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Save Picnicface, Save Canadian Comedy?

Canadian sketch comedy troupe Picnicface is fighting to get its act back on TV after it was cancelled by Bell Media.

Mark Little and Evany Rosen lounge on the grass (while Brian Macquarrie looks on) in a scene from the season (and possible series) finale of Picnicface.

On the internet, at least, there’s been no bigger Canadian comedy success story to date than Picnicface. The troupe’s eight members, who honed their technique playing regularly on stage in Halifax, are often cited as the successors to ’90s Toronto-based comedy stars The Kids in the Hall. Picnicface’s biggest claim to fame, the over-the-top Powerthirst sketch, has passed 25 million views since it was first posted on YouTube in 2007. And so it was with considerable fanfare that the troupe’s self-titled sketch series debuted on The Comedy Network last year.

But between the premiere and finale, The Comedy Network and its parent company, CTVGlobeMedia, were swallowed up by Bell Media. Last month, Picnicface was told that, despite decent ratings (and good online traffic to the Comedy Network website), they weren’t being renewed for a second season. This was the start of what has become an impassioned online campaign to #SavePicnicface.

“The thing is, we’d sold Comedy Network on a second season—they were behind us,” said Picnicface member Mark Little. “It was Bell Media that pulled the plug. It was clearly a ratings decision. They might have felt differently if they’d been there from the beginning, and been invested.”

To hear it from outspoken comedy veteran and former Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson, that lack of investment in homegrown talent is endemic in Canadian television. He and fellow Kids in The Hall alumni Dave Foley and Mark McKinney (who served as co-executive producers on Picnicface) have all been vocal in their support of the campaign to renew the cancelled show. Thompson doesn’t believe his own seminal troupe would have lasted long enough on TV to make the huge impact it did, given the same treatment. “It’s not just Picnicface, though I think they’re great,” he said. “It’s The Jon Dore Show, and Pat Thornton’s show Hotbox, and Michael Tuesdays and Thursdays—all these shows the networks in Canada never gave a chance. They’re abandoning an entire generation of comic talent.”

The lack of opportunity for Canadian comedians, the absence of a star system, and what Thompson terms “the political correctness, corporate neglect, and Canadian apathy that’s destroying our industry,” leads to the all-too-familiar brain and talent drain to the United States. As deeply rooted as Picnicface is in Canada (they even wrote a book about it), Little can’t help but acknowledge the near inevitability of leaving the country to find work. “Jon Dore’s there, and Pat Thornton’s spending a lot of time in Los Angeles,” said Little.

“I look at this generation, and I feel so bad for them,” said Thompson. “Kids in the Hall, you look back at our first season, it was us learning how to do television—unpacking our crate of theatrical sketches and adapting them. Some successfully, some not so successfully. By the end of that first season, we were ready to make televison—which is what we really started to do in our second season. We had that luxury.”

In contrast, Picnicface’s 13-episode season was shot in a tightly condensed schedule. “We’d be able to shoot a three-minute video in five hours,” said Little of the group’s pre-TV modus operandi. “If a YouTube video doesn’t work, you can just not post it. But we went from that to shooting an episode’s worth of material, two days at a time.”

Those difficulties aside, Little is proud of what his troupe accomplished during its first season on television—and he and the rest of Picnicface are confident a second season would be exponentially better.

The troupe is currently split evenly between Toronto and Halifax, but there’s more to come from them beyond the television show. The previously mentioned book is now available, and a feature film they shot, Rollertown, is scheduled for wide release in fall. It has already been shown at some film festivals. “It screened alongside Monsieur Lahzar and other Canadian films,” said Little. “That must have been weird.”

Meanwhile, the SavePicnicface campaign petition continues to attract signatures. Plenty of fans have sent in videos of their own. “Even if we don’t get a second season, the best part of all this has been getting all those lovely messages and videos,” Little said.

“We’re hoping to find a home again on television,” said Evany Rosen, another member of Picnicface. “But there’s really no ultimate goal other than getting a chance to do more together as a troupe.”

Thompson, while pessimistic about a Canadian network recognizing the potential in further Picnicface seasons, still firmly believes they belong on TV—perhaps on IFC, or HBO, where The Kids in the Hall found their initial American welcome. “Television is filled with shows, particularly comedy, that didn’t take off until the second or third season. I think Picnicface is great, and I think they should be given the chance to become greater,” he said.

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