By Chris Illich
For those unaware, CBC has been hosting an absolutely hilarious satire radio show called This is That. Peter Oldring formerly of the Second City Improv Group, co-hosts the show with his long-time collaborator Pat Kelly, and the two of them have been fooling Canadians for the past six years with stories such as how a small town in Texas has been adding sugar to its water supply, or that Nova Scota was cancelling Grade 4, all while winning three Canadian Comedy Awards. We had the opportunity to talk with Oldring on the phone from his home in Vancouver about the show.
So, to start: let’s go to the beginning. How did This is That come about? Was it a pitch you had made to the CBC, or did they approach you? Ages ago Pat (Kelly) and I were working on an online show that was on the Comedy Network, called Good Morning World; it was like a satire of Breakfast Television. When that ended we had some folks over at the CBC Radio approach us and ask, “Do you have an idea to pitch towards a radio concept? We’d be open to hearing it.” So, we asked if we could borrow a recording device. Pat and I took a couple of days and sort of played around with what — in our minds — was a satirical look at public radio, playing with some of the tone that is recognizable on the CBC. So we put together a little 22 minute demo and we handed it to the executives and they sort of said, “We don’t really know what this is. We don’t know how you guys exactly put it together, but we want to do ten of them.” It sorta of started that way. It wasn’t really a paper-pitch. We honestly put together four stories and strung them into a 22 minute episode.
With the show seven seasons in, do you find yourself getting in hot water still or do people ‘get’ it now? First off, when the show first aired, we honestly didn’t think about a listener response. The truth of it is, in our minds, we are making a comedy show with the idea of being able to do characters and improvise, set in the template of CBC Radio half-hour interview type show. We never really thought there would be a listener response. Our thing was that this is a great template for comedians to have some fun in and play characters. So, starting right from the very first episode, when we got listener feedback, we were like, “Oh my gosh, people are really listening, some people think this is real, some people are playing along.” We were kind of surprised. The interesting thing was that the CBC absolutely, enthusiastically stood behind us. They never once said, “You need to change what you are doing,” or “We need to be concerned about all the calls that we are getting.”
After the first ten episodes that we did in the first summer, Pat and I thought that we weren’t going to be recieving callers; that people are going to know that this is a comedy show and that that element of the show would disappear. The truth of it is, for the last six years, which is now seven seasons, we get literally hours of phone calls every week. Some of them are clearly people who have heard a story and clearly take it as truth. But also, now we have a healthy number of calls who are people playing along with us, people who are trying to fool us into thinking they are an incensed listener. It’s interesting, the listener feedback portion of the show has always, truthfully been what we find in our voicemail. Those are real calls, those aren’t us. Those are other Canadians who are listening and who have maybe only caught a portion of the story or they have heard one story they have gotten incensed by, then they’ll listen to a little bit more of the program and call back maybe 15 minutes later saying, “I was really angry earlier about how no bathrooms are being put into a condo in Mississauga, but now I realize it’s a comedy show, so you can ignore that.”
How does it make you feel knowing that fake news has created jobs for a lot of people now – most with poor intent. Do you feel like you are lumped in with that scene? From the beginning we have always considered ourselves a comedy show. I think our sense of humour and sensibilities have always been to be obviously satirical but maybe playing things a little bit straighter. You know, make the listener sit forward and kind of double check with themselves and think, “Could this possibly be real or not?” I think that it is in the Zeitgeist right now, this conversation around fake news. I think there is a lot of it, which is incredibly dangerous and damaging for people, with — like you said — something like the U.S. Election, where people are peddling their own agenda with falsified stories. As far as how we look at ourselves and the point of view of what we are trying to do, it’s always comedy first. The CBC, in this last year, with all of the conversation around fake news, for a short period of time was typing under the heading of each story online making sure people knew it was satirical. It’s important for the CBC to make sure that their brand as a national news source isn’t tarnished by a story saying Americans won’t let Canadians drive in the United States. Ultimately, our perspective is to always approach it with comedy first. When we stumbled across this as a format and a genre for our show we finally found a playground for our sense of humour.
To switch gears a bit, you have your book you released, The Travel Guide To Canada. Yes! We are definitely hoping that people also know that it is a false book and hope that nobody is using it for their trip to Canada. I think it would lead to a very confusing visit to Canada if you were to use that as your travel guide.
Are you bringing that on tour with you? Or, are you doing the radio show on tour? Or, is it more of a Q&A kind of thing? Basically, what can audiences expect? Our tour show is a comedy show. We are basically pulling back the curtain for fans of the show to see how our show is made. I think that a lot of people are surprised,when they come to watch, to realize that 95 per cent of the voices that you hear are actually just Pat and I. We will be playing characters that maybe they have heard us do in the past, as well as characters that they have never heard and get to see how Pat and I improvise how an episode is put together. Then, afterwards we do a Q&A for people who have some questions about the show and then we will certainly stick around to sign copies of the book and say hello. Really, the show people are coming to see is a live comedy show, all improvised, with Pat and I playing multiple characters. It’s been really fun for us to do and I think people have been really curious to see what the show they have been listening to on CBC really looks like when it is being played out in real time.
I always like to finish off with this question with professionals who have been honing their craft for years. So, to look back on your seven seasons in six years, what are some of your favourite moments from the show? Or, what are some things that you wish you knew when you started that you now know? Pat and I have worked together for such a long time, even before This is That, we were partners doing a lot of live improvised comedy together with Second City and other shows in and around Toronto, well actually, across Canada really. I think that us stumbling across this live show, for me, has been something that Pat and I wish we had done a little earlier. Our background has always been live performance with comedy and improvisation. When we started doing the radio show, it was something that is very insular because it really just it is Pat and I and our producing partner Chris Kelly working in a studio, recording this show. We kind of forget that it’s for an audience; we forget that in the recording of it there are actually people who are listening. It feels like a very small show because it really is just the three of us.
A few years back, or a couple of years ago, I guess, we were invited by the Toronto Sketch Fest to do a live version of our show and we hadn’t even thought about, well, what would that be? We never thought of what a live version of the show would look like. But we said, let’s challenge ourselves to see what it would look like. Since doing that, we have had the opportunity to do a few more live shows, culminating this year with a bit more of a formal tour and I have to say, I think for Pat and I both, it’s something that we really love. It is the show we love to do, it’s like the radio show but we also get to have an opportunity to exercise a muscle that we used to use all of the time through live performance and improvising. The discovery of how much fun we are having with the live show is something that I think, if we had known, we would have been doing it a lot earlier.
This is That performs at Partridge Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on Jan. 18. Ticket info can be found firstontariopac.ca