It’s All Lies
Radio comedy goes newsy on This Is That
by James Brotheridge
When I asked Peter Oldring, co-host and co-creator of CBC Radio 1's This Is That, whether I should send one of his show's stories to my grandmother, he doesn't even let me get the question about before he's repeating "Yes!" excitedly.
The reason I'm looking for Grandma's feedback: This Is That is a comedy show using the current affairs format, producing shows sometimes so close in tone to what you might hear elsewhere on the CBC that people think it's real.
Of course it's all a hilarious pack of lies.
So, would Grandma be fooled? Or would she, the woman who (at least apocryphally) unplugged her computer when I instant-messaged her while she was checking her Gmail, see right through it?
Oldring feels good about her chances.
"Listen, I have a feeling -- let's not throw granny under the bus," says Oldring. "She might surprise everyone on this one. She might definitely be the sharpest pencil in the drawer here. She might be like, 'Ah, come on. Don't play me this garbage.'"
This Is That wasn't created to fool elderly people - or anyone, actually - so Oldring and his comedy partner Pat Kelly were both shocked when, after their first episode aired, a lot of people thought that stories about a Calgary Aquarium BBQ or a crowd-sourced obituary website were the God's honest.
Kelly and Oldring never thought their listeners would realize that no one is really making a standing-room section on a Canadian airline.
Kelly and Oldring met at the Loose Moose Theatre, an improv troupe in Calgary. Eventually, both found themselves in Toronto, with the Second City.
They continued working together, eventually making Good Morning World, a parody of T.V. morning shows with Oldring and Kelly playing the over-tanned hosts. That started as a web series before moving to the Comedy Network.
With both Good Morning World and This Is That, the pair use established forms to make their comedy.
"It does seem to be a recurring theme that we look at the form and structure of something, and we push it one degree to where it becomes a comedic take on that form," says Oldring.
Case in point: the two performed at the General Fools Improv Festival in Regina this year. For their showcase set, they spent a considerable chunk of time right off the start riffing on how they should enter, or how they should take a suggestion. And it was goddamn hilarious.
"Sometimes, we'd say, 'Let's get into improvising soon. Let's not waste too much time off the top.' But then basically, that's all we would do, just jackassing around about getting a suggestion, which in many ways to us is the funnest part for us."
And "funnest" isn't even a word.
The duo saw abundant comedic possibilities that avoided the pitfalls of your typical radio sketch show in This Is That.
"In this particular circumstance, we just really felt like doing something character-based and story-based, and serving it up in true form," says Oldring. "We really didn't want to have crazy, over-the-top characters and horns honking and sirens going when a joke is told. We thought we wanted to do something a little bit truer to form."
So when the project was going ahead, they consulted experts to make the "reality" really real.
"When we moved into making the first 10 episodes, we actually sat down with a current affairs producer at CBC Radio and they gave us a crash course on some of the 'handles,' as you would call it, around a story."
From there, the fabric of the show came together. Everything that you would find in a news show on the CBC - like a talk-take, a "freight train" and field pieces - can be found in This Is That, mostly voiced by the two.
For a typical interview piece, they will write a short lead-up, decide who's doing which side of the interview. Then, the interview gets improvised.
"Pat and I have worked together for so long that, basically, within one sentence, the idea is clear. And we sorta go, 'Oh, I get it.' It's kinda one of those terribly precious, droning interviews about this incredibly celebrated person that we're going to have some fun with."
While it hasn't been their intention, Oldring and Kelly have even screwed with my mind a little bit. A while back I was listening to a news piece from National Public Radio, whose tone isn't far off from that of the CBC. It was detailing the beaver situation in Argentina, where the government had introduced the animals in an effort to stimulate a fur trade that never came. Now, locals have resorted to eating the animals.
When the journalist with a Casey Kasem voice asks a local what they taste like, I thought about This Is That and wondered: "Is NPR fucking with me right now?"
My B.S. compass aside, the "truth" of This Is That is essential to the show.
Oldring mentions one of their field pieces, about two men who are "blizzard chasers," a take-off on the idea of storm and hurricane chasers. While the story is ridiculous, when the two succeed in getting to the heart of two blizzards at once -- a "double blizzard" -- it's sweet and a little touching.
"Because we're trying to satirize something's that's already out there --real people and real interviews -- we need to give these characters a little bit of depth and believability. It can't just be one layer of an insane-sounding accent," says Oldring.
"I think the show works when it walks that fine line, where some people are in on the joke and get in and if you don't. The tone is very believable, but the hope is at some point that the story becomes so outrageous that you begin to go, 'Well, this is being served up in a very true way, but there is no way this is a possibility.' For instance, a walrus being discovered in the middle of a field in Saskatchewan after traveling 150 kilometers on the Yellowhead Highway.
"However, there are some folks who were quite concerned about what was happening to the walrus," adds Oldring. "You never know when people might clue in."
In the end, I sent my grandma a story where the legal drinking age in Quebec is lowered to 14. Her response: "Is this real?"
I'd call that a draw.
This Is That airs Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 11:00 a.m. on CBC Radio One. It can also be found on iTunes or at cbc.ca/thisisthat.