Hellcats Actor Craig Anderson on Underground Comedy

Three guys in blue buttoned-up shirts are squinting into stage lights as they explain the next improv skit to the audience. “This game is called Should’ve Said,” says Craig Anderson, stepping to the edge of the stage and bending down so that he’s almost touching noses with people who’ve come out for comedy night at the Hennessey Dining Lounge on Broadway. “At any point when you don’t like what we’ve said, you can call out ‘Should’ve said!’ and we have to try again.” Anderson flicks his curly brown hair and lets out a smarmy, Chevy Chase laugh. Cue the spacey keyboard music from the blonde accompanying the comedy troupe.

Anderson, 28, is a founding member of Bronx Cheer, a comedy duo that started a live sketch show in 2007 after Anderson and his partner-in-crime, Conor Holler, returned from a trip to New York. “The shows there were all an hour long and free,” remembers the Calgary native. “Most comedy shows I knew were, like, four hours. You get bored and tired. We wanted a place to perform the kind of comedy we wanted to do.”

The comedy they wanted to do was experimental, newfangled, and sometimes outrageous-a mix of traditional improv, stand-up, and multimedia. Holler once let a random audience member’s name be permanently tattooed on his arm while Anderson performed songs like “Steel City Springtime,” a Springsteen-like ballad about dying industrial towns. They forged Wikipedia accounts, left false information on big-name profiles, then turned the angry emails that resulted into a sketch. They also premiered their monthly web sitcom, With Friends Like These, at each show, amalgamating live performance and video into an hour of entertainment. At the Hennessey, though, Anderson’s sticking with the improv basics. He asks an audience member to kick-start the next skit by reading a random sentence from a book. 

The boys of Bronx Cheer quickly became pioneers of the alternative comedy scene. They linked up with other budding independent shows, guest-starred in one another’s showcases, and teamed up on projects like the Leo Award-nominated web series Mental Beast (a term Anderson coined to describe “a brainy chick”), about a failing radio station, which Anderson co-wrote, produced, and starred in.

In short order, Anderson and his like have helped to erase the stereotypical image of the washed-up, 40-plus stand-up artist telling sexist one-liners; they’ve replaced him with a crew of half-shaven boys spitting out impassive non sequiturs. “In describing our scene, you’d use all those words you don’t want to use,” Anderson laughs. “Like ‘alternative’ or ‘hipster.'”

These days, he’s often on the road, performing in cities from New York to L.A. To his mind, the most unlikely venue he’s played is Vancouver TheatreSports League, a mainstream comedy night that attracts suburb dwellers and rowdy bachelorette parties. “It’s a very different crowd than what we get at Bronx Cheer,” he says. “Which can, at first, be disappointing, because it’s like, ‘These people don’t get my stupid, subtle pop culture references that are so deep.’ But TheatreSports is good for me. I learned how to leave the niche humour behind.”

A couple of weeks after the Hennessey show, at a diner on Main Street, the waitress plops down our beers, still in the can. Anderson does a double take. “Is it weird that I feel weird drinking out of a can in a restaurant?”

A UBC grad with a major in film production, Anderson says that he thought he was going to be “a real proper director and make real movies. But after a couple of years it became apparent that the movies I was making were just little comedy skits.” He worked as a production assistant in Calgary, making good money, but his mother questioned what he was doing with his life. “It was so backwards. When I said I wanted to do comedy and act, my parents were more supportive.”

Besides his improv and stand-up shows, Anderson has been acting “for money” for four years. He’s done every embarrassing gig out there, from playing a rapist in a Nickelback video to singing jingles for Subway, Kit Kat, and Budweiser. He got his first real whiff of commercial success when he was cast in the 2009 romantic comedy Love Happens, playing Jennifer Aniston’s boyfriend’s best friend. Before long he was being sent out to audition for parts he says, frankly, he was not prepared for. 

“One time I read for Caprica . I had to blow myself up with a vest made of dynamite as I was telling this girl I loved her. That was such an intense scene! I couldn’t do it. I knew I was phoning it in. I walked out of there feeling like, ‘I’m not an actor, I’m just going for chewing gum commercials.'”

After many more “stinker” auditions, Anderson landed his first major television network role, as the dorky law student Morgan Pepper on Hellcats, a teenage drama that’s both sexy and anodyne enough to keep young audiences addicted to the fantastical story line. The show debuted to three million viewers, making it the first CW Network premiere to match America’s Next Top Model

Alternative comedian goes mainstream? Any credibility problems? On the contrary: Anderson embraced the role. “I have a trailer. People take care of me and give me food all day. I’m getting paid money to play this silly character that I love being.” 

Do his underground comedy comrades feel the same? “I think if I had a bunch of actor buddies who all looked exactly like me, had my same build, they’d be bummed. But everyone has their own stuff going on. It’s a very supportive scene.” The only resentment he deals with right now is from blogging teenagers who think his character is a “jerk”-though they still want his autograph.

Anderson drains his beer. “I realized the other day that Morgan Pepper is, like, the annoying brother,” he laughs. “He’s the irritating way I treat my mother and sister when I’m home for Christmas.”