January 07, 2015 - 8:25 AM
For many years, "sketch" was a word that would get you thrown out of a TV network's boardroom.
Broadcasters in English Canada, hungry for ratings, just weren't interested in what they saw as yesterday's genre. Instead, the search was on for the next "Corner Gas." The show was proof, it was thought, that Canadians wanted nothing more than a good sitcom.
Canadian networks commissioned several sitcoms, including a couple of old-fashioned, four-camera studio audience comedies. While a few survived (a deal with Rogers brings "Mr. D" back to CBC for a fourth season starting Jan. 20 and "Spun Out" returns to CTV in March), none broke through as hits.
So it was back to the drawing board.
What has Canada always been good at, besides hockey? Sketch comedy. This is, after all, the nation of Wayne and Shuster, the Royal Canadian Air Farce, the Kids in the Hall, "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" and "SCTV."
Suddenly, sketch-inspired comedy is in again and some of the main players from those glory days are leading the way.
"SCTV" hall of famers Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara star in "Schitt's Creek." The crudely-titled comedy also features Levy's son Daniel. It premieres Jan. 13 on CBC.
Bruce McCulloch is behind "Young Drunk Punk," an Alberta-based sitcom about his post-high school years before he joined the Kids in the Hall. It launches Jan. 21 on City.
Those are shows where Canadian sketch veterans are tackling a sitcom format — much as Andrea Martin, with "Working the Engels," and Dave Foley, with "Spun Out," attempted in the past year or so.
A couple of other new shows are more of a sketch-sitcom hybrid: "Man Seeking Woman" (premiering Jan. 14 on FXX Canada) stars Jay Baruchel as a hapless nerd in his late twenties trying desperately to meet the girl of his dreams. Scripted, and based on the short stories of former "SNL" scribe Simon Rich, there is nevertheless a fanciful sketchy-surreal element to this Toronto-based series.
The new series which really pushes sketch into sitcom is "Sunnyside," which premieres Thursday on City. It's created by writer/comedians Dan Redican and Gary Pearson. Both have roots in comedy stage work, Redican with The Frantics and later as a writer/producer with the Kids in the Hall, and Pearson with Toronto's Second City and later as a writer with "MADtv" and "This Hour Has 22 Minutes."
Both had been finding sketch comedy was a tough sell to networks. Each had a pitch in to City when Rogers' director of original programming, Nataline Rodrigues, suggested they team up. "Sunnyside" is the result.
The duo brought in a colleague (Toronto improv player Kathleen Phillips) to help with the pilot script. Phillips also became part of their six-member ensemble cast. Two other writers with Second City credits — Jan Caruana and Alastair Forbes — helped shape the show.
"Nothing was off the table," says Caruana, who had previously contributed to Pearson's YTV sketch series "That's So Weird." Her off-the-cuff suggestion that this mythical town of Sunnyside should be infested with ponies was immediately embraced.
"It was like one big spit ball parade," she says.
Adds Forbes: "It's rare as a comedian to be encouraged to just write whatever you think is funny."
Joining Phillips as the six performers — who wear multiple costumes — are Pat Thornton, Patrice Goodman, Alice Moran, Kevin Vidal and Rob Norman. All are busy players on the Toronto improv/stand-up scene.
The first six episodes of the series were shot last fall in Winnipeg, suddenly a busy Canadian TV and film production hub thanks to the nation's most aggressive provincial tax credits.
"Pinkertons," a 22-episode western coming later this month to CHCH, is also shot in Manitoba. An advance order for seven more episodes will send "Sunnyside" back to Winnipeg this spring.
Surrounded by cameras and crew members, Thornton and Moran look just as at home working a scene on a residential street as they do on a Second City stage. The scene calls for Thornton, head covered with a horse mask, to be Tasered and hauled away. The actor lets it rip as some residents in the neighbourhood stop to watch.
"I love the weirdness of it all, being able to do all these things and let loose," says Thornton. "I was screaming my head off out there today. I love that I can get very big on this show or very small. There are not a lot of jobs where you're able to do that."
All the actors talk about how much range they have with their characters and their ability to improvise on the spot. Later, as the crew shoots well into the night, Norman joins the others in a scene where the townspeople are all looking up, waiting to see the moon fall out of the sky.
"I have never seen a Canadian comedy that is doing what this show is doing," says Norman, who loves the complexities of doing sketch within the structure of a neighbourhood. "This is the dream job I didn't even know I wanted."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2015