Rachel Sommer was born in Canada, but she found her career as an optometrist, her talent as a comedian and her passion for a man in Australia. She won her first stand-up comedy competition in Darwin and went on to win a People’s Choice Award in Adelaide. Now based in Winnipeg, she’s working on getting a television series off the ground. In an exclusive interview with mivision, Rachel spoke about how she successfully juggles optometry, comedy and family.
Rachel Sommer moved to Australiato study optometry in Melbourne. She had just finished her degree and landed a job with an optometry chain. Part of her job offer required her to move to Darwin to work.
We love your observational humour… how did you get into comedy?
I moved to Darwin in 2003 with a bunch of girls from university (one being musician / optometrist Sophie Koh) and we were walking down the street when one of them noticed a poster for the Triple J Raw Comedy Competition that was coming to town – it called for amateur comedians to do five minutes on stage.
The poster looked really cool and it had a headless rubber chicken on it, so who wouldn’t be tempted? My roommates were very encouraging. They said, “You should enter. You can be funny sometimes.” And I took that praise and ran with it.
…my second gig ever and I was in front of 2,000 people and on TV. Again, I felt like vomiting
I was a little hesitant about going up on stage, but again, my roommates said, “It’s Darwin, there will probably be 10 people there and if you bomb, no one will ever know.” So again, I took the praise and ran with it.
I entered the competition, completely scripted my five minutes and practised them religiously. I got to the competition, and it turned out to be the biggest comedy event in Darwin. All my friends and co-workers showed up. There were 12 other competitors, 300 people in the audience, and Triple J had flown the famous comedian, Charlie Pickering, from Melbourne to Darwin to host the night. I felt like vomiting.
Backstage, all the competitors were asked when they would like to go on stage. I was the only one who volunteered to be first up. I just wanted it to be over so I could remember what it was like to relax again.
I did my five minutes and ended up winning the competition. Funny enough, my entire set was gently poking fun at Darwin. It was a Canadian’s outside view of living in the NT and they loved it.
How did one great show lead on to an award winning career?
A few weeks later I was flown to Melbourne to perform at the Town Hall in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival… my second gig ever and I was in front of 2,000 people and on TV. Again, I felt like vomiting. I didn’t win the finale and in fact, I watch the video now and cringe a bit at my act, but that’s how comedy goes!
The finale played on ABC TV and was subsequently bought by Qantas. My friends complained every time they took a flight that year they had to watch my act.
I got back to Darwin after my stint in Melbourne, and became one of the first members of the Darwin Comedy Club. I got gigs and did shows from then on.
In 2007, I had moved to Adelaide. I decided to put on a show in the Adelaide Fringe Festival. I asked a few hilarious comedian friends to join in and soon we had Titters!, an all-female stand-up comedy show. Titters! sold out every night and won the People’s Choice Award. You can still find Titters! in the Adelaide Fringe Festival. It continued on even though I moved away.
Which comedians inspire you and why?
I love Norm Macdonald for his dry, sarcastic humour. My Australian comedian friends nicknamed me “Canada Dry” and that always makes me think of Norm Macdonald. I also love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler – they are strong women comedians and extremely talented writers who’ve crossed the bridge from stand up to writing successful TV shows which is very inspiring. That’s my goal!
Who’s your favourite comedian?
My favourite comedian would be Jerry Seinfeld. I love his stand up, his TV show and his persona on stage. I actually saw his act when he came to Winnipeg and he was amazing. Clean, witty and hilarious. A true professional comic.
How difficult has it been for you to break into the comedy circuit in the U.S.?
Difficult. It’s actually very hard for a Canadian to work in the US with the current work visa requirements. I’ve created and co-written a TV series idea and we’ve filmed a pilot episode and I am trying to break into the US networks via that route.
In June, I attended the World Media Festival in Banff which is the mecca for TV show pitching. I met with 27 executives ranging from Netflix to Lionsgate Media to try to sell the show. We got an excellent response and great feedback, but it is difficult as a relative unknown to compete… at least female centric shows are ‘in’, especially female centric comedies. Yeah for me! We are currently waiting to hear back from a few possible networks and also considering the idea of making the show into a web series.
We’ve seen some of your Hindsight snippets. Tell us about this idea.
What audiences love most about my stand-up is the contrast between being an optometrist and a comedian so Hindsight is about me 10 years ago when I’m single and just starting optometry and realising I have a passion for comedy. In the pilot,
I am forced to go on a date with Stuart, an optometrist, even though I said I would never date another optometrist because they are the most boring people on earth. Fast forward to real life, where I am now married to Stuart. A large portion of the concepts for the show are taken from my optometry career or my experience with my comedy gigs. You can catch teasers of the pilot on www.hindsightcomedy.com
Are you still practising optometry?
Yes. I work two days at the moment. I practise at both a family owned optical, Oakley Optical Eyecare Centre, and at Image Plus Laser Eye Centre, a refractive surgery clinic. Between comedy and having two small children (soon to be three), it’s all I can handle!
What is the funniest thing that has happened to you with a patient?
Where to start! When I was practising in Darwin, I had an elderly gentleman who was very hard of hearing come to see me for an eye exam for his sore eyes.
We struggled through the exam and besides a new prescription; I ended up giving him artificial tears for his dry eyes. A week later, he came back in. His eyes were red and even sorer then they were before. He pulled out a bottle from his pocket and said, “These drops you gave me are terrible.” I didn’t recognise the bottle at all. I took it from him and read the label.
I responded, “That’s because these are your ear drops.” He said, “What?” I yelled, “These are your EAR drops.” He replied, “My ears? Yeah, they hurt too!”
I also had a patient come into the practice and hand me his spectacles, “I dropped my glasses and now they are all bent out of shape.” And I took them from him and commented, “Oh, they are all wet.” To which he replied, “Well, they dropped in the urinal.”
Do you inject your optometry consults with humour?
I think I inject an appropriate amount of humour into my consults. I’ve always found that humour relaxes people and creates an instant rapport but you don’t want to cross the line into being a clown. No one wants a clown optometrist. Except maybe children. And they don’t care, they just want you to juggle.
A promotional poster for Tazzy’s Angels – a take on Charlie’s Angels – a show Rachel performed with her colleague and manager Big Daddy Tazz in the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.
How do your patients deal with a comedy consult?
Patients love it. If I don’t have a good laugh with a patient about something during the consultation then I consider it a failure.
Do you find some patients are intimidated by your career as a comedian?
Actually, patients will come to see me because I am a comedian. They will see me at a gig and ask for a card. I’ve also been half way through a consult and suddenly the patient will remember seeing me at a fundraising event and will tell one of my jokes back to me.
Any plans to tour Australia soon?
I don’t do a lot of touring right now because of my small children. I try not to be away for more than one night at a time.
I perform at optometry conferences, festivals, fundraising events, corporate events, and occasionally open mic nights. My comedy manager, Big Daddy Tazz, is also a comedian and I do a lot of gigs with him as well.
What about returning to Australia to live?
I LOVE Australia. Australia not only provided me with my amazing optometry degree, my foray into stand-up comedy and a husband, it was a wonderful place to live with great people and great weather. I live in Winnipeg, remember. We can’t wait to get back there. I’m actually a dual citizen of Canada and Australia.
To see Rachel in action visit www.rachelsommer.ca