Comedian James Mullinger on Why Anything is Possible in New Brunswick
British writer and comedian James Mullinger moved to Saint John, New Brunswick in February 2014 from London, England. A well-known stand-up comedian, TV presenter, and journalist in his homeland, James performed five stand-up tours over five years, had his own Comedy Central show, and served as Comedy Editor for GQ Magazine.
Then he moved to the East Coast of Canada with his magazine publishing powerhouse wife Pamela (who grew up on New Brunswick’s Kingston Peninsula) and their two children Hunter, 5 and River, 2. James’ career has thrived since he moved here headlining Yuk Yuk’s all over the country, playing 1000-seater theatres with his one man shows, shooting three seasons of his television show for Bell Aliant’s TV1, and being nominated for both a Just For Laughs Best Comedy Show Award and a Canadian Comedy Award.
This summer a big budget British film about his early years in stand up (starring actors from Downton Abbey, Twilight and Notting Hill as well as comedians Mike Ward, Pete Zedlacher, Gilbert Gottfried and Jimmy Carr, and James Buckley playing Mullinger) will be released in UK cinemas.
Opportunities NB (ONB) spoke to James to learn why moving to New Brunswick is the best decision he ever made.
ONB: First, James, congratulations on your permanent residency in New Brunswick. How does that feel?
Mullinger: It feels great! This is my favourite place on the planet; beautiful scenery, buzzing cities full of amazing restaurants, and lovely people. What’s not to love? I can’t ever imagine living anywhere else than New Brunswick. Having permanent residency means my dream can be a reality.
ONB: Let’s talk about your work with Discover Saint John and your experience pitching Saint John in Ottawa.
Mullinger: I often talk in interviews and my shows about how much I love living here. The brilliant people at Discover Saint John are always thinking of new ways to promote our city and they had the idea to have me pitch Saint John at Canada’s biggest conference organizer and event planner trade convention in Ottawa. I worked closely with them on the script, but they gave me creative control and were adamant that I maintain my sense of humour in it and be honest, without having to fill the speech with facts and figures. I even made my own PowerPoint featuring photographs of the city that I had taken or friends and photographers like Mark Hemmings had shot.
I must admit I was nervous about doing the pitch in front of over a thousand people who plan big conferences, and other cities vying for business. I took the responsibility very seriously because I want our city to thrive, and I want everyone to know Saint John is the best place to come and bring business. I was delightfully surprised how well it went.
I didn’t expect to have the whole crowd whooping and cheering but they really went for it, which I took as a great sign. Hopefully that will turn in to great revenue for the city. I was also over the moon with how many representatives from other Atlantic provinces came to me saying they were so happy with how well I represented Atlantic Canada. That means a lot because with my shows and my TV program I always try to promote the East Coast because I love it here so much and want more people to know how awesome it is.
ONB: What do you love best about living/working in New Brunswick?
Mullinger: I wanted my children to have the upbringing my wife had living here. Life in London was great but it is a very busy place, very crowded, expensive, and the quality of life we wanted was not available to us there. They say that a person who is tired of London is tired of life, I would disagree. I had to leave London so I could start living. As I travel a lot for work I had to ask — what was the point of living in a shoebox in a concrete jungle when we could live by the water with woods and beauty all around us in New Brunswick? All of the things I enjoyed in London such as beautiful theatres, stunning architecture, amazing restaurants, and good shopping we have here in New Brunswick.
And there is much opportunity here. I hoped I would continue to make a living by moving here. Both my wife and I have found that our careers have thrived—even improved—in New Brunswick. She worked long hours in England for Vanity Fair then Wallpaper* magazine and travelled constantly, but now we both have a much better quality of life and actually get to see our children and each other! Now she works from her beautiful home office as a marketing consultant and also as an advertising director for various magazines including one of the most beautiful, luxurious magazines in the world – Kinfolk.
ONB: You are currently shooting a TV show titled Comedy Boot Camp. Can you give us some details on that?
Mullinger: When I arrived here, I was welcomed in to the comedy community by all of the wonderful stand-ups we have here. I was incredibly impressed by the amount of talent I saw here. But I couldn’t believe that these comedians were not getting the exposure and the work that they deserved. All the big comedy festivals and TV shows here seem to concentrate on acts in bigger cities, which is a shame given the number of amazing comedians we have here. So I devised the show with Csaba Domokos from Bell Aliant’s TV1 and the Canadian Comedy Award-nominated director John Borbely to show the rest of the country and the world what we have here. We have just finished shooting the first season and it has gone way better than we had even hoped. Every act has stormed their shows and they are already going on to bigger and better things thanks to all the media interest about it and the shows haven’t even aired yet!
ONB: Let’s talk about your upcoming show at Harbour Station on April 28th – Anything is Possible. What’s the theme and what is it like to be playing such a vast venue that traditionally plays host to the likes of Elton John, Aerosmith, and Jerry Seinfeld.
Mullinger: It’s very exciting. I have always wanted to play an arena, and it makes sense to be doing it in my favourite city. The idea for the show stemmed from the fact that Hemmings House were going to be making a film for CBC about why I moved here and why I love it here so much. I am always extolling the virtues of Saint John and how I believe anything is possible here. I feel that in a smaller city like this the playing field is more level.
There are so many amazing, supportive people in this city that have helped make this happen. Obviously my sponsors Lexus Of Saint John and Saint John Toyota, who have kindly ensured that I can donate $5,000 to the Canadian Cancer Society from this show — even if I don’t personally make any money from it. Other local businesses have been very kind in helping promote it — Moosehead Breweries, Owens MacFayden Group, Ernst & Young, Stewart McKelvey, Jason Crouse Functional Training Studio, and many more. In a wonderful place like Saint John it is important for local businesses to support each other and all of these companies excel at that. I have written about this at length.
I am using all local crew and artists; it is important to celebrate what we have here. All the promotional photography is by the amazing Sean McGrath, one of the best photographers in the world and he lives right here in Saint John. All the graphic, artwork and art direction is by Lindsay Vautour, who is a wonderful person, one of my best friends and, without question, the best designer I have ever worked with. The other acts on the bill are Ansar Hassan, Tomato/Tomato and Nikki Payne, all fiercely talented people who could live anywhere but choose to live in New Brunswick because it is so spectacularly beautiful here. The printing is done by Alan England, a local printer and Englishman who moved to Saint John. I will always only ever work with local talent because we have so much here you don’t need to outsource.
The show itself will feature some new material but also highlights from my eleven years as a comedian. I am loathe to call it a ‘greatest hits’ because that sounds arrogant, but it will be my best material and lots of new stuff which I am honing and refining at clubs around the country right now. We are filming it for the CBC documentary and for a DVD release so I really want people to come out and help me show the rest of the country why New Brunswick is the place to be right now, and why anything is possible here.
ONB: Tell us about your New Year’s resolution and how this show ties in.
Mullinger: As a teenager I was obsessed with stand-up comedy. I spent most of my childhood watching comedy videos in my bedroom and listening to comedy tapes on my Walkman in the back of my parents’ car; comedians like Ben Elton, Frank Skinner, Steve Martin, The Young Ones, and Monty Python. I was a very shy kid so I never imagined I would be able to ever do stand-up comedy. I was too scared to speak to other kids in my class, let alone get on a stage. I was never the class clown. Later in life I started work as a journalist at GQ magazine, which felt like a dream come true, but I grew frustrated that I really wanted to be a stand-up like my heroes. I became very depressed that I wasn’t following my dream.
Then on New Year’s Eve 2004, while on holiday in Saint John visiting my wife’s family, we were at the Water Street Dinner Theatre watching an amazing production. The cast were awesome, having us all entertained and in stitches. I loved it but it made me very angry with myself. Whatever these actors were doing for their day jobs, at night they were heroes of the stage. Shortly before midnight I went to the bathroom and swore that 2005 would be the year I would try stand-up. It took five months to muster the confidence but in May I did my first show. I worked hard, performing upwards of three nights a week and sucked at it for five years and was booed off stage most nights. It was brutal. And this is what the upcoming UK film, The Comedian’s Guide To Survival, is about. Eventually I started to get good at it. I still have a lot to learn but I am proud of what I do most nights now.
ONB: Let’s talk a bit about CBC and the documentary. How did that come about?
Mullinger: Greg Hemmings of Hemmings House and I were introduced by Csaba Domokos shortly after I moved here. We had been trying to find a project to work together on. Last year Greg pitched an idea he had to CBC for a positive upbeat film about Saint John and all the great things that are happening here right now. Amazing restaurants and comedy clubs opening, the whole revitalization of the uptown area, the work of Keith Brideau and Historica Developments, Judith Mackin’s new store, the new Irving building, the work of Acre Architects, and of course Joanna, Steve, Janet and everyone at Enterprise Saint John and the unstoppably brilliant people at Fusion Saint John and The Hardman Group. There is so much to be excited about. This is a very exciting time in Saint John and we want the story to be told.
Greg thought we could tell this story through my eyes. Hemmings House are the best in the business at what they do, and I am supremely excited and delighted to be working with producer Megan Thelosen and director Lauchlan Ough to tell this story. We start shooting soon and it will air nationally on CBC at the end of June. This will be a great thing for Saint John and New Brunswick as a whole.
ONB: We kicked off our NB Proud campaign in 2015. You seem like a perfect candidate for this question: What do New Brunswickers have to be proud of?
Mullinger: Everything. Look at this place. It’s beautiful. There are stunning views everywhere from cityscapes to rural views. The best beer in the world—Moosehead—is brewed here. The kindest, smartest people are here. People too often focus on the negative but this place is amazing. And there are so many under-reported facts. For instance Rothesay in New Brunswick has the highest concentration of billionaires anywhere in Canada. Why do I only ever read in the national press about things like debt when this fact that the richest choose to live here, because it’s the best place to live, is hidden? I am not the richest, far from it, but I live here because it is the best place in the world for anyone — and because anything is possible here.
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James NB flag image by Mark Hemmings