Outside John Brunton's office in the old Masonic Temple, workers are ripping out the guts of the historic downtown Toronto edifice, putting in lights and drop ceilings, toilets and showers and walls, transforming the storied concert venue into a state-of-the-art TV studio. Inside, Brunton, an affable guy in moustache and ball cap, is explaining to a visiting journalist how much he has enjoyed being executive producer of Open Mike with Mike Bullard. "It's been a blast," says Brunton. "And it's certainly been unpredictable." Just then, there's a loud banging on the office window, and a vision in red and tan - a C-A-N-A-D-A sweatshirt over droopy khaki shorts - yells at Brunton's visitor. "You!" shouts Mike Bullard. "You're the s.o.b. who said I looked like a beaver! I'll never forget that, man." As the host storms away, Brunton smiles. "That's it with Mike," he says. "It's like, 'Does he mean it? Or is he f - g with me?' "
Mea culpa. In a pre-season mention of Open Mike last fall, the object of Bullard's mock outrage did use the b-word - a reference to his unshaven mug, toothy grin and chubby cheeks (not so chubby any more - he has lost 30 lb. since last year). But the article also pointed out the important things to know about Bullard: he had a natural feel for audiences and a homegrown mix of wit and graciousness that augured well for what was then a pretty daring experiment in Canadian TV. Since Open Mike debuted last November - with the host yukking it up five nights a week on the Comedy Network - Bullard has proven the prognostication right, returning for his second season this week. He has pulled off what had eluded everybody else: a good, Canadian, late-night talk show.
This is no small feat. Previous Canuck attempts to invade the midnight domain of Jay Leno and David Letterman were, to put it politely, less than successful - Peter Gzowski's deadly 90 Minutes Live; the abomination that was Friday Night! With Ralph Benmergui. After those embarrassments, prevailing wisdom held that late-night talkers were not something Canadians could do. But Open Mike broke the Friday Night! jinx. And it has the numbers to prove it. The show ended its first season last April with an average of 50,000 viewers over its four daily runs on the Comedy Network - and more than that in its 10 p.m. time slot. On the Ontario CTV stations that rebroadcast Open Mike, it was notching up another 100,000 viewers - decent numbers for any program airing at 12:30 a.m.
Now, with slick new digs at the Masonic Temple (the show used to be shot in the back of Wayne Gretzky's Restaurant near the SkyDome, a space the crew had to clear out every Friday to make room for bar mitzvahs and wedding parties) and a nightly, national airing on CTV stations at 12:30 in addition to its Comedy Network runs, Bullard's show will be seen by a new - and bigger - audience. Not that Bullard is asking for much. "In this country, you can go from anonymity to fame to anonymity in six months," he says, all calmed down now while sipping coffee and puffing Export "A"s at a café just down the street from the Temple. "So anything that happens after this is gravy."
By now, Bullard's anonymity-to-fame story - the subject of so many magazine and newspaper stories lately - should be pretty familiar stuff. And it would be easy to conclude that Bullard's is an overnight-sensation story: it seems to fit so well. Until the show debuted last November, he was toiling away in relative obscurity at Bell Canada; now, after a year on air and at the ripe old age of 41, he's suddenly a working-class celebrity and a media darling. But the fact is, getting to where he is has been Bullard's plan for a long, long time.
First off, he has always wanted to be a talk-show host. Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, he and his younger brother Pat would stay up late and sneak into the family room to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. "My parents used to freak," he says. "But once they gave up and allowed us to watch Carson, we never missed it." After high school, Bullard landed a job at Bell, working his way up from telephone installer to associate director of corporate investigations. But in 1988 - after brother Pat left Canada to begin a sitcom-writing career in Los Angeles - Mike took his wiseacre wit to comedy-club amateur nights. "I got tired of getting punched in the mouth at parties," he says, "so I went into show business."
So began a decade of moonlighting on the Canadian funnyman circuit, where he became a fixture as a host - not a headliner - at Yuk Yuk's comedy clubs. "All I ever wanted to do was host," he recalls. "Other guys would say, 'What do you want to host for? It's not funny.' And I'd say, 'Well, it's what you make it.'" In the back of his mind, he was thinking of another comedy-club regular who went on to bigger things. "Letterman honed all his skills as host at The Comedy Store - he never headlined. It was just listen, think, talk, listen, think, talk."
Eventually, Bullard started peddling his act around the CBC, where he landed a stint on Friday Night! (a two-minute comedy rant), and did warm-up for Rita MacNeil's variety show. He captured the funny bones of then-CBC executives Ed Robinson and Ivan Fecan. After the Comedy Network got its licence, Robinson became its vice-president - and Fecan had already been appointed president of CTV, which owns 65 per cent of the specialty channel. Bullard was one of the first guys they called.
But the first couple months of Open Mike were not pretty. Despite all those years in comedy clubs, Bullard looked nervous in front of a studio audience - and even more on edge while interviewing. Not that it was all his fault. Bullard is renowned as a "spritzer," a master of the kind of audience interaction that, in its Bullardian form, usually begins with an innocuous "Where you from?" and ends up with a barb about a person's hair, or job, or nationality, or - well, whatever. It's a funny routine, but for people used to fabled Canadian politeness, it can be off-putting. And the early Open Mike audiences didn't seem willing to play along. Then there were the "celebrity" guests - mostly Canadian actors and musicians, many of whom had never been interviewed on air before. "They'd say, 'Where's the TelePrompTer, where's the script?' " Bullard recalls. "And I'd be like, 'There is no script, you're supposed to come on and be yourself.' 'Well,' they'd say, 'I don't think anybody wants to see that.' "
Fecan and Robinson stood behind Open Mike. They had, after all, seen talk-show troubles before, back in the early '90s with the Benmergui debacle, when both were at the CBC. "We tried to learn from Friday Night!" says Fecan. "It's part of why we started the show very small and built it, giving it a chance to make mistakes quietly." Gradually, both the studio and home audiences started getting the joke. For Bullard, the turning point came last Christmas. "I'd been telling myself, '58 shows to go, and then I can go get a job at Hydro,'" he says. Then, while shopping at a Mississauga mall with his wife of 14 years, Debbie (who had two children, now 24 and 22), he got mobbed by fans. "My wife said, 'You see? People like the show. All you ever thought about was getting this show, so why not go back and have fun?' After that, it was fun."
Now, with a secure fan base, the main challenge facing Bullard and his staff is to prevent Open Mike from getting too big for its comedic britches. After snaring popular comics Denis Leary and Tracey Ullman last season, it's now a coveted stop for U.S. entertainers doing north-of-the-border publicity. But Bullard and the producers want to keep it small and funky - a formula that relies, like Letterman in his heyday, on the host, not big-name guests. "When Letterman went to CBS," says Open Mike producer Allen Magee, "he started to slip over to the other side - he relied on Harrison Ford to sell the show."
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Bullard has already caught the attention of American TV executives. But he says he has no plans to move. "I don't want to go - I love working here." He has had a chance to see the Canadian-expatriate-in-L.A. experience up close, through brother Pat, who begins as host of the revamped Love Connection this fall (and, in some Canadian markets, against Open Mike). "Pat's gonna work 39 days a year on Love Connection," says Bullard. "It's not my place to tell you how much he's making, but working every day for a year it would be ungodly money. For 39 days a year, it's a lottery." But, Bullard insists, having a younger brother making bucks hand over fist "doesn't bother me at all. Honest to God, I'd do this show for a lot less than I'm doing it for."
So will success spoil Bullard? Doesn't seem likely. His personal life, he says, is on track. He recently reconciled with his wife, an engineer at Bell, after a bout of marital difficulty, and they just bought a bungalow in Mississauga. And he seems to have remained what his friends say he is: a level-headed, down-to-earth guy, with a gift of gab and an easy manner with strangers - good qualities in a man bent on becoming the Canadian Carson.
A case in point: in mid-interview at the café, the waiter slinks up to Bullard's table. "You the guy on TV who tells all those jokes?" he interrupts, smiling in that way people do in the presence of celebrity. "I've never been to your show, but you're funny." Bullard stands up, shakes the waiter's hand: "Thanks, man. What's your name?" Waiter: "Albert." Bullard: "Thank you, Albert." Then, he says with a glance at his interviewer: "Your timing could not have been better, Albert. Make sure you pick up that 10 spot on your way out."
Funny guy, Mike Bullard. Even if he does look like a beaver.
Maclean's September 28, 1998