Jonny’s rural road trip

Comedian travels small-town Canada for new TV show, ‘Of All Places’

Published on June 11, 2014

If Jonny Harris had ever compiled a list of things he never expected to do over the course of his acting/comedy career — a sort of anti-bucket list — fertility-testing a 2,000-pound bull would probably have been on it.

You never know, though, the possibilities that can open up to you, especially when you’ve got your own TV show.

“I had no idea what it involved,” Harris said of the time he went up to his shoulder in bull. “There’s an electric stimulator you have to put in the animal’s rear end, but first you have to prep it. They gave me a plastic glove that went all the way up my arm and a lot of lube.”

Over the past two months or so, Harris has filmed eight episodes of his new CBC-TV series, “Of All Places,” in addition to starting work on a new season of “Murdoch Mysteries,” for the same network. Most Canadian viewers will recognize him as Detective Murdoch’s sidekick, Const. George Crabtree, but here at home, we know him a little better from his time performing onstage with local sketch comedy troupe Dance Party of Newfoundland,  starring on “Hatching, Matching and Dispatching,” and doing stand-up at various comedy festivals.

It’s his award-winning comedy and not his love of period drama that earned him his latest gig: his very own TV show, announced as part of CBC’s winter lineup.

Based on the Danish show, “Comedy on the Edge,” the program will see Harris travel to small-town Canada, exploring rural areas and getting a feel for the loyal people connected to them, immersing himself in the adventure of their lives, then drawing humour from the experience. At the end of five days, he’ll put off a standup show in the local Legion or town hall, light-heartedly roasting the community.

“I was worried people would be a little more guarded, but they were 100 per cent ready to have a laugh when they came to the live show,” Harris said in a phone interview from Toronto, straight from the “Murdoch” set.

“All my material about them is more or less flattering. It’s not our mission to embarrass anybody or make anybody look foolish.”

His own foolishness is perhaps a bit of a different story. In the episodes of “Of All Places” he has taped so far, from Berwick, N.S. to Wawa, Ont. (“The black hole of hitchhiking, because it’s eight or nine hours from everywhere,” he quipped), to Bamfield, B.C., Harris has delved into everything the tiny towns have to offer.

He’s milked a goat, driven in a demolition derby in a field and wrestled steers.

“That’s rasslin’,” he pointed out. “It’s pronounced like rasslin’.

“I think it’s a misconception city people have that there’s nothing fun to do in rural communities,” he explained.

“You can get up to some crazy stuff that would never be legal in the city.”

Aside from the actual manual labour involved in some of his community visits, the show is pretty intense when it comes to the work put into it.

Harris researches the towns before he arrives and can write a certain amount of his jokes before he gets there, but his days end with a meeting with the show’s other writers to come up with more material, organizing it into a standup show, then memorizing it with hours to spare.

He’s got bullet points on a teleprompter to help him, but admitted when you’re doing standup, especially with all-new material, if it goes badly, there’s nothing worse. Thankfully, he’s had nothing but success and lots of laughs so far, which go a long way in putting him at ease, he said.

“All the places we’ve gone to have been incredibly gracious,” he said. “Should we do a second season, I think a lot of towns will be eager to participate.”

There are five episodes of “Of All Places” left to film, and Harris is hoping to get back to this province for one of them, if possible. The trick, he said, is finding the perfect community — any town with a population of more than 1,000 people is automatically ruled out.

There’s also the challenge of choosing just one town in a province with the reputation of being the funniest in Canada.

“In almost every interview I’ve ever done, I’ve been asked why Newfoundlanders are so funny,” Harris said. “I’ve never really understood it until I moved to Toronto and it wasn’t there. Being funny is in the culture of Newfoundlanders, and it’s somewhat true of rural places in general. It’s the spirit in the face of adversity thing, and that’s the theme of the show. You don’t show off the wealth because no one has wealth. You show that you’re funny, or maybe that you can play hockey or play the fiddle well.”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury