During the same week that Daniel and Eugene Levy broke our hearts by announcing the end of their genius mega-hit comedy Schitt’s Creek, another stellar, and very Canadian, comedy debuted.
CTV’s Jann stars iconic singer-songwriter Jann Arden as a mostly fictionalized version of herself. In this alternate universe, Jann is a self-absorbed, down-on-her-luck musician who is desperate to claw her way back into the spotlight—and to get the best of her musical nemesis, Sarah McLachlan. Meanwhile, she’s also dealing (quite badly) with her recent split from long-time girlfriend Cynthia (Sharon Taylor) and her mom’s (Deborah Grover) increasing forgetfulness, a situation that echoes Arden’s real-life experiences with her mother, who passed away from Alzheimer’s in December. The show is sharp, genuinely funny, and at times, deeply moving. It’s also a show fans of Schitt’s Creek might want to check out to help ease their anticipatory grief.
During a visit to Jann‘s Calgary-based set in October, we spoke with series co-creator Leah Gauthier (Motive) and showrunner Jennica Harper (Cardinal, Motive) about developing the comedy—which airs its second episode, “Go With the Flowga,” on Wednesday—pitting Jann against Canada’s sweetheart McLachlan, and Arden’s immense star quality.
Leah, you co-created the series with Jann Arden. How did that come about?
Leah Gauthier: I’ve worked in television for 10 years, on the factual and reality side of TV, and between two shows, I went on the road with Jann as part of her production team. So we met through work but became fast friends. I did three tours with her, and we’ve always talked about one day when we were both ready, we would pitch a show. It’s changed a lot over the years, and she’s been approached a lot to do television, but it was never the right format. Everyone always wanted her to be like a version of Ellen [DeGeneres] and do a daytime talk show. But we knew we wanted something scripted.
So about three years ago, we sat down in her kitchen and we just wrote it out. It started weird. She was very different versions of herself—she lived in a trailer park or she ran a strip mall—and we kind of pared it down to what it is now. We wrote it together on her kitchen island, and then we flew to Toronto and pitched it, and here we are. It’s almost insane. It took a long time, but now it feels like it happened overnight. It took three years.
What were some of the biggest roadblocks you experienced over that three-year period?
LG: I knew I had obviously something super special with Jann because the country really loves her, so I had a foot in the door because of her. I’m aware that this opportunity would have never have happened for me if not for her being my champion. So my biggest roadblocks were all of the things. Jann busted the roadblocks down, and now I get to do this, and I’m eternally grateful.
You and Jann chose Jennica as your showrunner. What was it about her that really stood out to you?
LG: We interviewed a bunch of different people for the position of showrunner and talking to her on the phone, it was just immediately apparent that she had all of the things that we were lacking. You know, together we made just a perfect, complete human. And she also came into the interview pitching great ideas, like there’s a whole rivalry with Sarah McLachlan that was Jennica’s idea. When she came up with that, we were like, ‘This woman gets us.’ She has the right sense of humour for us, she’s clearly talented and very smart and professional, ‘You’re hired.’
Jennica, you have worked on dramas like Cardinal and also have a background in kids comedy. How has it been working on a primetime comedy aimed at adults?
Jennica Harper: I was very grateful to be working in kids comedy for many years and then I had been developing a number of comedy shows, but it’s hard to get one going here. So I sort of interviewed and pitched my take on the show idea and sort of helped flesh it out. I know very well how lucky I am to be one of the people getting run an adult comedy, a primetime comedy in this country. There’s been very few. So I have no illusions about why I’m here. I’m here because I have the experience and because Jann got us a greenlight. Like, I know how our show got greenlit. I did my best with the scripts, I did my best with the story, but we’re here because we have a star and everyone was like, ‘This is a no-brainer. Let’s put this on TV.’ So I got to sort of ride the train, and now I’m sort of steering the train, but the train belongs to Jann.
I think Jann’s rivalry with Sarah McLachlan on the show is hilarious. Why does fictional Jann hate Sarah?
JH: Right from the beginning, when I understood that the proposal was to do a fictionalized version of Jann and that she is super flawed and jealous and imperfect and a blurter who thinks about herself first, that immediately came to me. I was like, ‘This is going to be so much fun.’ Because that’s where the comedy is going to come from, it’s going to come from the conflict of her against the world. And sometimes that’s her versus her work, and sometimes it’s her versus her family. So I thought she needed a nemesis, and who is a better Canadian nemesis than, honestly, one of the most hard-to-criticize human beings in the world? Someone who is beautiful with an incredible songwriting ability and a beautiful voice and works for charities and creates music schools for children, that that would be somebody who—if you’re really having fun with a flawed person—you’re like, ‘I hate that perfect person. She’s terrible. How does she get everything and I get nothing?’ That kind of vibe.
The series is very funny, but it also has a serious side, particularly in its treatment of Nora’s dementia. Was it at all difficult to strike a tonal balance between those two elements?
JH: I know it’s going to be a big part of the conversation, so I’ve tried to think really hard about all of the aspects that go into finding that tone, but I think partly what’s helped us has been not to worry too much about it, to accept that we’re going to allow for some more serious moments and to not fight it, to embrace them.
We did know that we were kind of starting in a more comedic place and the season’s going to grow and build into more serious moments, and that was really helpful because we felt we were really earning some of them later, as opposed to trying in the pilot to start with really serious things. We’re not really doing that. We’re keeping it light up front and then hoping we’re bringing the audience along for a journey and that they’re going to come with us to a point where they really love these characters, they’re invested in their lives and they want to see what’s going to happen to them that’s not so perfect. And I also think that, even with the more serious moments in the show, we do allow for those responses that are imperfect and flawed and sometimes even funny. Life takes you to those places and you’re still yourself, you still respond the way you respond.
What has it been like working with Jann?
JH: On Day 1, we were kind of bracing ourselves: Is this going to be good? Is it going to work? It’s such a hard job. Can Jann do the job? And then there was a moment on Day 1 where I was watching and I almost cried because realized that it was so far beyond that. I looked at Leah and said, ‘Oh, my god. I think it might be really good. She’s really good.’ It was really exciting in that moment to realize that you were going to be a part of something special. It is an amazingly collaborative group, and we happen to have top-notch people, and I’m really proud of the scripts. I think that all of our writers have done a great job, they’re really strong scripts. But it would live or die with Jann—and it’s going to shine. She’s a star.
Jann airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CTV.
Images courtesy of Bell Media.