nirvanna the band the show, the interview

Canadian television show pushes boundaries while trying to get a gig at Toronto venue

Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol

nirvanna the band the show began as an independent Canadian web series, and has since been picked up by Vice Canada. Its first episode aired on Feb. 2, 2017.

The final episode of season 2 has been put on hold due to the decision from Rogers to cut ties with Vice Media Canada Inc. while the TV channel Viceland will no longer exist. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, co-creator Matt Johnson said that the show will continue, as they have a contract for three seasons, but are unsure about where it will air.

The show is hard to explain, a problem co-writers and co-stars Johnson and Jay McCarrol dealt with with their web series.

“Two musicians trying to get a show in Toronto. If you want to say thematically what it’s about, it’s about best friends,” is how Johnson describes the complex storyline of nirvanna the band the show.

“It’s impossible to pitch, I think the only reason that we got this deal to make it was that we already made the web series as kids and we could show it to people and be like ‘we can’t explain what the show but this is what it’s going to be,’ and that makes it much easier to get everyone on the same page.”

Simply put, the show is about two best friends, Johnson and McCarrol, on a mission to play their dream show as nirvanna the band at low-key Toronto venue, the Rivoli, which the duo considers the highest honour. The pair are constantly coming up with half-baked plans to get a show, mostly formulated by Johnson as McCarrol plays the soundtrack live on his piano, while employing theatrical tricks and preying on unsuspecting people in the streets.

The show includes people on the streets of Toronto, and even fans of the show can not decipher what was planned or what was spontaneous. Johnson said they like to maintain the mystery.

“In terms of when we want the audience know how much control we had over something, we try not to answer those questions,” said Johnson.

“I think there are people who take a huge amount of pleasure in trying to watch the show and be like ‘I know this is fake and I know this is real’ but really not know for sure and so we don’t want to ruin that.”

Johnson has created a name for himself as a “master of meta,” having previously directed and acted in two award-winning films about making films. The Dirties is a mockumentary about a two high school victims of bullying who make a movie about a school shooting, while Operation Avalanche is a film about two film students helping NASA fake the moon landing. Both films are dark comedies that star Johnson as a version of himself.

Johnson said that all roles he plays, both in his films and in nirvanna the band the show, are a character that sees themselves as a director, which is also Johnson’s occupation. This leads to Johnson constantly saying and doing things that he deems “usable” in the editing process, even when it comes to discussing camera angles.

McCarrol added that because of the nature of their creative process, they pair have developed a very keen eye for too-good-to-be-true moments, and the film crew snaps into action to capture them for the show. “We love it when unexpected things happen […] we make a meal out of anything that is unexpected.”

“If you’re kind of just operating as yourself and you’re just being funny in a sort of dynamic that you have with a real friend, and a real silliness, so many unexpected moments happen naturally if you’re just auto-piloting yourself to not be doing a character or not be doing anything.”

The two are always looking for new material and trying to go out to find what their next episode is going to be about, citing “The B-Day” episode, one that Johnson said they only thought of the morning of shooting and hopped on a street car to go to the weed march in Downtown Toronto. “We had no idea what we were going to do, but we just shot this stuff,” Johnson said.

“We’re always looking for something that is going to be the impetus to a new story.”

Though the show is packaged as a scripted series, Johnson and McCarrol said the show is primarily done on the fly, interactions from the public or too-good-to-be-true moments often changing the direction of the intended episode. Johnson said that in some cases, they do not know how the episode will play out until they are in the editing room.

“Every phase of this is extremely collaborative, but editing especially,” Johnson said.

“Because the way we shoot is we’ll just shoot a ton of stuff, then the editors will try to make sense of it and then we all as a team watch what they put together and often we completely rewrite episodes.”

The season 2 finale is being edited at the time of this interview, and, according to Johnson, was “rewritten from the ground up three times,” which all happened in editing.

The show pushes boundaries in very interesting ways, which McCarrol and Johnson said has not resulted in any backlash other than some negative press reviews. Throughout the show, the two likeable characters tread on the edge of what is moral and ethical, occasionally winding up on the offensive and politically incorrect when it comes to themes of racism, sexuality, and gender.

“When we first started making the show, we expected that to be the major thing that people said about our show, was that it was so unbelievably offensive,” said Johnson.

“The reaction has been so much more minor, and I think because it’s obvious that the characters we’re playing are stuck in a very 90s perspective of North American culture and so, I mean, obviously we’re trying to comment on what happens when you take media from the 90s seriously and use that as your political ethos. You wind up believing all the things our characters believe or talk about or joke about.”

The show also spoofs popular cultural references from the 90s, from Home Alone to Jurassic Park, with brilliant, subtle nods to the piece being spoofed that requires a careful and critical eye to identify.

“Just about everything covered in the show are things that Jay and I mutually really, really love,” said Johnson.

“The things that he and I would talk about when we were kids and, for whatever reason, we would both just know all the dialogue and know everything from these things and certainly whether we like it or not, inform our behaviour as adults.”

Of all of the complexities in the show, one of the most important elements is the on-screen friendship between Johnson and McCarrol; their undeniable chemistry is what makes the show work. Johnson said that, surprisingly, women are the viewers who most identify with their characters.

“It’s always best friend girl groups, like, duos that tell us, ‘oh that’s exactly like me and my friend,” Johnson said.

“It’s very inspiring to hear that.”