Well, nobody can say they weren't warned.
When former Winnipegger Kenny Robinson and his comedy cohort Darren Frost bring their double-headliner act to the Winnipeg Comedy Festival this week, the show's title will tell ticket-buyers everything they need to know:
Rank and Vile.
"It's a way of marketing the show so that people know what we're about," Robinson says of the title during a phone interview from his Toronto home. "The problem with comedy in Canada is that it's a lot like a restaurant that puts up a sign that just says, 'Food,' and then people go there and say, 'Oh, I didn't know this was Thai food.' We're trying to make it not so generic.
"We've been doing the show for about a year and a half now, and I think Darren and I are both guys who like to push the edge in our own ways. We complement each other, because our styles are completely different and we never step on the same topic or subject matter. I like to compare it to the way Waylon and Willie used to work together."
Rank and Vile is part of the comedy fest's Friday schedule (8 p.m., Gas Station Arts Centre, tickets $15); Robinson and Frost will also share the stage tonight during XM Radio's Anything Goes with Darren Frost, Dave Martin and Kathleen McGee (9 p.m., Gas Station Arts Centre, tickets $15), alongside Wab Kinew, Paul Rabliauskas, George Westerholm and Jon Dore.
Robinson, 55, has lived in Toronto since 1981, but says he still feels a strong connection to his hometown and is thrilled to be returning this week, which marks the 36th anniversary of his first foray onto a city comedy stage.
"It was in 1977, on (April 8), that I first did standup at the Royal Albert Arms," he recalls. "I started out doing impressions, because that's what I did well as the class clown -- Bogart and Cagney all the dead Warner Bros. stars. Meanwhile, I had discovered Richard Pryor's That N --'s Crazy album and started picking up his other stuff, and in my head, I started thinking, 'I want to bring it like Pryor does.'
"After a few times going onstage, I realized that I really didn't have a very deep library of voices to pull from, so I started going in the direction of edgier material, which made sense because that was the stuff that made me laugh the hardest."
As one might expect, there's a difference between the onstage Kenny -- confrontational, politically irate and decidedly profane -- and the at-home Robinson, who's father to three kids, aged, 22, 13 and 12.
But not all that much.
"They've all seen my stuff," he explains. "They're well-balanced, decent kids, in spite of their father. They've heard me swear, and I guess they've all got mouths on them, too... I guess the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. I got my foul mouth from my mother and my aunt who grew up in the North End.
"My kids grew up with me in this business; they've never known me as anything else. It wasn't like I was an accountant who had always wanted to go up (onstage) and tell jokes with explicit language. They grew up with it. And my mom (who also lives in Toronto) is 83, and she continues to shock and horrify the kids with things that she says."
Since transplanting his act to Toronto, Robinson has appeared at Montreal's Just For Laughs as well as several U.S. comedy festivals; he starred in an episode of CBC's Comics, co-hosted (with Ronnie Edwards) the Gemini Award-nominated special Thick and Thin and founded the Nubian Disciples All-Black Comedy Revue and Toronto's Soul'd Out Comedy Festival.
He made his first local-fest appearance in 2004, taking part in a gala titled Myths, Lies and Maple Leafs, which afforded him the opportunity to step onto the same stage (Pantages Playhouse Theatre) that his singer/dancer father tap-danced across several times during the 1940s and '50s.
But for reasons that continue to confound him, Robinson has never felt an open-arms welcome when it comes to returning to his hometown.
"I don't get to play Winnipeg often enough," he says. "I would love to be a regular at the club (Rumor's) that's in town there, but for whatever reasons, they've chosen for me not to be. And I'd love to be a regular at the festival, the way Mike MacDonald used to do Just For Laughs every year, but it hasn't worked out that way.
"It's like a friend of my mother's once said: 'Try not to warehouse regrets or grudges.' So I'm just happy as hell to be coming back for this -- I'll get to see some old friends, we'll do the shows, and I'll bring back either a Salisbury House wafer pie or a Jeanne's cake for my mom.
"Winnipeg is my home; it's where I started doing standup, and I really wish I was playing there more often than I do."
You can sample Kenny Robinson's comedy at http://wfp.to/tWH.
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