Our Q&A with Sketch Troupe Tony Ho: Dark Genius

Taylor Erwin Blog, Comedians, Hall of Fame, Interview

Tony Ho believes being unsettled isn’t a bad thing. Reeking of genius and originality, Tony Ho’s boundary-pushing exploit of humanity somehow manifests internal horror as boisterous laughter. The trio, comprised of Miguel Rivas, Roger Bainbridge, and Adam Niebergall, effectuates the ideal features of the modern independent sketch troupe; outstanding writing, intense characters, and captivating story-lines delivered through high-quality short films or theatre-grade live performances.Disturbing, creative, intense and hilarious, their performances probe the darkest depths of modern man’s infirmity. Their short films (Western, Valentines, Friend, Diner, Dissection, Japan, Time, Wanda….10!, plus some music videos)  re a palette of emotional breadth covering the best and worst of humanity. Exploring stories of disgruntled childhood trolls, desperate dating, a gay man mourning his breakup, and even a period Western (with cinematography putting feature films to shame), Tony Ho fearlessly searches (and finds) the honesty in any scenario.

The true genius of Tony Ho is their adoption of the best elements of previous generations to create something new and original. The first generation of the modern sketch artists (ie. Kids in the Hall and SCTV) were genius in pioneering the adaptation of sketch onto television, successfully delivering the abstract nature of sketch comedy to the masses. The second generation of sketch delved into collective genius by means of the internet and low-cost production; now, sketch troupes could write, shoot, and showcase their work independently, online. Enter the scene Tony Ho: the culminating force tethering phenomenal writing with technical filmmaking.

Think Quentin Tarintino guest writing and directing Saturday Night Live. That’s Tony Ho.

As performers, they’re undeniably talented. They’ve performed sketch in bars, comedy rooms, and have even recorded sets for XM Radio. They’ve performed as part of the JFL42 Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, Laugh Sabbath and more. Although, judging by their work, they’re headed somewhere big…and dark. We can’t wait.

Tony Ho seems to capture honest comedy through rather bizarre, dark and emotionally-charged scenarios. Is your style a rebuttal to the modern era of supposed ‘witty’ writing and juvenile romantic comedies? What’s the motive behind the creations of Tony Ho?

Roger: I wouldn’t say Tony Ho is a rebuttal; it’s probably more reactionary. I tend to find human behavior and the unexpected things people say funnier than traditional set-up/punchline comedy. Plus, there’s already so many people doing that style of humour better than we could. We just really love good storytelling and theatre, so I suppose we’re trying to take our favorite aspects of sketch and theatre (two things most people hate) and see if we could make a meld that might hold more appeal.

Miguel: I think that we mine a lot of comedy out of fear and anxiety because oftentimes, that’s the easiest time to make someone laugh. If you can bring people to that place where they’re maybe almost holding their breath, you can get a lot of laughs just by relieving tension.

What’s with the name Tony Ho? If Tony Ho were a real person set loose at a dinner party, what would he do?

Roger: Short answer: anThONY HOpkins.

Miguel: His first incarnation predates the troupe, when Adam and Roger were creating a player in NHL10. I think he was a not-so-good forward for the Senators.

Roger: If he were at a dinner party, he would be slyly working to get all the guests to treat the people they love carelessly- themselves included.

Your FRINGE show “Sad People” was acclaimed by critics as a highlight of the 2012 Toronto Fringe Festival. Why did you create it?

Roger: A friend had a slot they didn’t need, so we had to come up with a show. We knew we wanted to do a collection of scenes, which can feel like small plays anyhow. We’ve always preferred not to do blackouts with music or dancing furniture, etc. because it gives people a chance to slip out of the atmosphere, and since it’s hard to get them there in the first place, we try to hold onto them.

Why do you think so many people responded to it?

Roger: I think it might just be that they’re not used to comedy being presented in such a slow fashion. Some people hate that, which I understand. We also try to have at least one memorable visual in each scene, whether it’s my hideous body covered in paint, or a guy covered in bandages in a wheelchair trying to be sexy, or whatever. Those are things I’d respond to if I saw them.

You guys recently guest directed a music video for fellow Toronto artist “Digits – Street Violence” which received a lot of warranted attention. Quoted as an homage to 1979 cult classic film The Warriors, your video follows a woman as she navigates her way through a dystopian society, trying to escape costumed gangs like “The Real Estate Moms,” “The Puppetearz” and “The Wickermen” (most of whom were cameos by rising Toronto comedians). How is writing for video different than live performance? Which do you enjoy more?

Miguel: Our shorts have all grown out of live performance, so sometimes it’s hard to separate the two from feeling like one long process. I get really excited making movies because I love them so much, but I’ve been performing live for so long now, I don’t know if I could not do it anymore. I CAN’T DECIDE. The music video is one of the only videos we’ve made as a group that we hadn’t developed live in advance. So that was kind of its own beast.

Roger: As far as writing for a music video, I don’t know that we did it the way you’re supposed to. We ended up with a six and a half minute video; not the easiest viral sell, which I guess is kind of the point with a music video. But, again, we like bigger stories where you get to know the people and actually feel something about whether these gangs will kill them. You could do a three minute version with just the gangs and it would be cool and funny, but that’s all it would be. And maybe that’s all it needs to be, but we like it the other way.

As far as the shorts go, traditional wisdom would have us believe making filmed versions of things leads to more people seeing your work. We love movies, we love making them, you’re able to do different tricks and add a level of sheen that doing a set at Comedy Bar or wherever doesn’t allow always. We definitely want to make a feature and treat all these as lessons. But we need to perform live. We get very sad when we don’t.

We have to ask; where do you find your inspiration? Who influenced Tony Ho during those early days of development?

Roger: I was part of a group called Better Than Shakespeare, which also included the very-talented Dan Beirne of Bitter End and Dad Drives fame, and we dabbled a bit in somewhat darker stuff that could be termed Tony Ho-ish. Better Than Shakespeare was a little sillier and shock-oriented (in the best way). I was not nearly as patient a writer, and I think that’s been a key change. Miguel was in Frenzy, and they always had the best theatrical ideas. They could pull things off on stage I would have never dreamed, and while we don’t do that a lot, I’d like to try more of that.

As far as heroes, Chris Morris, especially his radio and TV show JAM, were really important to me. Although, I did discover it after we started, finding that was kind of a reinforcement of like, “Yeah, some people might want something like this.” We love Louie, and League of Gentleman‘s blending of horror and comedy was really exciting.

Miguel: We’ve always been fans of Tim and Eric, though I wouldn’t say we try to emulate them, necessarily. Their attitude towards creating new stuff is what I’ve always enjoyed about them. When I started doing comedy a long time ago (with Frenzy) we drew a lot inspiration from what we found funny as kids, like Looney Tunes. I like to think that’s carried over a bit into Tony Ho sillier moments.

What’s in the future for Tony Ho?

Roger: We’ve got a few shorts ready to come out very soon and are beginning shooting on another this weekend. There are different ideas about doing another kind of big live show. I’d really like to start travelling to some cities outside of Toronto soon.

Lastly, any advice for aspiring writers and filmmakers?

Roger: For the writers, make friends with kids in film school. They will make your stuff look amazing.
For the filmmakers, meet writers. They will give you something worth making look good.
And don’t settle on the first idea. Let it gestate until you’ve given it a few sharp turns. There’s no worse feeling than watching a premise be established in a skit, and it doesn’t work, and everyone in the room knows they’re locked into the same thing for the next seven minutes. It takes a lot for an audience to invest in a reality, and if it doesn’t pay off it’s a piss-off and makes shows exhausting.

You’ve made allowances for improv on stage during live performances. How does this element add to the show? Given that added risk, has there been any car-wrecks onstage during a show?

Roger: We don’t improvise too much. There are a few scenes that are meant to leave room for spontaneous jokes, but for the most part we’re pretty tightly scripted. The improv-ish ones are fun though. I mostly use it as an excuse to experiment with what the best punchline should be so I can set it in place of weaker lines.

Miguel: For Tony Ho: High risk, high reward!
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Website: www.TonyHo.ca
Twitter: @TonyHoComedy
Next Show: Saturday, May 11, 10:30pm at Comedy Bar. Visit the event!
Watch their truly amazing videos:Western,Valentines,Friend,Diner