From law school to stand-up comedy, Lisa Buchanan tackles life with a laugh
April 13, 2020, 5:23 pm ADTLast Updated: April 15, 2020, 11:49 am
It was her first time doing stand-up comedy in front of a large audience. Lisa Buchanan had only been performing for about a year when, in July 2018, she was invited to open for Carolyn Taylor of the Baroness von Sketch Show at Halifax Pride Comedy Night. She had three or four shows under her belt and was used to crowds of about 150. This time, there would be 700.
Backstage Buchanan was trying not to act starstruck, but being a fan of Taylor, an actress and comedian who has written for This Hour Has 22 Minutes, made it difficult. The stakes were high, and Buchanan more nervous than usual.
Instead of imagining 700 strangers, Buchanan visualized all of her friends and family who had come to see her. The host introduced Buchanan, and she walked out in front of the crowd.
As the Spatz Theatre filled with applause and laughter she thought, “Oh, this is definitely different.” She couldn’t see the audience, and at the start of her 10-minute set was thrown off by the width of the stage. Buchanan doesn’t move around a lot when performing, and the space was much larger than other theatres she had worked. She wondered whether she should walk back and forth or just stay put, but quickly focused and moved into the familiar flow of her routine.
Buchanan is someone who takes on new challenges and usually makes them seem easy. On top of stand-up she co-hosts a monthly comedy podcast, has co-written a screenplay, and in June will launch a film series.
As a child she liked to draw, and read detective books. She learned to play the fiddle and took Highland dance, but it was film and pop culture that hooked Buchanan’s interest. At 35, the walls of her Dartmouth condo are decorated with Star Trek art. She collects toy characters, Funko Pops, from one of her favourite shows, Orphan Black. A candle featuring Buffy the Vampire Slayer stands on a shelf.
Her closet is full of bright colours and paisley and floral patterns. When she goes on stage, she usually opens her sets with a joke about her clothing, poking fun at herself. At the start of a show where she was wearing a vacation shirt, khaki shorts, and Converse, she announced, “I look like a dad on vacation!”
Buchanan is equal parts serious and silly. She’s focused and ambitious, thoughtful and creative, humorous and lighthearted. Her conversation flows easily with a hint of playfulness, even though she describes herself as an introvert. She’s a law school graduate and has a master’s degree in English Literature. She works full-time at the United Way, where her work includes facilitating workshops on the experience of living in poverty and analyzing donor trends. After work, she usually heads to the boxing gym. She’s certified to spar.
An effortless energy seems to propel Buchanan through life. One of her secrets? The habit of laughter.
“There is something about eating with those wooden forks, those little Popsicle sticks with the two prongs,” said Adam Myatt. “That implement makes the food taste better. I don’t care what anyone says.”
“I agree with that,” Buchanan said. “Simultaneously, the worst feeling in the world is licking a Popsicle stick when you’ve finished the Popsicle.”
“The worst feeling?” said Myatt, laughing.
“I hate that feeling of licking a wet, slightly grape-flavoured Popsicle stick.”
Myatt and Buchanan sit behind the mics in the small recording studio at the Halifax Central Library. They’re creating an episode of the LOL UR GAY podcast, now in its third season. Nothing is scripted or even all that planned. They share stories and jokes, and from time to time interview other gay comedians and special guests.
The conversation flows and a range of topics spill out. During this episode Myatt gives his take on the Welcome to New Brunswick sign, they tackle questions from a list of 160 first date topics, get onto the subject of eating fresh, warm pretzels at the mall, and then: Popsicle sticks.
Myatt also does stand-up comedy and works at an art gallery. He and Buchanan met while on the board of the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, an organization advocating for LGBTQ+ rights. They connected instantly.
As comedians Buchanan and Myatt have very different styles. When the two met in 2017, Myatt had already been doing stand-up for about a year. Buchanan jokes that Myatt’s delivery takes about 30 seconds, while hers takes five minutes and 30 seconds. Buchanan enjoys telling longer tales; Myatt likes one-liners.
Myatt admits he isn’t overly confident, and feels best on stage performing. He sees comedy as an outlet — a “beautiful way to process all your trauma.” He jokes that he doesn’t leave the house much, and recording the podcast gives him an excuse to get out and see his friend. Like Buchanan he comes across as fun and intelligent, but he struggles to see a purpose sometimes, the meaning in life. He finds it through his creative work and doing what he loves.
Buchanan’s love of comedy grew from her Cape Breton roots. Around the age of nine her parents started taking her to see the Cape Breton Summertime Revue. She didn’t understand the political jokes, but the musical and comedy acts made an impression. Watching as the performers sang, danced and played instruments, she was learning the beats and rhythms of comedy — how stories are crafted and where the pauses go.
Since then humour has remained an important force in Buchanan’s life. She feels it’s vital to the human experience. “I don’t even know how to describe it,” she said, “because it’s so important.”
Buchanan and Myatt have worked together on two films. They received $8,000 in funding from AFCOOP, the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative, to make Baggage. It’s 10 minutes long, written and directed by Myatt and produced by Buchanan, about two friends who work at a luggage store that’s about to close. As someone who hates change, Myatt wanted to explore life’s transitions through the film. It recently screened at the Pink Lobster Festival in New Brunswick, an annual LGBTQ film festival, and last fall played at the Atlantic Film Festival.
They have also written a feature-length screenplay, Pink Carnation. It depicts the lives of a group of queer students in rural Nova Scotia and the community and characters around them. Their application for grant funding to produce this film wasn’t successful, but they continue to tell stories and enjoy laughs together. The friendship, Myatt says, has been “fiercely productive.”
“It’s hard to find relationships like that,” he said.
Buchanan calls herself a “TV kid.” The first characters she fell in love with were Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet, and Pooh. Watching them for the first time, she laughed and laughed and when the movie was over said, “Again!” (Buchanan doesn’t remember this, being only three at the time, but it’s a story her mom tells.)
As a junior high school student in Sydney, she would get home in the late afternoon to watch her favourite shows. Her room was light purple. She sat in an ugly green chair covered by a pink knitted blanket. There Buchanan watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ally McBeal, Law and Order, and Dawson’s Creek. As she got older, she fell in love with films like Girl Interrupted and Carol.
Buchanan enjoys movies and characters she can identify with, that reflect some part of her life experience. But she also enjoys films that introduce other perspectives. These films, she says, get “the wheels turning in your brain a different way.”
She will soon launch a short film series, Not for Ladies Only, to share three of her favourites. Part of the idea for the series came when talking to a friend who also loves pop culture. Buchanan was shocked to learn he hadn’t seen Now and Then, which for her was “the sleepover party movie” when she was in grade five. It’s a coming of age film about four young women. She quickly realized he hadn’t seen it — because it wasn’t a movie that boys watched.
“And I think that’s silly.”
She has chosen three films about women, mainly directed and written by women. The goal is to encourage movie-goers to break out of their normal viewing habits and expand their ideas of what films they might enjoy. The first in the lineup is a lighthearted comedy from 1995, Clueless, which was set to be screened on March 31 at the Museum of Natural History theatre. The series is postponed; Buchanan hopes to launch it on June 24.
As a teen in her Sydney bedroom, the characters Buchanan watched on screen filled her mind with possibilities. In the world of Ally McBeal, a legal comedy-drama TV series from the late ’90s, becoming a lawyer seemed like such a fun job. Buchanan also wanted to become a film director after high school, just like the main character in Dawson’s Creek. When the time came to apply to universities, she didn’t consider fine arts programs. The practical, safe route beckoned, and instead she studied law.
Of course, real life is much more complicated than on TV.
After graduating from Dalhousie in 2009, Buchanan couldn’t find an articling position with a Halifax law firm. She worked for the federal government, then did a master’s in English Literature at the University of Saskatchewan, where she had received a scholarship.
Three years later she was still hoping to give law one last shot, and lined up a meeting with a lawyer. That same week she also interviewed at the United Way for a fundraising and volunteer management position.
At the United Way she enjoyed a kind of conversation she had experienced at any law firm. The position drew on her experience on the executive of Dal Out — a support and education centre for LGBTQ+ students, where she sat on committees, helped coordinate fundraisers, and was part of the push to build single-stall gender neutral washrooms in the Student Union Building.
Having a career that contributes to community is important to Buchanan. She had envisioned helping people with her law degree. Although she never became a lawyer, in the end this brought more relief than disappointment. She realized the lack of a work/life balance that often comes with law probably wasn’t the right path for her. At the United Way, she still goes to work helping others.
“Whether it’s queer people or people of colour or folks who are on a low income,” Buchanan said, “I feel like the world is full of inequity. And if you’re in a position where you can do something to help, you should try and do that.”
Her story unfolds
Although it is not how she imagined it, Lisa Buchanan has allowed her story to unfold in its own unique way. She no longer has a five-year plan — that went out the window with her unwanted law career.
Buchanan doesn’t consider herself to be a role model. Laughing, she said: not one for adults. But she is inspiring in her ability to work hard, take on new challenges, and go after what she loves, all while somehow doing it in a way that’s full of hilarity.
“I still have plenty of time to watch movies and binge a lot of TV shows.”