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culture

The Urbane Explorer—Going Beyond Bessarion

The team responsible for Finding Bessarion is back, and bringing new explorations to YouTube and Bell Local.

This past June, comedian (and Torontoist contributor) Jeremy Woodcock and director Cameron Wyllie revealed a Toronto gem that the rest of us didn’t realize we were missing—and the seldom-used Bessarion Station on the Sheppard Line suddenly became, according to Woodcock, both a leisure destination and a great date spot.

The lingering question ever since has been, “What will this bearded, blazered explorer discover next?” For a new series called The Urbane Explorer, coming to the John Gape YouTube channel and the Bell Local TV network, Woodcock and Wyllie are venturing out to Toronto’s lesser-known locales once again—this Monday, viewers will be treated to a new episode filmed at the Toronto/Pickering border. We caught up with Woodcock to see where he and Wyllie will go next, and why urban exploration could use an attitude adjustment.

Torontoist: So when we last met you, you had just found Bessarion Station—what has happened since?

Jeremy Woodcock: I guess a lot of people enjoyed that video, or at least paid attention to it, and I got to talk about it various places—and had the strange experience of people like David Miller, Gord Perks, Brent Butt, etc., sharing the video. And I guess some portion of that caught the eye of some people at CTV, and they approached my friend and colleague Cameron and I about whether we were interested in doing something with them, possibly making more videos in a similar style.

And so we have The Urbane Explorer! How many episodes are coming, and can you say where you’ll be going, or is it a surprise?

There are four more episodes coming for now, plus Finding Bessarion—they are also airing that. There have been some minor changes to that for TV, including some different music that I added. I’m actually not positive whether it’s a surprise, which is why I should probably err on the side of being a bit secret about it. In the next episode, we’re going somewhere very famous, and in the one after that (which we’ve also already filmed), a place very, very few people have been to when we went, which was in the dead of winter.

We’re sort of trying to find places that viewers haven’t checked out and that we’re curious about ourselves (like in the City Limits episode), and then when we go to a famous place, we do it in a really different way—for instance, by going there for a different reason than anybody goes there and seeing how it turns out when you’re not really using it for its intended purposes, or going at a time of year people have never seen it. Our initial thought was to go to really unexplored places, like the Pickering border, but there is and was definitely a challenge in terms of creating material and jokes and things, so we realized it’s also nice to go some places where there’s a lot of recognizable stuff to comment on and joke about.

You said you were curious about Rouge Park yourself—what drew you eastward?

Since we’re doing a show that’s so focused on Toronto, and discussing it, we thought it was good to define our terms in one episode: what’s Toronto, what’s not, and what’s the difference between the two? I’m from east of here, from Whitby, so it was interesting to me to go the edge of Durham Region, too, and check out that border, as opposed to the west—which I think is a bit clearer in people’s heads. While Cameron and I were drawing up episode ideas, I realized I kept thinking of the border of Toronto to the east as being Scarborough, but ever since amalgamation, that’s no longer the case. So there were themes that seemed to really interest us: defining the city’s limits, examining the popularity of certain places, checking out places when they’re not normally in use—and the border seemed the best way to check out that first one, to see a part of Toronto that’s still Toronto, but where nobody living in the city, particularly downtown, is ever going to find themselves. We also wanted to check out something that would conceivably sort of leave us high and dry, with nothing recognizable around to talk about, so I’d just have to make something out of nothing, in a way.

But that works so well in these videos, just the fact that you have to find something to be awed by in a very mundane location. You get the feeling that this explorer is a heck of a nice guy.

Ha, I hope so! I try to be myself, and be confused by the things that actually confuse me, while also trying to be funny, since I’m a comedian and really want to make people smile and laugh n’ feel good.

And that isn’t exactly the first idea that comes to mind when you think about an “explorer,” out traversing unexplored territory.

That’s true. Sort of grim, determined, wind-burned faces come to mind first. I guess it helps that these are explorations of choice and curiosity, rather than massive undertakings that can’t be turned back from. But really, I’m glad to hear if people think that they’re being led by a nice guy in these videos, because I feel like I’m being very honest about what awes me (or what could awe someone), since I’m trying to be extra open in the videos and see stuff that even I would usually just overlook. I kind of like who I become when filming the show!

I think Cameron generally thinks they work as well as they do because of my attitude and openness and jokes, and I think they work as well as they do because of his great camera work and editing. At least I hope he thinks that on his side—he seems to. It seems like a really good split.

Both in your attitude and in the camera work, there’s a sort of refinement. It plays really well into the title, The Urbane Explorer. Do you think that Toronto needs a little more courtesy? While conducting urban exploration or otherwise?

I think so. I think everywhere could use it. Not in the “refined” sense that “urbane” sometimes seems to first imply, but just a kindness, a gentleness. When you’re heading around town on the TTC, which I do a ton when we film these, it’s sort of a microcosm, where you sort of see what the right way of carrying yourself is. Keep an eye out for other people, be friendly (or at least not actively rude), and just make sure you’re making other people’s days a little better. I don’t know if Toronto specifically suffers from a paucity of that kind of thing, but it’s definitely at risk in any city, and the more crowded the area, the more I see it sort of slip away as everybody goes into their shell and just tries to move forward with their day, if that makes sense.

Cameron and I, with the small exception of filming schedule things, are never in a hurry on these shoots; I’m never trying desperately to get somewhere like other people are, especially in our third episode (which I still can’t decide if I’m allowed to spoil!). So in these little films, or as this “character,” I get to experience what it’s like not to be in a hurry, and see everybody else stressed and in a hurry to get somewhere and get by everyone, and sort of feel how great it feels to not be in that position. Though I’m sure those people have great reasons, and someone’s day can definitely be awfully, awfully hard in the city. So then I also see how relaxed and open you can be if you somehow remove those constraints. I don’t know if it’s realistic to imagine yourself always removed from the situation in that way, but it’s definitely an interesting experiment, and an aspect of all this that I pay close attention to.

It is definitely a unique situation, going somewhere just for the sake of going there. It’s not something that a lot of people experience, and I guess that’s the point, right?

Exactly. Cameron and I keep speaking about the show in terms of showing people things they wouldn’t usually see (whether it’s that river border, or Bessarion Station, or future stuff) so that they can experience it and also see what they think of it, and I guess that can apply equally well to seeing a certain attitude and a jokey, hopeful approach that they might be unable to have on an average day going around the city. Hopefully, some of it rubs off. Aspirational television?

Yes, aspirational TV! I could stand a bit more of that and less escapist TV, but that’s just me.

Me, too! So it’s just the two of us, at the least.

Is there a place, limit, or landmark that even you won’t go?

No. I don’t think so. I mean, my own personal foibles come to mind, and I have a pretty strong reaction to heights, so something connected to that would be very hard for me. But even something like that—when I’m doing it for this show, I feel like I have a lot more motivation, like I’m somehow representing more people than just myself. Also, Cameron does some pretty good motivating with regards to trying some things. (Although in the fourth episode, I was a bit high up standing on precarious snow and ice, and he actually had to convince me to not try certain stuff.) So I would definitely feel capable (small-scale, urbane superhero-style) of doing things on this show that I wouldn’t be able to do outside of the show, just on my own.

For other, non–personal limitation reasons, there’s stuff I probably wouldn’t do. It would take a lot to go to another TTC station right now. Everybody kept asking which station I would do next after Bessarion, and suggesting stations, but I want to do something really new each time. A lot of people think they want to see me explore another station, but I think they’d be surprised at how underwhelming it felt. We weren’t even going to necessarily repeat the short doc style (maybe move on to a straight comedy sketch video, or whatever struck us as interesting next) until it became clear there was a lot of interest from both viewers and… broadcasters, I guess, in seeing more of that from us. We definitely started to realize that we hadn’t exhausted the avenues of what we were trying to do in our first video.

I’ll let you keep the other locations a surprise, because the ice thing is quite intriguing. One more question—The Urbane Explorer is a snappy dresser. What is key in an outfit when exploring Toronto’s lesser known areas?

Layers. And a tie. If it’s hot, you can take off layers. If it’s cold, hopefully your cameraman and good friend is lugging around a coat in his bag for you. But never take off the tie. You’ll always look stylish if you just hang on to that trusty tie.

CORRECTION: January 15, 2014, 1:30 PM This post originally stated that The Urbane Explorer would involve four new episodes; in fact, this series features five new episodes.

Comments

  • Anne Fleming

    You know you’ve reached the “limit” when you run out of sidewalk! Thanks for getting off the beaten track (and making the journey interesting as well)!