Life’s a sketch

On the eve of a best-of show, Chuck Teed sits down with hot comedy troupe Picnicface to find out what makes them work.

Improv sensational Picnicface unpacks a basket of laughs.
photo Rob Fournier

It is 7:45pm on Sunday night and the buzz in the air is palpable. Ginger’s Tavern is close to capacity as groups of young adults stream up the stairs on a minute-by-minute basis. By the time 8pm rolls around, there isn’t an empty seat in the house.

The audience has gathered not to see a hot band, but for the Sunday Night Comedy Spectacular, an evening of sketch comedy, improv and stand-up led by Picnicface improv experts Kyle Dooley and Mark Little. Featuring a revolving cast that includes 22 Minutes writer Albert Howell, musician Mike Ryan, comedian Peter White and actor Brian MacQuarrie, the Sunday Night Comedy Spectacular has become the place to be on an otherwise quiet day of rest.

“We’ve been averaging about 120 people for the last month,” says Little after another successful evening. “Half the audience are people who haven’t seen the show before, and are only finding out about it now.”

“We also have a—I don’t want to say loyal because thay just sounds weird—but we have people who have been coming since the show started,” adds cast member Cheryl Hann. “It’s been a really good month for shows.”

Initially designed to showcase Little and Dooley’s improv, the Comedy Spectacular tested the waters at various clubs before settling at Ginger’s. With the new venue came a new format. Little and Dooley added sketch and stand-up to the evening’s festivities, and also introduced several new cast members, including White, Hann and MacQuarrie. While the turnouts weren’t always stellar—they hit an all-time low of 20 within the first month—the group eventually found its groove.

“We slowly added more people,” explains Little. “We met Peter and Cheryl through Comedy Dawgs, and Brian MacQuarrie fell from the sky. He can play characters, whereas we just play ourselves with different voices, or a slight accent.”

The group’s biggest find was Mike Ryan. The keyboardist/vocalist for Deadline Sunday, Ryan’s natural sense of oddball humour and musical ability sets the tone for the evening, and also provides much-needed segues between sketches.

“When we brought Mike Ryan in it helped a lot, it changed the format completely,” says White. “Before that it was me trying to host with the same tired material, but Mike made everything seem really smooth.”

“I am going to say that Mike Ryan is my favourite part of the show,” adds Hann. “I’d make a shirt that says that on it.”

These days the Comedy Spectacular is a well-oiled machine. White and Ryan open the evening with some witty banter before yielding the floor to the sketches, ranging from hip-hoppin’ monsters to Mr. Dressup’s diaries.

“We actually have this trend of becoming more offensive with each show,” jokes White.

“We started out with operatic vignettes of what a bison would dream about if a bison could have dreams,” adds Little. “Now we go out of our way to make fun of deaf people.”

“We’re pushing blind people out of the way to make fun of deaf people,” says Hann.

A short stand-up set follows the sketches—they’ve presented everyone from local Dave Millet to national sensation Jay Malone—which sets the audience up for the grand finale, a 30-minute display of improvisational comedy. Starting out with a simple premise, Little, Dooley and an assorted cast run through many scenes, most of the time without a break. It’s often the show’s highlight, but it took awhile for audiences to catch on.

“For a while most people stayed for the sketches and there’d be less of a crowd for the improv,” says Hann. “But now it’s a packed house the whole way through.”

The Sunday Night Comedy Spectacular is one of the hottest tickets in Halifax comedy right now. Considering the wealth of talent flowing through Halifax on a regular basis, and the recent opening of Yuk Yuks in the Westin Hotel, that’s saying a lot.

“Last week both us and Yuk Yuks sold out on Sunday,” says Dooley. “That’s over 300 people watching comedy.”

“I like our show better,” jokes White. “That’s why I’m here.”

Picnicface Sunday Night Comedy Spectacular Best of, December 10 at Ginger’s, 1662 Barrington, 8pm, $4.

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