By day, Dennis Litonjua can clock 400 clicks driving around the city. His civilian day job requires him to be constantly on the road. But by night, he can still be found on the go—he goes comedy-club hopping, rushing onto stages to produce laughter. This modern day comedian can effortlessly sum up the hardships of aging and stage time, “It’s a challenge for sure,” he said. “Life gets in the way.”
I was halfway towards Goldie’s Pizza, a regular spot on Thursday nights for open mic. Downtown Vancouver was busy as usual, so I gave myself plenty of time to get there to meet with Litonjua. Then I heard my cell-phone beep and vibrate. It was a text message that began with an explicit, “Shit! Forgot!” The busy comedian had a lot on his mind. He was currently 30 minutes across town at LaffLines in New Westminster. Litonjua was preparing for his second set that night. I doubled back and arrived just as he stepped off the stage.
We greeted with causal formality. The comedy scene was familiar, like entering an old high school after graduation. In 2009-2011, I spent a good portion of my nights at bars that hosted amateur shows for comedian. Dennis Litonjua was one of the supportive regulars that guided me along, helping me improve from joke to joke.
As the show ended I watched as he continued to take on a fatherly role. A young up-coming comedian approached him. He extended his hand and Litonjua took it and offered a piece of advice along with it. Comedy can feel like a thankless job, but he made sure audiences and performers alike didn’t leave empty handed.
A lot has changed in the past few years. The recently married Litonjua has been caught reevaluating his ambitions. “For the past five years I have been graphing everything,” he said, referring to his stage time. “So I went from eight hours to 10 hours and then 14. I peaked at 14 hours around 2010 and went to 12 hours in 2011 and 2012. These are a bunch of five minute sets.” He chuckled at his undeniable Asian work ethic and added, “It is hard to fathom, right? Because of all the time you do in a year, it only adds up for 12 hours. I mean that is a lot of driving.”
Litonjua is familiar with the highs and lows of the comedy business. Having played some of the biggest stages in the city, alongside some the most prestigious comedians in the industry, he knows that even the best and brightest goes through hard times. “You don’t do comedy for financial gain,” he said, “but you have to make adult choices.”A year ago, Litonjua could be found on stages across the lower mainland three to four times a week. Now, with his busy schedule he is simply aiming for twice a week. “October November December— I did less than 2 hours combined,” He hung his head a bit disheartened, but then quickly shakes off the negativity. “For those three months that is terrible. So I’ve been dragging my feet and trying to get back into it.”
With only a handful of Asian comedians working the circuit, Litonjua takes on heighten responsibilities. The Flip N’ Comedy shows are ongoing projects that he and fellow Filipino comedian, Art Factora created in 2008 to promote comedy and fund charities.
Comedians of ethnic decent are synonymous with stereotypical jokes and funny accents, but that is not what Litonjua finds funny. “Not any of us do Asian sets,” he said, “I think everyone realized that that is what we are expected to do, but we are not defined by it. Some jokes are hilarious, but bad writers will go to stereotypes.”
As an advocate for multiculturalism, he cannot ignore the facts that stand-up comedy is an art form that hasn’t caught on in different cultures. “This sounds terrible, but I think we are a little materialistic,” he said, “So like when you have family members who make x amount of money and you are on the same intellectual level as they are and have the same degree they do and you are watching them make so much more money.” He gave a shrug and sighed.
For Litonjua a regular day consists of sales. Rather he is selling merchandise for his job or selling his jokes on stage; it is a constant act of promotion. “Self promotion is way easier now. My wife would always say, ‘Tweet that you’re performing tonight,’” he said, “And I’ll be like yeah—then I fall asleep on the john.” Despite the ease of getting the word out, he still understands the fine line between advertising and pestering. His theory is that the best way to develop a fan base is by having a good reputation. “Some people want to challenge others on an intellectual level,” he said with a smirk. “I’m not the guy. If I want to be challenged intellectually I would have a debate. I would find a forum to do that. But no, this is not the place. What comics do is angel’s work. That person sitting in the room, you have no idea what they are going through, they are sitting in a bar hopping to have fun. And that is what you want to provide them. Cause when they are laughing, chances are they aren’t thinking about the bills that need to be paid or the baby mama drama. They are there having fun.”
Still striving to excel in his craft, Litonjua also has his eyes set on other creative avenues. Film, theatre and additional comedic opportunities lay in the future. For now he is not closing any doors. “I get spoiled on it,” he admitted, “A room full of people laughing at what you created is always fun. If I stay in the game I’ll continue being challenged.” There was an adventurous gleam in his eyes. He did not point his finger on the path he was intending to take, but something told me that he had many kilometers left to travel.