Picnicface’s Cheryl Hann takes a break from moving house to meet at her local Halifax dive bar. Amid the pinball machines, pool tables, and Friday afternoon drunks, she proudly explains she’s getting her own one-bedroom apartment for the first time. It’s a level of success the 24-year-old, a stand-up comedian since her teens, hasn’t often dreamt about.
Hann, along with the seven other members of Halifax sketch-comedy troupe Picnicface, can expect a lot more attention beginning this fall. In addition to starring in its debut feature film, Roller Town, and a Comedy Network series (which has The Kids in the Hall’s Mark McKinney attached as executive producer), the troupe will publish a coffeetable book of sorts with HarperCollins Canada. Billed as “the most entertaining and irreverent examination of Canada ever,” Picnicface’s Canada features prime ministerial anagrams, a gallery of popular Canadian haircuts, and a guide to upholding modesty.
Picnicface has come a long way since 2005, when founding members Mark Little and Kyle Dooley enrolled at Dalhousie University. After mounting a series of improv performances, hosted for a time in a punk bar above a Halifax steakhouse, they began incorporating sketch comedy and videos into a weekly live show.
Soon the lineup for the group’s regular Sunday night performances stretched down the block. When actor Will Farrell selected three Picnicface videos on the comedy website Funny or Die, the group suddenly had millions laughing around the globe. More than 70,000 people now subscribe to Picnicface’s YouTube channel, and its comedy videos have been viewed more than 40 million times.
Still, Picnicface isn’t a household name – at least, not yet. “We approached them partly because there are people who work here who are big fans,” says Brad Wilson, a senior editor at HarperCollins Canada. “A couple of people had even seen them perform in Halifax. We approached them not knowing they were going to have a TV show or they were working on a movie.”
Wilson’s instincts paid off when, last fall, the Comedy Network picked up Picnicface for a 13-episode series, just after Roller Town, directed by troupe member Andrew Bush (of CBC TV’s Street Cents fame), finished shooting. (Both the TV series and feature film are set to premiere in September, with Roller Town kicking off the Atlantic Film Festival.) HarperCollins Canada is developing several cross-promotional strategies to tie into the October launch of Picnicface’s Canada, as it has done in the past with TV handyman Mike Holmes and Food Network stars such as Jamie Oliver.
For Wilson, who works exclusively on non-fiction, this is his first time editing a project with eight authors. When asked if he’s worked on a book like this before, Wilson hesitates, then chuckles. “No. I mean, I’m working on hockey books. Not quite the same as this, for sure. It’s the first book I’ve worked on that has an intermission,” he says, referring to the book’s middle section of blank pages.
The writing was a collaborative process, with Picnicface’s Scott Vrooman and Evany Rosen, whose sole qualification was a prior stint as editor-in-chief of the University of King’s College’s student newspaper, leading the project. Each troupe member contributed articles, sending finished pieces to the others for editing. It’s not unlike how Picnicface wrote sketches for its TV series, except the book-writing process took a lot longer, and involved much more back and forth.
“Comedic book writing is hard. It’s hard to be consistently funny for 250 pages,” Hann says. “I don’t know if we appreciated right off the bat how much work it would actually be.”
HarperCollins Canada gave the troupe creative licence, throwing up only a few red flags, such as allowing only one joke, instead of three, at the expense of Terry Fox. As for the Canadian content, it’s a new venture for the oddball comedians. Rosen says the country’s history, rather than topical political humour, offered a well of inspiration.
Hann, for example, wrote one entry about the Canadian who invented candlestick bowling. “There are very few references to maple syrup, plaid, or snow,” she says. “We tried to keep that minimal and … find different types of jokes. We just took what we thought was funny and applied that to the broad subject of Canada.”