Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol are determined to carve out space for homegrown TV, shooting improvised scenes at well-known landmarks with unsuspecting Torontonians. We found out the hard way
“I just got caught in some kind of performance art project downstairs,” says NOW music editor Carla Gillis.
She begins to describe the scenario: a handful of guys rushed into the lobby of NOW’s former digs at 189 Church, saying they were in a band and needed to speak with the editor at NOW about being on the cover. One of them ran over to a piano in the lounge area behind the reception desk and started hammering out tunes, while our receptionist, Amy, sat helpless.
When Carla mentions that a couple of them were filming the scene, it suddenly sounds familiar.
“Did they say they were called Nirvanna the Band?” I ask, as it all starts falling into place. I’m realizing that in the process of chasing a story about a new homegrown TV show in production, set to premiere on VICELAND on February 2, I’ve inadvertently nudged my colleagues and I into the semi-fictitious world of Nirvanna The Band The Show.
[Watch Episode 1: The Banner below]
Based on a web series by long-time friends Matt Johnson (Operation Avalanche, The Dirties) and musician/composer Jay McCarrol, the show follows Matt and Jay, two idiot roommates who will try any crazy scheme to book a show at the Rivoli – everything except for rehearsing and just… booking a show.
Their band is called Nirvanna the Band, and no, they’ve never heard of Kurt Cobain. The show’s charm is rooted in the characters’ naïveté, thrust upon the citizens of Toronto, who become characters in improvised scenes, with elements of Tom Green and Nathan Fielder thrown into the mix.
The web show, which wrapped up in 2009, is one of the funniest Toronto series I’ve ever seen. So when my brother, who played in a band called the Golden Dogs with McCarrol a few years back, tipped me off that something new could be in the works, I wanted the story.
I called the number they’d replaced their webisodes with on their website. Soon, I had more than I’d bargained for: we became part of their storyline. NOW Magazine features prominently in the second episode of the new series. More scenes were shot at our old office (now torn down to make way for a condo) with our former creative director, Troy Beyer, who worked with us for 27 years. Our current art director, Michelle Wong, patiently tolerated Johnson, disguised as a cable guy, pretending to “test” her phone.
But you don’t have to appear in the show to experience a connection to it. The Rivoli and the surrounding area at Queen and Spadina, Honest Ed’s, the Santa Claus Parade, Scotiabank Theatre – they all play themselves in the series in a way that has never been done so lovingly before.
Instead, we’ve had a top-notch local industry that masks landmarks and proper names to support the illusion that we are another city, or any generic city – anything but Toronto.
“For the first few episodes of our web show, we were setting it in an anonymous city,” McCarrol says.
I’m sitting on the set of the show, a rented house in West Queen West. The walls are covered in Criterion Collection movie posters, like a film-obsessed teenager’s bedroom. There’s a piano in the living room, a white board for planning schemes and bunk beds nearby. Upstairs, a small crew is busy working on post-production, although they just look like roommates in their bedrooms, sitting at computers. Executive producer Matt Miller, who started Zapruder Films with Johnson for The Dirties, is buzzing around, listening in occasionally.
“One day we were shooting and the CN Tower was reflected in the shot, and we’re just like, ‘Oh, the CN Tower’s in there,’” he continues. “And then we all kinda looked at each other – remember this?”
“I do, it was outside the Rivoli,” Johnson chimes in, suddenly sounding a lot like his character in the show. He has a habit of talking over McCarrol, who is more subdued. Just like their characters in the show.
“It was outside the Rivoli,” McCarrol continues, “and we kind of all made this decision in a very happy, like high-five way. ‘Yeah! We’re in Toronto! This is in Toronto. Of course.’”
It’s not a small thing. Seeing your own city, a city that’s not very good at touting or preserving its own rich history, being celebrated on television just feels damn good. And seeing people in your own city producing a cool TV show – a good one, with a strong point of view that takes risks – is encouraging to anyone dreaming of showbiz, too.
Shows like Kim’s Convenience and Workin’ Moms have done the same. The Regent Park neighbourhood (although shot in Moss Park and in studios) features prominently in the former, and the luxe upper-middle-class Victorian homes in pockets like Riverdale aren’t blurred to look generic in the latter.
Johnson attributes this progress to two things: globalism means audiences are more open to foreign storytelling. And non-Torontonians are more familiar with us via Drake and the indie music scene, sports teams like the Raptors and the Jays. And, yes, Rob Ford’s infamy helped, too.
“I don’t think Toronto’s ever been featured in a TV show like this before,” says executive producer Matt Miller by phone later on. “We’re going to stay here, we love it here, we’re going to raise our families here. It’s the greatest city in the world, and we want people to see that. When I watch a show like Portlandia, for example, I feel like I understand Portland – at least through a certain lens.”
That lens is, without question, white and male. So far, I’ve met at least four of the five Matts that work on the show. As the team gears up for its pranks – trying to sneak past the police into the Santa Claus parade with an attention-grabbing float that the Rivoli might notice, or completely ruining the premiere of a Star Wars movie for diehard fans at Scotiabank Theatre – you wonder if different kinds of people could get away with the same stunts.
Their characters, too, are so moronic, that Matt in particular makes a few ignorant, immature jokes that will offend some people. When they screened three episodes at TIFF last September as a kind of test opportunity, at least one member of the audience criticized a joke or two.
But unlike set-ups of the same ilk, the people they ambush never look stupid – even if it can be uncomfortable to be filmed. Instead, the joke is that Matt and Jay are so creative, so filled with energy, so determined to make their dreams come true, but lack common sense. They’re like teenagers pretending to be adults, modelling their behaviour on characters they’ve seen in popular culture. As is revealed in the show, they’ve never even had a cup of coffee before.
Johnson and McCarrol began developing their characters in high school. McCarrol was the “music guy” at Erindale in Mississauga, with ambitions to score movies one day. And everyone at nearby John Fraser knew Johnson as the “movie guy.” Johnson’s girlfriend, who went to Erindale, introduced them at Silvercity.
They instantly became friends, sharing a penchant for performing and being the class clown. When McCarrol’s parents went out, Johnson would secretly go over to his place and spitball ideas.
“We knew we wanted to create something and we kept coming up with ideas,” McCarrol explains. “Every day it seemed like we’d be on to something, but then we’d move on. Which is very much like what we do as our characters.”
After high school, McCarrol went to Berklee College of Music in Boston (where he befriended comic/TV host Eric Andre) but left after three years, eager to get started on a career. Johnson graduated with a film degree from York, but he resented filmmaking rules about scripts, fake sets, lights and shooting in public.
Courtesy of VICE
It’s not all set in Toronto: Matt and Jay make their way to Park City for in the series.
They moved into an apartment together at 402 Queen West, just west of Spadina, hoping that living together downtown would fuel the production of a movie. It worked.
McCarrol and Johnson’s brainstorming at the piano evolved into the show’s premise. Matt and Jay would want to book a show at the nearby Rivoli (which they agree is a funny choice, with the legendary Horseshoe Tavern just a few doors down). There would be no scripts, lights or professional actors. They’d use any music they wanted without permission and wouldn’t change the names of anything.
They put the episodes up on a website for their friends. Gradually they grew a cult following and earned a bit of media coverage. They stole the Criterion Collection logo and wrote up a press release claiming their DVD would be released through the institution. It was like they were begging to get in trouble with someone, anyone. They even earned multiple invitations from networks to create something new based on Matt and Jay’s characters. But the television execs are risk-averse, opting for shows shot on built sets with scripts and lights. The boys turned them down.
“All that anybody wants to see, in our opinion, when they look at anything – any media really – is some human reality,” Johnson says. “And if you’re missing that, it doesn’t matter how good all this other stuff is. It sucks.”
You will find that spirit in the two films Johnson made after the web series, The Dirties and Operation Avalanche (named a finalist for best Canadian feature by the Toronto Film Critics Association). He utilizes a lot of the same improvisational strategies to create scenes that feel real and conversational, with characters who sometimes speak directly to the audience, both calling attention to the artifice and making it even more real in the process.
He became well-versed in the legal issues pertaining to fair use and shooting in public: the crew famously snuck into NASA to shoot a scene for Operation Avalanche. So when VICE came knocking, asking Johnson to produce their first scripted series for VICELAND, he was prepared: Matt and Jay were back.
In the end, Nirvanna the Band got that cover spot they wanted.
McCarrol and Johnson say they couldn’t make the show for any other Canadian network.
“We don’t have an executive community in this country that is risk-taking or getting fired when they fuck up, and that is a huge issue when you’re trying to develop a talent base,” Johnson says.
He’s known for being outspoken: last year, one of our most popular online film stories covered his critical take on the Canadian movie industry.
“While I agree we have an amazing comedy scene and a lot of extremely funny people, we don’t have a place for those people to make content. It’s not possible – you’d need to leave.
“And I think more than anything – funny how this gets us back to Toronto – that is something that Jay and I and all of us feel so strongly about: not leaving Toronto, not leaving Canada.”
Nirvanna The Band The Show isn’t the first time Toronto has played itself on TV, but it’s tough to think of anything else that’s portrayed the city with so much love. Whether it’s because the rest of Canada resents “the centre of the universe” or we’re just too exotic for American tastes, Toronto civic pride on television is rare.
Courtesy of CBC
Workin’ Moms eat burritos in the Annex.
Workin’ Moms (2017)
One of the best views of Toronto’s skyline is seen from the top of the hill in Riverdale Park East, and it’s captured beautifully in Catherine Reitman’s funny, acerbic series about being a new mom. Restaurants like Flock and landmarks like Lee’s Palace appear, and Reitman told the Toronto Star earlier this year she included them deliberately: “You can feel the real, and it adds roots to these worlds.”
Kim’s Convenience (2016)
I visited the set of Kim’s Convenience last summer with production designer John Dondertman, who showed me the exact replica he and his crew created of a Moss Park convenience store on a soundstage on Lakeshore East. It was incredible – even the mechanic shop across the street was recreated with a simple, enormous photo hung outside the door and visible from the interior. NTBTS’s Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol would never go for this kind of thing.
Orphan Black (2013)
There are references to areas such as Scarborough and the characters use Canadian currency and have Ontario licence plates on their cars. But in 2014, co-creator John Fawcett told Entertainment Weekly that the city’s identity is deliberately played down: “To be honest, we don’t want to say we’re American and alienate the Canadians, or say we’re Canadian and alienate the Americans,” he said. Are we that sensitive?
Twitch City (1998)
Bruce McDonald’s wonderfully weird, moody series – featuring Don McKellar, Molly Parker, Callum Keith Rennie and Bruce McCulloch – is set in Kensington Market. Much of the show follows TV-addict Curtis (McKellar), who doesn’t leave the apartment, but it shares some commonalities with Nirvanna The Band’s style: Bad Boy furniture store ads blare in the background, and you’ll recognize sites like Sam’s convenience store at College and Augusta. You get a sense of the neighbourhood. Watch on YouTube.
The Newsroom (1996)
Many think this is one of the best Canadian TV series ever made. But while it addresses the challenges of a local Toronto news station, the audience rarely sees the city itself: every scene is shot inside the newsroom. When American Aaron Sorkin’s series of the same name premiered in 2011, some Canadian eyebrows were raised. “No, this isn’t a serious affront to our own The Newsroom,” wrote Jaime Weinman in Maclean’s. “And it doesn’t violate any rules either…. It’s just a bit of a grimly amusing reminder that the U.S. TV industry doesn’t take Canada very seriously (and doesn’t need to).” Watch on YouTube.
There are more worth mentioning: Degrassi (obviously), Baroness Von Sketch Show, ’Da Kink In My Hair, Kids In The Hall, and, yes, Hangin’ In and King Of Kensington to name a few.
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