Roller Town is an Excellent Source of Potassium

mark little & kayla lorette

According to this bittersweet interview with Andrew Bush and Mark Little from Toronto Standard, Roller Town, the multi award winning first feature length film from Halifax’s own Picnicface, may be the sketch troupe’s last project as a unified collective. I definitely recommend heading to your local movie theatres across the country and checking it out.

Roller Town, written by Bush, Little and Scott Vrooman and directed by Bush, is a pastiche of the roller disco films popularized in the late 1970s, including Roller Boogie and Skatetown U.S.A, which have since achieved cult status with audiences in the nostalgia and uber-cheese department. The film centers on a young orphan named Leo, played by Little, The King of the Roller Disco, who falls in love with a classically trained skater named Julia (Kayla Lorette) and together they fight to save Disco from being murdered by a gang of powerfully connected thugs seeking to brainwash the young with video games.

Andrew Bush has captured much of the campiness and the trademark antics of the roller disco film in Roller Town, while shooting it in vivid, bright colors, which accentuate the characters’ amazing wardrobes of short shorts and tube socks, while the special effects and cutting together of most of the more stylized aspects of the film are intentionally rough, abrupt and often animated in classic 1970s two dimensions. This is also a familiar trademark of most of Picnicface’s Internet and television sketches. It is interesting that, within the pastiche context, many of the conventions the troupe has been using since 2006 fit here quite naturally and actually make more sense as a stylistic choice.

I don’t think that Roller Town is supposed to be a serious satirical commentary on the state of humanity and it certainly isn’t, but I do think that it revels in its own silliness in a very endearing and playful way, often reaching for the absurd but sometimes touching, albeit gently, on more solemn issues. The love story, for example, between Leo and Julia is allowed some genuinely touching moments so that the audience is led to root for their eventual triumph over her repressive parents and the gangsters poised to kill them both. Delving a little deeper, while Roller Town does poke fun at the heightened naivety and innocence of the Disco Age, it also plays on the same nostalgia that draws so many to films like Roller Boogie and Skatetown U.S.A. At the very core of Roller Town there is a certain wistfulness for a simpler time. After all, the war in the film is ultimately waged between a social physical activity from the past and an isolating computer-generated sedentary experience that has become so much of the fiber of our present. Of course, whenever solemnity persists beyond a moment, as in The Muppets, someone quickly rectifies the situation with a swift kick of ridiculous. Keeping faithful to its Disco ForeDogFather’s, the balance between the solemn and the insane is always in check.

There are some great performances in Roller Town. Mark Little is delightful as Leo; he is just good hearted enough to win sympathy while still being a complete doofus. Kayla Lorette is adorable awkwardness at its very best as Julia, who largely reacts (or doesn’t react fast enough) to Leo being a doofus, while still managing to develop some chemistry and real affection for him. Brian MacQuarrie has some great bits as Julia’s belt-crazed Grampa. Scott Vooman’s straight superciliousness as classically trained King of the Preppies, Davis, while at the same time always managing to look seconds away from crying, is beautifully ridiculous. Andrew Bush has a wonderful cameo as a Forest Hobo who becomes the Yoda to Leo’s Luke. Pat Thornton is essentially Bobo the Bear from the Muppets humanized as the moronic villain sidekick Beef, but Thornton’s comic timing is excellent and, like Bobo, by the end you almost feel sorry for the guy. He just wants to read his book on How to Eat Jam in peace and he IS having a pretty crappy day.

While I thought the film was well cast, both using the strengths of the troupe and bringing in guest artists from both the Halifax and Toronto theatre and comedy scenes, I thought that the talents particularly of Bill Wood, Evany Rosen and Brian MacQuarrie were not used to their full comic potential. I think that the film could have benefited from either developing these three characters further or having Wood, Rosen and MacQuarrie play multiple secondary and cameo characters. I was sad to see that Wood’s brick throwing nymph was almost completely cut from this more streamlined version compared to the one screened at the Atlantic Film Festival a year ago and the cuts left the film with some strange loose ends and spurts of stark randomness.

The entirety of Roller Town exists in the same realm as the very last moment in Grease when Danny and Sandy’s car suddenly lifts off and they fly on into their future together, the realm where the crazier the premise, the more likely it is to materialize. It also remains quite faithful to the dynamic and the brand of comedy that Picnicface has developed on YouTube since its inception eight years ago. If this is truly the troupe’s last project together (and I hope that it will not be), it is a worthy place to end this adventure and, as for Roller Town, I think it is well on its way to becoming a cult classic in its own right. But, don’t wait for the videotape release, head to your local movie theatre and check it out today!

Roller Town is playing in movie theatres across Canada. Please check your local listings or visit this website.

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Canadian Television Could Be Great & Saving Picnicface Will Help

the cast of picnicface

I cannot sit here in good conscience and tell you that Canadian television is great. Yet, I can tell you with absolute confidence that it COULD be great and it could be great soon.

What I see happening in Canada is a huge disconnect between the community of artists that I know exist and the often rocky, usually anticlimactic programming that ends up on my television set. I know, first hand and from personal experience, that this country is fraught with brilliant writers, hilarious comedians, skilful directors and proficient actors and that a great many of them work in television. So, what is going on?

I will admit to you right now that I am not a television aficionado. There are a few favourite American television shows I try to follow to the best of my ability, but given the choice, I would rather be at the theatre and, for the last four years, usually I am. This means that there have been a lot of Canadian television shows that I didn’t know existed until they had already been cancelled. Unlike in the theatre world where I cannot determine firsthand how effective a publicity campaign for a particular play or musical is since I not only get the press release but am also actively seeking out what is playing, if I know about a Canadian television program it is clear that their advertising campaign has been successful. There was a time when Allan Hawco as Jake Doyle (Republic of Doyle) seemed to be on every single bus shelter in Toronto and I couldn’t watch the news with my grandmother this past year without seeing eight commercials for Mr D. Both of these shows have, reportedly, been picked up for next season, despite cuts to the CBC.

I find the Canadian shows that get really lost and tend not to be marketed as much or as well are the ones that are not on CBC or CTV. I didn’t hear about Slings and Arrows, a really terrific Canadian show, until it was in its last season and I wonder if it would have had a life beyond its three seasons if it had been on a different network or if Movie Central and The Movie Network had done a better job of promoting it. This brings me to Picnicface, which had its first season air on The Comedy Network this year and has just been cancelled by Bell Media, the owners of The Comedy Network. The members of Picnicface did a good job of marketing this show to their fans and I’m sure The Comedy Network was targeting those who already frequent their channel, but it’s clear that in order to be a financial success it is important to reach out to new audiences and to target the TV watching public as a whole.

I grew up in Halifax watching Picnicface emerge from Andy Bush’s early YouTube videos to Picnicface’s international stardom. I think that they are a wildly talented group of comedic artists with immense potential for success and for bringing Canada really high calibre, unique, creative and hysterical comedy on television, in film and in live performance. For me, I felt that Picnicface the TV Show started out rockier than the work I have come to expect from these particular artists. Was that because the network was trying to “play it safe” or was it a learning curve as the troupe adapted to a new medium? Perhaps it was a mixture of both. Yet, the experience that I had with the show, which was mirrored by nearly all the feedback I heard about it, was that the show was getting stronger and stronger with every episode.

For me, that is the answer. When I watched the pilot episode of Republic of Doyle I knew that it had immense potential, but I was nevertheless aware that it didn’t seem quite as strong and grounded as its American counterparts. Three seasons later this show is thriving. Everything about it has solidified and grown to a point that I am not at all surprised that the CBC has renewed its contract, despite the fact that they are facing massive cuts. Television is a cumulative process and the history of Canadian sitcoms and dramas is so filled with fits and starts that a show like Little Mosque on the Prairie, which just ended after six very successful seasons, has become the rare exception rather than the rule.

I see CTV and CBC playing it safe all too often with the type of shows they are willing to invest in, which, in a way makes sense given economic doubt and hardship. Yet, I would challenge them to think about the most successful and artful shows that have shaped the American television: Seinfeld, All in The Family, The Golden Girls, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Cosby Show and even The Oprah Winfrey Show, and ask yourself, honestly, if these would have been sure-fire sells for the executives of their time or whether these people were all rewarded profoundly for taking a risk? I also see, as in the case with Picnicface, that all Canadian networks, even those more willing to take a chance, don’t allow a show to hit its stride, to reach anywhere near its full potential. The reason that shows like Seinfeld and I Love Lucy were so influential is that they captured the creativity of other artists, who would go on to mirror what had worked in the past, while taking these ideas in a multitude of new and exciting directions. If all we see in Canadian television are a multitude of first seasons, how can we ever hope to grow beyond that? We need our television executives to show faith in our future, to invest not only in making every show that is picked up the best that it can possibly be, but also giving the opportunity for it to spawn new ideas, as SCTV and Kids in the Hall did decades ago. The executives need to stop impeding the progress of Canadian television by continually choosing to bring everyone back to square one every single September.

“Can we afford to?” is always the question, but I think the question should be, “Can we afford NOT to?” Take a minute and think about all the Canadian actors, writers, producers and directors in television who live and work in the United States. What if Canadian television had been so lucrative, so willing to invest in their dreams, their ideas and their projects for more than a single season that they didn’t have to move to Los Angeles? What if Saturday Night Live had started in Toronto? Think of how much money the American television executives have made off Canadian talent. Think of how much money they have made investing in their own artists, assuming the best of them and providing them with the best shot in the world to succeed. We could have that here.

If Comedy Central thrusts Picnicface out onto the proverbial streets, I am quite certain that in the very near future they will be picked up by someone else, probably an American company, who will be willing to invest in them and we will have lost another opportunity to write a Canadian television success story, to keep our artists where they want to live and work and for our Canadian television industry to reap the financial benefits of the brilliantly talented people who live in this country.

As a bit of an aside, but not really, I love the CBC. I think that they are massively important for the cultural, artistic and intellectual well being of this country. I truly believed that if they were churning out five or ten really brilliant Canadian television shows a season, television shows that were as good or better than the ones offered on ABC or NBC or HBO, Stephen Harper, with all the hot air in the world, wouldn’t have a hope in Hell of huffing and puffing and blowing it down.

If you would like to invest in the future of GREAT Canadian television and give Picnicface the best shot possible at a Second Season please sign this petition. If you don’t believe what I am telling you, please listen to Mark McKinney. Thanks.

Bill Wood on "Real Theatre"

bill wood (left) with kyle dooley (2/8 of picnicface)
Bill Wood, best known as 1/8 of Picnicface, the infamous Halifax-based sketch comedy troupe known for their incredibly successful slew of videos on youtube, is switching gears dramatically and appearing in 2b theatre’s production of Hannah Moscovitch’s Governor General Award Nominated play East of Berlin.
On November 5, 2009, Anthony Black, artistic co-director of 2b theatre, conducted this interview with Wood, the first in a series, in which the actor spoke about his involvement in the play and his earnest comitment to pursing the more serious side of theatre.

East of Berlin plays at The Bus Stop Theatre on Gottingen Street from November 29th to December 13,2009. For more information and to book tickets please call 902.453.6267 or visit this website.

Face the Picnic: Sketch Genius that is 100% Reliable

There is this apathetic myth that tends to circulate among Haligonians from time to time that I would like squash right now. It is the myth that nothing cool ever comes from Halifax and nothing cool ever happens in Halifax. So frequently it seems like the general public in Halifax looks wistfully toward Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and laments that it has been short sided. This is not necessarily so and I am not talking about the fact that as I type these words Paul McCartney is hanging about our fair city (in the glorious sunshine and mild summer heat) readying for his concert tonight in the park where we have all played Frisbee, walked our dogs, jogged, rode our bikes and sunbathed. No, I am referring to the success of some of Halifax/Dartmouth’s own talents, specifically the popularity of a little video sketch called Powerthirst.
Powerthirst currently has 15, 414, 516 views on youtube (a number of hits that this blogger only dreams about!) and Picnicface, the Halifax-based sketch comedy troupe that has been running like Kenyans since 2006, has garnered fans across North America and around the world. Although Picnicface has reached Internet celebrity and their youtube videos have joined Sidney Crosby and Ellen Page as being household names across HRM, if not throughout the province, what many people don’t seem to realize is that living in Halifax gives you a huge advantage over the hoards of other Picnicface fans living elsewhere, because every second Sunday the Picnicface boys and girls do a live show for just five bucks at the Paragon on Gottigen Street.
On July 5th I found myself at the Old Marquee Club, now known as Paragon, in a slowly gentrified strip of Gottingen Street, surrounded by young hipsters in skinny jeans, sipping soy beverages and seeking Halifax’s small (but mighty) Independent Theatre scene. It became apparent that a large number of the audience that filled Paragon for the newest Picnicface show avidly attended the shows and were familiar with the troupe’s style and their sketches. Although, I was a little surprised by how easy it was to snag a seat in the relatively small venue considering the live shows are biweekly and this troupe is internationally known. I was thrilled, however, that the show boasted of entirely new sketches that you cannot see anywhere else.
The Picnicface Troupe, made up of Andrew Bush, Kyle Dooley, Cheryl Hann, Mark Little, Brian MacQuarrie (who was MIA in the July 5th show), Evany Rosen, Scott Vrooman and Bill Wood, are masters at creating the ultimate succinct, clever, absurdist sketches which always seem to walk the line between sketch and improvisation. There is this laissez-faire ambiance surrounding Picnicface which suggests that at any moment an unexpected hullabaloo could ignite, and Little and Bush would calmly and wryly catapult its hilarious elements into the show. When the sketches are particularly incredible, it seems as though they are being created spontaneously and the audience is prone to wondering whether particular moments emerged organically or were deftly scripted by the troupe.
Highlights from the July 5th show included Kyle Dooley’s remarkable 1940s gangster voice, Andrew Bush’s exuberant shoe/jacket salesman, the sophisticated witty word artistry displayed in Bill Wood and Kyle Dooley’s scamply radio play, the cleverness of the Scott Vrooman/ Mark Little sketch which reflected on the marvel of the evolution process from babyhood to adulthood, Bill Wood’s disgruntled crazy employee, and Mark Little’s cartoon-like Agent Buttburger. There was a clear sense of continuity between the sketches as there were recurring characters sprinkled throughout as well as referential sketches. At the end of the show a multitude of familiar characters crowded into one sketch which provided a clever sense of conclusion. Despite some technical glitches, Bush and Little’s comic timing and sense of confidence turned any hitch into a source of glee rather than irritation.
After an intermission where patrons were encouraged to pay visit to the bartender, the Picnicface gang treated the audience to some Improv, which was quite basic, but ultimately entertaining. The highlight of the Improv was Andrew Bush’s rap about racism. It’s interesting to note that the members of Picnicface have recently returned to Halifax from Edmonton where they were performing at Improvaganza at the Varscona Theatre. This proves to me why I think it is so important for the theatre community in Canada to be aware of the events and the talented performers all across the country, because ultimately we are all connected, and so often our worlds collide and our talents are given opportunities to overlap. Improvaganza is the perfect example, as members of Rapid Fire Theatre (which includes many members of Teatro la Quindicina) played host to Improvisers that I blog about frequently in Toronto as well as Picnicface from Halifax. I love seeing artists from across the country playing and learning from one another and I hope that these opportunities will only increase in the future!
Next Sunday, July 19th, 2009 will be Picnicface’s last show before they go on hiatus for the summer, so I encourage you all to support these talented folks and head over to Paragon (2037 Gottingen Street) at 8:00pm for the show. It costs an incredible mere $5.00 and is well worth its weight in the power of 500 babies.