If she hadn’t agreed to be a college sports mascot, Nikki Payne might never have become a successful comic.
Tonight, Payne will be the first comedian to perform at Victoria’s new Yuk Yuk’s comedy club. Phoning this week, the 40-year-old New Brunswicker — renowned for her raunchy style and raspy lisp — reminisced about her earliest show-biz experience.
It was the time she became the mascot for her college in Truro, Nova Scotia.
At the time, Payne was studying “recreational leadership.” Her goal was to become an activities director for nursing homes. She did well in all her courses except one: athletics.
“I am not athletic at all,” she said.
One instructor, realizing Payne was struggling, suggested she fill a vacancy as the college’s sports mascot. In return, he promised to give her a passing grade in her athletics course.
So Payne donned a head-to-foot costume (a hawk) and starting clowning around at soccer and hockey games. She wasn’t required to speak — it was all physical shtick.
“I jumped on it. I didn’t realize that I was going to be as good at it as I was,” she said.
The highlight was when Payne, a.k.a. the Hawk, was invited to shoot a hockey puck at a target from the blue line. She blasted the puck through the target’s middle hole, winning the contest.
Payne was victoriously carried out of the rink. It was a good feeling.
“I got all this popularity from just being silly and all of that. It sort of bled into comedy,” she said.
Today, Payne is one of Canada’s more recognizable comics. In 2012, she was named Canadian Comedy person of the year. CBC Radio listeners know her from The Debaters. She has performed at Montreal’s Just for Laughs, as well as other major festivals, such as Kilkenny’s Cat Laughs and the Las Vegas Comedy Festival.
On her journey to success, Payne had to overcome a few disadvantages. She was born with a cleft palate, has a lisp and was shy as a kid. (Payne admits she’s still a “bit of an introvert” who enjoys quiet times with her Yorkshire terrier, Emilio Estevez, and her cat named Battlecat at her New Brunswick home.)
She grew up in Sackville, Nova Scotia, in a trailer park. Despite its grand name, Sackville Estates was considered the wrong side of town. (In one interview, Payne jokingly referred to herself as a “trailer trash girl.”) Her father was a caretaker at Dalhousie University; her mother worked as a caregiver in a nursing home.
In her early 20s, Payne decided to try an open mic at a Montreal comedy club.
“It went over well,” she said. “Nobody booed me.”
Veteran comics in attendance told Payne she had the potential to be a professional. Mark Breslin, the co-founder of the Yuk Yuk’s chain, was equally encouraging.
She decided to give it a shot, working open mics first in Montreal and then in Toronto. Initially, Payne gave her nascent comedy career a couple of weeks to sink or swim. She then gave it a couple of months — and then a year. To her surprise, she was succeeding.
Right from the beginning, Payne acknowledged her lisp during performances. “I was proud it wasn’t holding me back,” she said. “If anything, it was moving me forward.”
Yet while Payne was happy to do a five-minute bit about her speech impediment, she refused to become a one-joke comic. She knew relying on strong material would best serve her in the long run.
Despite quick success, it took years before Payne became comfortable and self-confident on stage. In her early days she sometimes was physically ill before shows. And she said it took her years to think of herself as a professional comic.
“I definitely felt like sort of a fraud for a long time,” Payne said. “Like eventually someone would figure out I didn’t know what I was doing.”
One thing that has changed since she started is the wide availability of comedy today. Payne notes fans can now get their fix from a multitude of sources: YouTube, Netflix, the Comedy Network. This, in turn, has led to more comedians vying for audiences.
“It’s good and it’s scary at the same time,” Payne said. “You have to be very good now. And that’s fine, because it’s making the quality of comedy excellent.”
What: Nikki Payne
Where: Yuk Yuk’s, 751 View St.
When: Thursday 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20 plus tax at yukyuks.com/victoria