By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
You’ve met them before — at work, at play, at high school reunions, at your cousin’s wedding. Hell, you’re related to some of them.
They are the unsuccessful. They are the brigade of individuals, in every size, shape and walk of life, whose narrative arcs have taken a swan dive. They’ve been brought to the brink of disaster, implosion, and personal doom by rarefied chemistries of personality, terrible luck, and time. And they are the stars of a new web series devoted, episode by episode, to the aristocracy of unsuccessfulness.
Tales of the Highly Unsuccessful is the brainchild of the father-son team of Glenn Nelson and Chris Nelson, who created it with the versatile producer/writer/filmmaker Andrew Paul. Their concept, a downward spiral of diminishing achievement which has a black comedy all its own, has attracted the attention of A-team Edmonton actors — of which Glenn Nelson can claim distinguished membership status.
And it’s intrigued such artists as Andrew MacDonald-Smith and Julien Arnold not least because scene by scene, each half-hour episode evolves from onscreen improv. Real-life spontaneity at its most nerve-wracking, within a framework whose starting and end points are scripted. “Each scene drives the narrative along,” as Paul explains. “The actors know where they have to get…. How they do that is up to them.”
Paul, who joined the Tales of the Highly Unsuccessful writing team in 2014 (headquarters: Glenn Nelson’s garage) and assembled the production crew, says that the idea is “fully developed characters, with a very loose storyline.” It’s an m.o. inspired by the Christopher Guest school of mockumentary filmmaking, in such comic gems as Waiting For Huffman and Best in Show.
“The format of each episode is to find people at the end of their rope; we enter the storyline nearly at the end.”
The first episode is devoted to the rapidly waning fortunes of Roger. Glenn Nelson stars as veteran radio DJ “Roger Dodger,” whose entire industry seems to be passing him by, and enraging him big time in the process.
Nearing his 6,000th episode, the 35-year host of The Happy Time Show “feels strongly that the universe is conspiring against him, and has been for a while,” as Paul puts it rather delicately. “He’s having trouble coping with that.” Ah, and with his perky co-host Benny (MacDonald-Smith).
Which is why Roger has dug up Inner Optics, the self-help VHS tapes he used in the ‘80s to quit drinking. He can only find the third of the three.
In the course of episode 1, set during “the final three days before Roger’s tailspin,” you’ll meet half a dozen characters, including Benny, Bernard Crate (Richard Gishler) and Betty Hammerstein, “a non-botanist who talks to plants,” as Paul explains.
“We created ‘found’ radio clips from old Happy Time shows,” says Paul, “along with archival photos of Roger….” Chris Nelson has even created the entire Inner Optics self-help system that Rogher is counting on.
“The number one goal,” as Paul says, “is to create a full fleshed-out universe for Roger.”
The first episode was shot in four days last summer and fall at CKUA, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, the Edmonton Community Foundation offices, and Andrew’s sister’s apartment kitchen. The total budget? “Less than a grand,” says Paul.
Three other episodes are written and ready to go, including a spring shoot for the episode that stars Terry, a failing gamer. Meanwhile, as Paul explains, “we’re submitting to festivals … and pursuing funding to make (the series) sustainable.”
Meanwhile, have a peek at Nelson with his dander up as Roger: In the clip you can see on the Tales of the Highly Unsuccessful website, Roger is having a major street tantrum; he’s walking to work since he got kicked out of a cab.