Two stars from HBO's Eastbound and Down spent the weekend at Comedy Bar, to kick off Toronto's new improv fest.
The fledgling Big City Improv Festival, which takes place all this week at Comedy Bar, got off to a massive start this weekend, thanks to several appearances by two cast members from HBO’s hit comedy Eastbound and Down.
Actors Steve Little and Jerry Minor took up temporary residence at the bar, appearing in all six of Comedy Bar’s regular weekend shows, including Mantown, Catch 23, and Sunday Night Live.
Little and Minor both spent years doing improv before turning to television, and still perform as much improv and live sketch comedy as their TV schedules will allow. Little is a member of the legendary Groundlings troupe, while Minor is still a regular performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York.
“Eastbound only shoots a couple months out of the year, so I’m still in the Groundlings and can still perform on Friday and Saturdays,” Little said. “It’s a fun creative thing, and it’s a fun social thing…It’s always great to get out and meet a new community of comedians.”
Although he was born in Tennessee and raised in Michigan, Minor is a former Torontonian. He lived here for two years while performing on the Second City main stage. (He was the first performer to have appeared on all three Second City main stages, having previously worked at Second City Detroit and Second City Chicago.) It was this connection with the city that brought him and Little to the festival.
“I’m really familiar with Comedy Bar, and I’m good friends with [Comedy Bar owner] Gary [Rideout, Jr.],” said Minor. “I’d been planning a trip up here for a while. I did Just for Laughs this year, and I wanted to come down to Toronto and do the Comedy Bar thing afterwards, but I didn’t have the time, so said we’d hook something up later in the year.”
Rideout said that the addition of Little to the bill was, to some extent, an accident of scheduling.
“Jerry is really connected to the roots of Upright Citizens Brigade, so originally, the idea was to have him and [fellow UCB and Saturday Night Live alum] Horatio Sanz and [UCB member and actor] Matt Besser,” he said. “For improv, you generally want to bring two or three guests in together, so they’re comfortable… But Horatio was shooting a movie, and Besser seriously had a wedding to go to this weekend that his girlfriend wouldn’t let him out of…So I called his agent, who has an awesome roster, and asked who was available, and she said ‘I think Steve Little can do it..’ and that was it.”
Big City Improv Festival producer Adrianne Gagnon said that while she was excited to have Little and Minor on the bill, they were a late addition to what was an already-stacked lineup.
“We’ve got amazing local improv troupes,” she said. “Every improvisor in the city said ‘Yes, I want to be part of this.’ Colin Mochrie is coming out on Wednesday. Jet Eveleth and Paul Brittain, who was on Saturday Night Live, are playing. Stacked, who are my girls, are an all-female musical improv troupe from Chicago, and they absolutely lit the stage on fire the last time they came here.”
Gagnon, who is an improvisor herself, believes that Toronto needs its own improv festival, if only to keep it on equal footing with other cities.
“I’ve experienced the hospitality of other cities and their improv communities, and I thought, Toronto can do this, and we can do it right,” she said. “There’s so much good improv in Toronto…We don’t have the same star system as Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, but our talent is absolutely on par with those places.”
Jon Blair is head writer for The Sketchersons, best known for their weekly Comedy Bar show Sunday Night Live, which Minor and Little co-hosted this week. While Sunday Night Live is traditionally a scripted show, Blair said that in order to both fit in with the festival and play to they hosts’s strengths, this past week’s edition was done a little differently.
“A lot of our scripts this week just said, honest to God, ‘Steve and Jerry come out, they do something,’” Blair said. “There were suggestions, that they could take or leave, but mostly we just set up a framework. It was like here’s your context, now play with it.”
This weekend was Little’s first time in Toronto. He said he will leave with two major memories: of the talented community that exists at Comedy Bar, and of a man eating nine-and-a-half pounds of french fries, gravy and cheese curds.
“I watched that poutine eating contest,” he said. “That was like the most Canadian thing I think I could have seen.”