Comedian Spotlight — Tanyalee Davis

Circa 2005

Comedy is arguably one of the most subjective forms of entertainment. And there are a heck of a lot of comedians out there. Some are funny, some are funny looking and some illuminate why the vaudeville phrase given the hook was originated. For many of the better-known comics of television and film, the road to success was paved with an endless stream of stand-up routines performed at comedy houses of all shapes and sizes. Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, Jay Mohr, Drew Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, Jeanine Garafalo and Rita Rudner all found their voices with a mike, a bright light and an audience begging to be entertained.

Tanyalee Davis is one such comic working to make her name known in a dog-eat-dog world. Although she can’t pinpoint the exact time she saw herself following a career in comedy, she’s always loved to laugh. Some of her fondest childhood memories are of listening to her father tell the tales of Henry the Chicken, a character he had created for the sake of spinning tales at the dinner table. Somehow poor Henry always ended up kidnapped by Colonel Sanders. “I don’t know if we ate a lot of KFC when we were younger or what,” remembers Davis during an interview with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper, “but my dad was always telling these goofy stories … and they were hysterical.”

As an adult, Davis desired to entertain others the way her father had entertained her, and she began working with a children’s theater. During a Christmas production she met an amateur comedian who invited her to a show of his. Seeing his less-than-side-splitting performance instilled an invigorated confidence in Davis. “I went to see him and he really was not that good. I told him, ‘I could do this!’” Her friend bought her a comedy book for Christmas and said, “You better write some material; you’re going up January 23rd,” she recalls. “That was 1990.” It was love-with-the-stage at first sight, you could say, and the first time she performed she was hooked. The managers of the club invited her back for the next week and within a few months she was getting paid.

One of her favorite methods of comedy is acting out her sketches. “Most diet pills have guarana root in them, which is basically caffeine,” Davis begins to explain. “The whole idea in the diet pill is that the guarana jacks you up with caffeine and the caffeine gets your heart rate going and as your heart rate gets going you start burning calories.” As she’s explaining the process of the diet pill she begins to illustrate the effect by shaking her entire body really fast. “I got my arm in front of my mouth like I’m trying to eat, but I can’t because I can’t keep food on the damn spoon! I really, really act it out and over-exaggerate, but I think it’s one of my favorite jokes. It’s probably gonna kill me one day because my spinal cord is going to sever from the back of my head from all the shaking. Those are my favorite jokes because of the response I get, and they’re fun to do.”

It’s no secret that comedians draw on their personal experiences for material—or on the escapades of family and friends (often to their dismay)—and Davis is no different. As a 3-foot-6-inch little person, Davis uses material from her own life to disarm the audience. Davis recalls her first joke onstage. While it sounds corny to her now, she still can’t help but laugh as she tells it. “Hey, did you guys know there was a midget here? Yeah, I know. I walked in and everybody’s saying, ‘Hey, look at the midget!’ and I was like, ‘Where?’”

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Describing her entrance onto stage, Davis says, “I can almost hear people gasping as I waddle onto the stage and get up onto my chair.” In her act, Davis relates some of the situations she finds herself in as a result of not being of average height. At the same time, much of her material has nothing to do with being a little person; she works to find the humor in every aspect of her life, even the most dismal-seeming experiences. “When I was hit by a car I got a chunk of material that has nothing to do with my being a little person.”

You’re probably asking yourself, what’s funny about getting hit by a car? For a comedian, plenty. “I was in the emergency room and the policeman told me I had been hit by a Mercedes. Woo-hoo! Yeah! Cha-ching!” laughs Davis. “And then he said it was a 1972 and I’m like, ‘Dang it!’

“I ended up with a catheter, which, looking back, wasn’t a bad thing. I think everybody should have a catheter, especially women. If you’re drinking and you end up pounding them back, as soon as you break the seal you’ve got to pee every two minutes. Pop a catheter in at the beginning of the night, the rest of the night you’re good to go, although your handbag starts to get really heavy.”

Playing in her favor is Davis observations that people generally underestimate her because she is a little person. When people find out she’s a standup comedian, the common response is: “Oh my gosh, you’re so brave!” In her mind, however, there is nothing brave about performing onstage; not when compared to other adventures she has taken. She’s traveled around the world, been to Australia by herself, backpacked, scuba dived and parasailed.

Davis was born in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Her mother was a school teacher and her father, a bush pilot. At the time of her birth, medical knowledge was not what it is today. “Well, something’s wrong but we’re not quite sure,” the doctors told her very frightened parents, before adding their newborn daughter would likely be dead by evening. When Davis surpassed the first prognosis, the doctors then suggested she simply “wouldn’t live very long.” When doctors finally deduced Davis had dwarfism, the news was accompanied by, “Oh yeah, and dwarfs typically have really short life spans.”

For Davis’ first-time mom, the news was traumatic. “With my type of dwarfism, we are known to have what are called cauliflower ears, which are little shriveled-up ears,” she notes. “At first my mom didn’t notice, but the next day she saw my ears were shriveled and she yelled at the nurse, thinking the nurse had done something to my ears. It turns out it was just me being me.”

Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Davis was fortunate to benefit from the Society of Manitobans with Disability, an advocacy organization. When a child with a disability started school he or she was assigned a counselor responsible for ensuring that accommodations needed by the student were made. In Davis’ case, the counselor would come in every year and measure her and assess the need for step stools in the bathroom, at her desk or up to the water fountain. Any accommodations she needed were funded by the province. Each year brought a little more growth and small victories for Davis. “When I was actually able to reach the button on the water fountain on my own, it was a huge accomplishment! Pretty soon I’ll be able to get my mouth where the other kids put their mouths! Ooh! I can get the diseases like everybody else!” Davis recalls with a laugh.

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Winters in Winnipeg were very, very cold and brought a lot of snow. Because of the proximity of her home to the school, the bus picked her up at six o’clock in the morning. “The school wasn’t even open yet, and I would wait for the janitor to show up. Mr. Rigsby was his name. He had a little trolley with the box of chalk brushes, and I’d sit on that and go with him to help him clean chalkboards and chalk brushes. That was the way I would start off every day until the principal would show up and I’d have to go into her office and do my homework. Hey! If this comedy thing every fails I can always clean chalk brushes!” With a degree in sociology from the University of Winnipeg, it’s doubtful Davis’ career will turn to cleaning chalk brushes.

Davis’ family also includes a sister who is five years younger and of typical height. “She’s tall,” Davis says. “She got the height; I got the chest and the ass.” Jokes about dwarfism are not lost on the family and she especially found enjoyment in prodding her brother-inlaw when he and her sister were expecting their first child. “I was tormenting him, saying, ‘So you’re going to have a dwarf baby?’ He just looked at me with an expression of horror on his face and he pulled my sister aside and asked, ‘Is there a chance that we can actually have a dwarf baby?’ I just kept bugging him. Chances of their having a dwarf are so miniscule, but it was just the fact that I’m such an ass. ‘You’re going to have a dwarf baby!’ I laughed … It was fun!”

Since her days in Children’s Theater, acting has also been an interest of Davis’. While she acts whenever possible, there are not a lot of parts for little people. At this point in her career, Davis sees many of the friends she’s worked with in comedy for the last 15 years begin to get television gigs. Fortunately, her steadfastness is paying off, and when a project comes up that people see her fitting the part for, they call.

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But Davis isn’t just waiting by the phone; she’s out pounding the pavement on her own behalf. “I recently completed filming for an independent short, no pun intended, called Pickled Eggs,” she says. Pickled Eggs was filmed in New York City, and while she met the criteria for the female little person lead, it was her attitude and ability that ultimately won her the role. “The director needed a female little person and a male little person and posted the parts on a dwarfism news group mailing list, noting there was pay involved,” she explains. “It turns out there wasn’t pay, so a bunch of people were giving the director crap about not being truthful.” In Davis’ opinion, the misunderstanding or misrepresentation wasn’t the end of the world. “Some people are hypersensitive, and first they’ll bitch there are no parts for people our size, and then as soon as somebody posts some work they still complain.” After the producers saw her standup routine, they reported to the writer/director who created an entire new character for her. She played a bartender and had the most lines in the entire short movie.

Although the status of the Pickled Eggs project is unknown to Davis—she’s heard talk they’re trying to make it into a feature film—she considers these experiences important stones in her career path. “I think I made some really great connections. I impressed everybody on the set and the people I worked with. Even though it’s at a lower level, one of the people I’m working with just might be the next Scorsese. If you work with good people and you impress them and you’re professional, hopefully the next project they work on will be bigger and they’ll want to bring you along. I’m not turning down jobs unless they’re really demeaning to little people. If it’s a casting job where I’ve got lines and I can sink my teeth into the role, I’m all over it.”

For now though, Davis has her eyes set on standup. Breaking from her standard routine, her upcoming act is titled Little Do They Know and will be a one-hour journey through her life that may even contain some sad moments, “Cause life’s not all sugary.” Her size, her parents’ reactions when she was born, her marriage to a six-foot tall man, the car accident and a myriad of her other life experiences are all fodder. “Some people say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re talking about being a little person again.’ I think, ‘No, I’m talking about being me.’”

by Romney Snyder

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