Articles About Gord

SPECIAL REPORT
Blind comedian laughs at his fate

By MIKE Hanley
The Spectator

Nothing is sacred when Gord Paynter takes the stage. Not even Wayne Gretzky.
"They talk about him scoring 200 goals in peewee. Big deal. I was the goalie"
Paynter is blind.
He makes jokes about his blindness and people line up to listen.
"The white cane has become my trademark. It's sort of like Donnie Coy and his hat."
It hasn't always been that way.
He was 22 when he lost his sight and slid into deep depression.
"There were days when I entertained thoughts of suicide."
He shut out family and friends, content to sit in a corner and collect a disability pension. When friends were able to crack his wall of silence, they wouldn't dare use words like blind, visually impaired, white cane, Braille or the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
"They knew it would trigger an avalanche of anger."

Paynter, 44, was born in Kingston but moved to Brantford in 1961.
His father served with the RCAF and his mother with the RAF. They met in the mid-'40s while installing radar equipment in England. She moved to Canada in late 1946 and they married, New Year's Eve, 1947.
Mother is 81, his father died almost 25 years ago.
"My dad had a great sense of humour."
Paynter inherited his dad's love of laugh and was in Grade 3 when he decided he'd like a career in the funny business.
"I've never been keen on hard work. I remember watching guys like Red Skelton, Bill Cosby and George Carlin and thinking, "That looks like a nice way to make a living."
He started honing his skills early.
"I was the class clown, trying to get the teacher laughing. Later, I would try my jokes on waiters, bartenders and taxi drivers, always challenging myself to get a laugh from strangers."
In 1974 he went to Brock University, where he studied theatre arts.
"I was a terrible actor, absolutely terrified on stage. I could never lose myself to another character. I was always Gord up there, wondering if I was making a fool of myself.
"Comedy is different - there's a lot of make-believe but the character is still me."
In his first year at Brock, the class clown took centre stage during a school talent show.
"That was the first time I got up in front of a lot of people and said, 'I'm a comedian, I will make you laugh.' Unfortunately, I hadn't rehearsed any of my material and I bombed.
"I remember standing up there thinking, 'Whoops, maybe I'm not so funny.'"
He climbed back on the horse, entering the same show a year later.
"I was fractionally better."
He taped the shows and kept notes of everything, including lighting, sound system and audience reaction.
"I could always find a sliver of success and I'd cling to them because a moment later I'd hear myself bombing. But there were enough positive sparks to push me along."
He graduated in 1976 and started a hitchhiking tour of Europe. He was in a pub in Wales when his sight started dimming.
'A pinky fog was cutting off my vision."
He made it back to his hotel, using the curb and hedges as his guide.
"I went to bed hoping I'd wake up in the morning and everything would be back to normal."
It wasn't. The loss was suffocating, but it didn't come as a complete shock.
"I'm a diabetic and the condition was slowly taking my sight. Because it was gradual, my anger and frustration would ebb and flow. Every time I'd lose more of my sight, the anger would set in. Then I'd accept the loss and get on with my life. Then I'd lose more and the anger would be back. It went on like that until the loss was total.
"But I guess it was a blessing that it was gradual because it gave me a chance to ease into a state of blindness while awakening my senses to other abilities and gifts."
He returned to Brantford and spent the next several months in hibernation.
"Initially, it was a novelty. Everyone was doing things for me. There was no expectation of work. I could just sit there, do nothing, and collect a pension."
A few months later, the novelty wore off and he knew it was time to deal with a lifetime of blindness.
"That's when the struggle really started."
His family and friends convinced him to take a Canadian National Institute for the Blind course in Toronto, intended to help people adjust to a life without sight.
"I felt betrayed, I was being pushed from my nest."

He met others who were fighting the same battle, including a dairy farmer who lost his sight, then his farm, then his wife.
"There were so many people worse off than me. But I couldn't see that at the time. I was too angry."
After completing the course, he picked up a white cane and took his first steps toward independence.
"That was a huge hurdle. To me, the cane screamed out that I was a stupid blind guy. But it was a Catch-22: if I didn't use it, I was a stupid blind guy who was tripping over curbs and walking into poles."
He moved to London, Ont., in 1985 and used a Canada Council grant to start a theatre company which included two actors with cerebral palsy along with two able-bodied performers.
He still dabbled in comedy and entered two competitions, finishing third the first time and second the next. And he played at folk clubs in Brantford and Hamilton.
A friend told him about an amateur show at Yuk Yuk's in Toronto and suggested he give it a whirl.
"I was blown away by the talent there. They were so cool and casual. I felt completely out of my league."
After he nervously took the stage, the jokes came tumbling out.
"The audience was laughing so long and so hard I could only use three minutes of my seven-minute act. It was so exciting that I let an element of my brain step aside and watch the show. It was overwhelming."
When he left the stage, the manager said Mark Breslin wanted to see him.
"He said I was a very funny guy. That was such a rush."
Breslin, founder of Yuk Yuk's comedy club chain, said he was impressed by Paynter's range of humour.
"It would be easy for him to simply do a blind act but he gets into other areas, which shows him to be a very good comic."
Suddenly the cool and calm comics wanted to chum with the new kid on the block.
"They invited me to a deli after the show. They were asking me the questions. I felt like a star. I didn't sleep that night."
Breslin invited him to join the Yuk Yuk's stable and perform at clubs across the country.
"You can give him a gig in the most obscure part of Alberta," says Breslin. "It might require a plane, train and bus to get there, but you know he'll make it.
"He's so independent, he amazes me."
Paynter remembers telling his mother about his new job.
"She's never embraced comedy" he recalls, with a laugh. "She said: 'Don't be so stupid, you can't make money telling jokes. Why can't you be a teacher or a bricklayer? You'll get more money and the pension is better.' "
But she gave him two thumbs up after sitting through one of his shows.
"She said I was quite good. But I didn't think she sounded too sincere. She'll never make it as an actress."
He got a warmer reception when he met Catherine Camp, a sighted actress who would later become his wife.
"We met in a strip bar," Paynter says, earning a playful slap.
They actually met in 1986 when Paynter was running the theatre company in London. He was giving up the theatre job to concentrate on comedy and Catherine was applying for his position.
"She was a natural, she knows theatre inside out."
Catherine studied theatre at Niagara College and was hired to work on the support staff with Famous People Players, a troupe of developmentally handicapped puppeteers, dancers and singers who regularly tour North America.
After Paynter hired her, she invited him out for lunch.
"I wanted to learn a little more about his company," she says.
After lunch, he invited Catherine out for dinner.
"I wanted to learn more about her."
He learned they share a love of wine, travel, theatre and music.
"We have an awful lot in common," says Catherine, "except sports."
As their friendship blossomed into romance, a few of her friends threw up the caution sign.
"They were concerned for me, they didn't think I knew what I was getting into," she says.
They married in 1990 and put those concerns to rest.
"When those same people saw us together, their attitude changed 150 per cent," Catherine says.
"Sometimes I think they like Gord better than me," she adds, with a laugh.
Catherine, an assistant to the administrator at a Brantford medical centre, shares her husband's sense of humour and is working on a comedy routine with a friend.
"We call ourselves Fish and Hips we're both Pisces and we both have big hips."
Paynter is hoping she'll join him on stage sometime in the future.
"I think a Burns and Allen kind of thing would work today"

She's been trying to convince Paynter to write his life story and, with a lot of arm twisting, managed to get him to the type writer.
"He was turning out a page a day. I thought, 'Great, at this pace, he'll have the book done in a year."
But she had second thoughts after paying a visit to his basement office.
"She's looking over my shoulder, then I hear a bit of a cough, then it's like 'I don't know how to break the news.'"
The news wasn't good.
"His typewriter ribbon had run out," Catherine says. "He had nothing but blank pages."
He's back to the typewriter but hopes to have a voice-activated computer next year.
"It's so frustrating to be working away when the phone rings. When you return to the typewriter, you can't remember exactly where you left off."
He shakes off those frustrations and sometimes works them into his act. After one of his shows, a member of the audience told him he was inspired by his routine.
"Part of me was hurt because it wasn't meant to be inspiring. It was meant to be funny. But another part of me saw it as an opportunity. I thought I could write inspirational and motivational messages, sandwiched between lots of comedy."
He started Leave Them Laughing in 1987 and has been delivering his inspirational messages to students, seniors, corporate types and service clubs.
"It's become our bread and butter. It's not unusual to have two or three engagements in a day."
He's been honoured several times for his work and was at Queen's Park in June to receive the Community Action Award from Lieutenant-Governor Hilary Weston.
"I sat beside her. I didn't even goof around."
It's not all work and no play.
He said he took an evening off to visit Braniford's new casino.
"I thought I'd try the slots. Boy, was I upset when I found out I'd just lost $300 to a pay phone."
He describes himself as a "huge sports fan," especially hockey, baseball, football, golf and basketball,
"I love blind basketball games. The winner isn't the team that gets the most points, it's the team that is able to find the gym."
His first love is golf and he often sits in front of his television, listening to the golf channel.
"I drive my wife nuts. I'm listening to Tiger hitting the ball and I'm going, 'Wow,' and Catherine is saying, 'Wow what?' But I hear the sound and I can imagine how far the ball is going."
He golfs three or four times a week and can get around Brantford's Northridge course in fewer than 100 strokes.
"Dan Pierce is my caddie and he does a tremendous job of lining up putts and measuring distance."
A niece was filling in as his caddie earlier this year when he made headlines by scoring a hole-in-one.
"I was getting calls from newspapers, television and radio stations all over the map - Kansas, Oklahoma, St. Louis, Miami ... even the BBC."
He was hoping to use that attention to open comedy doors in the United States.
"I'd talk golf for a while then try to steer the conversation toward comedy. I told one guy that I shot 6,004 that day, the best round of my life. But he didn't know how to take me. I could hear him mumbling, 'I don't think 6,004 is such a good score.'"
He even sent tapes to Leno, Letterman, Rosie O'Donnell, Howie Mandel.
"I haven't heard back from them. Maybe I should have tried Jerry Springer. But I didn't think he'd be interested unless I'd had the hole-in-one while golfing with a naked 14-year-old girl."
With golf season behind him, he's looking forward to Super Bowl Sunday when he gets together with his pals for their annual game of touch football.
"We take a turn at playing all positions. When I'm a receiver, I wear a helmet and mask. If the quarterback hits me with the ball, it's a completion.
"When I'm on defence, the man I'm guarding has to keep yelling and I try following his voice.
"It's a lot of fun but I'm not sure I'm much of an asset to my team."
And one of his opponents has been using trick plays to draw his blind friend off-side.
"He screams snap and away I go. I'm not sure how to deal with that. I might have to kill him," he says with a laugh.

 
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