"The challenge with making a show in Canada," says TV's Jonathan Torrens, "is that everything you shoot goes on the TV, so people are watching your learning curve week after week after week."
In conversation with one of the most recognizable faces in Canadian television about his new show, TV with TV's Jonathan Torrens, the theme of learning curve comes up again and again. Debuting Friday on cable network TVTropolis, the show---a slick yet winning blast of sketches, monologues and streeters, investigating, sending-up and praising the tropes of different TV genres, like the period drama or reality show---raised some new challenges for Torrens. For example: "I had never directed myself before," he says, grinning. "I was very hard to get along with!"
It was also an opportunity for Torrens to articulate his feelings about how the tone of the medium has evolved from the sincere wholesomeness of The Cosby Show to the sarcastic milieu of The Soup. Torrens obliquely references his youth spent in front of CBC cameras (Street Cents, Jonovision) and, more directly, his affection for the silly and sweet TV greats of yore like Three's Company.
"In doing the show about TV---something that is nostalgic for me and something that has to do a lot with my childhood---it was hard to scotch-tape the wry, hard, smugness of TV nowadays to that," he says. "It's tough to be cocky and sentimental at the same time."
Approached by Halifax's Arcadia Entertainment to produce a show for TVTropolis (it's co-produced by Torrens and Arcadia's Brad Horvath), Torrens started in February to scratch out what he wanted his show to be and what he wanted to cover. It was his sister and co-writer Jackie---a local performer and writer, now appearing in Daniel MacIvor's play A Beautiful View at Neptune this month---who hit upon the notion that to embrace and celebrate the cliches of TV would still allow him to point out their silliness.
"If you're embracing and celebrating the cliches, you can still have your tongue planted firmly in cheek, but can also have moments of sincerity and affection," he says. "In the game-show show, I pay tribute to Merv Griffin, who was a televisionary and a pioneer of the genre.
"It isn't a festival of crackin' wise and makin' fun. The hope is that people watching the show will do what we did on set, which was every time someone said, 'Cut!' it was like, 'What was the name of that guy from that thing with the people who went onto that show?' It's kind of a big, squishy 'Awwwwww, 'member?'"
Amongst other big changes in his life---Torrens has settled back in Nova Scotia after a stint in LA and is set to become a father at the end of this month---the new show puts another vocation on his already lengthy CV: After years of being primarily in front of the camera, TV with TV's Jonathan Torrens places him for the first time behind it. That responsibility means feeling out exactly how to reconcile his skills and desires as a performer with the demands of the director's chair.
"By nature, I'm very collaborative. I love when someone takes ownership of something," he says. "That's why the biggest kick for me is writing because when, for example, Nicole Frosst---she's the art director on the show---would come in and say, 'It should be a bowl of porridge, not a bowl of cereal, hear me out.' When people read my stuff and have their own interpretation and take ownership of it and bring something to it and it becomes a whole other thing, that's really what's exciting.
"At the same time, especially in comedy, the thing that I learned from Mike Clattenburg"---the creator of Trailer Park Boys, on which Torrens was a cast member---"is that it has to be someone's voice. It can still be a collaborative experience, but ultimately, it has to be someone saying, 'This is the voice of the show. This is the vision.'"
Torrens would love to have "another crack at it" and do a second season of the series, but "as a nice side salad to the meat of the show, if people actually watched it and knew what I meant."
Clip courtesy of Arcadia Entertainment