The inspiration for James Mullinger’s comedy career began on a trip to New Brunswick.
When he went to the Water Street Dinner Theatre in Saint John on New Year’s Eve in 2004, along with a girl he was seeing, he was taken aback by the quality of the standup comedy show they saw.
“I made a pact that night. I went downstairs to the Water Street Dinner Theatre bathroom, looked in the mirror and said, ‘this is the year you’re going to try stand up,’” Mullinger said.
It took him another five months to gather the confidence to try.
Mullinger is now an award-winning comedian whose career has boomed since leaving the U.K. to relocate to New Brunswick in early 2014. His wife Pamela grew up on the Kingston Peninsula, a rural area outside of Saint John, and they came back for a slow pace life with their children.
The 40-year-old has regular theatre, club and corporate gigs, sells out arenas in the Maritimes and is currently on a cross-country Canadian tour. Mullinger has been nominated for a Canadian Comedy Award for Best Live Solo Show and a Just For Laughs Best Comedy Show Award. His latest standup special, Almost Canadian, will be released soon on Hulu and Amazon Prime.
He is also the subject of a $5-million feature film, The Comedian’s Guide to Survival, where British actor James Buckley plays Mullinger. The movie shows his journey as a struggling comedian, bombing show after show until his passion emerges.
Mullinger wasn’t a popular child growing up in Maidenhead, a town about an hour outside of London, England. He struggled academically, wasn’t good at sports and spent much of his time sitting in his room watching comedy tapes.
His path took him into magazine journalism and he eventually started to do stand up gigs at bars on the side. His first crowds were harsh and unforgiving.
“I never forget how hard it was starting out, but it’s definitely very cathartic for me to see, to remind myself,” Mullinger said of the film. “It feels like yesterday I was being booed off stage.”
The biggest difference between the British and Canadian comedy scenes are the audiences. U.K. bar crowds can be rowdy and aggressive, and can heckle and disrupt shows, he said. Canadian comedy fans are less quick to judge a show.
“When you hit a stage in England, those first few seconds are vital,” Mullinger said.
“Here, you’ve got a few minutes to graze.”
Before doing standup full-time, Mullinger was the comedy editor of the British edition of GQ and has interviewed many well-known actors and comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Amy Schumer.
His interview with Seinfeld inspired his decision to come to New Brunswick, when Mullinger asked Seinfeld why he left his show at its cultural peak.
“He said, ‘Simple. Because that’s what everyone expected me to do.’ And he said, ‘There’s a good life lesson, James. Make a list of all the things that everyone expects you to do, and do the opposite,’” Mullinger said.
His editor job on paper seemed glamourous, but he wasn’t happy with his career and the quality of life for his family in England. A year later he was on a plane to Saint John.
Mullinger now enjoys small-town life in Rothesay with his wife and two children, Hunter, 8, and River, 5. He received his Canadian permanent residency in 2015. However, there’s still some changes that take getting used to.
“One of the first things is everyone knows everybody here,” he said. “You can’t sit down at a table and start complaining about anything, whether it be a bad meal you had that week, or a bad contractor, because someone at the table will be related to them.”
Mullinger said it always surprises him how New Brunswickers complain of a lack of things to do in New Brunswick and say they “hate” living here. He has turned into a promoter for the province on the international stage. Mullinger has done shows for New Brunswick Tourism and Destination Canada to tout the Maritimes as a tourism destination to foreign audiences. He also started The Maritime Edit, a quarterly international magazine highlighting life in Atlantic Canada.
“When I moved here, I think I thought there would be some compromises, but actually there’s none,” he said. “There’s nothing I miss day-to-day in England.”
Mullinger’s comedy pokes fun at the quirks of the Maritimes and his experience adjusting to life in New Brunswick.
“It’s a dream for comedians to be the fish out of water,” he said. “Because what we do is notice things.”
His persona has evolved to be a “slightly confused Englishman trying to find his way in the Maritimes.”
Mullinger said his corporate bookings and big crowds come mostly from word of mouth. People who see his show often recommend him for gigs.
“You can be good at something in other places and no one hears about it,” he said. “Here, if people like what you do, they tell people.”
Despite his growing success and popular material, Mullinger still has nerves before every show. He used to have some drinks before club shows, but stopped four months ago. He feels his routine is sharper with better improv and crowd work.
“One of the things I like so much about stand up, is it's the only time when no matter what else is going on in your life, you’re about to walk onto that stage and everything else is shut out of your mind and you can only focus on the job at hand,” Mullinger said.
He wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning to make his kids breakfast, drive them to school and go to the YMCA to work out with his wife. He works on the magazine throughout the day, but takes a day off before a gig to review his notes and prepare. While hosting a screening of The Comedian’s Guide to Survival in Fredericton in late January, Mullinger sat backstage cranking out a feature story in time for a meeting with the designer the next morning.
“For me the dream is always to make a living doing this,” he said. “To be able to feed a family doing stand up comedy anywhere in the world, let alone here, is a ridiculous dream.”
“For me and for what my aspirations are I feel like it doesn’t get better than this.”