Local comedy troupe HumanTown unleashes offbeat brand of humour across Canada

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      What’s a succinct way to describe local comedy group HumanTown’s signature brand of humour? “Can we swear?” Daniel Doheny, one-sixth of the all-male troupe, asks the Straight.

      We assure him that profanity is permitted. “It’s fucked,” he replies.

      To be sure, the word “fucked” is followed by an implicit “up” in this sense and refers to Urban Dictionary’s fifth most popular definition of the phrase: “crazy, weird, not right”.

      And while gags involving R-rated photography, random head explosions, and Antichrist babies may not be for everyone, it’s this “fucked” sense of humour that originally joined HumanTown’s members (Miles Chalmers, Kane Stewart, Jack Heyes, Ki Kwiatkowski, Liam MacLeod, and Doheny) when they met as eighth-graders at Vancouver’s Lord Byng Secondary School almost 12 years ago. It continues to underlie the sextet’s friendship as it prepares to debut HumanTown, its largest project to date.

      “Our stuff is a lot of instinctual laughter, I think is what it is,” says Kwiatkowski. “There aren’t a lot of pop culture references, parody, or current events. It’s sort of just like raw, human condition stuff.”

      Kwiatkowski plays HumanTown's Orthak, a feeble Ork who gets a taste of human routine when he's transported to a seemingly idyllic city named HumanTown.

      “We try to do something new,” adds Heyes, “something that you would definitely laugh at if you were the only one in the room, but if someone else was in the room, you’d be like, ‘Oh, I better not laugh at that just in case someone judges me for it.’ ”

      Speaking to the Straight in an interview at Doheny’s Crosstown apartment, HumanTown labels its sketch comedy of the same name as a “live-action cartoon”. The series follows Orthak, a craven, green-skinned Ork portrayed by Kwiatkowski who is fascinated by the humdrum of human life, as he fantasizes about inhabiting HumanTown, a fictional and seemingly idyllic city that has its own set of wacky problems.

      “It’s Springfield without being attached to the Simpsons,” notes MacLeod. (“HumanTown” is also the name of an inverse Dungeons & Dragons, which Orthak plays to feed his inexplicable love of human mundanity.)

      Through HumanTown, viewers are introduced to a host of recurring characters, including Howard, a creepy camera salesman with zero social boundaries (Heyes); Alexander the Great, a “college loser” who finds pleasure in indulging kids (Doheny); and Erwin, a bumbling, straight man cop (MacLeod), all of whom are residents of the city. It’s here that HumanTown sets itself apart from other sketch comedies; often, the camera will veer off-course to follow a character as he or she leaves the scene of focus.

      HumanTown's show teaser, which HumanTown the troupe produced as part of the CBC ComedyCoup competition in 2014.

      At this point, another sketch begins and the spotlight shifts to another oddball scenario that’s interwoven with other sketches in the show. The result is a serialized, cinematic sketch comedy that appeals to casual viewers while, at the same time, rewarding devoted fans with cheeky, Arrested Development–style references throughout.

      “Basically, we like sketch comedy and we wanted to give it a twist where, instead of every sketch ending and a new funny thing happening, everything links to something else,” explains Stewart.

      HumanTown won the troupe $500,000 in production financing and a half-hour primetime special on the CBC after a grueling, 10-week competition conducted by the CBC ComedyCoup in 2014. The high-pressure contest saw the sextet, and over 250 other teams from across Canada, essentially pitch their made-for-TV comedy programs by conceiving, writing, shooting, editing, and sharing an original video every week.

      In a way, it’s what HumanTown—which excelled in 48-hour film competitions during high school—had been preparing for since its formation. “It’s what we’d been training for,” says Chalmers. “We were like, ‘Perfect. This is exactly what we do; this is what we’re good at.’ ”

      HumanTown's humour relies on bizzare, interweaving storylines and a host of recurring characters, which includes a camera salesman who nonchalantly reveals unsavoury personal snapshots to customers.

      A number of fan-voted rounds landed the boys in the competition’s top five, after which a panel of industry pros, including Michelle Daly, CBC Comedy’s senior director, and Dan Goldberg, producer of laugh-out-loud classics like Stripes, Space Jam, and The Hangover, crowned HumanTown the overall winner.

      The group began production on HumanTown’s pilot last winter and shot the entire 30-minute special over three days in Hamilton, Ontario. Those who have followed the concept from its humble beginnings—when it was sweeping competitions like the Comedy Network’s Exposed and the Montreal World Film Festival—will be happy to hear that this Tuesday’s (July 26) airing strays little from HumanTown’s unorthodox roots.

      “I think the show is subconsciously Vancouver-centric,” reveals Doheny. “It is a fictional town, but a lot of the comedy is based on regular, ordinary people dealing with absurd maniacs and these incredibly arrogant people thinking they’re right when really, they’re completely wrong.”

      The generous half-a-million-dollar production budget did, however, allow the lads to nab This Hour Has 22 Minutes director Vivieno Caldinelli and comedian Scott Thompson to lead the on-set shenanigans and play Dr. Photon, HumanTown’s resident mad scientist, respectively. It’s also given HumanTown the troupe some extra motivation to start pitching its series’ full six-episode season.

      For now, there’s the group’s first cross-Canada broadcast to look forward to. “We’re just excited to get it out there,” says MacLeod. “We’re excited to see what comes of it.”

      The HumanTown pilot special premieres on the CBC this Tuesday (July 26) at 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time. The special will also be available to stream online for one month following the premiere.