You couldn’t ask for a better person to mentor a group of sketch comedians than Bruce McCulloch. That’s what’s happened to Toronto’s Tallboyz II Men, who have gone from becoming a troupe to starring in their own television series in just three years.
Tallboyz—debuting Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBC—stars Tim Blair, Vance Banzo, Franco Nguyen and Guled Abdi, who formed a sketch alliance after meeting in the city’s comedy scene. Collectively, their credits include Outstanding Comedy Short at 2018 Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, appearances at JFL42, Comedy Brawl, CBC Radio, NOW Magazine and The Colin Mochrie Improvisation Award. Banzo was enrolled in Humber College‘s Comedy Writing and Performance program when he caught McCullogh’s eye.
“I thought, Wow, this guy’s amazing,’ and I actually brought him in on a writing room I was doing for a couple of days,” series executive producer and director McCulloch recalls. “Then he told me he had a troupe. I saw them and I thought, ‘Wow.’ They were super unformed, but they had what they have on the show, a kind of elegance, warmth and just a natural sense of humour. And I was like, ‘Yeah, we should do a show.'”
That warmth shines through in Episode 1’s first minutes, while the quartet is chased down a Toronto street by transit guards. I wanted to learn more about them and see the characters they’d invented. I was immediately drawn in by their twisty take on boy bands and body shaming, sex-ed classes, and a quiz show hosted by Banzo (that one had me laughing and shaking my head in shame). But as effortless as the writing and performances seem on-screen, it’s been a massive learning curve for Tallboyz II Men to write for television.
“I remember just being a deer in headlights,” Abdi says. “The first couple of weeks I was just nodding and being like, ‘I hope no one notices that I am lost.’ It went from being the four of us writing together at our own pace and being very comfortable with each other to a room where all of a sudden the numbers doubled. We had eight people in the room and people who had 15 plus years of comedy experience.”
McCulloch says that, when the writing room started, the troupe had amassed perhaps a dozen sketches written mostly by improv. Six months later, they had 100. One, about a sleepwalker, is particularly memorable for Abdi because he was injured filming it.
“I was keeping my eyes as close to shut as possible, just enough to see where my feet were,” he says. “I could just see, like, maybe a foot in front of me. The take that made it in is one where it was the eighth time doing it. I really committed and put too much energy into the flip and then landed on my side and being like, ‘Aw, that hurt.’ Then I had to play it off and get up immediately and get out of the scene.
Tallboyz airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.
Image courtesy of CBC.