Comedian Ian Bagg on Meeting Presidents and Sucking Balls

Ian Bagg has performed stand-up comedy for terminal cancer patients, for troops in Afghanistan, and for audiences in far-flung places such as South Africa, China, and Dubai. He has been interviewed by the History Channel for a special on the history of the joke, and he's known to fly 100,000 miles per year.

But more people are likely to know Bagg -- who performs this Thursday through Sunday at the Miami Improv -- from a faux game show called Suck My Balls. At the La Brea Improv in 2009, Bagg invited two audience members onto the stage, where they stood next to a table, on which sat a bowl of gumballs. He asked trivia questions, and the contestants had to buzz in by saying, "Let me suck your balls, Ian." It was a one-off comic riff, not a Bagg staple by any means. But it went viral, earning nearly 18,000 hits on YouTube.

"It was something we tried once, and it's amazing how many people absolutely love Suck My Balls," Bagg says. "They think it should really be a game show. And it's not even about being dirty. It's about getting as many gumballs into your mouth at one time."

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Bagg's comedic genre is such that any performance could yield the next Suck My Balls. There are elements of observational humor and autobiography in his style, but he's foremost a conversationalist. Even if he shows up with an hour or more of scripted material, he often eschews most of it to engage in impromptu conversation with the audience -- which then spurs new jokes, derailing the evening's plan in a new direction.

While insult comedians such as Bobby Slayton and Lisa Lampanelli fill their acts by communicating with the unfortunate punching bags at the front tables, Bagg isn't out to make people uncomfortable. He doesn't mock them as much as engage them, so that everyone is on in the joke, singing comic "Kumbaya" together.

"When I do comedy, I'm not trying to be above anybody or trying to show them up," he says. "I want to welcome them and be their friend. That's how my comedy works. I will see something and I will let my mind run wild with it... I'll just bring up a subject and see where the joke goes from there. Sometimes the crowd helps, and sometimes I do it on my own."

It's an open style that can invite hecklers if a riff isn't going their way, and Bagg mostly welcomes them.

"I deal with everything but hate," Bagg says. "Hate is a weird thing. When you feel hate at a comedy club, it always confuses me. It's like, have you ever been to a bakery and there's an angry guy? It just doesn't belong there."

Influenced by the greats -- Sam Kinison, Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters -- Bagg began his comedy career in 1994 at an open-mike in Vancouver, British Columbia, 750 miles south of his industrial hometown of Terrace, population less than 20,000. At the time, he was attending college to become an explosives engineer. So much for blowing up buildings: He dropped out of school as soon as he entered that first open-mike.

Two years later, he relocated to New York to pursue the dream, and in 1999 he snagged his first film role, the electrifying part of "Disgruntled Worker #4" in Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock. He moved to Los Angeles in 2000 and has completed the rounds of many a road-weary comic: major festivals in Montreal and Aspen, appearances on all the late-night shows of note, specials on Comedy Central and HBO, and myriad, bleary-eyed cameos on wacky morning radio programs. He's done the requisite movie with a chimpanzee. Two of them, actually.

Along the way, Bagg -- who apparently isn't famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page yet, chimp flicks aside -- has rubbed elbows with A-listers. While hosting TBS's red-carpet coverage of the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2011, he even offended Brad Pitt.

"I was like, 'Who are you, fella?' Apparently, unless you're George Clooney, the Brad does not find it funny," Bagg says. "I expected him to have a sense of humor and for Alec Baldwin to be kind of mean, but Alec was adorable. I brought up [the topic of] chocolate-covered pretzels to both of them, and Alec Baldwin was so disappointed that I didn't have any for him."

Bagg also may be one of the few Canadian citizens to meet three U.S. presidents. He shook Jimmy Carter's hand on an airplane, met Ronald Reagan (another chimp costar!) when he coached the ex-president's grandson's hockey team in L.A., and greeted George W. Bush on a private White House tour. Bagg's online bio claims Al Gore has described his comedy as "controlled chaos." I had assumed this was a joke, but now I'm not so sure.

"Being able to travel to places that, as a kid from the middle of nowhere in Canada, I have no right being in, it's kind of cool," he says. "I should be in the middle of nowhere blowing stuff up."

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