BY KEELY MCAVENEY Recovering Canadian and and former explosives engineer, Ian Bagg blew up on contact with the stand-up comedy scene, first in the far north hinterlands of British Columbia and later in New York and then the world. Not that he really cares about fame or money, he proudly holds the title of Only Comedian To Work With Judd Apatow And NOT Become A Multi-Billionaire. He is a master at working the crowd for unscripted laughs, not for nothing is his 2015 comedy special called Getting To F***ing Know You. You may have seen him on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” or possibly in his own two half-hour long specials: “Comedy Central Presents” and HBO’s “A Comics Climb.” Either way you won’t want to miss him him in all his riffing glory at Punch Line Philly August 24th-25th.
IAN BAGG: [laughs] Yeah. It was something, it was just… I grew up in a small town in northern Canada, and you either became a logger or a miner or mechanic or, you know, all those kinds of work. I just stumbled into dynamite and started at the bottom of the chain, just carrying dynamite for the guys that, you know, were delivering it and then just kind of moved up the chain and ended up working in a gold mine and really enjoyed it.
PHAWKER: That certainly doesn’t sound too small town or boring to me, maybe the carrying it instead of getting to do anything with it.
IAN BAGG: [laughs] Well, we were looking for gold, blowing up the sides of things. It was fun.
PHAWKER: Did you study explosives in college?
IAN BAGG: No, I was headed to engineering school, like tech school, and I ended up falling into comedy instead. I’d always wanted to do stand up, but I had to move to the big city to go to school and found an open mic and tried it and never went back to school.
PHAWKER: It was in Vancouver right?
IAN BAGG: Yes.
PHAWKER: Did you grow up pretty far from Vancouver, or was it close enough that you had this access to live comedy when you were younger?
IAN BAGG: No. I grew up in Terrace, British Columbia, which is kind of close to Ketchikan, Alaska. It is nowhere near anything. I’m talking very isolated.
PHAWKER: Did you do stand up in Terrace? Did they have open mics even?
IAN BAGG: No, they had nothing like that up there. I didn’t see live comedy until just before I started. I, of course, was a huge fan of Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor and all those guys and heard their albums. As a kid, we started getting Eddie Murphy tapes and Sam Kinison, so. I knew stand up existed, but I didn’t know why it existed or how it existed.
PHAWKER: Have you toured across the U.S. before?
IAN BAGG: I’ve been across the U.S. tons of times.
PHAWKER: And you’ve been to Philadelphia before then, I take it?
IAN BAGG: I have been to Philly before, and I love it. I’ve done both clubs, and Punch Line Philly is my favorite. I like the other one. I just feel more show-business in Punch Line, that’s all.
PHAWKER: How long did you perform in Vancouver for before you knew you had to move to New York to further advance your career?
IAN BAGG: I was probably on my third open mic, and a guy named Pat Fuller came up to me and told me, “Promise me you’ll move to America.” And I was like, “What?” And he was like, “You can’t stay here. You have to go to America.” And I was like, “Okay.” I was young enough, didn’t understand what was going on, and then I was in America.
PHAWKER: Was it very shortly after that conversation that you ended up moving?
IAN BAGG: No, it took a couple more years, which isn’t too long, but I got out as quick as possible. When I first came across, I was an illegal alien in New York. I was on a train and got stopped at the border and said I was a writer and they looked at all my books and couldn’t figure out anything else, and they said okay. And yeah, I got onstage every night at the Comic Strip. Richard Tienken owned that place, and he put me on. He had seen me at Montreal Comedy Fest. That’s basically where I would say I started my comedy career, even though I did some in Vancouver. I really didn’t pick up until I had gotten to the old New York, and it really changed things around. I was about 25.
PHAWKER: There’s definitely a lot more opportunities to get noticed and just perform every single night of the week, I think, in New York.
IAN BAGG: Exactly, just to be on stage, just to have people in front of you and be on stage every night there, two or three times a night, and be around comedians that are really really good comedians and chasing the dream as hard as you are.
IAN BAGG: Yeah. As far as writing, not really. I have no problem working with other comedians that way, but writing-wise: I feel like stand up is a very personal journey, and I think you have to figure out stuff yourself, and it’s gotta bomb, and it’s gotta do well. If you write by yourself, you learn. They’re not going to be on stage with you.
PHAWKER: No one’s going to be there to hold your hand while you bomb.
IAN BAGG: I’ve written, and I’ve been in sketch groups and stuff like that. I do enjoy bouncing things off of people and having a good time.
PHAWKER: Do you find that sketch work benefits your stand up sort of? Like you learn other things you might not have to incorporate?
IAN BAGG: For me, my style, being a sketch-worker helped me listen because a lot of my show is having a conversation with the crowd, so it makes me listen and not force it, just let the conversation go some place naturally rather than force the conversation some place.
PHAWKER: I’ve noticed that you do a lot of crowd work. Do you riff most of the time? Or do you have an even balance of written material that you like to stick with?
IAN BAGG: It depends. If something interests me, I’ve done shows where I’ve done no material at all, and I’ve done shows where it’s been all material. It depends on what’s going on and what does this mean. If there is something that gets me, you know. I like to laugh as much as the crowd likes to laugh. If you’ve got me interested and happy, and I’m going to keep on. Even sometimes when audiences aren’t responsive. Some people not responding makes me have to come up with something, which actually works just as well.
PHAWKER: Do you find that because you do a lot of crowd work you get more hecklers? From my own experience, this tends to happen.
IAN BAGG: No. I think it’s not crowd work. It’s a conversation with the audience. Hecklers come from a place where you’ve given them something to heckle about. In the beginning of my show, I do jokes about, “Don’t come to a comedy show and be offended!” Just don’t, don’t, don’t. You came here. I didn’t break into your house and start doing this. I didn’t force you onto my way of thinking. You came to see somebody else’s thinking. I think my show lets people know that I’m not one of those people that tries to be above the crowd. I’m part of the crowd, and my theory is that my show is like hanging out with friends, and I love it when a crowd member gets a big laugh when they say something. When the club owners say, “Do you want us to kick somebody out?” I’m like ‘People can say anything. I don’t care.’ If they have hate in them, that’s completely different. If people are like fired up, we don’t need them here. It doesn’t matter who is on stage, they’re going to be angry. Get those people out. My friend said a long time ago, “Being angry [at a comedy show] is like being angry in a donut shop.” You know, it’s people trying to make you happy. That’s all it is, and if that makes you angry you’ve got other things going on, and you don’t really have time to be at a comedy club.
PHAWKER: How has your material evolved over time? Did you incorporate the audience a lot when you first started?
IAN BAGG: My first time I went on stage, I had written all my jokes on my hand, and I sweat them off, so they were all gone, so I had to riff with the audience. That’s kind of how that started. I would say the way I have evolved is more… I look more for the funny now than the offensive. I don’t want to say the offensive but, you know, the darker. When I first started out, I kind of would go darker, but now I want to crossover everybody. I’m not saying that I’m not dark, but I’m not searching for the dark.
PHAWKER: Not so much trying to pigeon-hole yourself into dark humor anymore. It’s what you know and what you’re comfortable with, and that feels too easy.
IAN BAGG: Exactly.
PHAWKER: Regarding traveling and touring, do you find there’s a difference between Canadian and American humor?
IAN BAGG: I’ve honestly been gone for so long from Canada I have no clue. [laughs] But I do travel around the world, and I did find sometimes that some crowds are lazier, and sometimes they’re more excited. I really liked going to South Africa because there’s a whole generation of people that have never had that kind of freedom that they have there now. You know, there was a thirst for knowledge and a thirst for humor that was really exciting for me to be a part of, and I really liked that.
PHAWKER: Is that your favorite place that you’ve visited or your favorite crowd that you’ve had?
IAN BAGG: It’s one of them! I went to Bangladesh, and I loved it.
PHAWKER: Just because of the similar amount of energy?
IAN BAGG: Bangladesh is a very, mostly Muslim country, and I enjoyed it because you know they gave me a couple of rules before I went on stage, and I had to find the line between my humor and their mindset. I liked the game, and again there were these young kids there. They don’t have comedy clubs over there, but this guy started a comedy club over there. It was interesting, so bizarrely different from the freedom that I had growing up. When we cry about things getting taken down off of Facebook or we’re being censored, we have no idea about censorship, you know.
PHAWKER: Do you have an established process for writing? Is it just kind of a jotting down of things you find funny and expansion later?
IAN BAGG: I write down subjects and then slowly they kind of work themselves out. I write down subjects, and then I just take the subjects on stage, and I’ll fool around with it and then we’ll take nuggets out of that situation, and then, you know, that’ll turn into something.
PHAWKER: Are you constantly altering your jokes, or do you find they hit a place where they seem fully baked and you no longer mess around with them?
IAN BAGG: Yeah. I think it’s kind like, you know, when you go see a band, and the song isn’t exactly how you hear it on the recording. As for fully baked, I think it can be baked the first time you do it. Some things just come out amazing, right?