The Halifax comedy troupe called Picnicface had already written almost half the material for another season of their show on the Comedy Network when the call came from Toronto last spring telling them to shelve it: The comedians quickly produced a gag promotional video for the lost Season 2 that features four of the group's eight members sitting in a garden stuffing food in their faces and weeping.
"What are we going to do?" asks Bill Wood. "I dunno. I guess we are going to – take this like adults," replies Andrew Bush as Cheryl Hann gets out the whipped cream and starts spraying it on her face, and Brian Macquarrie savages a piece of watermelon.
If you check out Picnicface on YouTube, you will be treated to absurdist jokes about bingo, bulimia and two dirty old men who rap about middle-aged women. You will also discover, as Picnicface has, some hard truths about Internet fame.
Five years ago, the group's animated Powerthirst video, a spoof about a drink that will give you excessive amounts of energy, went viral; it has logged almost 26 million views to date. Today, the Internet sensation is a homeless TV troupe that has been asking YouTube viewers to sign a petition to save their show.
This time last year, Picnicface had it all: The group, which formed around Evany Rosen, Mark Little and Kyle Dooley when they were students doing improv at King's College and then expanded its membership to do live sketch comedy in Halifax clubs, had parlayed Internet popularity into a TV deal. Hailed as a cross between Monty Python and The Kids in the Hall, with former Kid Mark McKinney as an executive producer, Picnicface launched its show on Comedy in September, 2011, and also published a book, Picnicface's Canada, that summer. Meanwhile, Roller Town, their first movie, shot in 2010, moved into post-production.
Today, with the show cancelled and the movie awaiting on-demand distribution in Canada after a brief theatrical run, the eight comedians are busy working separately: Picnicface has not officially disbanded but it has no further projects in the works.
"It's sort of reached a point ... where you don't just go back to shooting YouTube videos for free," said Dooley, who is now doing live improv in Toronto and working on his own TV and film scripts.
In a country famous for producing comics, the Picnicface cancellation stifles the best hope of the new generation and raises the question whether Internet buzz can be translated into paying gigs. TV is always a fickle, ratings-driven business: The Kids in the Hall were threatened with cancellation in their first season too, but in those years, longer-term thinking could still prevail, nurture young comics and give them more seasons. In the 1980s, The Kids did not have the Internet to promote themselves, but nor did they have the exaggerated audience demands it can place on a fledgling TV show. YouTube may anoint unvarnished comedy with hundreds of thousands of views, but it is not clear that, in an environment where converging media are looking for content generic enough that it can play on multiple platforms, big networks can be relied on to take risks on Internet darlings.
"Some content simply performs better online," said Matt Houghton, director of digital for comedy and drama at Bell Media, which owns the Comedy Network. "It's not uncommon for comedians to be embraced differently online, and Picnicface is perhaps more likely to find its niche online versus a traditional broadcast audience."
In that statement provided by Bell, Houghton cited "different factors" for the cancellation without naming them, but noted that the show's ratings averaged 86,000 viewers, falling below Comedy's average prime-time audience of 140,000 viewers.
Picnicface's producers feel that Darwinian logic has suffocated the next Kids in the Hall in its cradle:
"It's all money-based," said Garry Campbell, another executive producer on the show. "When you have a group like Picnicface, there is a real buzz and they are going places, [but] that doesn't count at all."
The comedians and their producers debate what happened to the troupe's Internet followers.
During a Toronto interview, Dooley, Rosen and Little pointed out that Internet numbers are notoriously erratic, depending heavily on the vagaries of other people linking to you: The Powerthirst video owed its success, in part, to its appearance on YouTube's home page. They also speculate that their fans belong to a generation that does not watch much conventional broadcast television.
Meanwhile, they observe that, while they were busy shooting a movie and a TV show, and publishing a book, they weren't posting to YouTube, thus neglecting their fan base. Views of their more recent material are significantly lower – in the tens or hundreds of thousands – than the millions they achieved five years ago.
Others say Comedy should not have assumed that the troupe brought an Internet audience with them.
"There was too much reliance on us personally to advertize on YouTube and Facebook; that is preaching to the choir," said Picnicface member Scott Vrooman. "If you want people to watch a TV show, you have to advertize on TV."
"I don't think the platforms are the same," agrees Peter Williamson, whose Breakthrough Entertainment produced Picnicface and is the company behind some other risky Canadian comedy shows such as Kenny vs. Spenny and Less than Kind. "... People who watch YouTube are not necessarily going to tune in [to TV] in the evening."
He said that nobody, from the comedians to the Comedy Network itself, took the old medium for granted: With longer TV scripts built from new sketches around unifying themes, the creators did a lot of work to make sure the material was not a rehash of Internet videos.
Williamson thinks the cancellation has little to do with Picnicface's relationship with the Internet, and much more to do with the narrowing of choices on television as large corporations look for more generic programming they can use across a family of channels. (This week Bell, which owns Comedy and the CTV stable, was denied permission by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to acquire 20 more pay and specialty channels from Astral Media.)
"If your focus is on managing a million-dollar conglomerate ... it's all about costs and savings and using content on different platforms," he said. "Picnicface had all the hallmarks of an SCTV, a Kids in the Hall ... I think convergence in the industry is not good for Canadian culture, to have more voices is better for Canadians ... to have more jokes is better for Canadians."
The comedians, meanwhile, are careful to say they are very grateful for their shot at TV; they are all working on other acting and writing projects, both live and filmed. In Halifax, Vrooman is writing and appearing on CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Wood is hosting a weekly live comedy show, Hann is getting into performance and video art; Bush is creating a Web series and Macquarrie is doing stand-up and getting into directing. In Toronto, Dooley and Rosen are performing with an improv company while Little is working on the second season of a Web series and pitching sitcom ideas, one with Bush, in the United States.
Nibbles from other distributors for another season of the TV show have not led to any deal, and the 8,853-signature petition is now closed. In the end, the gag promo for the season that never was got about about 19,000 views on YouTube.