Lee Bells is a 46 year old father of four, has taught high school English and History for over twenty years, and is also one half of Don’t Mind Us, an improvisational comedy duo that have been performing for longer than he has been teaching. The other half of Don’t Mind Us is Mark Schweighardt, who lives and works in Saskatoon. What improvised comedy, or an “improv” show consists of is a series of acts based on audience suggestions. For example, Mark and Lee will ask for three suggestions: a type of diversified farming, something that you’ve never done, and a last word. They will then confer for less than a minute, adorn themselves with goofy hats and plastic swords, and then deliver a hilarious performance. Mark and Lee grew up in Humboldt together, a year apart in school, and formed this business on their own. They have been performing together for over 25 years.
Even though teaching is his day job, the jokes he makes on a daily basis reveal that comedy is Lee’s true passion. Lee said his love of performing started at a young age. The very first shows that he ever put on was when he was in grade six, performing magic tricks. The next step was joining the school band as a percussionist. He said he always loved having an audience, and he realized in his high school drama productions that his real calling was making people laugh.
After graduating from his high school in Humboldt, Lee pursued his interest in comedy. He began watching improv shows that the Saskatoon Soaps put on, and thought that that was something he could do. He auditioned for the group along with Mark Schweighardt, and the second year they tried out, they made it in. It was performing with the Saskatoon Soaps that Lee and Mark started to learn improv skills through workshops and experience. Halfway through their first year with the Soaps, Mark and Lee had the idea that they could become a smaller comedy group. The original sketch group comprised of three people: Lee, Mark, and Rob Scott, another individual from their hometown. A year passed, and Mark and Lee decided to go forward with their two-man show.
Don’t Mind Us Comedy was formed by two eager young guys in their early 20s. For the first several years the pair didn't use microphones. Instead they projected their voices when performing in large rooms.
“That was good, because it gave our performance more energy, but it wasn’t possible to be heard in some venues. So once we went to microphones, it was easier because we could reach everybody, but I noticed that it lowered the energy.”
As Lee and Mark grew more experienced, aspects of the show changed over the years.
“We went from a very open show, based purely on suggestions, with a...wild format to a show that has set jokes and set ways to solicit suggestions from the audience. The format of the show has changed quite a bit,” Lee said, when asked about their set list. He chuckled. “For some reason, for the first several years, we would do a couple scenes in a row and ask for the same two things in each scene. We would do three different versions of one scene. We would do a sport or leisure activity, then a location, and then we would do the same thing again. It took us years and years to figure out that that was stupid.” The men agree that the road to becoming professional entertainers was full of “little realizations like that.”
Lee and Mark’s partnership in this business has lasted over 25 years. For two men that both have other jobs and families, that’s a long time to stay committed. One would think they would lose interest, or that life would get in the way.
“As for us not losing interest in it, it’s an excellent creative outlet for both of us,” Lee said. “We both like being onstage, getting attention, and being laughed at. There’s a natural adrenaline rush or buzz that we never get tired of.” Mark and Lee are fortunate enough to have a strong partnership, and have never suffered a fallout that damaged their career. “We do have egos, but not large enough egos that it holds us back from getting along. I think the strength of the partnership for us, as a team, has done a lot for making it last.”
As much as improv comedy is a creative endeavor, there is a strong business background to any thriving entertainer.
“We have a strong passion for being creative...but equally we have a strong passion for running it like a business. A lot of artistic endeavors we’ve found, over the years, people that run them aren't necessarily as focused in thinking about the bottom line in making it work,” Lee explained. “I find the digital marketing side almost as fun, in a different way, as actually performing. So I think that keeps us healthy in terms of a viable business.”
Not every artistic venture makes it in the business world. Since Don’t Mind Us is run by Lee and Mark, they are responsible for both the comedy and the marketing. What does that mean, for them? It means that performing well and keeping their business thriving is a balance. On one hand, they stay true to their improvising so that every show is authentic. “However, as you raise your fee and your responsibility to make people laugh gets stronger, you have to rely on material that will make your audience laugh,” Lee explained.
Having an infectious, good sense of humour is partly natural, but in the case of their comedy duo, a lot of it is experience. “After 25 years, we’ve encountered almost every kind of difficult, horrible situation from environment to crowd to other situations!”
Lee will describe himself as computer-savvy; he is the one who works on their website and their Facebook page. But he admitted that the secret to getting bookings is to take a more old-fashioned approach.
“Word of mouth is always the most important part of marketing. So, if you do a good show, you’re going to get another show.” He smiled. “We’ve gotten much better at dealing with that. We were pretty, you know, lax when it happened in the early days. Now we’re trying to pay more conscious attention to it.”
One of Mark and Lee’s greatest successes of their career is the Wedding M.C. Joke Book. It’s one of the only books out there with good, clean jokes on how to be a memorable M.C. at a wedding.
However, despite his success as a professional comedian, the bulk of his work life is spent teaching. Pursuing any creative pastime can change the way your life goes. For instance, would he have been able to give up comedy? Or would he have been able to give up teaching?
“You always ask yourself the question—if you had pursued comedy full time, where would you have ended up now? Right?... As a teacher—if I hadn’t had improv comedy, I often ask myself, would I have been a principal for many years by now? Would I have pursued that, you know, as a thing to do within your career?
But I’ve always found that doing comedy is the best creative outlet for me, even more so than teaching. So I don’t think I could have done without it. If I didn’t start a family and look at those responsibilities when I did, I might have considered the life of pursuing a comedian which would have been more travel, etc. But I’ve always been a somewhat conservative person, so that would have been a little too wild and crazy for me. I probably prefer to be a little more grounded. But I’ll always have that question, especially now that I’m 46 years old: if I had pursued that comedy full time—even as a stand-up, which I did before I was an improviser—how far would I have gone? Would I be a household name? Would I be obscure?”
This same kind of reflection wouldn’t be unheard of for many performers in a similar situation. Which leads to the question of what ‘show business’ really is. It’s a dream many have, but few make it a full-time career. So what constitutes show biz?
“In the old days, they used to differentiate us from other artistic endeavors,” Lee said, speaking for comedians. “We were entertainers, or performers, as opposed to artists. But we do have skills in improv comedy, and we do have skills in making people laugh. But since we do it for money, I still think of it as an entertainer-performer. And I don’t mean that in a lesser way, I think we’re still professional. But I still think we focus on using our artistic skills to bring about a result for an audience and get paid for it. Anybody who gets up in front of a stage and makes people enjoy what they do, we’re all similar to that. But, um, you know, a DJ who plays music, a band who plays music, a cowboy poet that I’ve seen before...”
I asked Lee how he used his admirable skills in performing and presenting in his classroom at school. “Well...” he said, “I don’t know if I have the right theory, but the way it works for me is, I think that it’s hard to pay attention to something without being interested. And my personal skill in getting people to be interested or to get their attention is through using humor.”
With both Lee and Mark's imminent retirements, both will have ample amounts of free time on their hands in the next few years. I asked what this meant for the future of Don’t Mind Us.
“Interestingly enough, when you are a teacher, you believe in learning, and having people become educated. And, after 25 years of doing this, Mark and I took a course to further our career and work on the marketing angle for things. It’s interesting how you can always learn something about what you’re doing, whether it be your craft, or learning business skills, etc.”
As for the retirement years? “It would be nice to have more time to spend on the comedy business,” Lee admits. “The most immediate goal that Mark and I have that we would share is to branch out into, like, speaking, or presenting day sessions at conventions, that kind of thing. Obviously we would use humor, but we would also have more of a message based on what we’ve learned. Because by then we’ll have been doing this for 30 years or more, so we’ll have experience in what it takes to be a team, to work together, and what it takes to entertain.”
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