MOST educators would be disappointed to see their teaching careers turn into a joke but for Gerry Dee, that was sort of the point.
After spending years trying to get laughs from ungrateful rabble, as well as performing stand-up comedy at Toronto nightclubs, the former teacher has found his niche with the CBC sitcom Mr. D.
Born Gerard Donoghue, Dee sensed the value of being an educator after realizing he didn't have the marks to be a lawyer.
"I literally applied to both med school and law school - My parents didn't have a lot of money, they were blue collar and I thought, 'How do I get the house with the white picket fence?'" Dee says. "I'm glad I never did the other ones 'cause I probably wouldn't have enjoyed them like I enjoyed teaching."
After a few years of study, Dee joined the ranks of the spitball-soaked itinerant educators.
In his book, Teaching: It's Harder Than It Looks, Dee describes his first substitute gig teaching gym to Grade 9 girls.
"Then she did exactly as she was told," Dee writes. "She spit the gum out . . . right at me."
Luckily for Dee, a vice-principal defused the situation, had the gum-spitter pen a note of contrition (included in the book) and taught the "pathetic substitute" a lesson in acting.
"I remember that like it was yesterday," Dee says, nursing a Christmas cold in Toronto. "The girl's name was Bina, B-I-NA. In the book it's a different name. . . . I remember a ton of days that I taught because they were either really good or really bad."
The bad days seemed to outnumber the good, leaving Dee anxious to get a full-time job.
"I learned a lot from being a substitute teacher - mostly that I never wanted to be a substitute teacher ever again," he writes.
To get that job Dee faked an expertise in geography, history, and computers, and then worked doggedly to stay one chapter ahead of his students, as well as his principal.
If the comedian had a guiltier conscience, his book would read like a confession. He describes using classroom conversation to kill time, slaughtering minutes by taking attendance and avoiding a student with a question like debtors avoid bill collectors.
Despite his left-handed approach to education, Dee says he stays in touch with many of his former students, some of whom have gone on to teaching careers of their own.
"A lot of kids I taught ended up going into teaching at the same school I taught at. There's probably six of them there now. It's not all because of me. I think it's the same reason I became a teacher: they had a bunch of teachers they liked," he says.
Inspired by comedian John Candy, sitcoms like Three's Company, and the dry British wit prized in his household, Dee began his own comedy career after about five years of teaching. Asked if he should have focused on comedy earlier, Dee says he's happy with the way things have worked out.
"Obviously the theme I focused on for comedy was teaching and I needed those years to have that, otherwise I don't know what I would've talked about," he says. "I couldn't have asked for much more right now than to have a sitcom and a stand-up comedy tour and a book. What, would I have gotten more out of that by starting earlier? I doubt it."
Dee says he would frequently spend six nights a week at Toronto comedy clubs, telling jokes for free.
"The first step is to try to do it on stage, and to get to that step is tough because the most fear is involved in that first time," he says. "I was teaching full-time but I was doing stand-up Monday to Sunday as much as I could, just showing up at clubs for no money, and that's how you get good, just trying it in front of a real crowd."
His background in teaching wasn't helpful either, Dee says. "It's totally two different things completely," he says.
Eventually Dee landed on the talent show Last Comic Standing.
"Most stand-ups have to go to L.A. But I was fortunate that I got a little bit of heat from Last Comic and doing well there," he remembers.
Besides landing a CBC show, Dee also nabbed a book deal after being approached by a publisher.
"Every stand-up comic, the next tier is to get on TV. We know if we get on TV our shows will be sold-out more and we'll have bigger venues," he says. "It's just the pinnacle of the job."
The second season of Mr. D is slated to feature more of an emphasis on Dee's love life, as well as appearances from comedian Russell Peters.
Asked if he misses being in a real classroom, Dee's answer is resounding.
"No. No. I miss coaching and teaching outside the class, I don't miss in-the-class teaching. No."
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