Kids in the Hall alum to usher in a new era of sketch comedy in T.O.

SCTV, Kids in the Hall, Baroness von Sketch Show, Wayne and Shuster — and now, if Bruce McCulloch knows what he’s talking about, The Dessert. Hailed as the next generation of Canadian sketch comedy, the six-episode series launching on Friday is executive produced by Kids in the Hall alum McCulloch and, in an unlikely but uber-Canadian pairing, the Arkells’ Max Kerman.

The starring trio of writer-actors, Isabella Campbell, Shane Cunningham and Jillian Smart, come from all the places you might imagine the next generation of comedy to come from — TikTok (Campbell boasts over 1 million likes on the platform), podcasts, Instagram reel-friendly comedic videos and of course, some classic stand-up comedy in the mix.

Jillian Smart, left, and Isabella Campbell, right. Courtesy Nathan Nash

And if you ask Campbell and Smart, they’ll say that’s a reflection of where sketch comedy is heading — more absurdist, visually artistic and of course, shorter. “Our average sketch time is maybe a minute or two, and the jokes are different, a bit more precise,” Campbell says. As someone who found her way onto the show through TikTok — Smart sent Campbell’s profile to Cunningham while the show was in development and, after going down a “rabbit hole” of Campbell’s irreverent sketches, YouTube videos and podcast episodes, he asked her to join as a writer and actor — she sees how it is already playing a role in the future of comedy. “During the pandemic, people used it as an outlet, and now people can almost make a whole career out of it. So comedy is now created with that medium in mind.”

Smart joined the show through a similarly unconventional route — repeatedly messaging the hosts of her favourite podcast, The Best Hang Podcast with Kerman and Cunningham, inviting them to her stand-up shows in Toronto. “I did this for maybe three months and never got a response,” she says. “And then Shane followed me and asked if I would do a table read and give my feedback for what eventually became The Dessert.”

At the time it was a much smaller concept, but Smart decided to submit “maybe 40” sketches anyway, hoping to solidify her place on the show. She was brought on the writers team, then eventually became a lead on the show. Even with less experience, Smart says she felt hugely valued on the team. “I always felt so welcomed and respected, which was such a big thing because I joined when I was 22 and didn’t have any professional experience,” she says.

Before joining The Dessert, Smart says she was having a hard time in the comedy community in Toronto. “I was second-guessing myself and struggling with being a young woman in this industry,” she says. “But the creators made sure we felt heard and that we were a part of every decision.”

Campbell agrees, noting that it’s tough to gain that confidence when you’re starting out in the field. “When I stepped on set that first day, I was the most anxious and nervous I’ve ever been.”

But Campbell and Smart brought a new comedic voice to the show, and some of the series’ funniest moments come from their influence — Campbell, for whom physical comedy is a strength, recalls a sketch she was doing on TikTok about being a flair bartender made it into the show at the last minute after the creators loved it so much.

“I also love cringe comedy, the kind that makes you squirm but laugh, and a lot of that is in there,” she says.

Isabella Campbell courtesy Nathan Nash

Campbell has a cringe origin story of her own — she remembers attending an arts school in downtown Toronto and doing her first solo singing performance of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” She looked up to see all the students and even the teachers laughing at her. 

Campbell says she was laughing along too — and loving the feeling of making other people laugh.

Now, in The Dessert, she gets to do that while playing a whole bunch of different characters at once, which she says is an actor’s dream. Still, Campbell and Smart say building chemistry on set with so many drastically different roles wasn’t a challenge.

Left to right: Jillian Smart, Shane Cunningham, Isabella Campbell

“We became so close throughout filming and stayed so close,” Smart says of her relationship with Campbell (the pair lived with each other during filming and rehearsed together daily). “It’s interesting to look back on the first sketches we filmed and see how different they are from the ones we filmed at the end, because now I know her cadence so perfectly and we play off of each other — all three of us know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so well.”

The Dessert mines everyday life, like wedding speeches, Halloween parties or dinner at your boss’s house, for comedy, but the show isn’t afraid to lean into the crude — something Campbell really admires. “That type of humour is often reserved for men, so it’s so fun to have a show with two women and one male leads,” she says. “We definitely need more women-led sketch shows.”

Campbell and Smart say McCulloch was very supportive throughout the process. “The fact that he has faith in us to carry the baton is a huge honour,” Campbell says. “And he was a trailblazer in experimental and absurdist comedy, so the fact that he wants to be a part of this is such a huge honour.”

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