Over the past few years, mainstream media and audiences have been introduced to many talented and exciting transgender performers, actors, artists, musicians….all the while learning about their challenges and life experiences. I have a number of friends who have transitioned but I’ve never sat down to ask questions or even just listen to their stories, there’s so much to learn and understand, and to celebrate their achievements in life, career and day-to-day living whilst experiencing bullying and a lack of compassion.
I was recently introduced to a very funny comedian – Al Val – who not only talks about her path taken from male to female, but she also pokes fun at the journey and those she’s encountered along the way. The award-winning funny lady believes if you can laugh at something that scares or mystifies you, then you’ll realize there is nothing to be shocked or afraid of. There are too many misconceptions and judgements about people’s sexualities; I personally believe it’s none of anyone’s damned business. And I must admit, I learnt a lot when Al Val recently shared her thoughts with me in an online interview.
Over the past couple of years, you’ve taken very brave steps by becoming the real you – what prompted you to evolve into Al Val? So my gender identity was something I’d been struggling with since I was a teen, and over the years I’d developed an admittedly pretty sophisticated compartmentalizing pattern; any form of ‘feminine’ expression was kept completely secret to the outside world, while on the outside I presented as this dreadlock-wearing ladies’ man frat boy, mostly as a projection, a form of self-protection… But eventually the weight of performing a lie became more and more unbearable, especially when it was rotting my intimate relationships from the inside – this ‘terrible secret’ I thought I’d take to the grave with me. My personal life and my mental health had reached somewhat of a breaking point, and I decided I didn’t want to look back at the end of my life ashamed at how effectively I’d hidden from everyone. However, I’ve gone by ‘Al Val’ since the start of my comedy career and well before (it’s an abbreviated form of my full name, Algis Valiulis, which is obviously a branding/marketing nightmare). I like to think that there are elements of my delivery and an essence to my personality that have always remained constant – an ‘Al Val’ that hasn’t and won’t change no matter what – but the ‘new me’ is much more vulnerable, honest, and liberated… And that’s pretty special.
2 years ago, you won Male Break-out Comic of the Year and now you’re aiming to challenge for the Best Female – has the comedy community embraced you in your new identity or have you experienced painful push-backs or prejudices when moving forward as a trans-female artist? I’m extremely proud of the comedy community in Toronto where I live (and Canada in general!) and how generously and open-heartedly they have supported me! I count myself fortunate. Surely there are subcultures, as there would be in any community, that are perplexed and offended by who I am and what I stand for. I’ve even heard whispers of some comics spitefully convinced that I’ve “doing all of this for the clout” which is… baffling. Sure bud, I’ve subscribed to a lifetime of having puffy little marshmallow nipples and getting weird looks in the women’s washroom, but it’s all worth it when 4 people comment that they like my wig on TikTok!
However, those people tend to make up a small population of background noise compared to the outpouring of support I’ve received from the broader comedy community. Honestly, the ‘male’ part of that breakout award was never out of malice; at that point I was still dancing all over the line between male and female, and a lot of people thought that what I was doing was a kind of drag act. I hadn’t openly been identifying as a female at that point. I’m sure moving forward that any awards I get nominated for will be for a ‘female’ category; otherwise I’m going to get those four TikTok fans of mine to ‘cancel’ whoever organizes them.
Your act includes many references to the challenges you’ve experienced as a trans woman, both in showbiz and your life in general. Do you find that by sharing these situations, you not only make people laugh, but also make them think? I believe that I do! I’ve always subscribed to the idea that prejudice is really a side effect of ignorance, and ignorance can easily be overcome by exposure. On several occasions I’ve been approached by audience members after a show who will tell me that they’ve never met a trans person before, and that my act not only made them laugh but had given them something to relate to. My act is deliberately relatable – I illustrate my faults and insecurities with (sometimes painful) honesty. As a result, people essentially get to ‘meet’ a trans woman and get to connect on that human level: to learn that human universals like insecurity, shame, pride, embarrassment, triumph and failure – we all feel them. This is the human experience. It certainly helps that comedy is one hell of a bonding force between folks, and is also a warm and fuzzy way to process some terrifying and painful feelings and experiences. I do also think that my act explores traditional gender and sexual dynamics that maybe people don’t notice! Moving from one ‘polar end of the gender spectrum’ to the other has granted some interesting insights into how people are expected to behave, how they’re treated, and how they process the world depending on their sexuality and gender.In addition, the fact that I’m ‘new to womanhood’ from my bro-ey, masculine origins allows me to almost speak a sort of common universal language to both men and women, from the perspective of an underdog who’s struggling to fit in, get her shit together and to figure it all out. How can you not cheer for me and maybe take something from the experience? I’m a goddamn pioneer!
Did going through the Second City improv classes & Conservatory Program help you think quickly on your feet when responding to any negative reactions from audiences or people you just run into in day-to-day life? It’s interesting – I find that the improv training I received from Second City, while profoundly valuable in its own way, wasn’t as directly ‘translatable’ as the years’ experience I’ve had touring Canada and performing at all kinds of places, in some often uncomfortable (and maybe even vaguely dangerous) scenarios. In my opinion, Second City is excellent at training you to build funny and relatable scenes with a team of cooperative mates; however, there is a distinct ‘crowd work’ skill that you can effectively develop through trial and error: getting your teeth metaphorically kicked in by a drunk, hostile crowd at a bowling alley in Red Deer; fighting for the attention of a handful of Leafs fans at an open mic during a playoff game in Oshawa; doing an hour of squeaky-clean material during intermission at a provincial bible quoting competition in Muskoka; performing onstage between a dying Ficus plant and a massive portrait of the queen at a legion in Milton…..but I digress. (Sorry, just got caught up reliving some war stories there…) My point is that personally for me, thinking quickly on my feet is a skill I developed in part through training, but in much larger part through experience on the road. Second City did teach me some crucial skills though, like saying ‘yes, and-’ in all social interactions (onstage and off) to build rapport with people, and to mime starting a lawn mower with astounding realism.As for any hostility I might meet in day-to-day life, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid anything significantly threatening; but if I do, I know my paralyzing fear of conflict and lack of any offstage self-confidence would probably freeze me in place and make me a defenseless target. Funny how a microphone and a stage can change things so significantly…
You currently host a weekly podcast, PodGis…do you present virtual performances, tell stories or chat with guests? My podcast has become my fun little corner of the universe that is unrestricted by any sort of parameters of the stage and any expectations to be ‘on’ all the time. Yes, it is a comedy podcast in which I tell stories and wing premises as I go, but I do get personal on a level even deeper than I do onstage, and sometimes do some deep, personal dives into how I’m coping, how I’m living, and what my transition experience is like during that given week. It’s an excellent extra insight into my disorganized, imaginative brain… Aside from the occasional special appearance of a friend as a guest, it’s a solo project for now. It’s my interesting, lively little corner of spontaneous self-expression, done my way. I suppose I’m being guarded in how much outside engagement I invite, knowing that there are plenty of people who would troll me and antagonize me for a lark. It’s a level of emotional bullet proofing that I’m working on.With these damned Covid restrictions that prevent live performances, are you creating any online or YouTube content that fans can watch? I’m considering adding a video component to “PodGis” and posting the full videos on my YouTube channel (“Al Val”) to accompany the audio (available everywhere podcasts are broadcasted!), but in the meantime, am using this lockdown period to revitalize my Twitch channel “ALVALTheEmotionalGamer”, where I will be regularly streaming live makeup tutorials/ transformations, playing video games and basically hanging out with whoever wants to laugh and engage with me!
And how can we follow your comedy journey – do you have a website or social media? My website www.alvalcomedian.com is up and running, and as soon as these pesky restrictions lift I will have more booked shows to post on my event calendar there, as a single place you can continue to visit to stay up to date on all my live appearances! Otherwise, I post content regularly on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, all under the account name @alvalcomedy Add me and check out the cute, silly things I’m out there doing.
Any advice or thoughts for young comics or fellow transgender people looking for direction with their lives? To young comics, or comics of any age starting out: there is no standard timeline of progression, nor any standardized measure of ‘success’ in comedy; these are often illusions that we use to beat ourselves up that we’re not doing enough, or that we are somehow inadequate. Your primary focuses in my opinion should be self-exploration, self-expression, and self-improvement; the rest is just noise. In fussing about how well you’re competing with others and where you ‘should’ be in your career, you’re suffocating your art. Focus on the things you find funny and with time and practice and a collection of defeats (lots of them – be prepared to suck for at least a while!), you’ll develop an inspired, authentic voice that your audience will naturally be attracted to. Be you, take the pressure off yourself and stay in touch with the reasons you pursued comedy in the first place: it’s fun! Have fun and play; you only really truly fail when you give up completely.
I suppose my advice to transgender people would be similar in regards to failure: every step you take and every aspect of yourself that you explore is a courageous victory, and the only ‘failure’ that exists would be to give up completely on yourself. Yours is the unfortunate challenge of navigating an identity that doesn’t fall comfortably into the norm, so treat yourself with patience and love, lean on the support of the ones who love you and practice gratefulness toward the qualities of yourself that make you such a resilient, special little badass!
I guess what I’m trying to say is whether you’re embarking on a comedy career or a revelation regarding your gender identity or even both, art is an imitation of life and life is really a journey of exploration. You cannot fail if you’re exploring, learning, discovering, growing. Be patient. Be brave. And don’t take bathroom graffiti personally; I wouldn’t trust anyone who thinks that something worth saying is something said with a poop and a sharpie.
Al Val has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Canadian comedy scene. Since 2018 when Al came out as trans, she has made appearances at Just For Laughs New Faces showcase, JFL NorthWest, Off-JFL/Zoofest, and has taped stand-up sets for CBC Gem (New Wave of Standup), Crave TV (The Stand-Up Show with Jon Dore), and JFL Originals. Host of her own weekly solo stream-of-consciousness podcast PodGis, a graduate of Second City’s Conservatory Program, and one part of improv-rock musical duo “OverDude”, there’s no wonder this multitalented whirlwind was voted by her peers as 2020’s “Breakout Comic of the Year” (in the ‘male’ category, no less – really stickin’ it to the fellas!).
I can’t wait until we get back to post-Covid live shows so I, too, can join comedy fans watching Al Val’s exciting career arc…maybe her own tv special? A Vegas residency? A movie? Anything is possible and Al Val proves that every day.