Being funny saved Paul Rabliauskas's life.
As a poor kid from the rez who nearly fell victim to inner-city temptations, didn't graduate high school until he was 25 and once considered taking a full-time job back at Poplar River First Nation, there were a whole lot of worse ways this could have turned out.
"Everything good that's going on in my life is because of me getting into comedy," says Rabliauskas, 29, whose current status as one of Winnipeg's brightest young comic talents has earned him a busy performing schedule during this year's Winnipeg Comedy Festival.
In addition to providing the warm-up set at Thursday's Food, Glorious Food gala (April 10 at Pantages Playhouse Theatre, hosted by Sandra Shamas), Rabliauskas performed at Monday night's Kings of King's Head, will host the Size Matters show at the Gas Station Arts Centre (Friday at 10:30 p.m., featuring Sunee Dhaliwal and headliner Tanyalee Davis) and take part in the Sunday (4 p.m., Gas Station) panel discussion Just Kidding? The Limits of Free Speech.
"It's huge to be in the festival; it's an honour," says Rabliauskas. "I don't get a chance to go to other clubs in other cities, so it's a big deal for local comics like me to have the festival here every April. It's something we all look forward to, just for a chance to get into any one of the shows, let alone four of them. I'm thrilled and excited."
Rabliauskas describes his upbringing, which was split between the rez and the city, as difficult but filled with positive role models that kept him from making some of the big mistakes others around him were making.
"We came from a community (Poplar River) that was known for being very poor and lived in a very poor area (of Winnipeg), and I watched a lot of kids my age go off in bad directions," he explains. "But my parents were great -- I had no choice but to stay on the right path."
His parents and a couple of his siblings moved back to the rez when Rabliauskas was 16, but he and his brother chose to remain in the city. Without his parents' influence, the young men struggled.
"I was drinking and partying a lot; I didn't graduate (high school) as soon as I should have," he says. "I was in my early 20s, still bumming around the city and not doing anything, which is why I ended up going back to the rez."
At that point, Rabliauskas says, he had a choice to make: pursue his long-held dream of trying standup comedy, or take a regular job back home.
"I was on the rez and I was thinking about taking a full-time job, and then one night I was looking at (aboriginal comic) Don Burnstick's website and there was something inside me that told me I needed to come to the city and pursue it," he says. "It was almost like a lack of options -- once I started to get into (comedy), it was either stick with this or go back to school for, like, the fifth time."
Rabliauskas's timing was perfect -- his arrival back in Winnipeg to begin his comedy quest just happened to coincide with the rise of the city's now-booming standup scene. Along with other locals such as Ryan Ash, Mike Green, Chantel Marostica, Ben Walker and open-mike organizer John B. Duff, Rabliauskas became part of a comedy renaissance that sees dozens of young funny folk performing at open-mike nights and showcases in various city venues nearly every night of the week.
"It was pretty cool, because we all didn't know what we were doing but we all kind of developed at the same time," says Rabliauskas, whose progress as a comedian also landed him a day job as a morning DJ on the former Streetz FM (now Rhythm 104.7). "It was really fun -- not only did we get better together, we also grew to be really close friends."
Rabliauskas is one of several Manitoba comics who will be featured prominently in this year's festival; he considers these comedy shows to be among the most important yet in helping him fulfil his long-term ambition.
"I want to tell jokes, and I want a stage to tell them on," he says. "I'd like to be able to travel and meet my people -- I don't want to be known just as an aboriginal comic, but it would mean a lot to me to be able to travel and perform in front of my people."