Talking to standup comedian Tom Stade is like driving down a B.C. gravel backroad with a bunch of friends in the open box of a rusty pickup. He knows this about himself because he’s been with a bunch of friends in the open box of a rusty pickup driving down gravelly B.C. backroads.
He’s well aware that this is not recommended behaviour. But he’d do it anyway. Stade knows he’s the cautionary theme in any story, but he also knows he’s the valuable example, and besides, he’s the one telling the story, and his only goal is to make people laugh. He’ll say those things tucked in the back of the mind, just behind the instinct most people have to hold their tongue, as though slide-careening over a washboard pothole dirt trail headed for a lake recommended by someone up in the front cab as they take another long gulp of cheap beer and grab for another gear is not a social anachronism from a bygone childhood he was fortunate enough to survive.
He will say things like “booze and drugs made me,” even though he well understands that counteracts the lessons any parent would want to teach their kids. But here’s the thing. All of this, if you ignore the dangers, are a lot of fun, and combine to represent a certain way of life that people around here – and a lot of places – either lived through themselves, or intuitively understand. Stade is a survivor of his own fun. And it was your fun, too, Quesnel. He remembers you being there, when he went to school at Maple Drive Jr. Secondary, then did a year at Correlieu before he got caught with a bottle of Kahlúa at an air-band competition and never returned from his suspension. “‘He was kicked out for drinking a liqueur,’” he jokes now, in the voice of a supposed principal. “I got suspended for being a (expletive meaning weak).”
It was redneck shame for someone who used to measure drives by how many beers needed. “It used to take three Kokanees to get to Williams Lake for the Stampede. Weehooo. Or those stubby bottles of I Heart Beer, remember?”
If he’s anything, Stade is the poster image for small town life if the blue collar, dirty hands, ripped jeans, unkempt hair, wild child, drinking-too-young, driving reckless, grew-up-too-fast legions of kids ever had an actual hero of their own.
Tom Stade is that hero, and he’s gone international. He got known across Canada and the United States as a top-shelf comic, living in Vancouver and L.A., but in the United Kingdom where he’s lived for many years, now, he’s an utter star. He’s so famous that even his fans have a name: the Stadenese.
“What I love about Quesnel is, it helped me be funny, it really did,” he said from his home in small-town Scotland where he lives with his wife Trudy and their two sons. “Growing up in those small towns gives you such a unique perspective, and it makes you want to get out. There ain’t nothing bad about staying in a small town, being someplace familiar, your kids growing up together, all those advantages, but there is that push to get out. That’s a good thing. And now I know, everyone I meet, everyone I interact with, I know, I automatically assume, that they’ve lived a life; they have been through things. I got caught in that ego trap early on, ‘ohhh, look at me, look at my interesting life,’ but I found out repeatedly that small town people, all people, have led an interesting life. A lot of f-ed up and really funny stuff happens in a small town.”
Most celebrities from Quesnel made their name with wood – using a hockey stick or making lumber. Stade is famous for his slapshot wit and cutting observations – all of them, especially the ones polite company would never bring up. But that’s his superpower. It’s not that he’s psychotically unfiltered – he proudly carries the Canadian passport of decency and affability – he just dives for the deepest pearls of truth he can reach, and won’t take shallow breaths of political correctness.
Take, for example, his joke about how being a Canadian is tantamount to being a seal killer.
“I don’t even use a gun, ladies and gentlemen, I just hit them over the head with their own children,” and the crowd laughs in a roar as he pretends to wallop those rats of the sea with the cutest ones. Of course he doesn’t kill seals, nor do the majority of Canadians, but the joke is there to evoke topics like hypocrisy, brutal reality, humanity versus nature, Indigenous hunting rights…it’s all there, packed into one little quip, funny for many different reasons depending on your view. If you’re offended, he’s okay with at, he just asks that you dig a little deeper into your own reasons as to why, then cross-reference that to see if maybe he might have been making your original point for you in a counter-intuitive way. That’s comedy’s job: address pain in ways backwards to intellectual lecture.
He inhales social observation deeply and exhales hilarity, even if it sometimes has gusts of irony or darkness that fragile viewers mistake for insensitivity. His bourbon whisky voice and stray dog charm doesn’t work on everybody.
That’s why he’s reluctant to book a tour of Canada, again. His acerbic slices work in the U.K., where there’s a gritty streak remarkably similar to small-town northern B.C., he said. (He’s also spent a lot of time in Burns Lake and Prince George as a tree-planter in between quitting school and starting his rookie auditions and open-mic attempts.)
“One of these days I’m going to come back to Quesnel. It would be weird. I’ve never done a show there, since I’ve been in the U.K., but the last show I did in Canada before moving over here was at the Cariboo Hotel. Here’s the thing, though. I’ve told you a lot, here, about my sense of humour. I did a couple of shows in Ontario and they… they didn’t really go for it. I don’t know if, on the whole, Canadians will go for it. My hometown might. Quesnel might.”
He has been so caustic and his bits and specials circulated so widely on platforms like YouTube, that he doesn’t fear cancel culture, but he doesn’t relish a lukewarm reception by an unprepared audience, and he has had his share of disgruntled fans confront him about his content. He belly-laughs about one online troll who criticized his “subject matter” which pleased him greatly.
“Someone thinks me talking about anal beads is ‘subject matter,’” he chortles. “I’ll laugh at the most ridiculous things. And one minute I’ll be having the deepest thoughts and be talking about school shootings, and the next minute I’ll be talking about being banged by my wife with a strap-on. I stopped trying to differentiate between them. There’s funniness in all of it: intellectual, ridiculous. There’s no rule about what someone will laugh at. There’s funny everywhere you look. Every subject has all the sides to it you can imagine, and that includes a funny side.”
All comedians are jokers in a dangerous time, these days. Stade is worried about new comics trying to break into the profession, today, because of the backlash that could flare up, depending on how a joke might be received. And unlike music or theatre, this is one form of live performance that has no university training. There is no comicademy. He got taken under the wing of other comedians like J.P. Mass, Craig Campbell, Mike Bullard, and Frankie Boyle. He did the same for Prince George’s late, great standup comic Matt Billon. He palled around early in his career with the likes of Russell Peters and Terrace’s Ian Bagg.
He has performed, in his stellar touring career, in far-flung places like China, Dubai, India, South Africa, for American troops in Iraq, four times for British troops in Afghanistan. And again, the caution filter was disconnected, as he ignored the stages safely dug into positions far back from the action. He was only the second standup comedian (the first was Phil Butler) to perform at the front lines when it was an active war zone.
Stade considers his career in an ideal rhythm, at this point. “Over the years I’ve created this beautiful migration pattern, like the elephants on the Serengeti,” he said, and the U.K. is a place where the population is so densely packed that it is easy for a good comedian to do enough gigs to earn a solid living, in a culture that appreciates it as a profession.
It helps a lot, he said, that he built his gig muscles driving across multiple Canadian and American borders every day to get to the next show. Gigging in the U.K. is comparatively easy.
“They think a four-hour train ride from London to Scotland is a long way. In B.C., you can’t even get from Kitsilano to Hope in four hours, some days,” he laughed. Plus, he saw it as stupidity to spend London real estate prices when he could live in a much cheaper town and still easily get everywhere his career wended.
“I’m not a status monkey, I’m just not,” he said. “The only reason we (his family) survived that lockdown was because of that mentality. Could you imagine having your million-dollar home, but suddenly you couldn’t have your million-dollar gigs? You’d be Willie Nelson right now. And there was a lot of ‘em that happened to. You think you’re rich, but you’re only rich till you can’t gig all of a sudden. Then you’re screwed.”
He’s having a fun and fulfilling career, he said, because of all the Quesnel he packed in his mental luggage. Ok, true, maybe some of it is considered baggage, but who doesn’t have to carry some of that, and a lot of it for Tom Stade was comedy gold.