Conspiracy Guy gets pumped up on paranoia
YO ADRIAN! with Rick Wharton, Kim Stockwood, Rik Emmett, John McDermott, the Illustrated Men, Derek Edwards, Sensible Footwear and more, New Yorker Theatre (651 Yonge), Sunday (December 10) at 8 pm. $20. 872-1111. Rating: NNNNN
Contrary to conventional wisdom, in space everybody can hear you scream. Just consult Rick Wharton, the Toronto-based comedic actor who channels the Conspiracy Guy, the twitchy motormouth who spins his near-debilitating paranoia into raging and hilarious monologues on Moses’ geek-friendly Space network.
Wharton’s manic delivery notwithstanding, average people seriously relate to the character’s suspicions about JFK and Frankenfoods. That could be because the Conspiracy Guy emerged at a time when scary issues like e-mail and cellphone privacy were on the front page.
Whatever. Even while relaxed and in civilian clothes, Wharton, who plays the theorist with a mix of arch seriousness and absurdity, can’t stride two blocks without being stared at, pointed to or, most commonly, approached by folks dying to trade shaggy-dog stories. Inescapably identified with the Conspiracy Guy, he’s actually been doing sketch, improv, stand-up and TV commercials for a decade.
Typical of the good-natured Wharton, he’s using his profile to boost his sixth annual Yo Adrian! funder, happening Sunday (December 10) at the New Yorker Theatre. A benefit for Barrett House AIDS Hospice, it’s a tribute to his late brother, who succumbed to the disease in 1990.
“People have told me I’m a better actor than comedian,” Wharton allows. “But tragedy is what keeps me in comedy. Some of the best actors are comedians, but I think you have to have real pain – not, “Oh I ate some bad airplane food’ – to be a great comedian. I think I have a lot more to offer than I’ve shown so far. And I think it’s starting to come out now.”
While Conspiracy Guy creator Denis McGrath can claim 50 per cent of the segment’s success, Wharton endures 100 per cent of its sweeping impact. Take a recent Friday night on the town.
When he hits a pub for a nightcap – following a dinner where the restaurateur insists Wharton and his companion finish off their meals with copious free liqueurs – heads spin. Granted, more men than women seem hip to who Wharton is, but these are uptown dudes, not the comic-book clique with Spock ears in their dressers.
Wharton leans in close, vibing a need for privacy from the suddenly alert bar patrons. He wants to talk about normal stuff – his four-and-a-half-year-old son, Brendan, and his wicked impersonations of his dad, his new apartment, frustrations on the job that day. But you just know if he weren’t huddling with a chick, there would be 10 guys on top of him frothing over Roswell.
Considering that the Conspiracy Guy doesn’t actually have a show – his segments run as protracted bumpers between regular programs – the rubber-necking Wharton generates is even more astounding.
“I get stopped at least six times every day,” he concedes with a chuckle during a subsequent dinner, which coincidentally finds sketch colleague and comic actor Colin Mochrie, best known for his work on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, at a nearby table.
“Conspiracy Guy is not much different than you and I, even though he dresses a little different and has buggy eyes from drinking 14 cups of coffee.
“That’s why it’s struck a chord with people. Whether you believe in conspiracies or not, there’s always the sense that you should not believe what people tell you.”
He may worship Eugene Levy and the Illustrated Men, but Wharton actually has a lot more in common with Mike Myers, and not just because both are first-generation Canadians born to British parents who impressed upon their broods the importance of Monty Python.
Like Myers, Wharton also writes and produces. He is similarly better at creating characters than at stand-up, though Wharton did nab the 98 Jerry Seinfeld/TMN stand-up contest for exactly that.
And Wharton has rock-and-roll connections, among them appearances in music videos for his pal Rik Emmett and for Corey Hart.
Interestingly, both Myers and Wharton cut their teeth at Second City and both were rather unceremoniously dumped at contract renewal time for reasons that are unclear, especially considering their respective talents.
Of Second City, where he performed from 93 to 95, Wharton diplomatically offers, “It’s like the university of comedy. I worked with some great people and it definitely made me better as an actor.
“But in the end, management treated me poorly,” opting to replace him with someone viewed as more “street.”
Though he studied radio and television at Ryerson and fine arts acting at York, Wharton’s performance career was at first delayed, then finally triggered in earnest, by the music industry.
“I was waitering my way through school and working at the Keg,” he recalls, “and one night I served Randy Lennox.” The president of Universal Music Canada was so impressed with Wharton’s knowledge of music in general and the Who in particular that he offered him a job at what was then MCA Records.
In his role as marketing and promotions dude, Wharton hyped records to radio stations by day while performing with improv troupe Plead the Fifth by night. But the itch to focus on his art was strong. Then came Billy Idol.
“It was the Charmed Life tour,” Wharton recalls. “I was working with Billy Idol, and this one time he just turned to me and screamed in my face, “Fucking rock and roll, man! Fucking rock and roll!'”
Wharton shakes his head, sipping wine for stamina.
“He was completely out of it, unaware of who was in the room and totally out of control of his career. And I thought to myself, “What am I doing?’ Guys like this don’t give a shit about promoting themselves, so why should I promote them?”
Shortly after his Second City term, Wharton began hosting Rick’s Improv Cafe, a showcase series at the Laugh Resort that lasted five years. In between came theatre stints at the Fringe and SummerWorks, film (HBO’s 98 flick Elvis Meets Nixon), TV commercials (for Sprint, UPS, McDonald’s) and, of course, the Yo Adrian! benefits.
Now 36, Wharton has discovered that each niggling career question – should he have gone to L.A.? waited to have a kid? – can be countered with a look ahead at what’s in store. He’s just finished a children’s book, The Angry Bee, and a 30-minute mockumentary on the Conspiracy Guy titled Behind The Coat. A spoof of VH1’s Behind The Music series is slated to appear on the Space channel in the new year.
“Maybe I should have followed my heart and soul from the get-go and started performing younger, but I had this notion that I had to go to university and pursue a more normal life. Well, relatively normal,” Wharton says.
“But I don’t regret things at all. Doing marketing work at MCA was a great experience, as were Second City and Laugh Resort and everything else.
“I’ve put together a pretty good body of work. And believe me, coming from me, saying that is a lot.