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Sean Devlin: Born and Raised (In That Order)

The Vancouver comedian is using stand-up to punch up and fight back.

by Sean Orr

Sean Devlin is one of those comedians who can take highly charged political subjects and pierce through the hubris to find a golden nugget of absurdity. This is a guy who can make a land acknowledgement hilarious. Devlin tackles the unfortunate but not surprising rise in anti-Asian racism with a cool and calm Anthony Jeselnik-type delivery. He approaches jokes with a dialectical twist, an almost mathematical approach to semantics not unlike the late Mitch Hedberg. He effortlessly blends his long pedigree of activism, from his work with Shit Harper Did and The Yes Men, with razor sharp insight and a narrative flair. He’s a polymath whose 2018 feature film When the Storm Fades tackles subjects like disaster capitalism, climate change, white saviourism while imbuing a critical introspective lens with an awkward tension, spacious beauty, and heartwarming silliness.

Fittingly, I asked him some questions about climate change and other subjects on the hottest day ever recorded in Vancouver. In the wake of the confirmation of mass unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada it’s hard not to fly into a reflexive rage. Listening to his debut album, Airports, Animals, I was struck by how calmly Devlin recounts painful experiences with racism. “I just wasn’t interested in performing stand up and being angry on stage. I’ve done that a few times but I just didn’t want that experience for me personally. I wanted it to feel joyful. I also didn’t want to avoid talking about things happening to me or things that I was seeing that were sad, or infuriating, so that just ended up becoming just about processing incidents, like some of the stuff you hear on the album, and trying to get to a place where I can laugh about it, but not make light of it.” 

As a listener you feel like you’re in on the joke. Devlin likens this approach to his favourite music, roots reggae. “One of the things I love about that genre of music is that lyrically those artists will go into all sorts of things; they’ll write love songs, they’ll sing about appreciating nature, but they’ll also talk about the history of colonialism or straight up just burning the master’s house down. I’ve always loved how they go to these places lyrically, but sonically it’s all about keeping you in this reassuring state.”

Indeed, Devlin’s album meanders between anecdotes about legal weed, security guards, bad haircuts, and Philip II of Spain; all while being anchored by, well… airports and animals. If his soothsaying approach that (spoiler alert) CBC once paid him to not do on-air, sounds a little like Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey, that’s no accident. In Hedberg and Handey (omg, can you imagine that comedy special?), Devlin finds a compassion that was never making jokes at the expense of other people, which is in and of itself political.

Over time Devlin’s style has evolved into more long-form storytelling which leaves a lot of room to unpack heavy content. I asked him about why comedy is often so slow to adapt to so-called cancel culture. “The thing is, comedy has always been about consequences. Every comedian knows if you go on stage and tell a joke and the audience doesn’t laugh, then you have work to do.” Even the comedy scene in Vancouver has changed and adapted for the better. Devlin recalls only a handful of POC comedians in a thriving scene. I asked him to expand and, ever so politely, he was worried about leaving people out. Tin Lorica, Matty Vu, Fatima Dhowre, Bita Joudaki, Andrea Jin, and Paul Bae all come to mind.

Of course there’s always going to be walls that POC will continually face, and maybe that’s part of why comedy, especially in Canada, is so good at exposing the walls we put up around ourselves, which we then mythologize as cooperation or politeness. In the wake of a surge in anti-Asian hate, Devlin agrees, “Canadian culture likes to deny the existence of conflict historically, and when we deny that it happened in the past it makes it hard for us to see conflict in our present.” And that explains why so few bystanders stand up. 

It’s also why so many of his anecdotes really hit home. They are filled with all the foibles of human interaction mixed with deep introspection and an outward critique of society. Although he doesn’t approach standup with any huge expectations that it will change things, it still feels like we’re collectively moving past things in a healthy way. He’s certainly come a long way since he was runner-up for the Much Music temp award when he was still in high school. From idolizing Tom Green’s early cable access show in Ottawa, to studying under the world’s greatest clown teacher, Philippe Gaulier, to being thrown in jail for his climate change and migrant justice work, Devlin’s career arc is fascinating, insightful, and inspiring.