When their hit Internet sketches led to an eventual deal with the Comedy Network, Picnicface were hailed as the new Kids in the Hall. Ex-Kid McKinney had signed on as the show’s co-executive producer and a strong cult following was expected to develop into a hit from the eight-member Haligonian troupe. Now, after only one TV season, Bell Media, which owns the Comedy Network, has cancelled the series.
“The official reason was numbers,” says Scott Vrooman, one of Picnicface’s eight members, of the decision announced this month. “And we can’t deny that the first-run ratings were average” – ranging from 50,000 to 140,000 at their peak – although nearly as many viewers watched the show on the Comedy Network’s website after it screened.
Vrooman is now overseeing the online campaign to get them back on the air, asking viewers to send in videos showing the various stages of their grief. The fight, paradoxically, relies on their original online audience; even though, as they have graduated to television, Picnicface has shown that it’s on that good old medium that their sketches can develop into something greater than they are alone.
Like great sketch shows past, Picnicface have the chops to make art out of their comedy. SCTV was a self-contained universe; the Kids in the Hall made McKinney’s “headcrusher” and Bruce McCulloch’s bizarre black-and-white shorts seem natural. Picnicface is just as creatively ambitious: The troupe has its own brand of non sequitur humour, visual paraprosdokians and silly conceptual threads that snake through each episode.
Picnicface’s dynamism is part of the draw, and the show allowed the group to dramatize it. The Kids in the Hall turned that troupe’s five-guy dynamic into a great conceit: Mark McKinney was as much a character as the Chicken Lady, Scott Thompson as much a character as Buddy Cole (in one sketch, Thompson comes out as “not gay,” and a frustrated McKinney declares his Buddy Cole limp-wristies “useless”). The fact that the Kids had a show in the first place was an ongoing joke, as when McKinney addresses the audience to remind them that their tax dollars funded the previous, tasteless sketch, and leads the room in a chorus of “Screw you, taxpayer!”
Similarly, Picnicface is Picnicface’s ninth member: The show begins with the troupe gathered in a Halifax living room, discussing the part-time jobs they’ll need to stay afloat in the Canadian entertainment industry. In one episode, the group fires their “whitest member” following a network mandate to diversify, and replaces him with a guy named Gord, who is of the Mi’kmaq Nation. Gord later does a Just for Laughs: Gags spoof where he buys gum from a convenience store, and surprises the clerk with a talk about the importance of minority representation on TV.
The obvious line on Picnicface – that they’re the Kids for an online generation – is both true and false: Insofar as its creators are young people living in mid-sized North American cities, who grew up with the Internet and use its resources to tell jokes, it’s true. But unlike say, Portlandia, Picnicface don’t source their humour from their surroundings – it comes internally, from the things they do to amuse one another, so the jokes aren’t particular to any one generation.
But Picnicface have certainly benefited from living in this age. They got their first break in 2007 when one of their videos, a fake ad for an energy drink called “Powerthirst,” started killing it on FunnyorDie.com. It received a nod from Will Ferrell, the site’s co-founder, and has since racked up tens of millions of views. When McKinney met Picnicface in Halifax, their talent seemed far and beyond the average sketch group with a laptop. After working together for several years in Halifax comedy clubs, they already felt like a cohesive troupe and were ready to graduate from quick online hits to 22-minute episodes.
Picnicface’s sketches work just fine as singles. If you are, say, struggling with a deadline, you might take a two-minute break to watch Vrooman and co-member Mark Little, dressed as old men, rap about sex with middle-aged women. But these bits work better in context. On TV, Picnicface will frame an episode with a grandparent reading to his grandchildren, linking a story about women’s pant fetishists to a skit about Nick Jays, a fast-food restaurant whose service is so fast that you meet yourself coming in on the way out. Then you have to shoot yourself, so the new you can greet the new new you and shoot itself, and so on in an infinite loop, until the grandchildren get zapped into the story and steal the gun.
These conceptual gags, which are never so eggheaded that they’re unfunny, are feats of dexterity, backflips to the punchline.
McKinney has been through this success-disappointment cycle before. Kids in the Hall was cancelled after its first season; Slings and Arrows and Less than Kind were initially given the axe, as well. All three bounced back for multiple seasons and critical acclaim. And hopefully Picnicface will, too, because YouTube, for their purposes, is more of a cheap hotel room than a home. “We’ve created a show that works better on television than anywhere else,” says Vrooman, who, until Picnicface took off, worked a full-time job in accounting. “We spent years building this thing, and if nobody wants it then it will die.”
Special to The Globe and Mail