“I set out to write a show that feels Canadian and makes me happy”: A Q&A with comedian D. J. Demers

“I set out to write a show that feels Canadian and makes me happy”: A Q&A with comedian D. J. Demers

In his new CBC show, One More Time, D. J. Demers stars as the manager of a sporting goods store. We spoke to him about representing disability on screen, his Tonight Show appearance and bombing onstage

Comedian DJ Demers in One More Time on CBC
Photos courtesy of the CBC

When the pandemic put his stand-up career on ice, Kitchener-born comedian D. J. Demers wrote the sitcom he’d long intended to create. In One More Time, premiering January 9 on CBC, Demers plays a semi-heightened version of himself, starring as the manager of a sporting goods store who, like Demers, is hard of hearing. “First and foremost, we wanted to make a show that’s funny,” Demers says of portraying disability on prime time. “We don’t treat disability with kid gloves.” Here, Demers explains why comedy is not an ego trip (even after killing it on The Tonight Show) and what it was like getting boner jokes past Canada’s national broadcaster.

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I watched your recent gig on The Tonight Show. At one point you say, “I’m really bad at being deaf.” Care to elaborate?
Being hard of hearing, I’m between two worlds. I grew up in a hearing family, so I never learned sign language. For the most part, I was treated like a hearing person, so I never felt fully deaf, but I also wore hearing aids starting at age four, so I would miss things in class or on the playground. I had no idea that there are all of these different deaf communities, but the longer I’ve been doing comedy, the more capital-D Deaf people have come out to see my shows. A lot of the hard-of-hearing community can relate to what I’m saying. Like, if someone overstates my deafness, I think, I’m really not—it’s no big deal. But then if someone understates it, I’m like, No, man, I’m really deaf.

Have you always been funny?
I wasn’t a class clown, but I definitely always liked making people laugh: my mom, my classmates. I knew that, if teachers thought I was funny, they would call on me. I’ve always loved getting up in front of people and speaking. I did speech competitions every year, and I was class valedictorian in elementary and high school. 

A career in comedy is a rare thing. Did you have a backup plan?
I got a business degree from Laurier, but even then I was doing open mic nights. When I finished school, I moved to Toronto and started doing stand-up every night. I’d read a bunch of books by comedians in New York and LA, and the advice was always the same: you just need to get out there and do it and keep doing it. I loved that romantic idea, and I was just young and dumb enough not to worry about the money or the lack of stability. I had just enough delusion to dive in and commit, and I absolutely loved it. 

Every comic remembers their bomb. Did you experience that coming up?
Oh sure, and it’s not like that’s in the rear-view now just because I’ve had some success. I performed at a big venue in Austin in December, and there were maybe 12 people in the audience. In Houston, there were 11. That was after doing The Tonight Show. I never expect a full house. I’m sure my agents would prefer if I had more of them, but any time I perform, I have a good time and I learn something—even if it’s a bad set. Mind you, this is me speaking philosophically—in the moment, it’s no fun. Any real comedian has thought of quitting. That’s part of it. 

You mentioned The Tonight Show. Was that a big turning point?
Definitely. After that, I pitched my show to the CBC, and I’m sure the fact that I’d just done a decent set on Jimmy Fallon didn’t hurt my chances. It was my first late-night appearance coming out of the pandemic, so it was also amazing to be back at it. 

Did you pitch a bunch of show ideas to the CBC?
No, just the show we ended up making. I’ve had other ideas in the past, but during the pandemic I felt like, If I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it. I said, “I’m going to write a show that feels Canadian and makes me happy and is something I could see being on the CBC.” If you believe in the powers of manifestation, this is a pretty good example.

What do you mean when you say “feels Canadian”?
I guess I mean warm and a bit nostalgic. The show is set in the present day, but I was very inspired by the era that I grew up in. I see that time of being a teenager in Ontario through rose-coloured glasses. 

The cast of One More Time, a new comedy on CBC created by DJ Demers

Your character, D. J., has been described as a “heightened version” of yourself. How heightened?
It’s funny because the more we shot, the more we thought, I don’t know if he is that heightened—he may just be me. Maybe he’s slightly more naive, but even that’s debatable. D. J. on the show is a really idealistic guy who wants to see the best in everybody and believes in the power of community, and that’s me too. I did work at a used sporting goods store in high school, and I remember those days fondly. On the show, I’m also a retired NHL player. I played hockey growing up, but never pro, so that’s one difference—although in the writers room, apparently people thought I had played pro. I’ll take that as a compliment. 

There’s a lot of raunchy humour in the show. Any trouble getting boner jokes past corporate?
The CBC has been really great. They’ve been on board with—maybe not all—but most of our jokes. I think it’s a balance. If you’re going to do a raunchy joke, you need to make sure there’s heart and an emotional arc. You know, the old emotion–boner joke balance. 

Is there a particular message or perspective that informs the way you present disability on the show?
First and foremost, we’re trying to make a funny show, and we don’t treat disability with kid gloves. I have a bit about how, when it comes to portrayals of disability in pop culture, they’re either inspirational or really sad and pitiable. I think it’s cool just to see people with disabilities living normal lives. 

You’re also a new dad. Has that played a role in your comedy?
Oh, for sure. My latest stand-up material is all about my wife’s and my experience with IVF, because that’s what’s going on in my life and there’s a lot of humour to be mined. Being a dad is the best. We are totally in love with this little person who has made our lives so much better. 

What do you do to make your kid laugh?
My wife is the one he thinks is hilarious. She’ll hide behind a blanket and he’ll laugh so hard, and then I’ll do the same thing and he gives me the stone face. I play him clips of my Tonight Show gig and he just doesn’t care.