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Picnicface: From Halifax to the Comedy Network, by way of YouTube

The Halifax-based comedy troupe Picnicface (left to right) Andrew Bush, Evany Rosen, Mark Little, Scott Vrooman, Brian Eldon Macquarrie, Bill Wood, Kyle Dooley and Cheryl Hann in a handout photo.

Scott Munn/Scott Munn

A group of young Canadians gets together and forms a comedy troupe. They perform onstage, doing improv, sketch comedy and individual standup – and soon their very specific brand of humour reaches an audience of millions. This is, more or less, the story of Kids In The Hall, and something similar is happening with the Halifax group Picnicface.

So it makes sense that Kids member Mark McKinney is there on the set of Picnicface's new Comedy Network sketch series, serving as executive producer. He's an obvious choice for this material and group, and McKinney also has years of TV writing and performing experience, from work behind the scenes at Saturday Night Live to the comedy series Less Than Kind.

Though, from his perch on a folding lawn chair, it doesn't look like McKinney's too busy right now.

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"I'm here to not do anything unless there is an absolute need for it," he admits, sitting alongside several members of the group in a central Halifax backyard. "There are challenges to move sketches from theatre to TV, but they're way ahead of the curve from where Kids in the Hall were – because we didn't understand TV, we didn't have the Internet back then."

Indeed Picnicface has taken a very 21st-century approach to bring their work beyond the Halifax clubs. They've had massive success with short videos posted on YouTube and Will Ferrell's Funny or Die website; Ferrell himself has praised the group's videos. Their most popular video, far and away, is called Powerthirst, a satiric jab at energy drink advertising, which promises that if you enjoy the beverage you'll have "400 babies" and be able to run "like Kenyans." Cumulatively, Picnicface's online content has scored well over 40 million hits.

Those videos were directed by Picnicface member Andrew Wood, who's a former host of the CBC-TV series Street Cents. That's in keeping with the group's self-sufficient nature; the eight members collaborate on all their projects with little outside help. The show is being shot in the house of group member Bill Wood, which serves as the troupe's home for TV purposes.

"It's like finding a truffle," McKinney whispers in the backyard as action is called somewhere inside the house. "Nobody can plant it; you can't seed it. It's just there and it's delicious. When young guys and girls find each other and share a common sensibility and develop it without any reference to any commercial application, it's the coolest thing. It very, very much reminds me of Kids in the Hall."

Tearing Bush away from a new film treatment he's working on, he'll go so far to say the reason he's in sketch comedy at all is due to the work of McKinney and KITH. "In grade eight we'd be quoting these characters, that was just our vernacular, Kids in the Hall. But that inspired me to do this. I'd love it if grade eights or grade nines would quote our sketches."

Picnicface's Internet presence has probably already accomplished that goal, but if the TV show doesn't make them a household name, they have other projects that might. Wood co-wrote a feature film with Picnicface cohorts Mark Little and Scott Vrooman. Roller Town, which shot in Nova Scotia in the summer of 2010, was the opening-night screening at the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax in September. The low-budget comedy stars all the members of Picnicface – Kyle Dooley, Evany Rosen, Brian MacQuarrie, Cheryl Hann, Wood, Little, Vrooman and Bush – and is a satire on roller disco movies of the late 1970s, popular before most of the members of Picnicface were even born. The movie is expected to be released later this year.

If that wasn't enough to keep Picnicface busy, in October HarperCollins is publishing a book called Picnicface's Canada, containing select observations on our nation by the Haligonian funnypeople.

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So, with the 13 episodes of their Comedy Network TV show, a slew of Internet videos, a feature film and a book under their belts, McKinney is left with little to do.

"Really, it's just to watch and maybe nudge a bit," he says with a barely perceptible shrug. "They're very self-contained."

In terms of a direct influence from Kids in the Hall on Picnicface's Internet-savvy humour, McKinney isn't sure there is any that people will notice, "But I think the form, the way they came together is very similar," he says. "I recognize the discussions, the arguments, the way they pursue an idea. It's all very familiar. It's weird. I'm having a lot of flashbacks."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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