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.