It's one of those odd circumstances when a person's last name also describes his career momentum.
Of course, his name could just as appropriately be Mark Upward. Or Mark Onward. Just as long as the moniker meant things are headed very much in a positive direction.
Forward, currently one of Canadian comedy's hottest properties (thanks to a co-starring role on the CBC comedy Mr. D and a recent appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson), is making his first visit to the Winnipeg Comedy Festival and will appear in a handful of shows, including the Saturday (April 13) early gala, High School Confidential, the always-edgy Dark and Stormy Show (April 13) and a headlining gig at Rumor's Comedy Club (April 12).
Forward is no stranger to the comedy-festival environment. A regular presence at both Just For Laughs and the Ha!ifax Comedy Festival, the Oakville, Ont., native actually received his first big showbiz break in Montreal when he won the 2006 Homegrown Comic Competition.
"It was a huge accomplishment," he explains. "(Just For Laughs) had been a goal for me, and getting there made me feel like I was doing something right. And to win the Homegrown was an honour. You don't get many moments in a standup career when you get that kind of affirmation. I had been working hard (at comedy), but until you go to something like that and stand amongst the people you admire, you haven't really arrived. It made me feel like a comic, where before I had been dabbling in comedy."
By signing on for the Winnipeg festival, however, Forward has accepted the somewhat unique challenge of preparing material for one of the event's signature themed galas, which often require the creation of all-new material to suit the show's topic.
Given Forward's decidedly skewed comic sensibility and slightly off-balance stage persona, it wasn't just a matter of rejigging a few old jokes to fit the format.
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"It's quite a bit of work, actually," he says, "because I didn't want to just write jokes about high school; I also wanted to keep them in my comedic voice. It was a lot of writing, and a lot of going back to open-mike nights that I haven't been to in a while. But it's been interesting, and fun."
Forward says it took a few years of getting up onstage regularly for him to find the voice that would ultimately become his comic identity. It really was, he adds, a case of lots of trial and even more error.
"I think most comedians probably start in the wrong place, by trying to emulate the people they liked and who inspired them to become a comedian," he explains. "Eventually, you realize, 'I'm not that person,' and you have to find your own voice. It can take years and years of continuing to do it, and then one day you wake up and go, 'Oh, that's the guy I want to me.' And then it becomes so clear, and when you're writing jokes you just know -- 'No, that's not me.' It might be the funniest joke you've ever written, but it doesn't fit.
"It's actually a nicer place to be.... I think I was writing for everyone else when I first started, and then I realized that I needed to write what I would laugh at, because then it would come from a truer place. It's almost like you have that 'Aha!' moment and then you look at your act and you go, 'Well, there goes half of it -- I've got half an hour, but I've only got 15 minutes that's really me.'"
Standup comedy, in fact, wasn't Forward's first calling. He started out in theatre, doing mostly serious plays, but soon decided that there had to be another outlet for his creative urges.
"I was doing live theatre in Toronto, but it just wasn't where I was supposed to be," he recalls. "I didn't fit it in. So I quit, and I was bartending at a comedy club (Toronto's now-defunct Laugh Resort), and I got really interested. I had always been drawn to the comedic stuff in theatre, so it was just the right place."
Since establishing himself as comedy performer, Forward has landed a couple of high-profile gigs writing for other comics' television projects -- first on The Jon Dore Television Show, and more recently, as a writer and actor on Mr. D.
"At first, it's a real shot to the ego, because as a comic, whatever you write gets into the show," he says. "Writing for other people, you have to be willing to fail, and you can't take it to heart if your stuff doesn't get used. Your job is to be an idea machine."
Working alongside Dee has proved to be a great education, Forward explains, because the Mr. D creator's determination and organization are fairly unique properties for a comedian to have.
"He's a great businessman, which a lot of comics aren't," he says. "In Canada, most comics seem to frown upon the idea of self-promotion. I don't know who they think is going to promote them better than themselves.
"There's more to it than telling jokes and being funny, and Gerry has really helped me to understand that I have to take control of my own career, because no one else is going to do it for me."
Forward. Onward. Upward.
You can sample Mark Forward's comedy at www.markforward.com.
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