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Jann: Co-creator Leah Gauthier and showrunner Jennica Harper on developing the series and Jann Arden’s star power

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.

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Jann Arden is unabashedly herself—sort of—on new CTV comedy Jann

When CTV hosted journalists on the Calgary set of its new comedy Jann in October, series star Jann Arden noted that she was just 17 days into her acting career. The Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter has oodles of experience in front of live crowds and has flashed her wicked wit on shows like The Social, but acting in front of a camera—and being No. 1 on the call sheet—is new. And nerve-wracking.

“I’m scared the entire time,” Arden admits during a press conference with the show’s cast and creators. “I think you have to do things in life that scare you.”

Showrunner Jennica Harper (Cardinal, Motive) confesses that she had last-second jitters about her star’s ability to crossover to television as well.

“We obviously were thrilled to be jumping into this project and also knew that it was going to live or die by Jann,” says Harper. “This is who people were going to be coming to see. And so on Day 1, there was sort of a moment where we were all like, ‘Oh, my god….”

“Can she f–king act?” Arden cuts in, causing the room to erupt in laughter.

Once everyone regains their composure, Harper continues, nodding toward Arden, “Then there was the answer, and it was ‘Oh, my god, she’s fantastic.’ It’s gonna be great.”

As that exchange proves, no one had anything to worry about. Arden has natural comedic timing, and as one of the day’s scenes—which journalists were invited to watch on monitors—later demonstrated, she also has impressive dramatic chops.

In Jann, which premieres on Wednesday, March 20, at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CTV, Arden plays a largely fictionalized version of herself. She’s a recording artist who, unlike the real-life Calgary native, is a bit of a has-been, forced to rent out her beautiful country house to Airbnb guests who are more famous than she is. Her sweet but hapless long-time manager Todd (Jason Blicker) is endlessly supportive and books her all the gigs he can, but the payments are inconsistent at best—unless you’re looking to stock up on cheese wheels.  

On the home front, younger, more responsible sister Max (Zoie Palmer) is raising three kids and caring for their mother Nora (Deborah Grover), but her surprise fourth pregnancy shakes things up and soon mom is moving in with Jann. Meanwhile, Jann’s ex-girlfriend (Sharon Taylor) is moving on with another woman, and a younger, hipper music manager (Elena Juatco) is trying to push Todd out of the picture and resurrect Jann’s career—situations that are skillfully mined for laughs and cringe-inducing moments of second-hand embarrassment throughout the season’s six-episode run.

Harper and series co-creator Leah Gauthier (Motive), who set up their writer’s room in Arden’s kitchen, readily acknowledge shows like Episodes and Curb Your Enthusiasm—where Matt LeBlanc and Larry David played extreme versions of themselves—were heavy influences. And fictional Jann is certainly a narcissist who seems allergic to introspection and good decision making. However, she has a good heart and always manages to remain likable.

“You’re still rooting for her even though she’s making the wrong decisions,” says Gauthier.

And Jann also has a softer centre than those aforementioned shows, which is most evident in the tender and realistic way it deals with Nora’s dementia. Arden’s real-life mother, Joan Richards, suffered from Alzheimer’s and passed away in December, just weeks after filming wrapped. Arden wrote about her mom’s struggle with the disease in her best-selling 2017 memoir Feeding My Mother, and some of those experiences appear in the series.

Following the press conference, Arden returns to set to film a scene with Grover that involves an increasingly confused Nora wandering out to the car to find her missing purse and Jann realizing that something may really be wrong with her mom. The pair performed the scene over and over and over again, some takes ending stoically and some ending with Jann in tears. It is here that Arden and fictional Jann seem to merge, and the moment is quietly devastating.

Part of the blending between real and fiction may be related to Grover’s resemblance to Arden’s mother.

“I think she felt I had the right feeling, a certain sensibility, and that seemed to work for her vision of her mom,” Grover says.

As for any emotional toll that filming such scenes may take on her, Arden is matter-of-fact about it.

“I don’t mind tackling the hard stuff,” she says. “That’s life. It’s not a beer commercial, you’re not running down the beach all the time.”

Besides, Arden says living with her mother’s disease made her a better person—something that one presumes might happen to fictional Jann as well.

“It’s a devastating disease, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a better version of myself because of my mom’s illness,” she says. “You know, she put me in a position where I got sober after a lot of years and didn’t hide behind a lot of stuff. I’ve changed so many things about my health and well-being and got out of a really shitty relationship that went on far too long. And I think it gives you a lot of bravery because my mom is like, ‘You gotta be where you are.’”

It also helps to be who you are.

“I’ve made a living being myself, and just being unique to myself,” Arden continues. “That’s how I’ve made my money. That’s as simple as it is. I’m not the best singer, I’m not the best actor, I’m not the best anything. I do what I do, and it’s indigenous to me. So yeah, it’s great for me to have people see that, to have women see someone like me on television that’s not 5’10” and 100 pounds. There are lots of scenes where I’m in f–king boxer shorts and my hair is in a weird ponytail and people laugh before I even open my mouth, and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s reassuring.’

“Just be yourself.”

Or a version of yourself.

Jann airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CTV.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

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