By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
If you got incensed the day your ear was caught by an item on CBC Radio One that the province of Nova Scotia had cancelled Grade 4, you’re not alone. (And you already know something about the way Peter Oldring’s mind works).
“I can’t believe it! That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard!” declared one irate listener on the CBC talk-back phone line. “An outrage!” said another, his verbal exclamation point quivering in the air.
The next item, about a roaming walrus discovered on the prairies who’d perambulated some 400 km on the Yellowhead Highway, seemed to put it all in perspective. You, my CBC-listening friend, had just been had by This Is That. Season after season the comedy dreamed up by Oldring (and his creative partner Pat Kelly) rather unerringly nailed the dry and earnest gravitas of interview shows on Canada’s venerable public broadcaster.
Oldring, who arrives in Edmonton tonight to be part of the Grindstone Comedy Theatre’s first-ever comedy festival — along with such comedy stars as Mike Delamont, Rebecca Kohler, Graham Clark and Edmonton’s Caution: May Contain Nuts — remains impressed by the game willingness of the CBC to support comedy that satirizes public radio, and that “earnest deadpan tone you grew up with listening to.”
“Our idea,” he says of This And That, which ended its nine-season run last year, “was to apply that tone to absolutely outrageous, ridiculous stories and documentaries, interviews, crazy characters.. We were given a very long leash creatively, a great deal of freedom to run with it…”
A puckish and cheerful voice on the phone from his L.A. home earlier this week, the award-winning actor/ comedian chats about his comic muse. And he reflects on the route, full of “well, that sounds like fun” left turns, that’s taken him from small-town Alberta through theatre school and into a cross-border career that includes sketch and improv comedy, and roles of every description in video games, movies, and TV. There’s a fair patch of comic real estate between Corner Gas to House of Cards.
“Edmonton, yes!, suspiciously close to where I was born,” says Oldring. Though he left Drayton Valley at age two — “to move to the hustling and bustling metropolis of Castor, AB, think Stettler, go east, think smaller” — he made his mark. “I got a silver spoon as the heaviest baby born in the month of September.”
It was an insightful drama teacher at Sir Winston Churchill High in Calgary who pointed the young Oldring towards Loose Moose, the Calgary improv stronghold. “And that was that,” he says of his teenage self. “Improv, characters, characters, comedy … it was everything I was interested in!” A performer was born in that comedic cauldron. By university Oldring and his buddies — including Kelly — were doing seven improv shows a week, six at comedy clubs, and Sunday night at Loose Moose.
It didn’t leave much time for, well, studying. “But I was a sociology major, and that’s all multiple choice,” he explains. Next came the National Theatre School in Montreal (“I loved it!”). His first two years after graduation were non-stop roles at the country’s regional theatres.
It was “time to get my couch out of storage and sit on it. So I moved to Toronto.” Oldring’s story, as he tells it, owes more to free-association than segués. Toronto was film, TV … ah, and The Second City. Oldring and a cluster of other alumnae from both sides of the border were flown to L.A. to open a Second City locale there, in a back alley off Melrose Avenue. And “I started to get sketch comedy work,” he says of a career chapter that included Blue Collar TV and spin-offs.
And as he explains genially, that circuitous route, primed by cues from teachers, mentors, comedy friends and connections, is how he “packed up two bags and moved in with his now-wife (American actor Sara Erikson) in L.A. “Growing up in Calgary I always knew I wanted to pursue comedy. Always. But I had no real plan about it; I followed the path that began to emerge….”
There’s a certain life improv quality to all this, as he concedes, laughing. “The same improv principles: Listen. Say Yes. And see what develops!”
In both sketch and improv comedy, the creation of scenes is a multi-limbed task, as Oldring points out. “You’re creating a story, a narrative, characters, scenes. You’re writing, acting, directing — wearing all those hats. And I quickly learned that you don’t need to wait for permission to create things.”
He and Kelly started “wouldn’t it be funny if…?” brainstorming. The fake breakfast television show Good Morning World, with its “two bronzed TV hosts in bad-fitting suits,” started on the internet and got picked up by a comedy network. Then came This Is That, the radio show that made CBC execs laugh and perplexed them, in roughly equal measure. “What exactly are we making fun of here, people who read?”
It was “an incredible playground,” he says. “The CBC covers every conceivable range of voice, from the small-town artisanal cheese maker in northern Ontario to the real-estate shark in Vancouver…. As comedians we could have fun with that. We can tell any story, the craziest characters to the long-wondered navel-gazing arts interview….”
“Pat and I aren’t particularly political or driven by headline news,” he says of their shared comic sensibility. “It’s more social and cultural satire, and how we present (those) in media.… When you present in a dry straight way, it’s leaves some responsibility with audiences to (figure out) is this something real or insane.”
Lately the nature of satire and the role of the satirist have, in so many ways, been co-opted by reality. Oldring says “It’s an interesting time for us…. In the last three or four years, the idea of ‘fake news’ has a completely different connotation, with dangerous repercussions. We’ve pulled back; we’ve been a little less hush-hush about this being a comedy show. We’re not trying to fool people.”
“What changed is the media landscape,” Oldring thinks. “There is some value in putting the onus on ourselves as listeners to do a little due diligence.”
The pair has gravitated to podcast space. Dexter Guff Is Smarter Than You stars “a self-help guru, under-qualified over-confident, who shares the tricks of the trade so you can live your very best life. Meanwhile his own life is kinda falling apart,” as Oldring describes a series crammed with entrepreneurial tips and life hacks. This Sounds Serious, about to launch a second season, as “a satirical look at true-crime podcasts.”
Oldring, an engaging sort whose conversation is peppered liberally with the word (and concept) “fun,” is taking time out from working on a third season by joining Grindstone’s award-winning The 11 O’Clock Number, a wholly improvised musical spun from audience cues, for two shows — Thursday at 9 p.m. Friday at 11 p.m. — at the tiny, happening Strathcona club.
As you might expect from his history, Oldring seems blithely unfazed by this prospect. “I’m packing my tap shoes, bowler, cane…. Yes, I’m literally coming to Edmonton to sing for my supper. Which could go horribly horribly wrong!” he says in delight. “It’s exciting. I really don’t know what to expect!”
Grindstone Comedy Festival
Where: Grindstone Comedy Theatre & Bistro, 19919 81 Ave.
Running: tonight through Sunday
Tickets (and full schedule): grindstonetheatre.ca