Actor, comedian and Mr. D creator and star Gerry Dee swung by his alma mater yesterday, De La Salle College in Toronto, to address students about the merits of hard work, aspirations, boxing, and being Jim Carrey.
Dee isn't just a graduate of the school either, he actually taught there for a number of years. After doing his time hopping around as a substitute for a variety of Ontario schoolboards, Dee eventually landed a permanent job at De La Salle as a phys-ed teacher and hockey coach.
In 2003, Dee went on sabbatical and decided to take the proverbial plunge, trying his hand at comedy full-time. By 2007, he had secured himself a finalist spot on Last Comic Standing, which helped give him the confidence and clout he needed to approach the CBC with his idea for Mr. D.
While he admits Mr. D is somewhat fictionalized, the premises for the show are largely based on the early experiences he had teaching.
We had a chance to catch up with Gerry at De La Salle, where he spoke to students at length, offering some insight into the work and patience he had to put in as a teacher by day and comedian by night.
On his early days as a comic:
I'd drive to Kitchener and I'd do 5 minutes at a club there for nothing, and drive back [to school] and teach, and I was probably late... There were a lot of days when I doubted it, and wanted to give up, I'm glad I didn't.
On the first time he pitched Mr. D to the CBC:
I [first] took it to the CBC in '07, they quickly said "You know what it's not something we... you know..." That's how hard it is to even get someone to listen. And I went to another network and they passed. I went back to CBC after I did Last Coming Standing, I felt maybe I had a bit of a name, and CBC started the process in '08. So in '08 we shot the first episode of Mr. D, and it wasn't very good. And we handed the episode into the network, we were waiting to see if they would make it a series, and they didn't. I was devastated. In a twist of fate, they called me back, they said "We believe in you and we want to give you another chance", which doesn't happen a lot in television.
On the second time he pitched Mr. D to the CBC:
The second time around I learned a lot. I took over the writing, I wasn't going to let someone else write my story at that time. I said, "If I'm going to do this a second time I'm not going to let the failure of it fall on someone I hardly know." And I took over the writing myself, and we pitched the script and they passed, they didn't even want to shoot the pilot, and that's when I was devastated. Because now I felt the dream had ended. And it felt like, there's nothing worse than having a dream when you feel it's ended.
Dee goes onto explain that the CBC changed their minds shortly thereafter and greenlit the pilot. The rest is sitcom history.
On switching careers at 30:
I walked into [Yuk Yuk's founder] Mark Breslin's office at 30 years old, which is like trying to walk into an NHL team at 30 years old, it's no different, and saying, "I want to play in the NHL." And he looked at me and said, "What do you want to do, you're 30 years old, what do you want to get out of this?" And I said, whether it sounded egotistical or sounded vain, it wasn't my intention, but I said, "I want to be the next Jim Carrey." And what I meant was, that's how big I wanted to be. Now I don't want to be the next Jim Carrey, but I wanted to be that good, and that big.
On the Charity Boxing Match he set up at the school one year, which an upcoming episode of the show is based on:
We tried to decapitate each other. I think we're still suffering a bit from that fight... We didn't recover for a month... He got me in the jaw, I couldn't move my jaw, I was dazed, my thumb was sprained. We laugh to this day. Brother Dominic says Mason won. It was a split decision because he had the center of the ring more. But I don't agree with Brother Dominic or Mr. Mason because I pulled back a couple times, I have it on tape, so they can talk all they want. I felt sorry for him, he was curled up in this ball, in the corner..."
His advice to the students at De La Salle College:
If you have desires to do anything, there's no sprinting. It's a slow [grind] to get there. And you'll hear a lot of no's, like I did, you'll hear a lot of you can't do it, you'll hear a lot of people say you're not fast enough to play, you're not good enough to sing, whatever. If you think you can do it, just keep listening to yourself.