It’s been six years since Jessica Holmes last graced CBC's Toronto soundstages as part of the cast of Air Farce. Just a few days ago, Holmes made her long-awaited return to shoot the comedy troupe's one-hour New Year's Eve special.
You'd think she'd be popping champagne in celebration, but no, instead she's stressing over her Christmas shopping list.
“I just started Christmas shopping,” she tells Popjournalism in a phone interview. “I've been putting it off because I've been so busy lately and I don't know what I'm going to do. Anything popular that my kids may want will have to be from the 1980s.”
Christmas stresses notwithstanding, it's good to have Holmes back on Air Farce.
"I watched the last New Year's Eve special with my family and we all loved it," she says. "I thought it was hilarious and the new cast members were amazing and it looked like so much fun. I was itching to go back, so I got in touch with [cast member and executive producer] Don [Ferguson] and I'm really grateful to be back, and for them to have made room for me."
So why ever leave the Farce family?
"I wanted to get away from scripted work at the time," she says of her Air Farce exit in 2010. "I wanted to experiment more, to see where my inner muse took me. Unfortunately, my inner muse is a homeless, toothless man who gives terrible advice. In between, I've been doing stand-up and motivational speaking, corporate keynotes. These past years have truly taken me to some awesome places. I've opened for Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, Russell Peters and Jerry Seinfeld."
Backstage with Ellen and friends
What was it like opening for those huge stars?
"Being backstage with the Oprahs and Ellens of the world is about being surrounded by security," she recalls. "It's so tight and strict and uncomfortable that you're scared to even look in their direction.
"Ellen had the largest entourage. She had 20 people around her. When I was standing in the wings, her security came by and said, 'You can't be in the wings.' I said I have to be in the wings because I'm the opening act and I'm waiting for the director to call me on stage. It's the most uncomfortable I've been professionally.
"I should've stayed in the wings and jumped on [her partner] Portia [de Rossi]," she jokes. "But seriously, people are full-on bonkers about Ellen. Her fans came up to me, grabbed me, and asked me to tell Ellen that they loved her. Ellen addressed all the attention on stage and said, 'I have a thousand people a day who say I just need two minutes of your time,' and that she loves all her fans but can't obviously take the time for them all."
Was anyone low-key?
"Jerry Seinfeld didn't have any security and he was really cool and came by to tell me to have a great show. Russell Peters didn't have any security around him either."
On a comedy mission
Despite her success, Holmes didn't start out as a natural comedian.
"I was always interested in comedy and loved writing sketches with friends, but never found myself confident enough," she says. "I grew up with a mom who was an agnostic feminist and my dad was Mormon. I felt like we were in a sitcom."
At age 21, she finally found her confidence while travelling in Venezuela as a missionary for the Mormon Church.
"I was a shy, sunburned girl back then," she describes. "Silly, but very shy. I liked to tell jokes even though language was a giant barrier. I traveled to four different cities in Venezuela, and one location was at a truck stop. I walked around in a Holly Hobbie-style gingham dress with a name tag on. When I got home from the mission, after a year-and-a-half of knocking on people's doors and convincing strangers to join our church, it felt more natural to perform."
Her first taste of the comedy spotlight happened while she was a student at Toronto's Ryerson University Radio and Television Arts program.
"Some friends and I dared each other to try stand-up at an open mic night," she recalls. "It was really terrifying, but I had to, and afterwards, I wasn't satisfied unless I was on stage. My 20s were very much me going out on open mic nights and performing for free. I will flat out say that I wasn't good. I didn't even tell jokes, just cute stories. It was a great time, though, and I was following my heart. I wanted to express myself."
During those early comedy days, she also started to drift away from her Mormon upbringing.
"I was meeting a lot of comedians and I knew it wasn't the kind of environment for religious people, hanging out at bars. I was on a different path and making friends with people who were gay, and realizing that they weren't necessarily welcome in the way straight people were. I started questioning the whole thing."
A new beginning
Soon after, her comedy career took off and she landed specials and eventually her own sketch show on CTV that lasted one season in 2002. The next year, she was asked to join the cast of Air Farce — the first-ever addition since the troupe was founded — and fit in perfectly. Holmes took maternity leave from the show in 2007 and 2008 to start a family with husband and fellow performer Scott Yaphe. She soon struggled with her career and raising two young children simultaneously.
"In those first three years, I had insomnia and frankly could barely string together a sentence," she explains. "I was struggling with postpartum depression, working on three hours of sleep and couldn't stop crying at work. For the first seven years, I was using old material and not coming up with anything new. I tried to have my cake and eat it, too, but I soon learned that there's no such thing as work-life balance. There's just a series of decisions everyday — what am I doing for creative fulfillment and what am I doing for my family today? — and you make tough choices every day. I'm at peace now and achieved a kind of balance with that."
In response, her stand-up act soon became part comedy and part therapy.
"I became really attracted to motivational speaking," she says. "I like to share things that have embarrassed me and turn those experiences into jokes. I always tell the story about when my grandpa and I were robbed in Europe. The guy who robbed us threw two boxes at us while leaving, just to claim we bought something from him. In the boxes were small, cheap jackets. My grandpa was laughing his head off at this. I was so mad: 'Aren't you upset that he took all our money, grandpa?' He said to me, 'Jess, we're not paying for the jackets, we're paying for the story.' Now that I make my living as a comedian, I live by that belief. When bad things are happening to me, I try to think, 'What's the punchline in this?', because someday I'll be laughing about it."
Not surprisingly, Holmes' mix of philosophy and humour has made her one of the most in-demand corporate keynote speakers in the country.
This wide mix of public appearances have rejuvenated Holmes creatively. When she rejoined the Air Farce cast, she immediately noticed the difference in her comedic ability.
"In the six years since I've been away from the show, I've grown as a performer and grown in confidence. It's like going full circle. I discovered my personal comedy and came back even stronger."
That hard-fought strength applies to her celebrity impressions, too, which are as spot-on as ever — especially her hilarious take on Sophie Grégoire Trudeau during an Air Farce parody of Rihanna's "Work".
"That's the guiltiest I ever felt doing an impression," she says. "Because we're in Canada, there's a good chance that she'll see it, and she's such a wonderful woman. Of course, I put that all aside and did the hand-on-the-heart sweetness."
Unfortunately, this year won't see Holmes break out her popular Céline Dion impression due to the recent deaths of the singer's husband and brother — at least not on Air Farce.
"I think it's too soon for the show, yes, but I have done it in my stand-up act. The audience oohs and I say, yes, it's horrible, and then I make jokes about it being too soon."
So what will Holmes be doing this New Year's Eve?
"I'll be performing on New Year's Eve. For the last 10 years, I've typically been doing a show. If I'm not performing, I'm a wet blanket and in bed by 10 p.m."
Doesn't performing on a special occasion or holiday ruin the day for you?
"No, it's the total opposite. It takes the pressure off. Especially when you perform on your birthday — it takes away all of the expectations to have friends over and all that."
We now leave Holmes to her latest pressure: Christmas shopping during the peak rush — and looking ahead to new gigs in 2017.
"I have four different agencies and 12 different agents," she says. "Only in Canada can you have four careers in the arts and still not quite have a full-time job. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I love it."
Air Farce New Year’s Eve airs Friday, Dec. 30 at 8 p.m. (9:30 NT) on CBC.
Watch one of Jessica Holmes' recent keynote speeches
About Robert J. Ballantyne
Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.