Interview: Comedian Pardis Parker

It’s not often a sight like this comes along. The birth of a new era: the inception of an interview. Here to celebrate it is comedian Pardis Parker.

Q: You were born in a Sri Lankan rainforest atop a mountain’s peak. That’s a pretty epic birth story. Have you ever revisited your birthplace? Do you think your birth foreshadowed your lifetime of adventures?

A: Of course it did. The first thing I saw when I was born was a lush valley filled with tropical fruit and ceremonial elephants. If that’s your starting point, you tend to feel as if you’re missing out on something when you’re surrounded by strip malls and parking lots in the middle of a Canadian February. I’ve only been back to Sri Lanka once, and I actually had an opportunity to visit Kandy, the town where I was born. It’s gorgeous. Postcard beautiful. If you’ve never heard of it, Google it. Then visit it. In that order. It makes it way easier to plan.

Q: You’ve traveled around the world, working and volunteering in places like Australia, Guadeloupe, and the Solomon Islands. What inspired you to travel to those specific places and what kind of work did you perform there?

A: I thought it’d be a good idea to get out of my comfort zone, so I decided to volunteer with the Baha’i community in Australia. Within a day of arriving I realized that Australia was not at all the type of place I needed or wanted to be in (it was just a warmer version of Canada), so I immediately started looking for another country to move on to. At the time, I desperately wanted to live and work in a place where I would be tested – pushed to my physical and emotional limits – so I narrowed my choices down to a few African countries, a couple of places in Southeast Asia, an Arctic outpost somewhere in northern Scandinavia, and a number of neighboring Pacific Islands. I finally decided on the Solomon Islands because it was the least developed country that I had access to and gave me the best opportunity to live outside the sphere of physical comforts I had grown accustomed to. It was exactly what I had been looking for – I spent more days in awe of the world around me than not. I lived and worked deep in the bush, both in the highlands and on the coast, until the Australian Air Force evacuated me on one their Hercules jets in the wake of the country’s military coup and in the midst of heavy fighting between warring militias. The country was on the brink of civil war before I went, and things only got worse after I got there. I’m fairly certain my arrival had nothing to do with it.

Q: Do you think there is a direct link between comedy and political activism, or the notion of changing society for the better?

A: I don’t know, but it seems as if we want and expect to hear the truth from our best comedians, and that their frank discussion of the true nature of our reality can lead to, at the very least, a change in perspective.

Q: How much of your award-winning 2008 short film Afghan is based on personal experience?

A lot of it is. You can only be angry for so long. At some point you need to come up with more creative ways of responding.

Q: Do you think that humor is necessary to overcome the hardships of reality?

I think perspective is, and I think humour is a great way of giving people a new perspective.

Q: How much influence does your race and unique life story have on your stand-up?

Dunno. I try to find humour in whatever happens to be on my mind. When I first started out, a lot of what I discussed was race-related. And
it was a good thing. It was cathartic. I got a lot off my chest. Now there are other things on my mind that I feel a need to talk about. It’d be boring to talk about the same thing over and over again.

Q: What is it like to balance between stand-up comedian and serious filmmaker?

It’s great. I take a break from one to do the other. So even when I’m working I’m really just taking a break. And really, at the end of the day, there isn’t much difference between the two. Your task in both is to connect with your audience and to present your thoughts and ideas in a way that engages them.

Q: I used to live near a beautiful Bahai Temple. How long have you been Bahai, and how does it affect your day to day life? How does being Bahai affect your personal philosophy as a filmmaker and comedian?

I’ve been a Baha’i my whole life, so it’s tough to know how being a Baha’i affects my approach to my work. One thing I can say for certain
is that it forces me to hold my work to a higher standard.

Q: Explain the events surrounding the time you were airlifted to safety after a military coup.

I was in the Solomons, deep inland, in the tropical mountaintops of the island of Malaita. While walking through a village I randomly overheard a villager listening to the BBC World News on a battery-powered radio. It was my first contact with the outside world in weeks and I desperately wanted to know what was happening in the NBA playoffs, so I stopped to listen.By dumb luck I happened to catch the world update, which included a news flash about the military coup in the Solomons, on the main island of Guadalcanal. According to the report, the country’s Prime Minister had been kidnapped by a rebel group and the police armory had been raided. The government had no leader and no weapons. The rebels had taken control.

Here I was, INSIDE the Solomons, and I was learning about what was happening on a neighboring island via a tinny radio report from some British dude who was sitting thousands of miles away. The most alarming piece of information was that all commercial flights into and out of the country had ceased because all the fighting between the militias was happening around the airport. This meant that there was a good chance that I’d be stuck in the Solomons until the situation was resolved and the airlines resumed their service, which, at this stage, seemed unlikely to happen within any sort of meaningful time frame. Since this was the last access I’d have to a radio until I returned to Guadalcanal, I decided to head back to Honiara, the capital, and figure out what to do from there.

It took two weeks to return, and the town was in a state of chaos when I arrived. The New Zealand Navy had sent a warship to the harbor to evacuate expats, there was a run on banks with everyone trying to extract whatever money they could from their accounts, and entire families and their possessions were piled high on the backs of flatbed trucks headed for the wharf. I headed straight for the Australian High Commission, a small hole in the wall that resembled the waiting room at a dentist’s office, and found out that the Australian Air Force had been evacuating expats on behalf of Commonwealth countries. I arrived in time to get a spot on the last plane leaving the country before the airport was shut down. If I had arrived a few hours later, I would have been forced to escape the country on my own, with one backpack and an empty packet of Mr. Noodles to my name (a rat chewed through my backpack in three places while I was sleeping to eat the packet of dry noodles…I wasn’t impressed).

So I headed to the airport, the gunfire getting louder as we got closer. The rumors had started circulating that the rebels were going to shoot down one of the Aussie planes. No one really believed they’d be stupid enough to pick a fight with Australia, but all it takes is one idiot to do something stupid, and there’s never any shortage of those. So we watched, terrified, as our Hercules landed then quickly swung around to take off again. The New Zealand forces had taken control of the airport and were in charge of getting us onto the plane alive. We were escorted to the edge of the tarmac, took cover against a wall to avoid getting caught in any crossfire, and when the plane’s cargo door opened fully, the troops flanked our line and quickly filed us into the plane, where we were given a pack of grape juice and a box of animal crackers as we strapped ourselves into the cargo nets that would serve as our seats for the four hour flight to Australia.

At this stage, we still didn’t know what city we were being flown to. The Aussies were willing to get us back to the Commonwealth, but precisely where in the Commonwealth was of little concern to them. We touched down in Townsville, a town built around an Aussie Air Force base in the middle of nowhere, and an emergency response unit greeted us, fed us, and debriefed us…and then told us we were on our own. The government’s role was over – they got us out of the fighting in one piece.

Luckily, I was able to stay with a local Baha’i family until I could make my way to Sydney. Once there, I met up with a family member and we went out to McDonald’s for a chocolate milkshake, which seemed like an appropriately symbolic way of reassimilating into the West, but which really only served to remind me of what I was giving up to escape back to the life I had known. It was the little things I experienced, those things that created such rich memories, that I began missing immediately. A papaya that grows ripe on the tree, that you pick as you hike through the thick of a tropical rainforest, and that you peel with the same machete you’re using to clear your path. A young coconut that a 5 year old kid eagerly climbs a 100 foot tall coconut tree to retrieve for you, that you use wooden stakes to remove the husk of, and from which you drink every last drop of coconut water before it’s sliced open so you can scoop out the soft, sweet coconut meat inside with the makeshift spoon you’ve fashioned out of a piece of that coconut’s own husk. A blowfish that you eat after carefully removing the poisonous parts, and from which you take the stomach to inflate and use as a soccer ball when you play barefoot on the beach, with tree branch goal posts, before the tide comes in.

Part of me was happy that I was escaping the Solomons in time to catch the conclusion of the playoffs, but as I sat in front of the big screen TV at an Australian sports bar, the last game of the Finals barely keeping my interest, I had a hard time believing or even understanding why I had felt that way.

Q: How did you contract malaria, and how badly sick were you?

Again, this was one of the perks of living in the Solomons. I don’t know how I actually got malaria, but I found out that I had it because I randomly decided to tag along when a villager took his infected infant to the closest medical clinic (several hours away by foot). I immediately began taking medication, before I had even experienced any symptoms, but I still ended up being bed-ridden for a week – if I moved my head too quickly my vision would be shakey for a minute or two, I completely lost my appetite, I was constantly nauseous, and the experience was compounded by my physical surroundings: I was in a coastal village on the southwest corner of Malaita, staying with a family in a bamboo hut with walls and a roof made from sago palm leaves. The hut was raised on wooden beams to guard against flooding, and every morning around 3am the family’s pigs would start squealing at full volume and running back and forth directly underneath me. Then the family’s roosters would start cockledoodledooing well before the appointed hour, which left me wondering if they had any clue what their one appointed job in nature was. Then the family’s kids would get up at sunrise and start playing on the opposite side of the palm leaf wall, on the same extended pieces of bamboo used for the floor that I was sleeping on in the adjoining room. I believe their favorite game was called “jump and scream.” Hasbro’s coming out with a Lord of the Rings edition – same classic game, now with more annoying.

Q: What was it like to run your own health food store? How did that fit in with your life as an activist / performer / filmmaker?

It was painful. It was four years of my life that I’ll never get back. The only thing I ever want to do and have ever wanted to do is what I’m doing now. I’m grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity to do what I love.

Q: Does your college computer science / philosophy major come in handy in the world of comedy / filmmaking?

All your undergrad does is teach you how to think. So I guess indirectly it’s been beneficial. Right?

Q: There are a lot of funny Canadian comedians. Do you think there is a comedic advantage in being Canadian? How do people worldwide respond to Canadians, generally?

I don’t know. There must be, though. We’ve produced some of the best writers and performers of the last few decades. Maybe we know how cold it is in Canada and really just don’t want to take Hollywood for granted? We’re also universally amazing. So maybe that helps, too? Yeah. A combination of not wanting to take Hollywood for granted, and being universally amazing. Makes sense, I think.

Q: You and I have both performed at my favorite comedy venue, Caroline’s on Broadway. What has been your favorite performance to date? Any other memorable ones? When did you perform at Carnegie Hall, and what was the experience like? Any memorable bombs worth sharing?

My favorite club is the Comedy Store at Piccadilly Circus in London. Great venue, great staff, great comics, and great, great crowds. After that, the stage I feel most comfortable on is my home club in Halifax. I performed at Carnegie Hall as a member of a 550 person choir because my girlfriend at the time was a choir member and they needed more male voices. So I auditioned at her urging and miraculously got selected, only to find out afterward that she had been cheating on me. But it was an opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, so I went through with it, anyway, and chose to eat all of my meals at Gray’s Papaya. That’s not important to the story, but their hot dogs are AMAZING. As it turns out, it’s better not to eat hot dogs exclusively for three meals a day over the span of a week. At some point, your body decides it only wants to accept meat it can actually identify.

Q: We both admire Louis CK, Dave Chapelle, and Harland Williams. What do you find inspiring about their comedy?

CK and Chappelle are both crazy smart, extremely honest, and excellent writers, and both have wildly different yet simultaneously perfect
delivery. And they’ve both been the funniest people in the world at some point in their careers (I think CK has held that title for the last two to three years). Harland Williams’ Just For Laughs phone sex joke from the mid 90’s is one of the first things that got me interested in comedy when I was growing up. I taped that set (to VHS, kids), and convinced my teacher to play it for my class at school. Jeremy Hotz’ bit about Pez and Astro Boy was on that tape, too. Those were the jokes that I couldn’t get enough of when I was growing up, and made me develop a love for comedy.

Q: How is your Bollywood musical project for Bravo coming?

I want to shoot it in Halifax, but the film industry is booming here this summer and it’s been tough to put together the crew I want to have because there are always at least a few key pieces missing. The shoot keeps getting pushed as a result, but it looks like there might be a window where no one is committed coming up in August. Cross your fingers.

Q: How does it feel to have been nominated for four Canadian Comedy Awards?

It’s cool to be listed among the rest of the nominees.

Q: Are there any other details about upcoming projects or your life that you would like your audience to know about? Any final thoughts or words of advice to other filmmakers and comedians?

I’ve got that new digital short, Implants, that I’m doing a final sound mix on. It was shot with the very talented Evany Rosen, and should be online sometime this week.

I’ve got a new web series premiering on called Moderation Town. It was just named runner-up on the 2010 Digital Hot List and it’s premiering on the 9th. Plus I’m shooting a guest star role on a new sitcom for Showcase called Single White Spenny that’s premiering next year. And I’ve got that supporting role in Snow, which is just circulating to film festivals right now.