It's a seemingly straightforward premise, an up and coming band wants to play one of their city's hottest live music venues and will do anything it takes to get their big break. Only this band has no actual music, the venue's heyday for live music has long since passed, and their plans to get noticed include 10-foot-tall dick pics and arson. VICELAND's first foray into scripted series, Nirvanna the Band the Show is unlike any traditional sitcom you've ever seen. It blends co-creator Matt Johnson's gonzo shooting style with a Nathan For You-esque discomfort that involves real people and surreal scenarios. And it's absolutely one of the funniest things on television right now (I promise George Soros isn't even paying me to say that.) I sat down with Johnson and co-creator Jay McCarrol at Toronto's Canoe restaurant, on the 54th floor of a bank building downtown, to talk about the ethics of filming strangers on the street and why this city is so deserving of its starring cameo.
VICE: It's nice to see this view because you never see Toronto this way.
Jay McCarrol: This is like Springfield.
Matt Johnson: Yeah, exactly. Jay and I talk often about going up the CN tower or showing what Toronto looks like from up above because in movies, I think the reason why we all know what New York and Los Angeles and Chicago look like is because of aerial shots and establishing shots in movies. But because no big movies are set in Toronto, people outside of the city never see this. They don't know what it looks like. I imagine when they do aerial shots of the Skydome, you get a piece of it. But everyone in the world has a rough idea of what New York looks like. So we talked about, you know, "Maybe in one episode we should go up the CN tower." We had a terrorism episode where Matt and Jay were going to fake a terrorist attack on top of the CN tower and try to make headlines. They were both going to try to make it and stop it themselves so they'd be these heroes and they'd get all this credit and it would be like we're famous. And we thought one of the great side effects of that shoot would be to show Toronto from the perspective of the CN tower, which many people even in Toronto don't care about looking at. I mean, you talk with people who are students here and a lot of them haven't even gone up the CN tower.
Have you done the walk?
Johnson: I would do it! The edgewalk!
McCarrol: I don't want to do it.
Johnson: You know what, it's not hardcore enough.
So how much of Matt and Jay's characters are Matt and Jay the friends?
Johnson: Like how much of it do we fake?
How much of your characters are just you being you? Obviously the dynamic is pretty natural.
Johnson: I would say everything except for the racism and homophobia is the real us.
I see in your eyes that you love going there.
McCarrol: Well, of course. What else is there? There's nothing funnier.
Johnson: Yeah it's very funny to think that these guys are innocent and charming and that they could do no wrong but then they have very 90s opinions about absolutely everything that has to do with minorities.
McCarrol: Any sort of hot-button topic.
Johnson: But yeah, we're good friends. All the stuff that you see us do is—we don't script anything. It's always the hardest when we have something we need to do for the plot of an episode that takes us outside of what our natural dynamic is. It's like, "Oh no, Jay, you need to be very much against this idea here." And then all of the sudden you go, now you have to act. All the back and forth is just stuff that we do. We shoot so much and we just kind of roll. It's just us joking around. Camera guys are kind of involved too, it's a group dynamic really. It's a good model for young people specifically, not to make this like a Film School education argument, but when you don't need to write your dialogue and you're just doing something with your friends, you can skip a whole lot of steps that hold people back. When you're young and try to make movies, often time writing a script and writing a perfect narrative and then pitching that narrative to somebody to make is a really big impediment to actually going out and doing it.
I know that if we were to write outlines and scripts of everything and every episode that we did and tried to get those approved by VICE or Rogers or basically any network executives, there'd probably be a lot of back and forth over what exactly we were going to do. I mean an example is some of those really tasteless jokes that we do. They would get flagged early on and whether you agree with us being able to do those types of jokes or not, it would mean that we just wouldn't have the opportunity to. The conversation would happen before the footage was shot. Whereas, this way, any debate we're having about story or censorship, jokes, anything, we're having it about something concrete.
I think that production model is the most revolutionary thing about making movies in television now. Young people have access to that and because of that access, they can make their own meal without needing the permission of other people to go out a do things. But it's hard because if you don't feel comfortable doing that or if you are anxious or you don't have that dynamic, you don't want to do it. You want something or somebody to give you permission to go out and say that the script is great and that you'll do fine.
And what about people who just happen to be on the street and get caught up in what you are doing? Do you ever think about the -
Johnson: The ethics of using them, you mean? That's something we talk about a lot. Our show, since it's come out, is very often compared to a mix between Flight of the Conchords and Da Ali G Show, which is a great show. It really is a mix between those two things. And I think one of the things that Jay and I really pride ourselves on is showing the real world for the way that it actually is. And not the real world as ugly, in the way that a movie like Borat would do or in a show like Trailer Park Boys would fake it to look like. We want to show the way Toronto actually is and that means showing people the way they actually are. And an unfortunate side effect of filming anything is that if I tell somebody, "Ok, you better play yourself and we're going to come up and say this or that," then they can never be themselves. It's like trying to measure the speed and location of a particle with any kind of precision. You can't because as soon as you look at it, it moves. It's the same with telling somebody, "Ok, you're going to be on camera. You're going to play yourself. Don't worry, you won't look bad.." They can't be themselves. What we want is to show people really looking their best. We're never trying to make fun of people.
McCarrol: People end up looking the way they look and it's just a very real, unfiltered version of reality. The difference is, we're never going out of our way to make anyone or manipulate the footage so much. We want this as sincere—as a sort of...
Johnson: Yeah, the joke is never on the people we shoot with. The joke is on us. And we're quite conscious of that because we need things to anchor our characters, unlike most hidden camera shows where they're trying to manipulate reality so that the person walking into it is really the victim of certain circumstances beyond their control. Here, Matt and Jay always have something wrong and that confrontation between them and reality is what makes the show interesting.
McCarrol: We also separate ourselves from the way Nathan Fielder, as much as we love that show, Nathan Fielder will have on people and he doesn't necessarily manipulate the footage so much but he does put them in such awkward situations and you can tell that these people are going through a hard time.
Johnson: Well, they find people who are eccentric. People who have ideas that are very against the norm, normally. It's like exposing the underbelly of American culture where everyone wants to be famous. That's what Nathan For You is really about. People doing whatever in order to have some type of fame. Whereas, with us, Matt and Jay really want to be famous. And they don't even think about the people they're interacting with.
McCarrol: And nobody sees the cameras hopefully.
Johnson: Or, if they do that's a part of it. Jay and I never break character, we always act like we're these stupid guys but for somebody to be like, "Wait a minute, are you guys really this stupid?" The political risk of actually saying that to somebody is really high. Like is she going to say to us, "Are you guys messing around?" because there's an inherent insult in that. So most Canadians are just unwilling to say that.
McCarrol: We also ride the line too. When we're with Bebe in SEARS, we're dipping in and out of how stupid our characters are getting. And then doing other things, and conversing with her where it's like, "No, we're really excited about our band and we can get caught up with each other."
Johnson: We seem normal. All of this brings up a much bigger question ethically, which I'm faced with all of the time and we've been talking about it for a while. Even if our show is making people look like kings and queens, even if they look better than they've ever looked in their lives, even then we are still crossing a major ethical boundary. We are filming people without them knowing and putting them on television. We're doing that without asking their permission, without consulting with them, without giving them any say at all as to what they're going to say, how they're going to look, what they'll be involved with. Maybe people just have a problem with being on TV? Maybe people have a problem being associated with VICE?
They could be in the Witness Protection Program!
Johnson: Right! And all of the sudden, we're showing them on the streets in Toronto. A lot of ethical things are brought up. I'm not sure how you feel about it Jay but I have such a strong—I wanna see people do new things with media really badly and especially young people. I am maybe on the far end of the spectrum in terms of what ethically I am willing to do in order to try new things. I don't mind doing things which can be considered unethical to tell new types of stories and that certainly is problematic but this is opening up a new world of storytelling for generations. People just haven't been doing this before. I don't mind that we're stepping out into this space and being criticized for it.
McCarrol: It's not like we don't have any rules at all. We will see certain things when we're reviewing the film and we try to make jokes with people but if we get that sense, that kind of ugly feeling...
Johnson: Like we're doing something at someone's expense...
McCarrol: We get a bad feeling. Our barometer goes off on that. We're aware of what we're doing, we have some parameters.
Johnson: Yeah, it's funny because what we are using to do this kinds of stuff is very new interpretations of law that have just come around in the last ten years. That's why we're allowed to make the show the way we do. I wonder if other people, maybe without the same sense of taste, could use these things.
You could see it going very badly.
Johnson: Yeah, I think Borat, even though I think the movie is incredible, is an example of that. I mean, the people who are in that even signed releases and most of them sued. You had many people whose reputations were destroyed, like so foolish and racist.
It's easier to do it when it's a web series and no one really knows who you guys are but now that you guys are on VICELAND, your faces are plastered all over the city, on Now magazine, is it harder? Are you nervous about losing the freedom to play these characters?
McCarrol: No, we're talking about a small niche of people. Take a show like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, they're on their 15th season and they could conceivably walk down the street and run into a 50-year-old person on their way to work and they'll have no idea who they are.
Johnson: Plus, it's very rare for the characters of Matt and Jay to be interacting with people in their own demographic. Often times, we're in Toronto, talking to people in the library, with adults. Not young hipsters. The plan of the show is to involve people with power, people that can do things they can't. We're always interacting with people who wouldn't be friends with Matt and Jay. I think that helps a lot. It would be great if the show was so well-known that we couldn't walk down Queen Street and shoot but Toronto's a big city so I don't see that being an impediment. Plus, we've shot so far ahead. We're halfway through season two being done already. We'll be all done before anybody knows about the show.
'Nirvanna the Band the Show' airs Thursdays at 10 PM on VICELAND in Canada, midnight in the US.
Follow Amil on Twitter