By Maureen Halushak
One day, Jessica Holmes would like to open a bakery. Right now, the 21-year-old radio and television arts graduate is content to pursue her first love, comedy. Holmes who stars in Salter Street Film’s television The Itch, has been nominated for a 2001 Canadian COmedy Award for her portrayal of skin-deep television host Tricia Far.
The nomination is the latest in a string of accolades for the young performer, including three 2000 Canadian COmedy Award nominations and a stint with The Second City’s Touring Company. Her first play, co-written with Dave Tomlinson, was nominated for the Tim Sim’s Encouragement Award. But Holmes’ success almost wasn’t.
On her last day of classes at Ryerson, Jessica Holmes cried. “I was a mess, just bawling,” she says. Her anguish came from angst over pursuing a career in comedy.
“Somehow I was just scared to give it a try.”
Holmes has been trying comedy with great success since her days at Ottawa’s Canterbury High School for the Arts. There she studied drama and won, along with her teammates, two gold medals at the 1991 and 1992 Canadian High School Improv Games. But the thrill of victory didn’t change the reality that most drama graduates never find work their their field. With this thought in mind, Holmes chose to study RTA at Ryerson.
Life on campus was not all laughs for Holmes. After completing her first year at Ryerson, she took a two-year hiatus to work as a missionary in Venezuela. Upon her return, she reacquainted herself with comedy by working on two productions of RTA’s Riot, the school’s annual sketch comedy production. “Feeling so good about comedy made me want to go into it,” she says. But her doubts about making comedy a career of choice continued to resurface until the last day of class, when RTA professor Liz Gesicki gave Holmes some advice to live by.
“She was scared,” says Gesicki. “We’re all scared. It’s so hard not to take the rejection [of a career in comedy] personally.” Her advice? “She told me that there’s nothing you can do to your career that you can’t undo,” says Holmes. “That’s when I made my decision.”
After finishing at Ryerson in 1998, Holmes tried stand-up. “It made me sick,” she says. “I called my agent and said I would never do stand-up again.”
Instead, she concentrate on writing and performing. She hooked up with Tomlinson, whom Holmes says is the one person she can work with for hours a day.
“For every right partner, there’s 50 wrong ones.” The pair cowrote their first play, Best of the Very Last: A Parody of Pageants.
Stints with The Second City’s Touring Company and Just for Laughs led to appearances on a score of Canadian comedy shows including History Bites, Laughing Matters and Adventures in Comedy, as well as a special airing of Comedy Now! And then on Nov. 14, 2000 The Itch debuted on the Comedy Network.
While Holmes has less creative control on the set of The Itch than in her live performances, she finds this shift liberating. “You’re not quite as independent, but I loved it,” she says. Having 30 professionals on set to take care of costumes and props leaves her to concentrate on comedy alone. “The sketches were twice as funny.”
Until The Itch resumes filming in Halifax this summer, Holmes is living in Toronto, creating more of the zany characters that are her trademark. “I try to write a new monologue every month,” she says. Right now, she’s working on a piece about a Venezuelan mail order bride, and is contemplating a sketch about telemarketing. “Whatever tweaks my interest,” she says. “I have a new favourite character every day.”
At the April 11 awards gala at The Warehouse, Holmes will join fellow Pretty Funny Female Performance nominees Kathy Jones (This House Has 22 Minutes), Mary Walsh (This House Has 22 Minutes), Leah Pinsett (Made in Canada), and Janet Van De Graff (History Bites) at the 2001 Canadian Comedy Awards. Holmes says the awards, only in their second year, give Canadian comedians some much-needed recognition. “They’re a great idea,” she says. “We’re all chasing the dream of being rich and famous doing what we love.”
While Holmes tries to have several projects on the go (“You have to have ten things going on because nine will be cancelled”), she doesn’t rule out a career shift down the road. “I can see myself opening a bakery, or becoming a hairdresser,” she says. “Nothing would be a surprise.” For now, the surprise of overwhelming success in a field where rejection is a fact of life is enough for this comic.