It was during his university studies in Lethbridge that local comedian Niek Theelen really came to see his gift for comedy.
It’s a natural ability that continues to grow and evolve – and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by a growing legion of fans across the region.
Theelen was born in Holland, settling with his family in western Canada in 1999 – thus the Dutch spelling of his first name, which of course requires constant correction in terms of how folks pronounce it.
But the easy-going Theelen isn’t much bothered by it. ”I’m still going to tell the same jokes and try to be funny no matter what they call me,” he said with a laugh. The family also had the option of heading ‘down under’.
“Canada is really nice of course, but you have to wonder what it would be like on the beaches of Australia.”
Theelen earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree in New Media at the University of Lethbridge, which encompassed film, graphics and web site design and even some screenwriting.
“In one of my advanced screenwriting classes we could choose to either write 10 minutes of stand-up comedy or a script,” he recalled. He opted for the comedy, although it didn’t happen immediately.
Theelen is a warm, friendly and upbeat guy – fun to talk to with a knack for self-deprecation and just being refreshingly ‘real’.
He has cerebral palsy, but one doesn’t get the sense that this – in any way – keeps him from engaging full force in whatever he sets his mind to, whether that’s his comedy or even tapping into the world of acting.
“I went out to the second anniversary of an open mic show, and they were giving away the award for ‘Comedian of the Month’,” he said. “I showed up just to do the jokes I had written for my class.
“I did the performance that night, and people seemed to really enjoy it. And then they gave me the award for Comedian of the Month,” he added with a laugh.
“I was thinking you guys can’t give me this award – I’ve been here once. You probably don’t even know how to pronounce my name!”
For Theelen, it was certainly a surprise but it also provided something of a turning point.
“You get that sense of I’ve created something – I’ve accomplished something,” he said, adding that comedy was another way to enhance his portfolio at school as well. But it grew beyond that.
He also taps into his own experiences when developing material.
“It kind of became this (form of) stress relief, too,” he added. “Through comedy, I can decide to write about me being really honest about something that has happened.”
As Theelen puts it, there are typically funny ways to look at a given situation.
“You have to craft a story in a funny way. If I was to tell you about struggling with my disability, and I told that story on stage, you would probably just feel sorry for me. But if I told you in a funny way that I was struggling to brush my teeth this morning – it’s all in how you present the idea.
“So again, it became a stress relief for sure.”
He’s also formed lots of friends and connections via the comedy world as well.
“I think that no matter where you go, if you tell people you do comedy, you automatically become part of this really close-knit family. We are all doing it because we love it.
“You want, obviously, to take it as far as you can. But at the end of the day, if I can pay my expenses, not lose anything and just have a fun experience, that’s great.”
These days, he’s hitting the road and heading to shows as they become available. And he’s loving every minute of it, having notched 85 shows last year. He even landed a coveted spot opening for Brent Butt of Corner Gas fame this past spring in Red Deer.
As mentioned earlier, Theelen isn’t wary of venturing into new territory.
He was recently featured in a locally-shot film which showcased the creative gifts of three actors with disabilities.
Submitted to the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, the short film Worst Date Ever featured a very talented cast and crew under the direction of Jason Steele, the theatre and film coordinator at The Hub On Ross.
The project marked the first acting role for Theelen, who turned in a very genuine, hilarious performance.
“I’d like to become a little bit more involved with film.”
Speaking of film, Theelen also teams up with Lawrence Cardinal for ‘Shed Talks’ on YouTube.
“A lot of comedy is about creating your own opportunities sometimes,” he said, adding that ultimately, he’s always looking for fresh ways to channel his talent and find new opportunities.
“I think my approach in life has always kind of been that the worst somebody could say is ‘no’. If I don’t ask, then I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, in Red Deer, folks can catch Theelen at Heritage Lanes Lounge (6200 – 67A St.) via Red Deer Comedy.
All the latest details on shows can be found on their facebook page at ‘Red Deer Comedy’.
For more about Theelen, find him on facebook at ‘Niek Theelen Comedy’.