Dave Merheje knows his way around Halifax. As a cast member of CBC’s Mr. D in seasons 7 and 8—Merheje played economics teacher and errant hockey coach Dave Bechara—the Los Angeles-based comedian and actor spent time wandering around the city in between shoots and even got to make friends here. Until next week, he’s calling the city home again: First, for a stand-up set in Dartmouth on Saturday, Oct. 7, and then a midweek show in New Glasgow on Oct. 11.
“I truly do love it,” he says, speaking by phone with The Coast, “so any time I can find a reason to stay longer, I will.”
It’s been a busy year for the Windsor, Ont.-raised entertainer: Merheje stars opposite Daisy Ridley in the forthcoming indie drama, Sometimes I Think About Dying. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to encouraging reviews. (The Hollywood Reporter called it a “graceful treatise on how challenging—but liberating—it can be to make connections.”) Meanwhile, filming still awaits for the fourth and final season of Hulu’s Emmy-nominated comedy series Ramy, in which Merheje stars in a recurring role.
Not bad for a kid who once drove across the Canada-US border to Detroit in search of open mics to perform at. Ahead of Merheje’s show at The Sanctuary, he speaks with The Coast about humble beginnings, finding a way in a difficult industry and—yes—donair.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your comedy is rooted in growing up in a first-generation Lebanese-Canadian family. Halifax has a large Lebanese community with its own rich history. Are you seeing that in the crowds that come to your shows when you’re here?
When I was filming for Mr. D, I remember coming to set—or leaving the set—and they were setting up for the Lebanese Festival. And I’m from Windsor, Ont.: We have the Carousel of the Nations, and we’ve had a Lebanese Festival since I was a child. I said to the driver, ‘Oh, they have Lebanese people here?’ I had no idea. He’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s a big community.’ Right around that time, I got invited to do the Lebanese Festival in Halifax. And John Faddoul—I think he wanted to try comedy or doing stand-up—they got him to host. But we became good friends after that. And I’ve met even more people through him.
You mentioned Windsor. How did growing up in a border city shape you as a comedian?
That’s a good question. Maybe somebody else can explain it better, but for me it was a feeling—almost a border town feeling—like we were kind of Americanized. We’re so close: We had American TV channels, American radio stations. And there’s a huge Lebanese community, too. All my relatives are there.
I started [my career] in Windsor—and Michigan, really. The first year, before I left for Toronto, I would do free shows, open mics where I wasn’t getting paid, because I couldn’t get [earn income] across the border.
When did your love for entertainment begin: Is it something you saw within your own family or found for yourself?
My family is [prone to] storytelling. I was just really young, man. I remember making my mom laugh; I made a joke about my aunt in the kitchen, and my grandmother was there, and I still vividly remember that: The laugh, the energy. It was kind of cool. I liked talk shows and movie award shows—I was just always enamoured with it as a child. And then my uncle would show me, my sister and my cousin Danny [cassettes of] Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Murphy. And that’s when I started to want to do stand-up.
At 19 years old, you auditioned at Yuk Yuk’s in Windsor for Best New Comic in Canada.
I didn’t do well at all; I was so nervous. I tried to jam seven minutes of material into three.
How did you get the willpower to carry on and give it another chance?
I was just this nervous, excited, scared kid—but I always wanted to do entertainment. That wasn’t going to stop me, whether it was good or bad. There were other points after that discouraged me, but with that one, I was like, ‘Let me try it again.’
I read that you considered a career in radio for a time.
My mom was like, ‘Can you just get a college education and then you can pursue your dream?’ There was a broadcasting school in Sarnia. I had family there. My cousins used to live there, and we used to go for Christmas. She didn’t want me to leave [laughs]. But I would guest on this internet radio show called Chaos in Windsor. And I was like, ‘Oh, radio’s kind of dope.’
Even after you moved to Toronto to pursue stand-up, you worked full-time at a Chapters-Indigo. What were those years like of putting in the work and not knowing if it would pay off?
I was just full of adrenaline. I had this mission, and it was half-delusional, and half-love. You’re on this journey. And I wanted it so bad. Those thoughts came in for sure, like, ‘This might not work out, but I’m in it.’ And there were a lot of times when I thought, ‘Man, this sucks so bad.’ Times when there was no money and you just didn’t see any future. I mean, you’re [performing in] these shitty rooms—or not even shitty rooms, but you’re doing work for little pay, and you can’t really get a foot in, and it’s disheartening. But I didn’t want to do anything else. You have to talk yourself up. I had a lot of help from a lot of good friends—still good friends, people that were in my corner. And family support.
Watching your Netflix special in Comedians of the World, your stand-up style seems very much stream-of-consciousness. Is that true to who you are, or how much of that delivery have you intentionally honed over the years?
It’s a mix of both. It’s like… I have this skeleton of material, right? But I don’t stop myself when I’m up there. If I have another thought, I don’t try to stay rigid to my set; if I feel like it’s taking me somewhere new, I’ll explore it onstage. I like doing that. Unless I’m prepping for a special. But other than that, I enjoy going on most adventures—those tangents. I think it’s just more fun. I can bring real emotion to that audience in that moment—and I think they appreciate it.
In a 20-year standup career, it’s a near-rite of passage that you’re going to bomb the occasional set. What are the worst times that you’ve bombed?
I have so many. I remember one time in Thunder Bay, just riffing with this guy in the front row for too long. It wasn’t working; we just didn’t connect. And I wouldn’t let it go, and neither would he. Some guy in the back yelled at me—it was so quiet—he was like, ‘For the love of god, can you tell a joke?’ He just repeated that. I’ve had worse, but it was just so awkward. I thought it was really funny after—and even onstage—that he was, like, screaming. And he was right: I didn’t tell a joke. I would’ve snapped too.
Do you enjoy crowd work as a comedian?
I love it. I love building scenarios, fake scenarios, from the crowd. When I started as a comic, of course, you befriend other comedians, and I remember [one] told me, ‘Man, usually a comedian will improvise, and if it isn’t working, they’ll go to their material.’ But with me, I’d do my material, and that would bomb—and I’d feel more comfortable improvising. It wasn’t that I was good at it or anything; it just felt like when I was improvising, I was being more myself. Because my material at the time just wasn’t that good.
You’ve been a part of Hulu’s Ramy since 2019, playing the character Ahmed: A doctor and Ramy’s friend. What’s it like being on a show with Mahershala Ali?
Oh man. You know, I was watching True Detective when it came out. I was living in New York at the time; my old roommate and I would watch it together, but I would stay up longer and watch extra episodes. And I just remember thinking, ‘Man, it’s be so freaking crazy to work with Mahershala,’ because I was such a fan of his work. And then that summer, that’s when I found out he was going to be [in Ramy]. It was a trip. Working with him, I was nervous, but he’s such a sweet individual: Gracious, and just really great energy. He’s a wonderful actor and awesome person. I was so ecstatic. My goal had always been to get into acting, so to be on set with all these wonderful, talented people like Mahershala, Ramy Youssef, Mo Amer, May Calamawy, Hiam Abbass, Steve Way… the whole cast is great.
You’re also in the upcoming film, Sometimes I Think About Dying, starring opposite Daisy Ridley. How did you get involved in this one, and what did you take away from the experience?
So that movie is coming out, hopefully, at the end of this year. It premiered at Sundance in January—which is crazy, just even saying that sentence. What happened was, two years ago, the director—Rachel Lambert—had seen me on Ramy. So they reached out, and we started working together. It was filmed in Astoria, Oregon. I had always wanted to be in movies, and I’d never done one before—and now I’m playing opposite Daisy Ridley. I had impostor syndrome, but the cast, the director, the producers, everyone was just like a family, because it was an indie [film], right? And it started as a short film and then became a full-length feature, so everybody was into the project. We were out there for about three, four weeks.
You moved back to Los Angeles in 2020 after being there in 2016 and 2017. How does living there compare, as a comedian, to Toronto, New York or Windsor?
I mean, Windsor is always going to be home. It’s the place where I started; my family is there, so there’s this safety I feel when I go back. And Toronto is always going to be home. I miss it all the time; it’s my favourite place. And it’s probably because I spent 14 years there doing stand-up, and it’s not fair to the other places I’ve lived, in a sense. But I miss it. New York, I love too, because it has all of the same stuff I love about Toronto: The walking, the transit, the diners, being able to bounce around without a car. And then, obviously, you could do so many [comedy] sets. I feel like I haven’t found my place in LA. I have such good friends there too—and it’s good entertainment-wise. But of all the cities I’ve lived, it’s probably my least favourite.
You’re performing at The Santuary in Dartmouth this Saturday, Oct. 7. What can your audience expect from you?
Maybe it sounds corny, but I’m always going to give a performance. If there’s something I’ve experienced in Dartmouth or Halifax, I’m going to talk about it. But I’ll perform the shit out of that set. You’re not going to get a half-assed performance. I’m going to give my all, no matter how many people are there.
I know you have thoughts about shawarma. Where do you stand on the donair?
I’m a pescatarian now, but when I was eating meat, I did enjoy the donair. Coming from Windsor, the shawarma will always have a home in my heart—and the donair is a tight second.
SEE DAVE MERHEJE AT THE SANCTUARY
When: Oct. 7 (8-10:30pm)
Where: The Sanctuary Arts Centre, 100 Ochterloney Street