By Meagan Snyder
The Raisin Gang’s members are active in Toronto’s sketch comedy community, translating their fast-paced and often absurd sketches into innovative live shows as well as high-quality short films. They will compete in TO Sketchfest’s Sketch Com-Ageddon during Round F, Thursday at 9:30 at Comedy Bar. Raisin Gang member Daniel Kurland was kind enough to answer a few questions for MONDO.
MONDO: Tell me how The Raisin Gang came to be.
DK: We had all worked together previously in various capacities prior to The Raisin Gang, the biggest one being Ryerson’s sketch troupe, RIOT. That would have been our “Groundlings,” I suppose. We started there, and then after getting out of university, no one seemed to think that education was the ingredient that held us all together, so we kept at it. We all have known each other for a gross amount of time.
MONDO: You perform live but also produce many videos. What do you get out of these different formats? Does one motivate you more than the other? Does your work in each format compensate the limitations of the other?
DK: They’re both great formats to play in, and I’m very happy that we do both, but it’s almost like they’re different vehicles entirely. With videos, you can tell stories that you couldn’t on stage. It’s that simple, and that always has me thinking videos are the greatest, because you can pretty much write anything, and more or less make it happen. Not only that, but you can get humour out of filming, by having jokes in the editing, or the effects, or the continuity. There was a solid stretch of time when everyone’s favorite sketches on SNL were the Digital Shorts, and it’s because of things like this.
With videos though, so much more is just expected of you. You need a good-looking location, you should have pretty detailed costumes, or something in editing may not come together. There are a million variables that just don’t matter in a live sketch, and that’s when I find myself saying that live sketches are the greatest thing, and this is how I actually feel, because with live sketches, you get instant feedback. Not even at the end of the sketch, but during the sketch, you see how stuff is going, and you can change stuff, you can prolong stuff, you think on your feet, and that’s just a lot of fun. And with video sketches, as perfect as they may come out in the end, you’re always looking at ways you could have shot or edited something differently after-the-fact. I don’t know if one motivates us more than the other, we try to push both of them as far as we can, and there are video sketches we’ve done on stage, to see how both versions play, but I think in the end we just use them both to tell different kinds of comedy.
MONDO: In your experience, how do you use the different comedic preferences and qualities that come from various members in a sketch group and produce cohesive content?
DK: Well, one of the benefits of knowing each other for so long is that we all work really efficiently together, but we also know how to use each other to our strengths. There are roles that some of us could do that others definitely could not, so in that respect we cover each other’s handicaps and become a superbeast. Or like, a sports team that knows when to bring out and bench players to get the best result.
Marissa Caldwell especially has a tough job, in my opinion, being the only female in the group, so every woman role goes to her. She does fantastically though, and comes up with new sorts of characters consistently.
MONDO: How do you feel about comedy competitions? Is it an inevitable/advantageous part of the biz?
DK: I think on the whole, competition is great for both the performers and the audiences because at the end of the day, you’re just seeing a lot of different sketch comedy from a lot of different perspectives and even if some isn’t great, you’ve probably taken something away from it. Or, you’ll see some group you really love and decide, “Those guys were awesome. I’m going to go to their website, I’m going to seek out more of them.” Just meeting more people, having fun rivalries motivate, and the inevitable hubris of it all are untradeable, inevitable experiences.
A negative aspect of the competition environment though, is there can be a tendency for the most popular group, or whoever has the biggest numbers, to win, rather than the “best” group. And I’m not saying this happens all the time, but it’s definitely a factor and another “biz” aspect to get used to. That being said, there’s typically an overlap between the popular troupes and the good ones.
MONDO: How do you see the state (so to speak) of sketch comedy in Toronto?
DK: Toronto is kind of great in the way that they really do foster a great community towards sketch and stand-up comedy. You see troupes or people appearing in other people’s stuff, and just generally helping each other out. And if you go and see a lot of shows in Toronto, you’ll see the same people and get to know their comedy and you become part of that unit too. I guess it could be insular to an outsider, but I think it’s more positive than negative.
MONDO: In your personal biography on the Raisin Gang website, it says you like to explore the elastic definition of what makes a sketch. Can you talk about that? Who inspires you in that endeavour?
DK: The thing is, sketches can be anything. And to me, it’s the most fun just messing around, not doing traditional sketches, but playing with what a punchline can be, or where a punchline can go. Or playing with energy and tone to almost confuse an audience or keep them unassuming.
I think this is important in general, but when you’re in a sketch comedy competition, where you have so many groups performing, and this audience is probably someone who watches comedy to begin with; these aren’t the first sketches they’re seeing, so I think it’s almost a responsibility to try and show them something new, or something that even if it doesn’t work, they’ll be like, “That was weird, and that was great, and it may have nor worked, but I’ve never seen that before.” At the same time that doesn’t mean “normal” sketches don’t work, but you do enough of “rules of threes” or “grandpa has suddenly died but let’s pretend he hasn’t,” and you find yourself wanting to try more.
In terms of inspiration, I’m sure Tim & Eric have contributed, but I wouldn’t necessarily say this is anti-humor, it’s something weird and inbred, like, “psycho humor.” There are some shows, “The League of Gentlemen,” “Delocated,” and “Big Train” that do it extremely well. Chris Elliot (as well as his new show “Eagleheart”; WATCH THIS) is also someone who has been doing it for ages, and I think he’s brilliant. Some of my favourite sketches make me laugh not because they’re funny, but because they’ve terrified or made me uncomfortable in a profound way.
MONDO: Can you tell us a bit about the sketch we’ll see on Thursday night?
DK: I love this sketch a lot, and it kind of compliments your last question there, but I don’t want to say too much about it. It’s kind of a bizarre take on British television, that to a point is very authentic; almost tediously so, but then something happens, there’s an “explosion”, and everything morphs into this British-Insanity lovechild. The sketch is titled “17th Century History Champion,” which is an intentionally dull name, and so, there’s a lot of playing with the audience’s expectations of what they’re seeing, and when they think you’re going to hold their hand, you push them into traffic. Plus, accents are fun.
MONDO: What’s next for The Raisin Gang?
DK: Much more shucking, jiving, and keeping it real. We’ll continue to produce more videos for our website, but our focus is likely going to be more so on stage material in the coming months. We feel we’ve made some waves online with our website, contests, and other efforts, like, Michael Kolberg has a Toronto comedy blog; we all have side projects and other comedic wells we’re pumping into. But as a result, our live presence could use more of an upstart. So more shows around Toronto, but also the possibility of travelling around Ontario and doing some “away” shows. We’ll have content to put somewhere, otherwise our hearts stop beating.