This article contains reference to suicide.
I first realized that Vancouver-based comedian and UBC alum Ed Hill was something special when, nine days before I saw him perform at the Vancouver Fringe Festival, he told me that his latest show Stupid Ed would end on a sombre note.
I’d been excited for the show from the start, but hearing him say that threw into question whatever expectations I’d had. I’d seen clips of his work before our interview and found them heartfelt and entertaining. He made history as the first Taiwanese-Canadian comic to release a full special through Comedy Dynamics, and his success is well-deserved.
Most of the stand-up performances I’ve seen, including some of Hill’s earlier material, make a point of saving the best punchline for last and going out on a high. Nothing I’d seen up until then made me think that this show would be any different. Stupid Ed is.
At one point, I warned him, jokingly, that I’m a notoriously difficult person to enjoy stand-up with; as much as I appreciate good comedic storytelling, I don’t laugh easily. His response caught me by surprise.
“I’m not actually going to end on a laugh. I’m ending on a ‘no laugh’,” he told me. “I’ve realized that life doesn’t end on a laugh. Life kind of just carries on to the next moment, so I want to parallel that as much as I can.”
Stupid Ed's origin story
Stupid Ed is a follow-up to Hill’s award-winning special from last year, Candy and Smiley, which derives its title from the names that his parents chose after emigrating to Coquitlam from Taiwan when Hill was ten years old.
Hill has described his previous show as a reflection on his parents and upbringing, his attempts to reject them and ultimately, growing up to understand and accept how they shaped his life.
Self-acceptance is a running theme in Hill’s work that’s given special emphasis in Stupid Ed. The show frames this process through spotlighting his relationships with the women in his life — namely his wife, mother and grandmother — and how they helped him to come to terms with his identity.
“That’s where I really learned self acceptance. To be who I am," said Hill. "In order to love others I’m going to have to learn to love myself.”
The title of the show references a comment made by Hill’s father while he and his wife were visiting his parents. While looking through old photo albums, they happened across pictures featuring a teenage Hill in full goth makeup and dress, evidence of what he describes as “me ruining every family vacation.”
“My dad kind of walks over and he sees it, and he just goes, 'Stupid Ed,' and he walks away,” Hill recounted. “And I realize that’s his acceptance! That’s as much as I’m going to get, and he kind of accepted who I am as a person. And this show is about that. It’s all these different moments in my life that make me who I am.”
Some comedy is no joke
True to his word, Hill doesn’t end Stupid Ed with a laugh, but with an incredibly sincere and devastating admission about attempting suicide. That almost makes it difficult for me to think of the show as stand-up comedy.
Allowing himself that level of vulnerability —especially choosing it as a final impression to leave on his audience — is an incredible risk. While many comics use personal and painful moments as fodder for their craft, choosing to end a show on that rather than offering your audience the catharsis of a punchline is comparatively much less common.
None of this to say that Ed Hill isn’t funny, or that “Stupid Ed” is a melodramatic monologue rather than an effective stand-up. He’s a talented comedian in all respects: his jokes are good, his pacing and delivery are impeccable, and seeing him live, I found myself laughing at a comedy special for the first time in a very long while.
However, the strength of his performance doesn’t lie in one-liners and memorable bits, but in the parts that hurt a little, or hit slightly too close to home; The key theme of Stupid Ed is self-acceptance, and as funny as it can be at times, the show often dwells on Hill’s past feelings of alienation, embarrassment and profound sadness.
It’s in these moments that Hill’s talent and the unique perspectives he brings as a comic are the most apparent, and make him stand out amidst a sea of wisecracking commentators trying to eke out a reaction.
The most effective kind of comedy, in my experience, tends to touch on things that are deeply personal and often very dark. It’s an excellent medium for processing and translating the worst parts of life into entertainment, and can turn what would otherwise be painful into something insightful and entertaining. Ed Hill exemplifies that in a way I’ve never seen.