It's perhaps not the most likely path to success, but for rising standup star Dave Merjeje, getting robbed at gunpoint on a Los Angeles street several years ago was the turning point in his career that led to his current position atop the heap of Toronto comedians.
"I got pistol-whipped," he said. "Before that I was generally going from writing jokes to just being myself onstage. Just setup, punchline type stuff. I was battling that, and then after I got robbed I didn't want to waste my time anymore. My big influence is Richard Pryor, and Richard Pryor put everything onstage so I was like 'I got robbed at gunpoint, and I can't take life as a joke anymore.' So I came back to Toronto and started to try and find my voice and be the comic I wanted to be, in essence."
Today, Merheje is one of the stalwarts of Toronto's highly-competitive comedy scene, having performed his high-energy act on some of North America's biggest stages. A proud Lebanese-Canadian, Merheje throws political correctness out the window for his set, riffing on everything from Islamic extremism, his unique family upbringing, to strip clubs, recreational drugs and masturbation. But like most comics will tell you, it took time for him to hone his aggressive onstage presence to what it is now.
Originally from Windsor, Merheje first performance was in a Canada-wide competition organized by Yuk Yuk's to find the country's best new comedian. Unsurprisingly, the then 19-year-old Merheje bombed.
"I lost. I should have lost, I was very new. I think I did my whole act in two minutes, so that was when I officially started," he said. "But I thought you had to be 19 to do comedy to get in bars and stuff, but I didn't know you could bring your parents. I waited until I was 19 and wrote a bunch of jokes on paper, and had my best friend read them. They were just like, scraps of paper in a garbage bag."
After settling in Toronto, Merheje struggled to get gigs, but eventually started to make a name for himself on the local scene not only for his pure raging intensity onstage, but also his DIY approach, producing his own tour, We Ain't Terrorists, with fellow comic Ali Rizvi for several years.
"I couldn't get work about six or seven years, and at the time there was a war in the Middle East and lots of tension in the Arab world," Merheje said. "I would see these shows where (the humour) was so in your face, so I didn't want it to be fluffy. Half of it was trying to get work, and the other half was breaking down stereotypes."
While Merheje has moved away from focusing on his Middle Eastern background in recent years, he still thinks it's important to address some of the misconceptions that audiences have.
"Generally in society we're always wondering what someone's culture is. I kind of put it out there, but mainly for the last little while I don't bring it up unless I talk about my family," he said. "I used to bring it up, and now not that much, but I think it's important. I was born in Canada though, so I'm Canadian first and Lebanese is my heritage. It's important just to let people know that these stereotypes are not all real."
Now, the MTV Live veteran and winner of the Just for Laughs 2011 Homegrown Comedy Award works on channelling his personality onto the stage, improvising a significant portion of his set in lieu of the classic setup and punchline approach.
"The setup-punch (structure) is amazing, but it's just about finding what benefits you the best You don't want to force anything. If it's not you, then it's not you," said Merheje. "It's important to be in the moment, and I try to do that as much as I can onstage. I remember being a kid and we just used to make people laugh, and I just want it to be like that."
Merheje has also employed his improvisational style to good effect with a popular bit called Dear Dave that sees him give sage, on-the-spot advice to audience members looking for a little life coaching. While I'm sure the segment has Abby rolling in her grave, it's a testament to Merheje's razor-sharp comedic instincts and natural ability onstage. It's a result of years spent cutting his teeth on Toronto's cutthroat standup scene, a competitive environment that can be a blessing and a curse for up-and-coming comics, according to Merheje.
"I think the competitiveness is good because it drives you and probably makes you a better comic, so you want to play with people that are on-point," he said. "If you avoid the negative things and focus on work and getting the job done, then none of that garbage and gossip will get in the way."
Dave Merheje plays Maxx Fish as part of their Comedy Rehab night on Wednesday (May 29) at 8 p.m. Edinburgh Fringe Festival alumni Ron Vaudry and Just for Laughs veteran Keven Soldo are also on the bill.
Tickets are $5 and are available online at www.clubzone.com or at the door.