Great day for hay: Jared Keeso’s “Letterkenny” hits the small screen

 

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The focus is on Jared Keeso.

And that makes him uncomfortable.

It’s an unusual attitude for someone who makes his living in the performing arts, but it’s Keeso’s reality. Tonight is one of those times when he has to face up to it.

The 31-year-old actor is sitting in a chair on a stage in a packed theatre at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Family members, friends and admirers have filled the 220 seats, and they’ve all just watched the world premiere of Keeso’s new CraveTV comedy series, “Letterkenny.” (Season 1 begins streaming on Super Bowl Sunday.)

They love what they’ve seen, and now they’re watching Keeso. He appreciates their appreciation. But he doesn’t particularly enjoy being the centre of attention in this environment. He sits hunched forward in his chair during the entirety of a question-and-answer session with the audience, unable to completely relax.

Keeso covers it well. He answers every question affably and thoughtfully, drawing laughs and applause as he speaks. The crowd is hanging on his every word; naturally, this prolongs his discomfort. He tries to ease his own tension with a self-deprecating remark about the way he is sitting.

“My dad taught me to keep my shoulders back and sit up straight, but I just can’t seem to move from this position,” he says. And the friendly crowd laughs again.

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It’s only later, after the event is over, that he allows himself some relief.

“I will tell you plain as day, watching an episode in a room full of people is the last thing I would ever want to do. This stuff is a nightmare,” he says, smiling. “I’ve got to tip my hat to actors who can handle this well, because it is just so weird and alienating for me, man. I’m a proud person, but when I’m on stage, I can barely lift my head, you know?”

Don’t get Keeso wrong. He loves that people enjoy what he does, as an actor and as a creator. And he’s a person who has many friends and who loves to talk with people. But he finds it “unnatural” to watch himself, and to be present while others are watching him. He’s not used to the idea that they’re interested in what he has to say about his creative process.

“Weird, but of course it’s gratifying,” he says. “We’ve all worked really hard to get where we are, and it’s nice to see it all come together and have everybody here for it.”

“It,” of course, is “Letterkenny,” a true labour of love for the native of Listowel, Ontario. The show has grown from a series of web shorts he wrote and produced in 2013. The series was called “Letterkenny Problems,” and the five episodes took off on YouTube, earning more than 10 million views and a Canadian Screen Award nomination.

But even that had originated from another source – a Twitter account that Keeso had started with his childhood best friend from Listowel, Jordan Beirnes. It gently mocked their hometown, anonymously at first. But when it became popular, Keeso was inspired to take it further. He wrote some scripts and assembled a small production team, and knocked out each episode in less than two hours at a farm in Ladner, B.C.

“Letterkenny Problems” wasn’t his first attempt at a web comedy series, but it struck a chord right away. Keeso says he had developed a desire to create his own material after striking out in more auditions than he cares to remember, including some for projects he hadn’t necessarily wanted to do anyway.

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“You throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. And this stuck,” says Keeso, who calls his small production enterprise Play Fun Games Pictures. He truly is having fun and playing games when he acts, and he believes in the adage about doing what you love and never working a day in your life.

“Work isn’t falling out of the sky in Canada by any means. If you’ve got some idle time and a bit of money in your pocket, you should definitely be chasing your own creative endeavours. It can be fruitful, in this case, but most of all it’s fun.”

Keeso grew up in Listowel, playing hockey and dreaming of pathways to the NHL. He peaked as a player in Junior B, but he never lost the desire to win that had at least taken him that far. It pushed him to drop out of university, pack up and move to Vancouver at age 20, knowing only that he wanted to be an actor. It pushed him to go to audition after audition, looking for any edge that would lead to a speaking part and a paycheque.

There were bumps along the way. He achieved early success in a kids TV show called “Monster Warriors,” but was still almost completely unknown when he won the role of Don Cherry in the two-part CBC movie about the legendary hockey coach-turned-broadcaster. Keeso turned in such a memorable performance that he won a Gemini Award, then reprised the role for the sequel movie two years later.

The award and the press clippings didn’t guarantee him continued work. He tried to make it in Los Angeles, only to return home disappointed. Keeso was at his lowest point when he filmed a pilot for a police drama for CBC, only to have the network turn it down. The network had commissioned an English-language version of the hit French-Canadian show “19-2,” but then passed on it. Luckily, Bravo swooped in and picked up the series, which is set to begin airing its third season.

By the time “19-2” hit the airwaves, though, Keeso had already made a big splash with “Letterkenny Problems,” and he was interested in seeing where he could take it. Bell Media, which owns CraveTV (and Bravo), made a deal with Keeso to develop a series, but it took almost a year-and-a-half before the show was finally confirmed and production was announced. Filming took place last summer in Sudbury.

Fans weren’t troubled by the long wait. They were all over a sneak preview of the new series when it was posted to YouTube just before Christmas. (WARNING: The following clip is hilarious, but NSFW.)

“Letterkenny” reunites Keeso with his web series co-star Nathan Dales, and the two characters now have names – Wayne and Daryl. They’re among the hicks who live in a rural Midwestern Ontario town of 5,000 people, which is also made up of groups of hockey players, skids and Christians. Andrew Herr and Dylan Playfair reprise their web series roles as the not-too-bright hockey players, Jonesy and Reilly. Michelle Mylett plays Wayne’s sister, Katy.

Keeso, who worked with veteran writer and director Jacob Tierney to develop and write the series, readily admits it was a challenge to expand “Letterkenny” from two-minute shorts to half-hour episodes.

“Nothing came particularly easy in this process. I tried not to distance it too far from the format I used in the web series, and that was as many laughs on a second-to-second basis as possible,” he says. “I tried not to overcomplicate it and go into areas of writing where I don’t have a lot of skill, and that’s developing character arc and continuing stories.

“We wrote this thing and acted this thing to make you laugh. We weren’t thinking about developing the characters; everything comes as it comes naturally. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And everything that we accomplished on this show is on the backs of our actors and our director and our creative team. There was certainly nothing done consciously. That’s the truth.”

“He’s being very humble in not taking a lot of the credit as far as the beauty and simplicity,” says co-executive producer Mark Montefiore of New Metric Media, which is producing the series for CraveTV. “We think what really works so well about this show and what worked so well about the web series was the simplicity of it. It’s not overcomplicated by unnecessary story and B plots and C plots.

“It’s a unique skill to be able to have something so simple, yet so engaging and have a pace to it. It may seem simple and straightforward, but that’s a unique talent to have.”

Keeso’s humility is readily apparent. The spotlight is his on this night in Toronto, but he makes it clear that he wants to share it with the rest of the “Letterkenny” team – not just because they deserve it, but also because he would truly prefer to let his on-screen performances speak for him.

“There’s some things that you have to do, some hoops that you have to jump through in this business, but schmoozing has never been my strong point,” he says. “I’m a kind of an awkward and uncomfortable person at the best of times, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

“Some things in the business you’ll excel at, other things you’ll fall short. I’m content where I am.”

Letterkenny pic

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