Seeing Local Sitcoms In A Different Light

When Tim Gamble met Michael Shepard a decade ago, the former was winding down 20 years heading a local film and TV company, and the latter had just returned from Toronto and was selling Frank Sinatra concert packages to TV broadcasters. Something clicked—Gamble says he loved Shepard’s youthful energy—and within six months, the two had founded a company together. Thunderbird Films had its share of success in the early years: a number of movies-of-the-week for Lifetime and others; the movie Desolation Sound with Ed Begley Jr. and Jennifer Beals in 2005. That year, its future really took shape with the production of the kids’ series Zixx, which won them some recognition and, more importantly, strengthened their links with broadcasters and distributors in the States and worldwide.

Not that the 175 people watching tonight’s taping of Mr. Young care about back stories. They’re here to be part of a live studio audience—just like all those Burbank sitcoms from back in the day: I Love Lucy, All in the Family, Seinfeld. Ranked on bleachers, facing the floodlit front steps of “Finnegan High,” they watch intently as the title character (a teen genius played by Brendan Meyer) bursts through the doors and into a series of gags and punch lines. There’s a smattering of polite laughter, but as the actors find their rhythm, the audience—lots of kids and parents—does too. A few runs in, they’re laughing, hooting, stamping their feet. Some of that excitement gets drummed up between takes, with quizzes and prizes and bowls of free candy. Some is born by the actual ohmygod excitement of four cameras and pretty actors and lights and sound effects and a this-is-actually-going-on-TV vibe. The lion’s share, though, points to why we’re here: the upward spiral of feedback from humans laughing at humans.

As the comedy broadens, a scrum of eight writers and Episode #75 director Siobhan Devine hunker down in the “video village” off to one side. (The show is the creation of Dan Signer.) The group watches the four feeds, notes laughs and silences, tweaks lines. Earlier, up in the writers’ room I asked if the stars mind rewrites. Nope: they’re up for whatever. “They’re too young to know any better,” one said.

This is Thunderbird’s dream: kick-starting a new way of making TV in town—multi-camera, live-audience, Canadian sitcoms like Mr. Young that could replace some of the work American producers have moved to cities with better tax credits. “We’re doing well,” Gamble and Shepard say in office space in the 70,000-square-foot Burnaby warehouse. “And it’s not just us. Reunion, Omni, Front Street, Paperny, Nerd Corps—we know all those guys here, they’re all doing well. The American units? We don’t know any of them.” But their model requires training: crews to understand the multi-camera techniques; actors who can play big like theatre, tight like TV.

This isn’t their only example of the form. Three kilometres west, in another industrial park toward the river, a few crew members are finishing construction on a second Thunderbird sitcom, Package Deal. Same setup: the cameras, the bleachers, soup to nuts onsite (for most shows, services like editing are done off-site; here, to accommodate the extra electrical needs on-site, they had to bore through the concrete floor to run in extra cables). Shooting starts tomorrow night. (The company also films a video-highlights show with Roman Danylo called The Funny Pit out of its Yaletown offices.)

This is another big space—again, 70,000 square feet or so—but without the madcap kids, the tunnel-vision crew, it feels empty indeed. Is it folly to invest in an industry yet to materialize? Or prescience? Lionsgate founder Frank Giustra invested in the company (he and Gamble go way back; shots of the mogul-in-the-making are on Gamble’s BlackBerry)—no doubt in expectation that Thunderbird’s growing library of evergreen content can only accrue value in a time of seemingly endless appetite for TV.

In the meantime, there’s slapstick to be made. Back at Mr. Young, Kurt Ostlund waits to go on camera. He got his role as the school bully because they liked his theatre background, and it’s led to enough tough-kid screen work that he’s put off university for the foreseeable future; with time to kill, he’s been working out a lot, which is pushing him beyond what’s visibly credible for school-age roles. He may have to take some time out, he says, wait for his body to vault him past this awkward intermediate stage.

Like Jason Segal after Freaks and Geeks, he says. “He went through this, too: from 20 to 25 he did nothing. He was stuck like this kind of boy-man. I have the same deal.” Then Ostlund’s name is called and he heads for the cameras. It’s his time.