Just the other day, i was scouring my basement in a madcap quest to assemble all the pieces required to set up Rock Band 3 for my almost-teenager’s birthday party next weekend. My search brought me to a large Rubbermaid container filled to the brim with cables and cords, just like the six other large Rubbermaid containers i had scoured before it. This particular container contained my old video camera that i used in high school, when i was a movie buff and was likely headed towards studying film. i was delighted to see that the camera still worked, and i tried a few different tapes to see what was on them.
And it gave me a great shock and an uneasy thrill to discover that one of the tapes had it on it… it, the footage i had long thought lost to time. The footage i wasn’t sure even existed. But here it was. May God have mercy on our souls.
If you’ve known a friend long enough, you’ve developed certain shared memories that you constantly reference for a laugh or a wince. So it is with my friend Sean, a guy i met in high school and developed a lasting relationship with when we attended University together. In that era, he and i and a few other friends, including a kid named Cameron, had an improv troupe called Starving Student Productions. Sean, Cameron and i trekked into Toronto from Oshawa regularly to take improv classes at the Second City, and we often attended the Midnight Howl, a free show at the Second City that would take place after the ticketed main stage show was finished, where performers could test out their most experimental acts.
We wanted desperately to be in on the game. But Starving Student Productions barely produced anything. We certainly never had a paid gig. i vaguely remember performing at different high school showcases, even though we had mostly all graduated, except for our co-performer Kendra, who helped us keep a foot in that world.
So one day, we were excited to get a call from our friend Lindsey, who asked if we wanted to perform in a telethon. A telethon?? Boy howdy, did we ever! i had done a bit of improv on a cable access show in town, and it had gone predictably horribly. But a telethon… that sounded like the big time. We took time out of studying to practice our theatre sports games in my mom’s basement.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tel
As the date for the “telethon” drew nearer, we were keen to get answers from Lindsey about the format of the show. Who was the host? What station was it on?
“Station?” asked Lindsey. “It’s not on any station. It’s at the Civic Auditorium complex in Oshawa.”
Ok, sure. But who was filming? Where was it airing?
“It’s not… airing. It’s a live event.”
We were confused. Then it’s not a telethon, Lindsey. If it’s not on television, it’s not a telethon.
“Ok, fine,” she conceded. “I used the wrong word. Just show up at the auditorium at 11pm ready to perform.”
11 pm? i can’t remember if it was actually 11pm, but i do remember it was a bizarre slot late in the evening. But that’s fine. We were cool Toronto night life kids! We knew from the Howl how well edgy comedy improv and late-night slots went together. We were still up for it. But a little wary.
Welcome to Thunderdome
It was pitch black when we arrived at the arena, and drizzling rain. i was wearing my favourite Hawaiian shirt; Cameron had his signature bank teller’s visor protecting his eyes from the non-existent sun. There was a makeshift stage set up at the side of the running track. Groups of people dressed in plastic rain ponchos were rounding the track in batches of 3, 9, 2… little clusters of people, somewhat solemn and respectfully chatting with one another. Around the outside of the track were little paper bags with lit candles inside them, spluttering and struggling against the weather, and on each one was written the name of a victim that someone on the track was here to remember.
This was no telethon. This was a walkathon. Our college comedy improv troupe had been booked for a cancer benefit.
Damning Lindsey to the deepest, darkest Hell we could imagine (without benefit of an audience suggestion), we approached the crowded platform the organizers were calling a stage. It was fronted by thick rails and metal signs, so that the audience view was mostly obscured. It had been tarped to defend against the rain, ineffectively. The plywood floor was drenched, and a man was using a giant squeegee to slough off the moisture in sheets onto the walking track. The act preceding ours was a high school-aged girl standing in an inch of water, nervously holding a wired microphone, singing “On My Own” from Les Miserables. Our fantasies of having a captive audience laugh at our finely-honed improv skills were down the drain (that the stage clearly lacked). We weren’t going to kill that night; we were going to be killed.
i remember barely anything about that night beyond a few hazy details: that our show was, predictably, awful. That it’s hard to do improv when your audience walks by the stage in small clusters for a few seconds every fifteen minutes, as they make the larger loop of the gigantic football field-sized track. That at one point, i asked for two audience volunteers, and a pair of girls enthusiastically jumped up and, in their rush to reach the “stage,” started kicking over the memorial paper bags with the candles in them. And finally and most importantly, that Sean’s girlfriend, who we had assigned to film the whole bloody mess for us, had packed up the camera early. By the time we left the stage to eagerly ask her how we’d done, she said she it was so embarrassingly awful that she had stopped filming. We were devastated.
Caught on Tape
So when i hooked up my little monitor this past weekend and tried an unlabeled tape in my camera, a jolt of nervous energy shot through me. Here it was, in its half-filmed glory: the legendary improv cancer benefit booking that Sean and i have spent the past 20 years referencing and joking about. She hadn’t stopped filming immediately; there was plenty on the tape to convey exactly who we were, what we were capable of, and the absolutely lousy circumstances our performing ability warranted.
Sean is now a high school drama and English teacher, and he just launched his own improv course at his school. He’s been studying up on various forms if improv and different skill-building games for the better part of a year, which is, i daresay, a whole lot more effort than the members of Starving Student Productions ever gave it when we were seeking fame and glory as young comedians.
i have embedded the video below. i don’t actually recommend you watch it, because it’s every bit as viscerally painful and cringeworthy as i hope i’ve conveyed it is through this story. Nevertheless, i’m happy to have uncovered it, so that i can document and preserve this most legendary moment in the canon of my friendship with Sean. It’s like i’ve finally found my long-lost photographic evidence of Bigfoot. Except that Bigfoot has small feet. And nobody is actually looking for him. And he’s just some guy.