TV the way Lucy likes it
Sit-coms have never exactly flourished on Canadian TV, but the success of YTV’s “Mr. Young” may be about to change that ~~
By Emily Olesen ~~
Sitting in the Mr. Young audience is like watching a live action cartoon. Props from past episodes adorn the walls of the studio, including oversized products from “Cyclops Wholesale Food Suppliers,” a Prius-sized beetle, and a morbid looking papier-mâché chicken. The atmosphere is carnival-like as warm-up guy Dave Dimpailus plays a round of “guess what’s in my bag” with the studio audience. Then he plays “produce a library card and win a prize.” The audience is remarkably pumped — given that the prize is a fridge magnet.
Maybe that’s because, on this warm summer’s night in Burnaby, BC, they’re present for a nearly unheard of event in Canada — the taping of a hit sit-com. Produced by Vancouver’s Thunderbird Films, Mr. Young is the creation of Toronto-born television writer Dan Signer, who has returned from the U.S., along with co-executive producer Howard Nemetz, to oversee an all-Canadian cast, writing-room, and crew, almost all of whom are working on a sit-com for the first time.
Mr. Young is produced for Canada’s YTV, where it’s the network’s top-rated show. It’s also broadcast on Disney XD in the States, not to mention a growing list of other countries, including Israel, Poland, and Brazil. Though aimed at ‘tweens and teens, the show’s success may herald a comeback for sit-coms generally in Canada. Already Thunderbird has been given the greenlight by Citytv for a second series, Package Deal, to be shot in yet another converted Vancouver-area warehouse beginning later this year. And a third is in the works.
“We’re going for a 100% authentic Burbank classic way of doing it,” says Alexandra Raffé, Head of Production for Thunderbird, of the company’s sit-com line-up. “The same style used in I Love Lucy.” Pioneered by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the 1950s, the so-called “multi-cam” comedy — shot then with three cameras, now more often with four, and with a live studio audience providing the laughs — has never exactly flourished in Canada (as anyone who remembers the shudder-worthy Trouble with Tracy or Mosquito Lake can attest). Instead, Canadian TV comedies are usually shot movie-style with a single camera (think Corner Gas or Little Mosque on the Prairie).
But with an eye on the American market, and particularly Disney’s string of studio-shot hits for kids, Thunderbird and YTV took a gamble on the format with Mr. Young. And the mostly teenaged audience members seated in bleachers in front of the show’s various school-themed sets, and now noshing on free pizza while they wait patiently for the next take, seem as happy about the results as Thunderbird itself.
The show’s star is Edmonton actor Brendan Meyer, who landed the role after a nationwide search. “This really is an adult job,” says the still-boyish 17-year old. “It’s similar to what Adam Young is doing, with all the adult responsibility.”
Meyer plays a 14-year-old genius who, recently graduated from university, has turned down a job with NASA to teach high school science instead. Much of the action focuses on his efforts to recapture the normal teenage life he thinks he’s missed, including reconnecting with his dimwitted childhood friend Derby (Gig Morton) and attempting to date one of his students, Echo (Matreya Fedor), an archetypal girl-next-door and closeted science fiction fancier. Ironically, the show’s fictitious Finnegan High is the first school of any kind that Meyer has set foot in. “I was homeschooled my whole life,” he laughs.
He also brings an impressive theatre background to the show, having performed for three seasons with Edmonton’s Freewill Shakespeare Festival. (On his website, he identifies himself as a “self-professed Shakespeare nerd.”) The two experiences — sit-coms and Shakespeare — aren’t as different as you might think, he says. “It’s a lot like doing theatre,” he notes of Mr. Young’s rambunctious Friday night shoots. “You get that live laughter and that automatic response. But the nice thing is that you also get the multiple takes.”
Jennica Harper, a writer and supervising producer for the show (and self-professed “TV junkie”), says she’s “fallen in love” with the multi-camera format. “It’s incredible to see how the atmosphere in the studio changes the minute there’s a live audience. The actors thrive when they have instant feedback, and can hear people laughing.” (Small microphones hang over the bleachers to capture the crowd’s reactions – although, as with most sit-coms, a laugh-track is also added later.)
“It’s also really energizing for the writers,” says Harper of the live reaction – especially when a gag doesn’t work. “I’m not sure there’s a bigger adrenaline rush than when we need to rewrite a joke in two minutes in between takes during the live show.” She attributes much of the show’s success to its unique, anything-goes comic style. “YTV gives us great freedom, which means we can really push the realism envelope. Adam Young has wrestled an alligator, turned into a moth, and accidentally launched himself and his friends into space.”
One reason sit-coms haven’t taken hold in Canada may be the pricetag; shooting in a multi-camera format can add as much as $400,000 to the cost of a season. “They’re super-expensive for the Canadian market,” Raffé notes. For Package Deal, Thunderbird is once again hedging its bets by bringing home an experienced ex-pat, creator Andrew Orenstein (Malcolm in the Middle, Third Rock from the Sun). With an initial order from Citytv for 13 episodes, the series, about an up-and-coming lawyer (Randal Edwards) trying to make his way in the dating scene despite two co-dependent older brothers (Harland Williams and Jay Malone), will air sometime next year.
As for the future of sit-coms generally in Canada, Raffé isn’t about to make any grand predictions. “So much of this business is cycles of fashion,” she says. “Everything that was once in fashion will come back. And at the moment it’s multi-cams.”
This much we know: Lucy would love it.
Looking for more Canadian sitcoms? These retro comedies represent the best and absolute worst in true north TV history:
King of Kensington (1975 – 80)
This highly influential ‘70s CBC sit-com followed corner store operator Larry King as he helped out his neighbours in Toronto’s crowded, multi-cultural Kensington Market area. The show’s progressiveness and topicality drew comparisons to Norman Lear’s sit-coms of the same period, All in the Family and Maude. It also gave a 12-year old Mike Myers his first on-screen role. Myers later named the character Vanessa Kensington in his Austin Powers movies after the show. At its peak, it drew 1.5-1.8 million viewers per week.
Maniac Mansion (1990 – 93)
Eugene Levy created this absurd sit-com loosely based on a LucasArts computer game. The game focused on a group of pixilated teenagers trying to rescue their friend from an evil scientist and his frightening family. The TV incarnation centered on the kooky Edison clan, consisting of Fred, an eccentric but loveable scientist played by Levy’s fellow SCTV alumnus Joe Flaherty, his wife Casey, and their three children, including Turner, a four-year-old trapped inside a grown man’s body. Then there’s Casey’s brother, Harry Orca, who has been transformed into a fly. Time Magazine named Maniac Mansion one of the 10 best TV shows of 1990.
The Trouble with Tracy (1970 – 71)
Certainly one of the worst sit-coms of all time, anywhere, The Trouble with Tracy was created mostly to appease then-new Canadian content regulations. The scripts were adapted from a World War Two era radio series with little attempt at modernization. Set in New York City (so much for Canadian content), the show followed the hijinx of newlywed Tracy (sporting miniskirts to rival Marcia Brady’s paisleys) and hubby Doug, an advertising executive. Occasionally Tracy’s nagging mother or Doug’s flower child brother-in-law would make an appearance. The show aired daily and 130 episodes were shot in its single season of existence, some of them going to air bloopers and all.