Hanging up his skates and putting away his goalie stick to follow his creative aspirations.
For London Ontario’s, Jeff Leeson his dream like many other youngsters from coast to coast in the Great White North, was to lace up his skates for a big showdown on Hockey Night in Canada on a Saturday night.
Leeson enjoyed playing hockey as a youngster and wanted to make it to the ‘show’ playing goalie in the NHL. His backup plan was to become a sports broadcaster and observe the games from the press box and relay the on-ice action for sports viewers.
While still in elementary school, he really took to giving presentations in front of classmates and teachers. Leeson would let his outgoing personality shine, while inserting some comedic element and personable stories into his discussions. All of which were well received.
‘A comedic high’
While in grade eight, Leeson was voted class valedictorian and was given the honour of addressing the whole school, parents and teachers during the formal graduation celebration.
“I still remember this moment vividly even today,” Leeson said. “Just looking around the room, people are cheering, others are still laughing and then getting a stand ovation. All of this attention at only 13 years-old, it was just such a rush. I didn’t really know what the feeling was at the time, but I did know that I wanted to experience it again.”
After this experience, Leeson began to watch stand-up comedy after getting home from school. From Comedy at Club 54 to Just for Laughs, Leeson said he was consumed with the feeling he had while on stage that night and wanted to experience it again.
“From listening to people talk about getting that high from a drug, to being on a roller coaster and climbing that first hill, then you feel it beginning to take off down the hill picking up speed and that sums up how I felt,” Leeson pointed out. “The first laugh I received that night was the roller coaster experience, then I was off and running.”
Leeson had high aspirations, and began looking into amateur shows, with his main goal of performing on a show at Yuk Yuk’s in London, ON. Leeson’s mother had her reservations as she was concerned that it might be intimidating for Jeff at his young age, as she had attended some comedy shows and observed some of the heckling comedians had to deal with during their stand-up performances.
With his mother looking out for her son’s best interests, they brainstormed ideas for him to pursue performing in a more controlled environment. They came up with an idea to utilize an auditorium at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind where she worked.
The venue would enable Leeson and his friends an opportunity to perform in front of an audience that would be supportive and encouraging of the artists.
He continued to perform at 14 years-old and when Leeson turned 19, he began to tour different bars, comedy clubs and other venues, with the blessing of his mom.
Lessons with Leeson
Early in his career, Leeson learned a valuable rule that has stuck with him throughout his 21 years of performing stand-up comedy.
Reviewing his internal checklist, he is quick to note, if you think something is funny, it doesn’t mean it will translate to the audience finding it entertaining too.
The hard part for Leeson and many other stand-up comedians is making the mistake of trying to guess what the audience is going to like and be able to get positive crowd reactions to these jokes.
“Unfortunately, you are just going to have to eat it and own it in front of a bunch of different crowds. It is a part of the learning curve, when it doesn’t work out in front of some of different audiences you perform for,” Leeson said. “As you get more experience, you will learn to adapt and master the delivery of how you are telling the joke to the audience. This part of storytelling makes a huge difference.”
The second important lesson, Leeson explained, is managing expectations for your own individual career.
“You will learn quickly that you don’t travel from comedy club to comedy club, across North America, and then land a role on a television sitcom,” Leeson said. “In order to make it to the huge mainstream level, it takes years of sweat equity before the possibility of making it to the top of the plateau even presents itself.”
The majority of Leeson’s early shows revolved around emulating Jerry Seinfeld, using more of a clean and observational style. Later, Leeson began talking about his family in his performances, as he didn’t have the life experiences other older comedians had to share during their shows.
“I was able to talk about my grandmother, a Scottish woman with a large personality that was very funny,” Leeson said. “There was just a lot there to share with the audience, being able to share some family stories.”
In 2010, Leeson began getting away from much of his pre-planned scripted material.
His comedy touring took him to the U.S. market, into various venues in the Midwest.
When reflecting on his own personal growth as a comedian, a show in Angola, Indiana that Leeson was scheduled to open at became a turning point for him.
Leeson was approached on show night to see if he was up to filling in for the headliner that didn’t show up. He relished the opportunity, but also knew that in his arsenal was 20 minutes of material, and now he needed to come up with 90 minutes to fill in for the ‘missing in action’ headliner.
After being introduced, Leeson had to adjust on the fly. He found himself talking a little faster than normal, thus burning through his go-to-jokes-quicker than usual.
“It was very nerve-racking with no script and lots of time to fill,” Leeson said. “I became more creative while interacting with the audience. I dug a little deeper and found my own niche through utilizing the people in that room. I also shared my experience driving in to town to the death trap motel I was staying at. These were all things that I literally found while in the moment.”
This show began the transition to Leeson’s current style, which concentrates on being more improvisational and making it more personal for the audience.
One of Leeson’s goals is if a few people leave not finding him funny they will still understand that he is creating his show as a personalized experience for those in attendance.
Earlier this year, Leeson along with good friend and fellow comedian, Tige Wright travelled to the west coast of U.S. looking to take the next steps in their comedy careers.
They performed at different venues across the U.S. and met with some potential agents. Leeson filmed a dry bar comedy special in early March and hopes to have the comedy special released in the fall of 2020.
“Overall, I was able to build up a lot of positive momentum just before the world changed,” Leeson said. “I am hopeful that down the road I can follow up with some of the new contacts we made and revisit some different business opportunities in a few months.”