUNDAY NIGHT LIVE Sunday (November 11), 9 pm. $10. Comedy Bar (945 Bloor West). 416-551-6540, thesketchersons.com. Also headlining PAT THORNTON’S 24-HOUR STAND-UP fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, November 16 at 8 pm to 17 at 8 pm. Comedy Bar. $10. bitly.com/UlDZWx.
If you think staying up till the wee hours at Nuit Blanche is a big deal, Pat Thornton’s got you beat. For the past three years, he’s taken to the stage of Comedy Bar to deliver 24 straight hours of stand-up.
He can’t wait to do it again.
“It’s become its own thing,” says the big, burly, bearded comic. We’re sitting in the Comedy Bar head office, which is sloppier and more lived-in than it appears in the eponymous fictional Bite TV series (now in its second season) starring Thornton, Gary Rideout Jr., Tal Zimerman, Norm Sousa and others associated with the club.
“It’s become this awesome community-building thing that we never expected,” says Thornton, wearing the indie comic’s de rigueur outfit of track jacket and baseball cap, giggling as he moves a dildo off a chair to sit down.
Notice that “we.” His name might be on the event – which, by the way, is a fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation – but Thornton knows the reason it’s caught on is all the support in the comedy community. Like any good improv and sketch artist, he’s aware of the importance of playing well with others.
For the marathon, he usually begins with half an hour’s worth of material, and then other comics and fans – in the audience or via Twitter, email or the show’s live stream – will contribute jokes. Pretty soon a theme emerges and he continues to riff on that.
“Last year’s theme,” he says, grinning, “was a love affair between Mr. Smee and Captain Hook.”
The year before, he and the other comics went on a 20-hour bender ranting about how C-list actor Kevin Sorbo had no money and was eating garbage. The Twitter traffic involving the Hercules actor was so heavy, his name became a trending topic.
That – and a call by Comedy Bar manager Rideout – piqued Sorbo’s interest, and a few months later he agreed to guest at a Comedy Bar weekend of sets called Kevin Sorbo’s Garbage Weekend.
“It’s still one of the most surreal things that’s ever happened in my life,” says Thornton.
If topics like the gay relationship between characters from a children’s classic or the ribbing of a minor celebrity seem sophomoric, well, Thornton would be the first to admit that his comedy isn’t terribly intellectual.
“With improv in particular, there’s this idea that comedy must come from a solemn, serious place,” he says. “All I care about is funny, so I go for the joke every time. Some people are like, ‘Oh, that could be smarter.’ Yeah, sure, but didn’t we come here to laugh?”
Thornton says everything he does in comedy is because of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’s cult series Mr. Show.
“That was a wake-up call, proof that there was this other way things could be. And I liked that its creators could do everything: stand-up, sketch, write.”
Thornton says Comedy Bar will eventually go down as a place that creates triple threats – comics who can improvise, do stand-up and work in sketch.
But forget the genre. As with all natural performers, something happens when Thornton’s onstage or onscreen. There’s an electricity around him, and he comes into focus. Nothing fazes him.
That was evident early on with his sketch work in troupes like Todd’s Lunch (with Rideout and Zimerman, whom he met at Humber College) and later with the Sketchersons, who put on the long-running Sunday Night Live show.
“I guess I’m a classic ham,” he says. “I want to be onstage. It’s how I like to party. I’d rather have a few drinks and get up onstage than just be at a party drinking.”
His unique talent got singled out by the Comedy Network for the surreal series Hotbox, which temporarily put him in an uncomfortable spot, like a musician plucked from the band to be a solo act.
“That was weird,” he says reflectively. “The producers were clear early on that they wanted to develop a show around me, not a Sketchersons show. And they wanted to be heavily involved in who got to be on it and who got to write it.
“So it was difficult, coming out of the family-based system of the Sketchersons. All I could say was, ‘Okay, guys, I’ll see if I can get you in this.’”
And he did. Rideout says Thornton is incredibly generous.
“He’s got a soft spot for people who need help,” says Rideout. “He’s paid for friends to get headshots. We worked together to create a Comedy Week for Haiti after the earthquake and ended up raising $40,000.”
In the end, Hotbox, like many Canadian TV shows, lasted a single season.
“A lot of Canadian shows are created in a vacuum,” says Thornton. “You make stuff and you put it out, but you don’t get to gauge audience response. So we sort of walked away knowing everything we wanted to do in the second season, but we didn’t get a second season.”
That was in 2010, and Thornton seems fine about it now, even philosophical.
“I feel like the star of a show just has to die for a while, and then you get a chance to see if a career will emerge from the rubble. So I’ve been in the trenches making all the little things I can make. Just trying to be a funny guy.”
That includes, for almost two years, taking up stand-up comedy again. He did 11 sets at the recent JFL42 festival, opening eight times for the stand-up Todd Barry, who asked for him specifically.
“I had to think about the likelihood of my wanting to be in a sketch troupe when I was 40,” he says. “But I knew I’d always want to perform. So it was time to start treating stand-up like a job, always having an act.”
This week he hosts Sunday Night Live for the second time since leaving the troupe three years ago. It was where he cut his teeth, cranking out a full-length evening’s worth of sketches every week.
He’s a standout in the Comedy Bar series, where he got a nomination for a Canadian Comedy Award. And he garnered some great reviews for his supporting part in the recent Picnicface movie Roller Town, where he played a dim thug named Beef.
If you follow him on Twitter (@patthornton), you know about his fascination with Saved By The Bell star Mario Lopez. He constantly re-tweets Lopez’s banal statements and pictures.
“Most of the people I follow are comedians, and everybody’s trying to impress each other and trying to be at least interesting and entertaining. Mario Lopez is just a shining example of the other side of that.
“His tweets are just: ‘Here’s another picture of me with a celebrity.’ All day. He’s sold himself to the universe as being this picture of wholesomeness that everyone loves. People are, ‘Yeah, I’ll follow you, just tell me nothing.’”
It’s not just a silly stunt, however. Dig beneath Thornton’s constant re-tweeting and you get at what drives his comedy. Maybe there’s a “revenge of the nerds” dynamic at play, with Thornton as the chubby kid pretending to know the school jock but secretly making fun of him.
“Listen, Mario Lopez is attractive and famous enough that he doesn’t have to be interesting. And I feel the other way.”
Um, unattractive and relatively unfamous?
“Yeah,” he says. “So I’ve spent my whole life trying to be interesting.”