How Vancouver's the Sunday Service Became International Comedy Heroes During Lockdown
"Nothing beats performing in front of a live audience, but I'd say climbing into bed and ordering a pizza directly after the show is cool too. Like, RIGHT after."
Published May 05, 2020Vancouver improv troupe the Sunday Service don't let anything get in the way of their weekly Sunday shows. Even if Christmas or New Year's happens to fall on a Sunday, the award-winning ensemble (Aaron Read, Taz VanRassel, Ryan Beil, Kevin Lee, Mark Chavez and Caitlin Howden) still take the stage at Main Street's Fox Cabaret, delivering their reliably surreal and hilarious comedy, which comes complete with musical accompaniment and occasional intermission guests.
When the pandemic hit, the Sunday Service found a way to adapt: they moved their shows online, and their weekly livestreams (conducted over Zoom and broadcast on their YouTube channel) have become a rare bright spot in a live comedy scene that has mostly ground to a standstill.
The Sunday Service have more than just kept their weekly streak alive — they've flourished in isolation, reaching thousands of viewers with freewheeling "Cyber Service" shows that are filled with inventive new games (often involving screen-sharing), wacky inside jokes (like Aaron Read's hysterical alien character Meezbos), and live fan interaction in the comments section. American improv star Paul F. Tompkins has become a recurring guest. Tickets are pay-what-you-can, and the international audience is far larger than the usual cozy gigs at the Fox Cabaret.
Of course, online comedy comes with challenges. Scenes will occasionally go off the rails, with cameras lagging and comedians chaotically talking over one another. And yet, the moments of confusion only make the whole thing more hilarious and endearing. As the Sunday Service keep up their heroic run of brilliant shows, we caught up with the group's Read and VanRassel about keeping the laughs alive under lockdown.
What's the hardest part about doing the Sunday Service from home?
Taz VanRassel: Varying degrees of tech and internet connectivity. Improvising into a void. We miss our audience! Not being able to interact with our environment.
Aaron Read: Probably the "screaming characters into the void" thing. It feels silly and fun to play a dog wizard and have people laugh or not right away to know it's working. It's just a mind-meld to do it and just hope it's funny! You kind of have to trust your internal comedic clock to gauge if something is funny.
What has been your favourite part about doing the shows at home?
Read: Nothing beats performing in front of a live audience, but I'd say climbing into bed and ordering a pizza directly after the show is cool too. Like, right after.
VanRassel: Finding new ways to innovate within the platform. Every week we're discovering new things and surprising ourselves. Caitlin and Mark are gradually building full black box theatres in their apartments, so that's become a fun competition. I love that I can be cooking a full roast beef dinner while performing a show.
How have you felt about the response to the shows?
VanRassel: We've had really great feedback from our fans. They've been reaching out and saying they really appreciate having something to look forward to on Sunday nights, which is very touching. We like consistency — every Sunday, no matter what, we perform a show. We've even performed on Christmas Day in the past, so this wasn't going to stop our insufferable egomania.
How have the COVID-19 lockdowns affected you and your community?
Read: Well, there are no more live shows, so people who do in-the-moment stuff like standup and improv have had all their work taken away. The impact is pretty substantial! I think it's forced a lot of people to think about how to do comedy with social distancing measures. I think all the online retailers have sold out of those podcast mics, which makes sense and is hilarious. Some people have chosen to put live stuff to the side and focus on digital or written work; others have chosen to scream into the internet on Instagram Live and Zoom, like us! I'll bet you sketch artists are thankful all their wigs and mustaches are at their house in their tickle trunk!
Who is Meezbos and why does Ryan Beil want to kill him so badly?
Read: Meezbos is an intergalactic little alien from the planet MeeMee. Think E.T. but a little more stout and a lot more cute. None of this unnerving long finger stuff, his hands are chubby and fun! It's a character I created as an off-the-cuff joke to pitch a movie with in an improv game we call "Movie Pitch." Ryan is jealous because Meezbos has taken the community by storm — people love him and his message of peace and understanding. Ryan is jealous of anyone who gets more attention than him, even fictional, so he has vowed to kill Meezbos at every opportunity he can, which will be a lot, as Meezbos's soul is preserved in the goddess-like "MeeMeeMommy Star," so whenever he is killed his soul is replicated and placed into a similar body he once inhabited. Basically, he is invincible and eventually Ryan will have to secede.
Have you given any thought to continuing some sort of an online element after the coronavirus lockdown ends?
VanRassel: Yeah, when live shows are safe to do again we intend to continue live streaming every week using a wandering cameraman onstage! As terrifying and disruptive as all this is, it did open our eyes to ways we can reach a wider audience every week.
Read: Yeah, we've talked about it. I think it's cool to do live shows, but doing shows for people who don't live in our city and for people who find going out to be inaccessible is really cool.
Paul F. Tompkins has been a great guest. Any more special plans for the Sunday Service's at-home episodes?
VanRassel: Well, Paul has a standing invitation to join us whenever he wants. Now that there's no longer commuting issues we might be having more guests in the future like — spoilers — Mark Zuckerberg, Rascal Flatts and Dracula!
Read: We're in talks of getting the full cast of Jersey Shore next week, full cast, completely wasted.