Everything about Sunnyside, eh?

The Sunnyside of Diversity

By Gary Pearson

Diversity in showbiz has become a hot topic this year, no doubt because the Oscars were whiter than the Oakville Yacht Club Conservative Party fundraiser. As Chris Rock pointed out, the problem goes deeper than some talented performers being snubbed on any given year. It is about opportunity. Are people of colour getting interesting roles to play? Are stories centered on non-white people being produced at all? How about behind the camera, is the machine that makes TV and film also mostly white? And to go further, what does diversity even mean? Does it mean championing African Americans, while making tired old jokes about Asians in the same Oscar telecast?

Just over two years ago Dan Redican and I set out to make Sunnyside, a sketch comedy series set in a downtown Toronto neighbourhood, similar to Parkdale. I was thrilled to be teamed with Dan who had made his comedy mark with The Frantics, Kids in the Hall, Puppets Who Kill and a million other projects.

We liked the idea of a whole bunch of different characters, living in close proximity, crossing paths with funny stories and situations that affected everyone. It was sort of a “we’re all in the same boat” kind of idea. No matter what the age, gender, orientation, body type, income, ethnicity, these characters all lived together in one place. And we added a dollop of dark weirdness and magic. We had an Alternate Reality Store, a local baby fighting ring, a Talking Hole, a barista who thought he was Satan, and so on. And we threw in commentary on contemporary social trends like a guy getting a tattoo to impress a girl, a businessman nearly dying because his phone does, a stalker from Twitter, a couple that has a baby — but only on Facebook. And at the suggestion of writer Jan Caruana, we wanted ponies everywhere in Sunnyside. Cute little huggable ponies.

The main goal of the show was to be funny. The secondary goal was to tell good stories, that weaved through the neighbourhood, showing how everyone was connected, whether they knew it, or not. A third objective was to have our TV community be as diverse as the one it was based on. We wanted reflected on screen, what you’d see on the King St. streetcar at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. Everyone is there. Typically, you just don’t see everyone on TV. I should probably point out about now that Dan and I are white. Dan was raised in Etobicoke, Ont. I grew up on a farm near Tilbury, Ont. With close proximity to Detroit, I did hear a lot of Motown music growing up, but the Jackson Five would have had a hard time blending in at my high school.

The show starts with writing. There is no way around this fact — our initial group of five writers, including me and Dan, were an all white group. Alastair Forbes is so white, he had to grow a beard, just so we could see his face. I will give us some points for near gender equality, as Kathleen Phillips and Jan Caruana were strong voices in our little room. They came up with all kinds of stuff for the show. I’m not going to tell you everything they did, or you’d ask “so, did YOU write anything?”


Later, after we got picked up to go into production, we did get some diverse voices into the writing. Rupinder Gill, Darryl Hinds and Kevin Vidal all joined us at different times. In addition to Rupinder, we also had more women come in, like Sara Hennessey and Alice Moran. All accomplished, all talented people.

From the outset, imagining a cast of six to eight performers, who in sketch comedy tradition would play multiple roles, we knew we didn’t want an all white ensemble. And while we didn’t have a specific breakdown in mind, one performer from a diverse community also wouldn’t be enough. With Dan and I being in comedy forever, we had lists of performers we were interested in. Like most of the comedy community, most of those names were white. We also didn’t want tokenism. We didn’t want a person for the sake of their race. They had to be really good. I still cringe sometimes when I think of the original Saturday Night Live with Garrett Morris having to be “the Black Guy” in the cast. There have been a lot of shows guilty of that.

Getting back to what diversity means, we also wanted to have a wide age range in our cast. Some young people in their 20s, stretching to some over 50. If we could avoid it, we didn’t want to do the old sketch show thing where you put a 20-year-old in a white beard to play an older guy.

We tried to see everybody. If you’re an actor who does comedy, especially in Toronto, and you have an agent, and we didn’t see you, fire your agent. We even saw some who didn’t have agents. Since there weren’t so many diverse people doing comedy, we went beyond, asking to see dramatic actors of colour as well. Good acting was a must for our show. We asked people from ethnic backgrounds to read the same parts we gave everyone.

As a side note, while the showrunners pick the cast, the production company and the network always weigh in on the choices. We didn’t have ultimate power. You make your case but don’t have carte blanche. Ultimately, if a network really dislikes an actor that you like, you are probably going to lose. Not always, but often.

A strange thing happened when we submitted names to the network for the show. We couldn’t get approval for any of our actor picks that were over 50 years old. We presented top people in that age group, really funny, accomplished actors (you’d recognize them), but the network kept saying things like “she just doesn’t excite us” or “he doesn’t seem like a fresh choice.” I can’t pin them on ageism; they never said anyone was too old. Just that they weren’t “excited by our choices.” After multiple names were rejected, we gave up on casting anyone over 40. That aspect of diversity died in the casting process. My revenge was to write a story about Sunnyside having an Old Peoples’ Picnic where the elderly were all rounded up and tricked into getting on a bus and taken away, never to be seen again.


We got our cast of six, which included Kevin Vidal and Patrice Goodman. Kevin came from a strong Second City background and Patrice had done a lot of serious TV drama. We wanted them to be equal players with Pat Thornton, Kathleen Phillips, Alice Moran and Rob Norman. In this I think we succeeded. Kevin and Patrice played every kind of character in our show and were the key people in many stories. For instance, Kevin was a tech-obsessed business knob, a gay superhero who was bad at it, a modern artist named Brando, and so on. Some of Patrice’s characters included a serious cop named Donna, meth girl Kimmie, a yoga instructor, and real estate agent Bernadette. Coming from a dramatic background, a lot her work grounded our sketches in reality.

Patrice and Kevin, like the rest of our cast had to carry tons of comedy. Because we just saw them as talented performers, sometimes we had to stop ourselves and ask about the implications of how we were casting them. Our very first scene in our very first show, we had a crook shooting out of an apartment window at some cops below. In our first draft, we cast Kevin, as we thought he’d play it very well. We had to rethink that, not wanting our very first shot of our first show, to have a black man with a gun shooting at police. It’s tricky in Sunnyside, because there aren’t very many “good” people. The show explores the dark side of most everything. However, we recast that thug as Pat, and gave Kevin lots of others things to do instead. Kevin would eventually play another drug dealer on the show, but only after he played about a dozen other characters first.

On Sunnyside, we didn’t really deal with race much. We felt Key & Peele did an excellent job with that area and Dan and I weren’t coming from an authentic place when writing about it. We wanted the show to be largely colour blind. We did some comment on prejudice by having “Clowns” as a misunderstood ethnic group living in Sunnyside.

We had every combination of romantic couple on the show, from mixed race couples, straight and gay. We’d have white parents with a kid of a different race and so on. In other words, we had today’s Toronto.

When we got to Winnipeg to shoot Sunnyside, we needed many other smaller roles filled by local actors. This gave us the opportunity to show more non-white faces. We relied heavily on talented actors we found there including, Glenn Odero, Ernesto Griffith and Melissa Dionisio. They did a lot of work and did it well. The same goes with extras casting. We pushed our friends in Winnipeg to make sure that every ethnic group was represented. When it came to the crew, Dan and I didn’t have a lot to say about who was called for the many positions, though we had diversity in our camera men, lighting and were lucky enough to hire Dawn Wilkinson, a talented director for two episodes.

So in the end, how did we do with diversity for Sunnyside? If you want to compare to the industry at large, I think we did very well. Patrice and Kevin were stars in our show, equal to all the rest. This was the opposite of tokenism – we relied on them to pull off great characters with believable emotions in the midst of the insane circumstances we came up with. With that in mind, feel free to stack one of our episodes against just about any other show being produced in Canada right now. But was it good enough? Not even close. Canada is a much more diverse place than it is on our screens. What about differently abled people participating in the comedy, playing well thought out characters? We talked about it, but it never happened. What about having older or rounder women in the show? Nope, we didn’t really achieve that in a significant way. And of course Dan and I, as I pointed out, are a couple of white guys. There should be show runners from diverse communities doing their own shows too.

The Sunnyside experience and the artistic rewards it brought, have made Dan and me all the more into the idea of featuring diversity in whatever project we do next. We really wish the show wasn’t cancelled so that we could continue down this road of attempting to do great comedy that reflects today’s Canada. We are kind of like characters on Sunnyside. I don’t know if you noticed, but in that neighbourhood, no good deed went unpunished. In one episode, aspiring geologist Eugene sincerely warns everyone that a deadly volcano is coming to Sunnyside. He’s laughed at for his efforts, and eventually is thrown in the volcano as a human sacrifice. Me and Dan, well, we did our best, and now find ourselves up to our butts in lava.

All 13 episodes of Sunnyside can be seen at Citytv.com.

Gary Pearson is an actor, writer and showrunner with credits on Corner Gas, MadTV, 22 Minutes, That’s So Weird and Sunnyside. His romantic comedy novel, Slapshot of Love is available at Amazon.ca.


Link: Sunnyside: a fine madness on the wrong channel

From Bill Brioux of Brioux.tv:

Sunnyside: a fine madness on the wrong channel
A few days after I razzed Rogers to make a call on Sunnyside, they did. The show, as expected, was officially cancelled.

The sketch-uational comedy, shot for all the right tax reasons in Winnipeg, pleased fans dying to see some of Canada’s best comedy performers romp through a half-hour of unbridled madness. Here was a show where no idea seemed too far-fetched–an infestation of ponies? Sure. An open manhole version of the Internet? Log it on. Continue reading.


Comments and queries for the week of March 18

Sunnyside cancelled by City

So confused. It seems somebody had the vision to greenlight the show, then someone with no nurturing supportive vision stepped in to red light it. Sheesh. Apparently a similar decision was almost made after the first season of Seinfeld. —Chris

How can great new shows like Sunnyside possibly achieve the coveted audience numbers if networks don’t invest in sufficient advertising and promotion for them? They are competing against the juggernaut of American shows and American ads; why aren’t our country’s broadcasters supporting great Cancon like this?
What a sad day. And what an ominous sign for the future of Canadian television: Great show. Great cast. Adored by critics. Award- winning. And cancelled?!? Yikes. —Dave

Sunnyside was the best. Too bad the higher ups didn’t feel the same way as everyone who watched it. Very funny and inventive. Finally we had a good Canadian comedy show and now it’s gone. I’m very disappointed in City. —Matt

I’m disappointed and will miss this show. It was hilarious and I found it amusing how different the actors looked when they dressed up as different characters. I’ve enjoyed Sunnyside while it lasted. —Iris

Orphan Black and Schitt’s Creek capture key Canadian Screen Awards

Norm McDonald did a GREAT job IMO. Overall, a pretty good show … just a few clunky presenter moments. Jacob Tremblay shows incredible poise for someone his age and the interaction between he and Christopher Plummer was fun. Great to see Schitt’s Creek do so well. And I don’t know if it was really scripted or not, but I liked how so many of the presenters and award recipients quickly jumped on the Candy bandwagon. While the late John Candy may not have had an extensive enough career to actually deserve such an honour, it does make for a catchy and fun name as Norm Macdonald mentioned, so, let’s hope there is plenty more Candy for Canada’s screen industry for many more years to come! —Byron


Got a question or comment about Canadian TV? greg@tv-eh.com or @tv_eh.


Sunnyside cancelled by City

Things are less than sunny for the folks at Sunnyside; City has decided not to renew the Canadian sketch comedy series for a second season.

“We are extremely proud of Sunnyside and the 13 episodes of this fiercely original comedy that we were able to bring to our viewers,” a statement sent to TV, eh? on Wednesday read. “It was a privilege to work with the immense talent—both off and on screen —involved in this unique Canadian production. It was a difficult decision, but, despite critical acclaim, the series was unable to connect with the audience it needed to continue. We thank Canadians for their support of Sunnyside and look forward to bringing them more original content in the future.”

The news is a definite buzz-kill for co-creators Dan Redican and Gary Pearson and cast members Pat Thornton, Kathleen Phillips, Patrice Goodman, Alice Moran, Kevin Vidal and Rob Norman; the group captured a Canadian Screen Award for Best Performance in a Variety or Sketch Comedy Program or Series (Individual or Ensemble) during Sunday night’s gala, besting This Hour Has 22 Minutes, The Rick Mercer Report and The Second City Project. Sunnyside’s photographer, D. Gregor Hagey, won a CSA for Best Photography in a Variety or Sketch Comedy Program or Series and three other nominations.

Filmed in Winnipeg, the series followed the odd folks and characters who called the neighbourhood of Sunnyside home.


Poll: What are your favourite Canadian TV shows of 2015?

UPDATE: The poll has now closed. Thanks to everyone for taking part! You can still let us know your favourite Canadian TV show of 2015 by writing it in the Comments section below.

As the year winds down, it’s time to reflect back on 2015. What a year it was for Canadian TV. Yes, there was some sad news—the cancellation of Strange Empire, Remedy and Rookie Blue come immediately to mind—but there was plenty to celebrate as well.

Sci-fi in Canada is stronger than ever thanks to Orphan Black and newbies Killjoys and Dark Matter, we’re getting laughs from series like Still Standing, Sunnyside and Young Drunk Punk and dramas like This Life, The Romeo Section and Motive continue to entertain.

As we get ready to say hello to 2016, help us celebrate 2015 by voting for your favourite five (5) Canadian television shows of the year. (Vote by clicking the boxes to the left of your favourite shows, then click the shaded “Vote” button located just below and right of Young Drunk Punk.)

UPDATE: The poll has now closed. Thanks to everyone for taking part! You can still let us know your favourite Canadian TV show of 2015 by writing it in the Comments section below.

What are your five favourite Canadian TV shows of 2015?

  • Dark Matter (27%, 7,269 Votes)
  • Lost Girl (25%, 6,777 Votes)
  • Killjoys (21%, 5,766 Votes)
  • Heartland (20%, 5,384 Votes)
  • Murdoch Mysteries (10%, 2,632 Votes)
  • Orphan Black (8%, 2,147 Votes)
  • Tornado Hunters (8%, 2,080 Votes)
  • Rookie Blue (6%, 1,634 Votes)
  • When Calls the Heart (6%, 1,557 Votes)
  • Rick Mercer Report (5%, 1,486 Votes)
  • The Liquidator (5%, 1,279 Votes)
  • Schitt's Creek (4%, 1,227 Votes)
  • Vikings (4%, 1,087 Votes)
  • The Amazing Race Canada (4%, 1,053 Votes)
  • Saving Hope (4%, 1,024 Votes)
  • Property Brothers (4%, 990 Votes)
  • Bitten (4%, 976 Votes)
  • Dragons' Den (4%, 970 Votes)
  • Continuum (3%, 955 Votes)
  • Haven (3%, 791 Votes)
  • Chopped Canada (3%, 786 Votes)
  • 22 Minutes (3%, 783 Votes)
  • MasterChef Canada (3%, 738 Votes)
  • Big Brother Canada (3%, 727 Votes)
  • Highway Thru Hell (3%, 686 Votes)
  • Canada's Worst Driver (3%, 684 Votes)
  • Degrassi (2%, 608 Votes)
  • The Nature of Things (2%, 580 Votes)
  • Love It or List It franchise (2%, 573 Votes)
  • The Fifth Estate (2%, 559 Votes)
  • Motive (2%, 557 Votes)
  • House of Bryan (2%, 549 Votes)
  • X Company (2%, 520 Votes)
  • Still Standing (2%, 480 Votes)
  • Strange Empire (1%, 397 Votes)
  • Marketplace (1%, 394 Votes)
  • This Life (1%, 394 Votes)
  • Hockey Wives (1%, 340 Votes)
  • Backroad Bounty (1%, 321 Votes)
  • 19-2 (1%, 311 Votes)
  • Remedy (1%, 266 Votes)
  • Mr. D (1%, 265 Votes)
  • Blackstone (1%, 262 Votes)
  • Polar Bear Town (1%, 252 Votes)
  • Ice Racer Showdown (1%, 214 Votes)
  • Young Drunk Punk (1%, 207 Votes)
  • Canada's Smartest Person (1%, 198 Votes)
  • Sunnyside (1%, 193 Votes)
  • The Next Step (1%, 174 Votes)
  • Mohawk Girls (1%, 170 Votes)
  • Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan (0%, 128 Votes)
  • Keeping Canada Alive (0%, 120 Votes)
  • The Other Side (0%, 113 Votes)
  • Chef in Your Ear (0%, 104 Votes)
  • The Romeo Section (0%, 99 Votes)
  • Blood and Water (0%, 93 Votes)
  • The Stanley Dynamic (0%, 88 Votes)
  • Make it Pop (0%, 81 Votes)
  • First Dates (0%, 68 Votes)
  • Unusually Thicke (0%, 67 Votes)
  • Open Heart (0%, 65 Votes)
  • Spun Out (0%, 58 Votes)
  • Sensitive Skin (0%, 47 Votes)
  • Max & Shred (0%, 42 Votes)
  • Some Assembly Required (0%, 30 Votes)
  • Crash Gallery (0%, 24 Votes)
  • Tiny Plastic Men (0%, 20 Votes)

Total Voters: 27,337

Loading ... Loading ...