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Ontario comedian brings a cavalcade of characters to comedy fest debut

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Blame it all on the parents. And Carol Burnett.

When asked how she ended up pursuing a comedy career as a performer who does impressions and off-kilter character pieces, Emma Hunter points to her parents' abiding love for Burnett's long-running (1967-78) comedy-variety TV series.

"The concept of the variety show was a very big part of my childhood," she says. "My folks were obsessed with stuff like The Carol Burnett Show. They're both Brits, so I grew up with Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, but what they really loved is that classical, sort of vaudevillian style of entertainment."

Hunter, 28, is bringing her unique set of talents to the Winnipeg Comedy Festival for the first time, appearing in the late half of the Friday Night (April 12) Super Gala that includes two shows -- Regional Comedy Showdown, hosted by Steve Patterson and featuring Al Rae, Jonny Harris, Martha Chaves and others, and Parent Trap, hosted by Seán Cullen and featuring Hunter, Jon Dore, Kelly Taylor and others.

Given her background, it's pretty safe to say the show's audience will encounter a version of Hunter not at all like the soft-spoken, comfortably focused person giving this interview by telephone from her Toronto home.

"I will be (performing in character)," she says. "I think one the advantages for me is that a show that's theme-based will mostly have standups who will be talking about a topic, and then my little contribution will add some variety to that specific niche. Instead of me talking about my experiences as a mother -- which I'm not -- it'll be through the lens of a character, a celebrity or whatever."

Hunter says she's always had a knack for voices and accents, probably because her extended family is filled with Brits from various parts of the United Kingdom (her mother is English, her father's a Scot, her grandmother is Welsh and her grandfather was from Yorkshire). Her first recollection of getting a laugh by playing a character dates back to the sixth grade, when she broke up her classmates by concocting a comedic version of a Spice Girls-type music star.

"We had to do this project where we were pretending we were CBC News, so I came up with this Spice Girls/Emma Bunton thing with a Cockney accent," she says. "I thought I was just doing an accent, but then I realized that maybe it was a bit different than what an average 11-year-old Canadian might do. And I remember thinking, 'Maybe I should do that more often.'

"When I was in Toronto auditioning as an actor, I always hoped that whatever the part was would have an accent -- you know, a Russian spy or a Cockney gangster chick; anything that would give me a leg up over the others. Acting is such a tough business, and everybody is always looking for a back door in, and for me, (accents) were just a great way to do something that would stand out."

A career in comedy may have been the inevitable outcome, but Hunter travelled a circuitous path before settling on her current direction. She studied dance for a decade ("I eventually decided that dancing behind J. Lo might not be the route I wanted to take," she laughs) and spent three summers performing Shakespeare before deciding to focus on the funny stuff.

"I worked in kind of a repertory company that did two Shakespeare shows in the summertime," she recalls. "It was fantastic, and it really informed the trajectory of what I'm doing now, but I remember having so much fun with the tiny comedic moments inside the Shakespearean text. They're few and far between, but they're so great, and when that moment arrived and the audience laughed, I remember thinking, 'If I could just focus on this stuff, I bet I would have a good time doing it.'"

After spending time with the Toronto sketch troupe She Said What, Hunter embarked on a solo career that has included TV appearances in such Canadian shows as Insecurity, Match Game, Video on Trial and LA Complex.

The Etobicoke, Ont.-born comic admits to having felt the pull that draws many Canuck performers toward Los Angeles in search of U.S.-network gig, but she insists that there would have to be a pretty solid reason for her to relocate.

"I love being in Canada and working in this business in Canada," she says. "I've always been of the mindset that if somebody (in the U.S.) asks, I'll take a flight, but I'm not going to leave just for the sake of leaving."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 C6

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