Monday 30 March 1998

Laughing till the cows come home

Comedy circuit worth more than just chicken feed to Osgoode Township farmer

Jeff Brownlee
The Ottawa Citizen



Rod MacIvor, for The Ottawa Citizen / Farmer Paul Mussell, 36, is a hot ticket on the comedy circuit with his unusual brand of barnyard humour.

It might be only a hobby, but Paul Mussell is milking it for all it's worth.

A third-generation Osgoode Township dairy farmer, Mr. Mussell, 36, is beefing up Yuk Yuk's Comedy Cabaret and entertaining audiences at many venues around the Ottawa Valley with a unique stand-up comedy act that pokes fun at life on the farm.

From talk of slam-dancing cows to the recent ice storm, Mr. Mussell has amassed grassroots material that he says can bring a smile to the faces of even the most cosmopolitan audience.

"Life is humorous," he says. "Everyone relates to life's quirky experiences. I just take an everyday scenario and add a few twists."

An example: "I have to be careful each time I milk. I play rock music, not country in the barn and some of the cows like to slam dance. It (the music) is hard on the older cows, they're into disco, but the heifers are right into the Macarena."

Milking time is Mr. Mussell's most creative period. Every evening, he uses a notebook and pen he keeps tucked away in the barn and sits amongst his herd of cows, writing a page of new material.

"All of my material comes to me in the barn," he says. "That's where I feel most at home, that's my zone."

Writing is the easy part, he admits. Arranging the jokes into a 30-minute skit and memorizing them has its difficulties. Mistakes are made, but that's part of the overall learning process, he says.

To date, the most important item he's walked off the stage with is the list of ingredients in the recipe for a good joke.

"It's like giving birth," he says. "It's all in the setup, the timing and the delivery," says Mr. Mussell.

A joke doesn't make it to the stage if it first doesn't generate a response from his daily audience of 80 captive Holsteins.

"They're a tough crowd, but they seem to like what I write," says Mr. Mussell. "They haven't kicked me yet and that's a good sign."

Standing on stage in front of a microphone and entertaining hundreds of people is quite a deviation from both his reserved personality and the serene setting at his River Road farm. But that's what makes it so much fun, he says.

"What's ironic is that I'm extremely shy," adds Mr. Mussell. "But when I'm on stage, I'm totally different. It's such a rush."

At show time, dressed in an outfit of a stetson, jean shirt and cowboy boots, the soft-spoken gent has found his calling once he picks up the microphone: "During the ice storm I remember someone who saw Vankleek Hill on television thinking it was a Mennonite community because there wasn't a hydro pole around for miles," he quips.

The desire to try stand-up has always been buried deep inside the father of three, but it wasn't until three years ago that he first tested his material during an amateur night at an Ottawa club.

"It was brutal," he admits. "Even the cows ignored me when I came home."

But he persevered and slowly became a crowd favourite. "I think people like my act because it is so unique," says Mr. Mussell. "You don't expect a comedian to be a farmer or a farmer to be a comedian."

In the competitive world of comedy, his act is a hot commodity. In the past few months, his popularity has soared. Agricultural organizations across the country have been ringing his phone off the wall, trying to book him as the headline act.

He's even recorded a demo tape for CBC Radio and hopes to be on stage at this year's Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal.

His increased popularity is making it more difficult to juggle his time between farming, parenting and comedy. That's why he's not ready to quit his day job -- just yet.

"Comedy is great, but my first love is farming," says Mr. Mussell. "I don't know where this will take me, but I'm enjoying the ride.

"If I was the best farmer in the world, I wouldn't be at this level of notoriety. That's the really funny thing about all of this."