On a rainy afternoon at the Tipsy Muse Café in downtown Fredericton, comedian James Mullinger tested new material gathered on his long road to Canadian citizenship as an immigrant from Great Britain.
Sitting in front of a bay window, he sips an Americano and recalls the citizenship test questions “that no Canadian can ever answer.”
“The one that I should have known and didn’t was, ‘who is Canada’s head of state?’ I would never have guessed the Queen of England,” said Mullinger. “The real saviour is the being online and being able to do the mock tests … but yeah, there’s dates and things which I’ve already forgotten.”
After living in New Brunswick for eight years, Mullinger became a Canadian citizen on Nov. 9, 2021. The ceremony took place virtually because of pandemic rules. He and his family watched from their home in Rothesay, N.B., about 20 minutes from Saint John, N.B.
“I spent eight years building up to this moment where I become a Canadian and, of course, the day comes and it’s obviously via Zoom, rather than a ceremony,” Mullinger said. “I had to focus on the fact that it’s all about the end result — being able to call myself Canadian.”
He joked about his wife, Pamela, who drove around Fredericton with their miniature goldendoodle, Willow, after collecting Mullinger’s new passport from Service Canada that morning. It was important to make sure Willow felt included for the occasion, he said.
Mullinger grew up in Maidenhead, England — a suburb of London that he said didn’t even have a cinema or youth club, leaving him with nothing to do. Since movies are his first love, Mullinger spent a lot of time “holed up” in his bedroom watching his favourite films or listening to comedy records.
After finishing school, he spent time in the workforce before attending Kingston University and later worked for 14 years as a photographic director and comedy editor at GQ Magazine. But it was in 2005 when Mullinger began his career in stand-up comedy.
Mullinger said by day, he was at the magazine and by night, he was on stage. It was a passion he always imagined but never thought would become a reality. Mullinger admits being frustrated with himself for not trying harder as a teenager, sneaking out to clubs “Bill Hicks-style.”
As a student who wasn’t academic, athletic and did not have many friends, Mullinger said his parents still can’t believe comedy is the full-time job of their once-shy son.
“I was essentially a triple bill of failure,” said Mullinger. “When I was being picked on in school, comedy was the thing that cheered me up and it was a thing that we bonded over as a family at home.”
Mullinger’s tipping point came on New Year’s Eve in 2004 during a Christmas vacation to Saint John with his in-laws. He remembers watching a production at the Water Street Dinner Theatre and seeing the performers live out their dreams, pursuing something he wanted to do — entertain people.
“Whatever their lives are like during the day … at night, they are the stars of the stage; they are literally living the dream,” he said. “I made a pact that would be the year I would start stand-up and it still took me five months, but in May 2005, I did my first open spot.”
Mullinger is interrupted briefly by someone who spotted him outside the cafe. A middle-aged man approaches the table with a smile and greets Mullinger with an elbow bump, a normal pandemic greeting. The pair chatted for a moment about future gigs before the man went on his way.
After refocusing his train of thought, Mullinger admits that sharing his stand-up comedy pact with Pamela, his then-girlfriend, was a tad weird. It’s the main reason he proposed to her about one or two years later, citing a need to “lock this down” because of the time he spent on the road.
“She was supportive of it, but it is weird because basically, I’m saying, ‘yeah, I’m not going to see you,’” said Mullinger.
Mullinger remembers his first performance as if it was yesterday — a Caribbean bar in East London. His stage was a door set up on beer crates, and he was absolutely petrified. That first show got a couple of good laughs, but one could hear a pin drop during his second.
“You might have three or four terrible ones and you’ll be just thinking, ‘I’m going to give up, this is pointless,’” said Mullinger. “Then you would realize you had one more [show] in the diary and then you would do it, it would go well and you get the bug again.”
It was tough starting out. Mullinger broke even on most of his performances. He spent the money he did earn paying for transportation home. But despite that, Mullinger continued to cut his comedy teeth by the Malcolm Gladwell rule, putting in 10,000 hours of work to become a master at any given skill.
Despite being able to appear solo or perform a show with other comics, he admits he didn’t have an identity — not one that was interesting to an audience. It wasn’t until moving to Canada in 2013 that Mullinger found his niche.
He and Pamela had lived in London with their first child and another on the way. The pair realized staying in London would mean not regularly seeing each other or the children and that would be no quality of life.
They decided to pack up and move to New Brunswick, Pamela’s home province.
Mullinger attributes most of his act revolving around being “a fish out of water,” as an English person living in Canada and being confused by normal Canadian things — like road directions that involve “where something used to be.”
Mullinger sees the difference between British and Canadian audiences. He describes a cynicism with British crowds, a feeling of pressure from those watching to make them laugh. He said the need to work harder with an audience makes England a good place to learn the trade.
Canadian audiences are different.
“An audience in Canada has come out to have fun and have a laugh; they’re not waiting for you to fail,” he said.
After a professional career that spans 10 years, Mullinger has some remarkable highlights. But two of his proudest moments are his 2016 and 2018 performances at TD Station in Saint John where he played to a stadium packed with 5,000 people.
He said it’s something that never would have happened on the other side of the Atlantic.
“[TD Station] was the first time that I realized that not only was I going to be able to carry on doing it here, but I was able to do more,” said Mullinger. “I remember saying, ‘I don’t think a day will go by without me thinking about this,’ and that was five years ago now.”
Mullinger has been busy. He and his wife launched the magazine The Maritime Edit five years ago and this spring he will publish a memoir, Brit Happens: Or Living the Canadian Dream.
But looking back on his experiences — from the angry promoters, the hecklers and missing the last train home — Mullinger never stops appreciating his current success, working with countless professionals and having fun.
“You need a thick skin in this job,” he said.
“There are so many comedians I know whom I started out with who were far better than I was, who gave up because they got sick of [those] constant crushing blows. But if you want something and are willing to go through that to get to that, then you just keep going.”
Yet his proudest achievement by far is being able to call himself a Canadian.
“It feels good to be official.”