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Going Viral

Going Viral

This fall, Picnicface will simultaneously launch a movie, a TV show and a book. Can eight nerds from Halifax resuscitate Canada’s ailing comedy scene?

Photograph by Aaron McKenzie Fraser.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Halifax, and Picnicface—a local comedy group that could soon become very famous—is working through material for tonight’s show. Onstage at Joker’s Comedy Club, Evany Rosen and Kyle Dooley rehearse a sketch in which Rosen plays a grandmother and Dooley her grandson. Rosen, a head shorter than her scene partner, hunches as she approaches Dooley, who mimes scooping food from a buffet.

“Can I get you something, Grandma?” Dooley asks. “Oh sure,” Rosen croaks. “Get me some mashed potatoes.” Dooley: “Anything else?” Rosen, sensing a game, grins. “How about some of that potato salad? And the scalloped potatoes down there at the end.” Dooley: “Anything not potato-related?” Rosen: “Don’t sass me.” They laugh, intuiting the need to cut this off, fun as it is. Then they begin the scene again.

Of the eight members of Picnicface, Rosen and Dooley are two of three with backgrounds rooted in improv. The third, Mark Little, sits at side stage. He twists the ends of his hair—a nervous habit—and straightens his glasses. Little is multi-tasking, putting together a PowerPoint for later in the show while telling Rosen and Dooley what works, what doesn’t; Picnicface thrives on internal feedback, honed over years of shows. At some point in the sketch, the notion of a contest arises, and Dooley, improvising, calls it a “city-wide contest.” This is undoubtedly funnier than just a contest. Details and specificity are always funnier. Rosen laughs, her throaty voice booming through the club.

At a nearby table, Cheryl Hann—the classy, poised dame to Rosen’s brassy broad—tucks her hair behind her ear, intent on the glow of her MacBook. She’s listening to headphones and mouthing along, practicing a rap she wrote about Little after a local alt-weekly named him one of the “most doable” Haligonians, just behind Ellen Page. Brian Macquarrie—smiley, balding and heavier-set—is kitty-corner to her, working on Photoshop. Near the bar, the diminutive and sweet Bill Wood can periodically be heard yelling at himself as he works on a solo piece.

A pile of props appears on another table. It grows as the show nears. Andy Bush arrives, looking haunted after hours spent editing Picnicface’s forthcoming film, which he also directed. He avoids me, but keeps glancing my way, like a deer in headlights. Bush hosted CBC’s youth-oriented consumer show Street Cents for years; with the most experience in the business, he’s also the most tentative about this interloper with a pad of paper.

In other clubs across North America, much the same scene is occurring: a clutch of twentysomethings working their material, drinking too much and eating shitty fast food in the hours before a show. But there is something different about this particular group of performers: Picnicface is set to become the biggest Canadian comedy sensation since the Kids in the Hall blew up in the late eighties and early nineties. Before 2011 is out, the group will release its feature-length movie, Roller Town; it will have a weekly half-hour show on the Comedy Network; and HarperCollins will publish the book Picnicface’s Canada. Right now, the members of Picnicface just look like some kids fucking around in a basement bar in a mid-size Canadian city. Which, of course, is what they are—except they’ve got an internet audience of millions, and the Canadian comedy world’s top brass on speed-dial. “It’s definitely possible to see this as the end of amateurship,” says Wood. “But we like to see it as the beginning of professionalism. Or, at least, we hope so.”

Picnicface, which Hann calls “a many-headed comedy Hydra,” began when Little moved from Vancouver to Halifax to start his master’s degree. He reached out to Dooley, whom he’d met years earlier at Improv Camp, an annual event for teen theatre nerds from across Canada. Dooley then recruited Rosen, and the three started putting on weekly shows at King’s College, where Rosen was a student. The name arose, according to the group’s website, when “several words got crammed together that didn’t belong together. Laughterknife was also in the running.”

Picnicface started drawing crowds. It recruited more members, shifted to the now-defunct Ginger’s Tavern and turned the show’s first half into a serialized, semi-improvised after-school special. “We started ramming Ginger’s,” Dooley remembers. “We had to turn people away, which made the others sad, but I was like, ‘I’ll do it!’ I loved it. You have to really charmingly tell them, you know, ‘We’re just too popular.’” (In the serial, Dooley played an oft-shirtless jock who’d scored the lead as King Tut in the school play and frequently screamed, “TUT!”) The crowd turned out to be a barometer not just of Picnicface’s popularity, but also of its direction. “People started leaving for the improv, when before people were showing up for the improv,” Dooley says. “We were like, ‘Oh, weird, we’re a sketch group now.’”

Encouraged by their success, the group’s members branched out, doing stand-up as well as improv, sketch and, for Hann and Little, freestyle rap—a manifold approach that prevails to this day. “I think it’s only an asset,” Rosen says of their multiplicity of talents. “It gives us a real insight into each other’s styles, which can only help the writing.” Picnicface eventually enlisted Scott Vrooman, an economist who has worked for the Department of Finance in Ottawa, after Hann, Little and Rosen saw him doing stand-up.

By then, the group had branched out into a new comedy frontier: the internet. Thanks to Bush’s directorial skills, Picnicface established a web presence by posting videos on YouTube, as well as on Will Ferrell’s vote-based humour website Funny or Die. In 2007, Little, Vrooman and Macquarrie created “Powerthirst,” an energy-drink parody ad: low-res images of lightning and muscular green men flash on-screen as Little growls absurdities like, “You’ll be so fast, Mother Nature will be like, ‘Slow down,’ and you’ll be like, ‘Fuck you,’ and kick her in the face with your ENERGY LEGS.”

The video went viral. Ferrell himself praised it, saying it reminded him of the best commercial parodies on his old haunt, Saturday Night Live. “Powerthirst” has now been viewed over twenty-three million times on YouTube. “So ‘Powerthirst’ gets a zillion hits,” recalls Dooley. “And then all of a sudden, ‘Hey Africa’”—in which a professor sings questions to the continent—“which had nine thousand hits, jumps to 150,000.”

The response was swift and heavy. Picnicface was courted to create similar work for CollegeHumor.com, and TV producers came knocking. Picnicface was now cool in ways its members had never imagined, a self-perpetuating viral-video machine at a time when this was still a relatively new idea. “We were getting offers as soon as we released that video,” Little says of “Powerthirst.” “They were like, ‘We want to do a show with you in your style.’ But that’s not our style. That’s one thing, and that is actually an exception to our style.” The group mostly turned down those offers. But there was no going back—the comedy world’s radar was now tuned to Picnicface.

Picnicface’s next big break came quickly. The group’s only locally-themed video, “All About Halifax,” describes the city as a “sex knight” and features an imaginary municipal mascot named ‘Splodey, an anthropomorphized rendering of the infamous 1917 Halifax Explosion. (‘Splodey looks an awful lot like a mushroom cloud with Little’s arms and face—“tragedorable,” in the video’s parlance.) Such parochial material was unusual for a group whose internet output had never rooted it in Nova Scotia; it also meant that no one expected the video to have much success outside Halifax.

But then HarperCollins called. The publishing giant proposed a book based on Picnicface’s unique perspective of Canada—“All About Halifax” on a national scale, or, as Vrooman puts it, “a satirical primer” of the whole country. Although the book would feature contributions from every member, it was largely spearheaded by Vrooman, who had discovered in himself a penchant for written comedy. “I had a Word doc of things that made me laugh, but they weren’t sketch ideas,” he says. “A book was a great way to use these things.”

In 2008, around the same time the book proposal arrived, so did another tantalizing prospect: the chance to develop a television show. Veteran Toronto-based production company Breakthrough saw “Powerthirst” and recruited Garry Campbell, a long-time comedy writer who’d worked with the Kids in the Hall, to help Picnicface shape its work into a show pitch. Breakthrough started courting networks, but only the Comedy Network displayed interest.

That year, however, the Comedy Network gave the green light to another sketch show, Hotbox. It was the first such program on Canadian TV in years, and two sketch shows have never aired on the same Canadian network simultaneously. Picnicface’s hopes waned. HarperCollins, which had come on strong at first, didn’t commit to any firm deadlines. Nearly a year and a half passed with the group in comedy limbo.

In the wake of this uncertainty, like so many groups before it, Picnicface faltered. The members had been doing weekly live shows for three years by that point, and they were getting tired. “We were a little more disjointed, and we weren’t really sure if this was going where we’d hoped it would go,” says Dooley. “Writing meetings turned into, ‘All right everybody, show up on Sunday.’” Their previously collaborative process suddenly became much more isolated—and isolating. With nothing concrete on the horizon, there was little impetus to proceed. Dooley puts it succinctly: “It’s so much harder to rationalize working on a sketch for twelve hours when you know that sketch is going to live and die on the one Sunday night you perform it.”

As the book and TV deals languished, the members of Picnicface started to drift in different directions. Hann, a full-time student who has never scored lower than an A, focused on her studies. Vrooman went back to his Department of Finance job. Dooley moved to Toronto and enrolled in an ad-writing program. Little put his creative energies into stand-up, and in 2009 won both the Just For Laughs Homegrown Competition and Yuk Yuk’s Great Canadian Laugh Off; the latter came with $25,000 in prize money.

Seeking an alternative comedy outlet, Vrooman, Little and Bush began work on a feature-length script for Roller Town, a story they’d been kicking around for a while. The logline: “When a roller-skating-obsessed town is overrun by video-game-shilling gangsters, only one man has the funk deep enough to boogie them back to oblivion.” At first, the project was a lark, an avenue for Bush’s dream of making a feature. But then the script started to take shape in a serious way. Leveraging some producer connections—a requirement for most government film financing—they applied for grants and pursued making the movie for real.

Telefilm bit. The national film-funding body offered Picnicface $800,000, and the group raised the rest through an innovative viral campaign, promising donors personalized raps, dances and sketch characters named after them. Such efforts landed an impressive extra $20,000, which gave the production the wiggle room it needed. Last summer, Picnicface shot Roller Town in Halifax with its own members and some outsiders, including Toronto comedians Kayla Lorette and Hotbox creator Pat Thornton. The project—and its unconventional fundraising scheme—threw Picnicface back into the limelight.

Perhaps sensing a “moment,” HarperCollins and the Comedy Network finally stepped up to the plate and put their respective Picnicface projects—both of which had lain dormant for nearly two years—back on track for this fall, to coordinate with the release of Roller Town. The group rose from near-death: Dooley came back from Toronto, and Little—who’d been contemplating a move there himself—decided to stay in Halifax. Hann made room in her class schedule for rehearsals. All eight made Picnicface their full-time job. Most importantly, they started going back to the writing table, together.

In Mark Little’s living room, there is a confluence of couches. If you wanted to, you could lounge your way around the perimeter of the entire room, save the one corner where a projection screen awaits. One evening while I’m in Halifax, Little hosts a screening of a film called Deadfall, starring Nicolas Cage. Several Picnicface members are in attendance. The film is predictably horrible, and Cage is awesomely horrible, as only he can be. Little then excitedly inserts a DVD of Hot Boyz, a 2000 gangsta picture in which Gary Busey has a small role. We do not watch the whole movie, just a fourteen-second clip of Busey doing a string of hilarious things in a row, none of which have any bearing on plot, character or reality. We laugh. Then we analyze. Then we watch again. Then a third, fourth and fifth time. Each viewing reveals something new and minute, some amazing detail.

If anything can demonstrate a modus operandi for Picnicface’s comedy, it’s this moment: the obsessive attention to detail and the insatiable desire to consume everything and anything, to synthesize it and boil it down to a comedy-sized nugget. It also conveniently describes this generation’s comedic philosophy, represented by the watch-and-go culture of online videos. “It sounds industrial,” says erstwhile economist Vrooman, “but I picture the writing process like this huge hose just going, and putting filters in front of that.”

“When I’m in a good writing mode,” adds Rosen, “I’m paying attention to things and life more, probably in a way that is obnoxious to those not in Picnicface.” This is not unique to comedians, she says, but translating that experience into performance is. “Everyone sits around with their friends and shoots the shit. But turning that into useful work, that’s the skill. Not coming up with the ideas—using them.”

Rosen, like others in the group, is whip-smart, her insights well-developed. Add hyper-intelligence, self-awareness and nerdiness to the list of Picnicface’s comedy traits. Let’s not forget that the heroes of our tale are middle-class, overachieving outsiders—the profile template for the majority of young comedians today. A certain degree of financial stability, free time and brains has given them a capacity for free-wheeling thought and obsession, which in turn allows for a grasp of the absurd.

“Picnicface is exactly what young comedy should be,” says the Kids in the Hall’s Mark McKinney, who first learned of the group from friend and co-writer Garry Campbell; the two are now both executive producers on the Picnicface TV show. “It’s weird, it’s specific, it’s obsessive and it feels like it’s coming from a secret club.” Thanks in part to McKinney and Campbell’s guidance, the show will have a hybrid sitcom-sketch structure, in which the members’ individual personalities pull a thread through the entire series. Wood distills their characters: “We look to Mark as the founder. Kyle’s the sexy one. Evany’s the high-strung one. Cheryl’s cool. Brian is dumb. Andy is crazy. Scott is organized. And I’m friendly.”

This ensemble essence—and the direct involvement of McKinney and Campbell—means that comparisons to the Kids in the Hall have already started ricocheting through the hallowed halls of Canadian comedy. There are commonalities, like the aforementioned absurdity, and McKinney thinks this link is a healthy one. “I think there’s room for us fat, bloated ex-Kids in the Hall to be remembered fondly next to this thrilling, young new group,” he says. “I invite comparisons.” But the members of Picnicface demur—both out of humility and a desire to duck the flag-waving that the connection implies. “We struggle against the label ‘Canadian comedy,’” says Wood. “The modern era is the internet era, and that’s global.”

It’s true: without the web, Picnicface would likely not be appearing on small screens near you anytime soon. “We’re lucky now we’re in the internet age,” says Millan Curry-Sharples, the Comedy Network’s vice-president, who has spearheaded Picnicface’s show. “You can see people way faster than you could even three to four years ago.” Curry-Sharples makes it clear that, while his is a Canadian broadcaster, his hopes for Picnicface are transnational. “I want it to be popular and to have Canadians love it, but I hope that the people beyond our borders love it as much as we do.”

Like most other Picnicface fans, Curry-Sharples discovered the group on his computer, not in a bar. This is important: in the old days, execs sought talent by travelling from club to club, largely in major cities. It’s how Saturday Night Live founder Lorne Michaels saw the Kids, at their sold-out shows at Toronto’s Rivoli nightclub in the eighties; club- and theatre-hopping is still largely how SNL finds new cast members today. In his relationship with Picnicface, McKinney casts himself in the Michaels role. “The Kids were lucky to have Lorne, who’d seen it all before,” he says. “I thought maybe there’d be a part I could play there, one I’ve never played before, for Picnicface.”

In Halifax, far from the showbiz machine, Picnicface has been free to both develop a unique voice in front of a warm audience, and to cultivate a show without fear of high-profile failure. McKinney likes that the group is from Halifax—it reminds him of his early days in Calgary, before he moved to Toronto. “If they’d been born in LA, they’d have all been poached before they could create this voice that develops between like-minded people, this ecosystem that happens in smaller places,” he says. Halifax, for Picnicface, is an incubator. Little goes further: “We’ve done some garbage here, but I’m really happy we did, because it helped mold us.”

Canada is calling for Picnicface, regardless of where its members might position themselves, geographically or otherwise. The book in particular—with “Canada” right there in the title—is rather ironic for a gaggle of comedians who rarely register themselves as patriotic, especially when it comes to their art. “It’s the elephant in the room,” says Macquarrie, referring to contemporary Canadian comedy shows’ tendency toward the banally self-referential, the overt, the broadly stereotypical. “I think that the Canadian comedy scene—not saying any names—has gotten kind of stale,” adds Hann.

This isn’t to say that the group disdains its opportunities; it’s just wary of being pigeonholed as strictly Canuck, of becoming part of what Vrooman calls the “Canadian content conveyor belt.” Picnicface already had to stand its ground when HarperCollins pushed to make Picnicface’s Canada “more Canadian.” Luckily, it won’t have to defend the TV show the same way. “One thing I learned a long time ago is that the best thing you can do for comedians is to give them the most comfortable and relaxed environment they can be in,” says Curry-Sharples, who’s been producing comedy in Canada since 1994.

The Comedy Network is hands-off with Picnicface, at least for now. It helps that, after five years of performing together, the group has proven that it can create quality work on its own. Since The Kids in the Hall ended in 1994, the only true ensemble sketch show to debut on Canadian TV was Hotbox, which had a more scattershot approach, à la the Cartoon Network’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! It was cool, well-paced and toned properly for this generation—and gone after one season. “Hotbox didn’t make it, which makes us nervous,” says Hann, her eyes wide.

Of all the reasons for the lengthy gap between Canadian sketch shows, the comedy “brain drain” of the eighties and nineties had the most indelible effect. When Los Angeles and New York were riding high, and SNL’s Michaels was netting every top Canadian laugh-maker, there was no reason to stay here to work. Now, the American comedy landscape is less certain, mostly due to the recession and competition from the internet. And since new technology provides a conduit through which to view and produce cheap, good work, there’s no reason to leave Canada; in fact, the less expensive your production, the more freedom you’re guaranteed. Just as American comedian Louis CK can write, produce, direct and edit his show Louie at home using little more than his MacBook Pro, Picnicface can make its TV show in Halifax instead of the Big Smoke.

Picnicface is the first Canadian sketch group to debut on television following massive success in the borderless world of viral videos; if it beats the odds, it will set a huge precedent for contemporary Canadian comedy. That’s a lot of pressure—and all the members feel it. “Am I good with pressure?” says Rosen during the rehearsal at Joker’s. “Well, I’m hungover, eating a hamburger and trying to remember my lines one hour before the show. Plus, I’m the most Jewish and most frenzied member of the group, so you tell me.” In seriousness, she adds, “The pressure, when dealing with the network and these elements we’ve never dealt with before, is putting out something we’re proud of.”

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of comedy,” adds Little. “I think it’s undeniable that there’s more good comedy now than ever before. It seems like every six months, a new show comes out that’s just mind-blowing.” The words “that could be us, too,” go unsaid. Little frowns a little, twirls his hair.

It’s as impossible to predict Picnicface’s future as it is to talk about what makes comedy work. The reasons for this are twofold. One, because there isn’t a compass in this country—or anywhere, really—for the horizons Picnicface is headed toward. And two, because these things are sort of ephemeral. Magical. There’s a sense of right-place-right-time that Picnicface is eager to exploit, even if the members can’t fully grasp what that means. “I feel the stars are aligning,” says Vrooman. “I know the more time I spend on this, the happier I’ll be.” Certainly, some of it has to do with sheer volume—eight people at the helm, twenty-three million YouTube hits can’t be wrong, etc.—but there’s something else, too, that thing that makes one plus one equal great comedy. That magic. Can Picnicface harvest magic?

Back in Joker’s on that Sunday afternoon, the pre-show preparations hum along, albeit with an undercurrent of striving, of promise. It’s palpable in the repetition and rephrasing of jokes, the solidifying of premises. Picnicface’s particular comedic rhythms—which first attracted Curry-Sharples and McKinney to its work—are being arranged into a symphony of sorts. Tonight’s stage show could eventually become an episode of the TV show, so what Picnicface does now has weight. As the rehearsal minutes tick away, the members run one sketch for the umpteenth and last time. “Is it funny?” Macquarrie asks, to no one in particular. There is a beat, and then Little, the de facto captain, replies, “It exists.” In the moments before the doors open, Little tapes up the night’s setlist. Picnicface is as prepared as it will ever be for tonight. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Originally published in June 2011. See the rest of Issue 40 (Summer 2011).

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Related on maisonneuve.org:

—Video: The Best of Picnicface
—Jokes From the Underground
—DeAnne Smith at Zoofest

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