It’s hard to find a comedian quite like Elvira Kurt. Perhaps best known in the States for her painfully hilarious insights about growing up as the gay daughter of Hungarian immigrants in her native Toronto, she is also a seasoned television personality with a unique knack for bringing audiences directly into her equally unique world.
Not only is the stand-up veteran a cheeky performer with all the right resume highlights – the tours, the films, the television, the Second City stint – she’s also a vocal advocate for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and a seasoned performer of Eve Ensler’s iconic ode to every-women’s “down-there,” The Vagina Monologues. With a recent appearance at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival and an ongoing gig as a Canadian TV superstar, the Canuck-of-all-trades checked in with Punchline Magazine to wax philosophic about performing, feminism, and dying with a bit of sushi on her plate.
So what stage of development is your career in right now?
I would describe it as…ongoing! I’m always working. I feel like I’m someone who has not been able to enjoy any kind of success, so I would say that professionally I’m doing everything that I want to be doing. And on a personal level, I’m trying to appreciate that. In the past, I used to think that I was never doing enough, and that’s what happens when you spend most of your life looking forward instead of living in the present. I feel like I’m trying to enjoy what I’m doing and what I’ve done, and I feel like that’s successful; it all depends on how you measure it.
There was a time where I was definitely living my life, thinking that I had to be incredibly successful, but then when that’s all I was doing, it felt like I was missing everything else. I neglected all my relationships, not just romantic relationships but even with friends. That was all I was doing; I moved to Los Angeles and since I didn’t know anyone there, I was thinking about my career. It’s not much if all you have is your professional success, right? It may seem like a lot, but in the end I was incredibly lonely and unhappy and working more than I had in my entire life; that wasn’t doing it for me.
So you’re taking a Devil Wears Prada approach – in that, like the heroine from the book, who became so career-focused she forgot who she was – to where your career is right now?
Sure, let’s go with that! [Laughs]. I think that you get smarter as you get older, and I’d like to think that I’m on par with some of my colleagues in the field right now.
How has your tenure with Second City affected the role that comedy plays in the outlook of your life?
I don’t know that it changed my outlook. I gained an appreciation for collaboration, which I hadn’t done much of before. It was an awesome experience to be a part of a gang or a troupe, so it was a great experience in that sense. In that type of comedy, you get to flex a completely different muscle, and in sketch work even more. When I do my stand-up, I tend to because, you know, I’m not very disciplined, I have to make every show interesting to me. I never try to find the perfect way of saying something and try to mess with the formula, but when you do sketch, it has to be done the same way, every night, but still keep[ing] it fresh every time.
It’s an incredible thing to watch people who are really good at it, too. I admire it whenever I see someone who works in a completely different style then me – Kathleen Madigan, for instance. She can do the same set several different times and it sounds like the first time, every single time. I would give anything to be able to do that.
Is Kathleen a friend of yours?
Yeah, yeah. Colleague for sure, yeah.
You’ve worked in both the writing and performing fields of comedy. Do you prefer one over the other?
There’s nothing like performing. It’s immediate gratification, and an immediate barometer of what you’re doing. So I love it; I don’t know that I could ever not do it. But writing is difficult for me; it’s something that I really labor at, and that’s almost why I like stand-up better, because I can’t agonize over the best way to convey an idea. It’s however it comes out, and…good luck. But with writing, like I said, it’s very laborious for me, but it’s immensely gratifying when I can finally walk away [from an idea].
That’s something I try to do every time I write something: learn when to walk away and accept that something’s good enough. I think it’s unhelpful to have an insane need or standard to perfect something, and I think that things at a certain point are great the way they are. I understand it intellectually, but I’m not able to do it that well.
What sorts of lessons have you learned from performing in The Vagina Monologues?
To be respectful of someone else’s writing. You really have to honor someone else’s work, and do the best job you can with it; do that very thing, and then do it again the next night, and make it seem fresh. I think that was a huge lesson to learn, and it was interesting the first time I did it. There was a span between the first and second times I did it. The second time doing the work I felt like I’d learned more about acting. It was almost from having that time in between, I felt like I was able to do it even better to my own standard, and I guess the director was quite happy with it. And that was unexpected. I didn’t think that I could improve. There’s a growing period an actor has that I never really as a stand-up. But [in The Vagina Monologues], where the material was actually consistent, I got to see some improvement, and that was pretty cool.
How do you prepare for each role?
Honestly, it’s not really something that I put a lot of thought into. I suppose I familiarize myself with the work and get to know whoever the director is; you sort of rely on them to steer you in the direction that you either are already in or to help you change your thinking and reshape it into their vision.
What drew you to performing The Vagina Monologues at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, in particular?
Well, initially it was a gig, so, you know, a job’s a job. But I didn’t imagine that it would be a life-changing experience – to go to the Michigan Womyn’s Festival is to experience what a community is like that is wholly woman-focused or woman-centric. It is indescribable: you either have to go or, when you talk about it, you just sound like one who’s a fanatic. I went the first year, and I’ve been back every year since. It’s somewhere that I feel like I need to go in order to feel right; I can’t think of a better way to describe it, and that’s something that I do both personally and professionally.
How much of your comedy is influenced by feminism?
I think that I just experience the world as a feminist, so I don’t really know how to answer that question. How does it influence me? It’s one of the filters through which I perceive the world, so, you know, everything strikes me in a certain way. It’s neither mainstream nor is it always hetero-normative to move through the world this way, you know, as a feminist. It’s just the way that I am, and I feel that I appreciate the challenge that it poses – to always be questioning, to always be feeling like things aren’t necessarily the way they should be, or could be.
Do you see the LGBT rights movement playing a role in the upcoming Presidential election as much as it did in 2004?
You know, I wish I followed American politics more closely. I have the luxury – as a Canadian – of being able to keep it at arm’s length. I think it’s weird that it’s such a big cultural issue, and a part of these culture wars. As a Canadian, I always approach it with a bit of shaking of the head at why it has to be such a polarizing issue, and why it’s so fraught with these big emotions. In Canada, it’s not that [homosexuality is] necessarily more acceptable, but I think that the way Canadians are different from Americans is that there isn’t this huge, vicious component attached to the issue. Whether you’re queer or not, I think people just think it’s wrong or it’s right, but there’s not the same sense, as you have in America, that it’s an abomination against God and the state and the “me” personally.
That’s the difference: I think people here either agree with it or they don’t; they either hate you or they don’t, but it doesn’t affect them personally, like nobody makes it as personal as it is in the States. In America, it seems like people are actually invested in whether you are or you aren’t, and it feels incredibly repressed to me, and you always have to wonder if someone so vehemently opposes it that, you know, what is it that they’re hiding? What’s with the little buttons that they’re pushing?
So, I don’t know, will it be as much of an issue? I hope not, but, you know, what will there be in its place? That remains to be seen, but I think you guys have a lot more to worry about; I think the worldwide standing of the US is in trouble, regardless of whether queers can get married or not. Wouldn’t you care more about that? As an American, the fact that you can’t travel abroad without pretending you’re Canadian, isn’t that embarrassing?
Your online resume says that you’re an accomplished figure skater. Is that something of a prerequisite for being Canadian?
Yes! I think that many a Canuck would be embarrassed to admit that they don’t skate, or do not know how to skate. I know a few, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t announce it with some sort of shame. I think yes, it’s something that you have to do or, you know, you’re pretty miserable in the winter.
Twenty years from now, what is the name Elvira Kurt going to mean to the world?
I don’t care what it means to the rest of the world. I hope that people within my community and my family will remember me as an awesome parent and a really great friend— a decent person. ‘She was the one who cared about other people in her community.’ I love to do this and I love to make this type of art, and I hope people enjoy it, but I don’t worry about what kind of effect it’s going to have, do you know what I mean? I can’t control it.
I love cleaning; one of the ways that I sort of recharge myself is to give the house a good vacuuming. I’d just gotten back from a huge comedy festival in Montreal, and it’s very competitive: you’re always comparing yourself to other comics and I agonize while I’m there and I never feel as good about myself as I do in other places, so it’s a really tough thing. I was processing that while I was cleaning today, and I was thinking about if I would ever want to be so famous that I would play in a giant hockey rink, or Madison Square Garden, and I, personally, wouldn’t go see comedy there. I would much prefer to find some hidden treasure, in an out of the way place; that would be more the way that I enjoy experiencing comedy.
That’s the beauty of any kind of performance, in that not everyone likes what you’re doing, that’s why there’s so many people doing it. Everyone’s going to like a certain kind of comedy – a certain performer or a certain style – and I used to be obsessed with wanting to be the best person on a show, or wanting to be the audience’s favorite but that’s not realistic. That’s addressing more of a neuroses rather than something that’s actually possible as a performer.
I wouldn’t go and see somebody where I had to be part of 30,000 people to watch somebody; that wouldn’t do it for me. I’d rather have somebody say, ‘You know, I saw this amazing performer you’ve got to go see. They perform every weekend at this dive.’ And that would be awesome. I’m so lucky that this is what I get to do for a living; I make a living doing this, and if I get to do that and still have a family and be a good friend to people, that’s the biggest reward.
For more info, check out ElviraKurt.com.