TV's Hercules did a weekend in residence at a local comedy club. Here's why.
When Gary Rideout Jr. (owner of Comedy Bar, and founding member of comedy troupe The Sketchersons) got a phone call from Kevin Sorbo (the actor best known as the rock that the syndicated shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda were built on) about the posters for this past weekend’s comedy shows, Rideout Jr. was a little apprehensive. “When we arranged the contract, it didn’t say the name of the shows,” he says—and the title on said posters was The Kevin Sorbo Garbage Weekend.
“[Sorbo] calls and says, ‘So I was on your website, and I saw the poster,'” recalls Rideout Jr. “And I say, ‘Oh… yeah…’ He says, ‘Can I get 200 of them to sign at FanExpo?'”
Rideout Jr. shouldn’t have been surprised, as Sorbo had already demonstrated a generous sense of humour about jokes at his expense—especially once he found out the specifics of the comedy meme that had the actor as the #1 trending topic on Twitter in Canada for a 24-hour period last fall. That was the result of Pat Thornton‘s second annual 24-hour stand-up set, a fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which raised over $11,000 for the charity (Torontoist wrote a blow-by-blow account of the set, and edited together a doc about it, as well.) Much of the joke marathon coasted on a constant stream of cracks about Sorbo, who first appeared as a random topic a few hours in. “Norm Sousa says he was the first one to write a Sorbo joke,” says Sarah Hillier, one of Thornton’s comedian pals and joke writers who was in the room for most of the marathon, and Thornton concurs: “Yeah, I got the feeling it was Norm.”
While the original Sorbo joke is no longer remembered, it spawned thousands of follow-up one-liners, and a new comedy legend of Herculean proportions was born, wherein the actor (who’s been working steadily in film and voice-over work since leaving television, and is heavily involved in the charity A World Fit for Kids) was imagined in increasingly desperate straits: broke, homeless, taking buses to auditions, and fighting snakes for food in garbage bins. “That one was a callback to one of the jokes a little kid wrote,” says Thornton, who accepted jokes from writers in the room, the internet, and Twitter, and from all sorts of drop-in guests, including students from his girlfriend’s kindergarten class; “Why did the snake cross the road? To get food from a garbage can.” (Thornton framed and hung that joke on his wall.)
So when Sorbo agreed to guest on some of Comedy Bar’s flagship shows while visiting Toronto for this year’s FanExpo, Thornton, Rideout Jr., and the rest of the participating comics made it their goal to thank the “good sport” by making him look like an improv and sketch paragon. “I told him, ‘Everyone here will be trying to make you look good onstage—that’s what the audience wants, and that’s what will be funny and enjoyable about the show,'” says Rideout Jr.
By all accounts, and in front of sold-out houses, the comics succeeded, though it was also in no small part due to Sorbo’s enthusiasm and willingness to dive right in. “You could see him testing the waters with Catch 23 Improv,” said Thornton after the first night of comedy, “and for the Mantown set, he came right out and owned it; he was doing more edits [ending or changing a scene with a ‘blow line’ or ‘cut’] than anyone else—and that takes real balls,” especially for someone who hadn’t done improv in 20 years, performing with strangers.
“I did some improv in acting classes years ago—back in 1991, maybe,” said Sorbo as he and some of the comics relaxed in the green room, post-performance. He also notes that he and his Hercules co-stars did a lot of ad-libbing on set for the action-fantasy show, which launched the careers of much of its stunt and special effects teams, who were all cherry-picked for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy when Hercules wrapped production in 1999.
Live comedy is a lot different to cracking wise on set, though. “It was a little intimidating, but these guys carried me through,” says Sorbo, humbly giving credit to the local talent he shared the stage with. “It was a lot of fun… I’m not nervous being on stage, or even making an ass of myself; I just didn’t want to make a complete ass of myself.”
“We’ve never let anyone into the Mantown set—but c’mon, who’s more manly than Hercules?” jokes Bob Banks, who partnered with Sorbo and Rideout Jr. in the Catch 23 Improv competitive improv show, and is a member of the improv troupe that headlined the late night Friday show. Like Thornton, Banks was effusive in his praise for his celebrity scene partner. “He more than held his own—he edited more scenes during the Mantown set than I did. Even when I was playing a pair of testicles [crouching between fellow troupe member Adam Cawley‘s legs], he hunched down and asked me, ‘What are you doing down here?’ And right after I looked at Kevin Sorbo and replied, ‘I’m a swinging pair of balls,’ I thought to myself, ‘There’s something unexpected I can check off on a bucket list.'”
In the final scene of the Mantown set, Cawley and Mantown troupe member Jason Derosse pulled three women up from the crowd to play ‘trees’ that Sorbo had to hug to clear away. The third volunteer, improviser Alice Moran, seized the moment and planted a kiss on the (happily married) actor. “Well, I had to kiss him, because Ava [Himmel] jumped up in his arms, and I had to up the ante,” said a blushing Moran afterward, who cited the comedy rule of threes—more, more, more. “It’s a good thing she didn’t kiss him, or I would have had to do, well, a terrible thing.”
For Thornton, the whole weekend was completely surreal. “This whole experience has been like, living in a dream world,” he marveled, at the end of the first night. “It didn’t seem real—it was everything we’d imagined. And [Sorbo] was so great to everyone, and so funny; he figured it out so quick that everyone just wanted him to have a good time, and he certainly seems to be doing that.”
At the end of the weekend, with Sorbo flying back to Texas to resume filming his next project, we asked the comics who the Sketcherson’s new #1 dream guest is.
“Andy [Hull] really wants to get Shaq here,” says Hillier. “Yeah, and his name might work well, too,” says Thornton, who then reveals some of his theories on why Kevin Sorbo—beyond being a recognizable and larger-than-life figure fit for parody—was initially such a hit as a joke meme: “His last name is just fantastically fun to say. And then, when we shortened it to ‘KSorbs’ and people started posting the jokes out to Twitter, and then we realized that was actually his Twitter handle—that was magic.”
All photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.
CORRECTION: August 30, 2011, 12:15 PM This article originally contained at incorrect spelling of Norm Sousa’s name. We regret the error.