The Atomic Fireballs

Behind the scenes with Toronto's most explosive all-girl sketch troupe


the atomic fireballs

the atomic fireballs

the atomic fireballs

in daytona or bust! with the Fireballs, Cheetah Forrest, Ali Eisner, Niki Berkowitz, Pink Loyd and host Laurie Elliott. Friday (March 16), 8:30 pm, at the Rivoli (332 Queen West). $10. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN


Backstage in the cramped Rivoli green room, the Atomic Fireballs are getting ready to go on. Someone’s opened the back door, so a draft seeps into the badly lit room crowded with empties, wigs and the ghosts of past performers. The sound of sporadic laughter from the current act sounds eerie in here. It’s near the end of the night, and the audience is getting drunk and restless.

The Fireballs — one of the fastest-rising comedy troupes in the city, at the head of a fascinating trend of all-women groups (see sidebar) — are huddling together.

They’re the last act on the bill. They’ve got eight minutes. They’ve done this many times before. Why should tonight be any different?

But it is. The onstage act drags on. Some people have already put on their coats and left to watch tonight’s Survivor II on their VCRs. You can feel the energy level decline out there while the anxiety rises in here.

Because of nerves or silliness, the Fireballs — named after the candy that’s sweet on the outside but hot on the inside — are calling each other fatty.

“You think you look good in that, fatty?” teases one to another.

It’s hard to imagine a male sketch troupe doing this. Fireball Sammy Bee, who can’t pee because she’s already strategically placed a thatch of prop pubic hair in her undies, has nearly devoured a chocolate muffin, another prop, out of nervousness.

Then, suddenly, they’re on.

The audience takes a while to warm up. Unlike the previous acts, the troupe’s unmiked, and the stage mikes haven’t been turned up. Bad move, but not their fault. They’re also the only sketch troupe, which is a programming no-no for so late in the night. Sketch takes early-evening concentration from the audience.

The first piece, about figure skaters practising on a carpet, dies. The second one, a smart bit about a group of women feeling sorry for their single-woman friend on Valentine’s Day, comes alive. By the third, a surefire sketch about shopping anxiety set in Le Chateau, the crowd is revved. We’re ready for more.

But that’s it. Their eight minutes are up. Even if their career is anything but.

“People at the back couldn’t hear us,” says Allana Harkin a few days later, humbled but not bitter. “But we were still happy to do it. We like the hosts.”

“Everything helps,” says Bee. “It teaches you what it’s like to work with a crowd that’s not yours, to have to win them over.”

These smart women aren’t about to make any foolish choices in the future.

We’re sitting in a cafe near the Second City, where an hour earlier they received a Canadian Comedy Award nomination for best sketch troupe. They’re taking it modestly, in stride. At the ceremony, they avoided networking. This time next year, when they’re that much better known and have more at stake, they’ll probably be better at it.

“The organizers didn’t tell us we were nominated, they just told us to show up,” says Sarah Carver. “So we actually thought we might be catering. Notice I’m wearing black.”

Four performers, four separate lives, one kickass comedy troupe.

Identical twins Sarah and Fiona Carver both studied clown with Mump and Smoot. Harkin, who’s completing her MFA in theatre at York, has worked extensively with Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s Dean Gilmour and is in Colleen Murphy’s new play. Bee, a stage actor who joined the troupe last year, comes from the sketch troupe Catch 21 and is engaged to Jason Jones of the TV show The Itch and the troupe The Bobroom.

The Fireballs are celebrating their two-year anniversary this spring. They have 40 sketches under their belts. They produce most of their own shows, including tomorrow night’s gig (Friday, March 16) at the Rivoli, where you can bet your ass they’ll be well miked. And they know they’re getting better.

“Eventually, we want our own show on TV,” says Fiona Carver, who along with her sister specialize in false sincerity onstage. “We’re strong writers — we’ve got so much material now. We work really well together, and it’s something we can plan for the future.”

“Right now we’d settle for a publicist and manager,” quips Bee.

What sets the Fireballs apart from most other sketch troupes is their polish. That’s their theatre training showing. The sketch premises might be a tad familiar — a parody of The Vagina Monologues, an acting audition from sexual-innuendo hell, a couple of sisters toking up on a cable phone-in show — but the writing and execution are tight.

“I hate it when you see a troupe drop the ball,” says Bee, who’s great at high-strung types. “We try to focus on our characters through the whole sketch. We stick with things. We try not to let the energy lag.”

The all-women-troupe thing came about naturally. They looked around and saw women playing the token girlfriend/wife parts in mostly male troupes.

“Most of our ideas come from real situations that happen to us or our friends,” says Harkin, who admits their audience includes both genders. Sure, they take turns passing the fake moustache around — in a new sketch in the next show it’ll be worn by Harkin, who, like it or not, is excellent as the straight character. But gender issues aren’t the focus.

“I never feel the absence or presence of men in a show,” says Bee. “I never feel, “Oh, my god, if we had men the dynamic of this scene would be so different!'”

“Don’t get us wrong — we love men, we have them in our lives, we go home to them later,” says Harkin.

“But we don’t really need them for this,” says Bee.

With each member having her own agent and career, what about egos and competition? What if someone gets a call for solo work?

“Any exposure for one person is good for the troupe,” says Fiona Carver, who then adds, “But, of course, I’m the smartest.”

“And I have the biggest boobs,” adds Harkin.

Neither are they afraid of telling each other when someone or something’s not funny.

“Sure, that hurts,” says Sarah Carver, maybe thinking back to the Rivoli gig the week before. “But hey, it’s better than the audience saying it.”*

glenns@nowtoronto.com 

the Atomic Fireballs

GRRRL GUIDE

They’ve come a long way, baby. All-female sketch troupes, that is. And Lisa Merchant’s seen ’em all.”Seven years ago there were none,” says Merchant, the producer of the annual March Of Dames comedy festival (March 28-April 1, with a lineup that includes the Atomic Fireballs).

“I remember looking around in 1994, and there were women stand-ups, monologues and characters, but no sketch troupes.”

All that’s changed, with troupes like the GTOs, the Lolas and the Atomic Fireballs regularly burning up local stages.

“It’s no longer an anomaly,” says Merchant, who’s done sketchlike work herself alongside Janet Van De Graaff and Lindsay Leese.

Everyone agrees that women get the short end of the shtick when they work in mixed troupes. They’re usually an accessory — wife, girlfriend, ho.

But gender politics isn’t the basis of forming all-women troupes, says Kristeen von Hagen, half of the former sketch duo Rebecca.

“I think it’s friend-based — you want to work with your female comic friends,” says von Hagen, who’s set to pair with comic Laurie Elliott in a series of sketches for video.

And don’t think that women-only troupes are necessarily soft and fuzzy. Troupes like the Lolas and Fireballs might work clean, but then there’s the GTOs.

“Those women are dirty,” says von Hagen about the troupe who in their last show made references to, among other things, pussy farts.

“But they’re also really funny.”GS

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