Glen Schaefer / The Province Blog
There’s usually quiet on set when the cameras are rolling on a movie or TV show, but the crew of Package Deal were free to belly laugh all they wanted as the gags rolled out on the new comedy series.
Parts of the show were filmed before a live audience in the show’s south Burnaby studios, and while it was just cast and crew onset the day we visited, the grips, camera guys, props crew and make-up artists didn’t have to hold back their titters.
“This is the closest thing to theatre,” says show creator Andrew Orenstein, a Canadian who made a career in Hollywood writing for sitcoms including Third Rock From the Sun, Malcolm in the Middle, and Everybody Hates Chris.
“There are locked-in rhythms to it, which when done well, there’s nothing better,” he says. “By and large you stand there and you have to say real jokes. You can’t rely on camera trickery. It’s the purest form of comedy.”
The Toronto native came to Vancouver to team with local producers Thunderbird Films for a Canadian take on the rapid-fire U.S. sitcom style. It’s something of an experiment as live-audience sitcoms are new to Canada, and actors here had to learn the bigger performing style.
Package Deal stars Victoria’s Randal Edwards as Danny, a lawyer whose new relationship with tea shop owner Kim (former model Julia Voth) is at odds with his overly-close ties to his older brothers Sheldon (Harland Williams) and Ryan (Jay Malone).
Star Edwards is getting his comedy baptism after recurring roles on the TV mystery The Killing and on the Toronto-filmed Degrassi: The Next Generation.
“On some level, I’ve always played a lighter-side character, but this style of comedy didn’t exist really here in Canada,” Edwards says. “So it was very foreign, exciting, hands down the most challenging job I’ve ever had.”
The sitcom acting style plays bigger, to reach real people in the stands.
“That energy it takes, that kind of gigantic reality, if you will, to be big and believable in this world,” he adds. “There’s nothing that I do here that I can just slough my way through.”
The first episode sets these four characters up as Kim meets the brothers for the first time. Williams and Malone have a background in stand-up and sketch comedy, and their characters tend to be the comic pinwheels around the other two.
Williams has the most outsized role in the show as oldest brother Sheldon, a serial failed entrepreneur, always looking for the next business opportunity to screw up.
Williams’ stand-up background took him to the U.S. two decades ago, for sitcom roles on U.S. TV and movies including Dumb and Dumber, and There’s Something About Mary.
On nights off from filming Package Deal in Vancouver, Williams tried out new stand-up ideas at the downtown club the Comedy Mix.
He tried out things on the show as well, veering off-script when filming last fall as they shot multiple takes of the same scene.
“Everyone in the cast loves the energy of the live (production) day, but I really like it because coming from the stand-up world, I’ve really learned to feed off that energy,” he says.
“Usually by the second or third take I start experimenting. I’m a joke writer, so if I feel like I can contribute, add some lines that will get us a laugh and fit with the script, I just throw them out there. In front of a live crowd you get your answer right away.”
No one knows it’s a comedy until someone starts laughing.
“To be honest, when they gave me the scripts to Dumb and Dumber, and Something About Mary, which were two huge comedies, reading the scripts I didn’t think they were that funny,” Williams says. “I wasn’t laughing while I was reading so I was a little skeptical. I know what’s funny for me inside, but the end product — it’s always up to the folks.”
Package Deal is also betting on star appeal from recurring players Eugene Levy, who appears in three episodes, and Pamela Anderson, who shows up in four episodes as the unorthodox therapist to Malone’s tightly-wound Ryan.
The audience verdict on that comedy experiment comes Monday night.
. . .
Eugene Levy is pacing the set of Package Deal between rehearsals, trying out different readings to himself of a particular line.
Levy appears in the first three episodes of the new sitcom, as an accused wife-killer being defended by Danny, the comically put-upon lawyer played by series star Edwards.
The rehearsal resumes, a courtroom scene that Levy steals with low-key scripted asides and laser-sharp timing, punctuated by his signature nimble eyebrows.
Don’t ask him how he does it.
“I don’t like putting comedy under a microscope and I don’t like talking about it.” Levy says during a break away from set.
He’s dressed in a tidy sweater with a collar, neat jeans, like an accountant on his day off.
“A lot of it is luck, everybody has their own way of doing comedy and I have a particular kind of comedy that I like. I like my comedy to be grounded, like it always comes out of a real place.”
The producers of Package Deal wrote the character for Levy, hoping for some of the luck he brought to SCTV, the American Pie franchise and a string of improvised features Levy made with Christopher Guest.
For himself, Levy was intrigued at the idea of a multi-camera sitcom filmed in front of an audience, previously a uniquely American idiom.
“I assumed it was a single camera show, it’s Canada. Then I heard, ‘No, they’re actually doing this in front of an audience …’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh, OK, I guess,’ but the creator of the show Andrew Orenstein has come off some pretty good shows down there.”
Levy took the patriotic view of helping to launch a sitcom in Canada decades after the last such entry, the Toronto-filmed King of Kensington, breathed its last in 1980.
“If it works then this would be a fantastic thing for this country.”
Levy has been involved in a couple of short-lived U.S. sitcoms over the years, and has been around long enough to have guested on King of Kensington.
“I don’t usually like the sitcom form, believe it or not. I don’t think in those rhythms, but I thought the scripts for this were really good, better than I thought they would be,” he says.
“Let me put it this way, if this was a show that was being done in the States somewhere, I don’t think I would have done it. If they can make this work in Canada, I’d like to be on the ground floor of that.”
Levy’s Package Deal role has his accused killer giving the lawyer relationship advice over the three episodes.
“He’s chiming in on what his lawyer should and shouldn’t do with his girlfriend, his relationship with his brothers, things like that.”
Levy hasn’t ruled out a return to the role, should the show come back for a second season. “It’s finite until I hear something else.”