Tony Ho is not one man, but three: Miguel Rivas, Roger Bainbridge and Adam Niebergall. I met them all during the workshopping phase of my Feint of Hart series, as their nuanced acting and bizarre styles emerged in different ways that truly made them stand out in the Toronto comedy scene. They have been working together as a sketch group for five years. Henri Fabergé met to chat with them about their upcoming comedy album The People Stuff (available for preorder now on iTunes) in Dufferin Grove Park, sandwiched in between a Swiss LARPing picnic and a Walmart.
HENRI FABERGÉ - What’s your collective vibe?
MIGUEL RIVAS - I think we mine our material from sadness and anxiety, and the comedy that’s in that. Gallows humour. The old saying, you know, the easiest place to make a joke is at a funeral. In a simple way, our work can be described as making the most tense, sad moments, and then you can cut in really deep with humour.
HF - I’ve seen Tony Ho as a sketch show, a theatrical fringe show, your short films, and now an album. How do you feel Tony ho fits into the larger comedy community?
ROGER BAINBRIDGE - As a counterpoint. We started doing things the way we did as a reaction, even if it wasn’t conscious. We just saw a lot of stuff that didn’t have a focus on acting, everything was very fast and very tim and ericy, which is great, but there were enough people doing that, and we wanted to try things a little different, a little slower, maybe a bit more theatrical.
HF - Would you describe it inherently as a sketch troupe?
RB - I don't like the word troupe, but yes.
ADAM NIEBERGALL - Sounds gross.
MR - As we’ve gone along, we’ve moved more definitively under the umbrella of sketch comedy. I think when we started it was more - not plays, but like mini one-act little things that were harder to define as sketch comedy. I think we still do that, but its been more streamlined towards sketch comedy, in the past couple years anyway.
AN - We do more shows that are about standup because we hang out with a lot of people who do standup, so I think more than other sketch groups we do those kinds of shows.
RB - Show up on standup bills, is what you mean.
AN - Yeah.
MR - And just talk into mics.
RB - But we weren’t making plays. We were always playing at comedy clubs, we were always billed as a sketch group.
MR - And I think we carved out a niche, at least in the local comedy scene, for doing our own thing. The saddest sketch group.
HF - You balked at the term “troupe”.
RB - I just don’t like that word.
AN - The phonetics are gross.
HF - You have the core group, the three of you, but you regularly bring in some faves like Evany Rosen and Daniel Beirne, who are featuring prominently on this new album. Why the decision to branch out?
MR - One thing is that we like to work with women, to include women. You can be Kids in The Hall and do drag, or you can just include real women…that’s not a dig at Kids in The Hall (laughs). It’s a choice we made to act with women because it brings out a different dynamic in sketch. We’re big fans of Evany’s work, and Kayla Lorette’s work.
RB - The thing with Kids in the Hall is, you can’t escape that part of the joke is that these are men in dresses. No matter how sympathetic they might make those characters. A lot of times, there are scenes we do where the drama is, you have to act it straight, act it straight, act it straight, and then the joke comes. And it’s really hard if not impossible to pull off if a guy’s in drag.
AN - Also, we have a point of view, and when we bring in someone like Kayla or Evany or Dan, it always gets better with another eye on it.
MR - There’s just a different dynamic or chemistry when you bring in someone else. Not that it gets stagnant or anything, but we’ve already been a troupe for five years.
HF - You said it.
MR - Shit. We’ve already been a collective…group…
RB - We’ve always been a thought organization…
MR - We’re a think tank, basically.
HF - Why did you keep this (indicates to the three) as Tony Ho, featuring other people?
MR - Part of it is commitment to the think tank. The people we bring in, we want to work with them and they want to work with us, but it’s not their thing specifically, and they don’t have to be beholden to growing the brand, or changing it, or what’s next for this thing, whereas with the three of us, that is our focus.
RB - I know for myself, a big thing I wanted when we started, if you saw the name Tony Ho anywhere, I wanted people to think more about a style of comedy rather than three dudes. How many dude sketch groups are there already? You know the tone of comedy you’re going to get, rather than just: this person, this person and this person.
MR - That’s why we called it Tone-y Ho.
AN - Yikes.
HF - I have seen shows where one of you is missing. Which surprised me at first, because you wouldn't see a band that just swaps out the bass player. How did this initial configuration come about, that you three were going to work together?
RB - Happenstance.
MR - A long time ago, before Tony Ho started, I had overbooked myself to show up on a lot of shows. And I didn’t really have anyone to perform with. I was in another sketch group Frenzy at the time, and it had dissolved at that point, everyone was doing their own thing. But I had booked a million shows and I asked these guys if they would come and do them with me, we didn’t really have a name or anything. We started performing regularly, and thought, “we should name this and be a thing now, because we’re doing it all the time.”
AN - Initially we were just called Frenzy.
MR - That’s what I had booked the shows for.
RB - I had stopped doing comedy for a while. Miguel was always getting on me about getting back into comedy.
MR - We actually started doing improv shows.
RB - And Adam I knew from high school, he had just moved to Toronto. We were actually going to start a band. We were going to do music, but Miguel was like, let’s do comedy…
MR - I was like, “your band sucks.”
AN - I honestly forgot about that.
MR - That’s for the best.
RB - We were doing a show called the Short Notice Show run by Kayla Lorette, Matt Folliot, Alana Johnston, Mae Martin, Alex Tindal…one day we were going out to do skits and thought, “we can't keep calling ourselves Frenzy.” That’s when we changed the name, and all of a sudden we were a group.
HF - And…why Tony Ho?
RB - (laughs) Real answer, or fun answer?
HF - Tell me both, but don’t tell me which is which.
MR - Short form for Anthony Hopkins.
RB - And we started reading a lot of newspaper articles and saw that name show up when really bad things were happening. If you search Tony Ho, there are articles like “man thrown out window,” just horrible stuff.
HF - Wait, why did you initially google Tony Ho?
RB - I think someone made the joke about it being the short form for Anthony Hopkins.
AN - I think it was (frequent collaborator) Tim Moore. It sounds like a Tim Moore joke.
MR - These guys also made a character in NHL ‘08 called Tony Ho before the troupe was named that.
HF - Initially you had a weird caricature of Anthony Hopkins as your avatar, but you moved away from that aesthetic. At a certain point you disassociated yourselves from that reference, because it was irrelevant?
MR - It made sense at the time.
RB - Everyone was always like, “where does that name come from?” And when you told them, they would always get the most profound look of disappointment.
MR - But I like to think, imagine Anthony Hopkins as a sketch group, that’s sort of what we’re like.
AN - The name would be so much better if people would stop trying to ask for an answer about it. Because it’s just nice and confusing and stupid.
RB - We’d be lying, though, if we didn’t say that part of us wanted, every time you saw the name you thought “oh, it’s going to be an Asian dude doing standup.”
HF - You’re billing it like it’s a type of comedy, but when you look at the name, it seems like you are specifically just going to see one guy up there.
AN - Another name we thought of was Two and a Half Whites.
HF - Which is accurate. How did this evolve from filling space on comedy shows, to high-concept-high-production-value-exhausting-to-make short films, to a comedy album?
MR - I always wanted to make movies. I love live comedy, it’s my life, but what I’ve always wanted to do is write movies, direct movies, be in movies. Even before Tony Ho, I was always dreaming of turning comedy into film somehow. I think that was something we agreed on early on. As soon as we had a little bevy of material, we wanted to turn it into films.
AN - Again, it was a reaction to what was happening at the time. Now, it seems like a really popular thing to have high production value, but back then it wasn’t really the case.
RB - And it didn’t really need to be. We weren’t saying “this is how it needs to be done!” People were focusing on the funny, they didn’t care so much about whether or not it’s the glossiest cameras. And I love that do-it-yourself aesthetic. But we thought, what would it be like if the Coen Brothers shot a sketch? We took that on as a personal challenge. Not as some great “fire a shot” kind of thing. As far as the album, we just lucked into it. Ben Miner at SiriusXM, awesome champion of all things Canadian comedy, he set up a thing with the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, whoever wins this thing gets to record an album with them. And we had been wanting to do an album. We had organized stuff that had fallen through, and they took on the nuts and bolts of organizing that. Every medium we look at, we try to embrace and play to that particular medium, whether it’s film, a live audience, and we like the challenges that each of those brings.
HF - Just going back to your film work, how do you feel about your canon or work so far? Where are you taking it from here?
MR - I think it’s really impressive, actually. (They all laugh) Let me finish, let me finish! The amount of material we’ve made at that level, with no money. If you go to our website, it’s over 75 minutes of material, it’s basically a feature length film in terms of running time. With high production value, made for no money. I think that’s a great accomplishment. Andrew Bush from Picnicface, a long time ago he gave a talk about comedy, he said “if you’re not putting at least half your effort into sustainable media, you’re wasting your time.” Comedy is great, be funny, but you have to leave proof and expand yourself. With live stuff, it just disappears. The Tony Ho movies are a record of us existing.
RB - It’s addictive. Once you’ve made one, you just want to go and make another one. Even if it’s kicks your ass making it.
HF - Which movie most nails the Tony Ho tone?
RB - ‘Time’ is really good.
AN - I really really like ‘Valentine.’
MR - ‘Valentine’ is the best executed movie we made, but it’s intentionally the least funny. Not that it’s not funny, it’s just different, it’s a really sad movie. That’s probably the best execution we’ve done from start to finish.
RB - If I were to sit people down and say “these are the ones you need to watch”, I’d say ‘Time, ‘Valentine’ and ‘Japan.’ And they’re successful for different reasons. With ‘Valentine’ people are like, “I’m laughing at this, and holy shit maybe I’m tearing up a little bit here.” I’ve had people watch it tell me, “I’ve gone through this exact situation and it devastated me.” Not to pat myself on the back. No, they’ve said “I felt alone in this, I thought I was alone in this, and now we’re not alone in this.” And ‘Japan’ is good because we were trying to make a fast-paced, joke-a-minute thing, because we felt like people were saying “yeah yeah, they’re artsy, but can they make jokes?”
MR - I think ‘Japan’ was definitely reactionary.
RB - With ‘Time’, I sat down and wrote it in one go. And Miguel knew exactly how to shoot it.
MR - It’s all about location (laughs).
AN - Near Miguel’s house.
MR - Looking out the window, “yeah, right there looks good.”
HF - That was a great sketch too, I saw it live. You produce so much content, I saw quite a few shows in a row without seeing much repeated, you were trying a lot of material. Actually, in the coffee shop while we were waiting, the barista told Miguel “I loved that sketch about baseball, like eight years ago,” and Miguel was like “how could I possibly remember that?” But she remembered it, which was interesting. How do you parse through your live sketches and decide, “yes, this one needs to live on as sustainable media”?
RB - I think you can tell pretty quickly. We’ll do something live once, and when we come off stage and check in with each other, you can just sense it. Some things, you can tell “this is meant to be theatrical, but it doesn’t lend itself to film. We felt that with ‘Time.’
MR - Yeah, some ideas just lend themselves to the medium of film.
RB - Usually those were the ones with a good story. Not just joke joke joke.
MR - And after we made a movie were like “let’s pick a sketch and start making a new movie now” (laughs). We would just pick the most ready one. Most of the sketches we chose were doing well for us already. We actually have never really written to film.
RB - Well, I think we did get to a point where were doing sketches live to vet them, to get them to a point where we could film them. I definitely started thinking about them in those terms.
MR - For a time I always thought of film as the end product. We’re writing them, to rehearse them, to make them into movies.
HF - Have you had any sketches that you pored a lot of energy into, that you wanted to make into movies, that just didn’t pan out?
RB - ‘Library’ we’ve tried to make a few times, but it just didn’t happen. That’s just because it’s hard to get a library.
MR - Libraries in Toronto are nervous of any sort of commentary that could be politicized, I guess.
RB - It was back in the middle of that Ford brothers bullshit, like “fuck Margaret Atwood!” and all that jazz. So the libraries had their backs up.
MR - On the record, we don’t like the Ford brothers.
HF - But you love libraries.
AN - On the record as well, fuck Margaret Atwood.
MR - No, no. That was Adam’s view only.
RB - That was a weird Norwegian guy walking past.
HF - Are you releasing anything else soon?
MR - We just finished our most recent short, which has been in the works for about a year. We had to rescue some of the audio.
RB - We also had to get some music scored, done by the amazing Dan Miller. It added a whole other level.
AN - It’s the ‘Dissection’ sketch. We are all standing around a table ready to dissect a body, and the professor played by Miguel is explaining that we all have to share a secret with the body out of respect.
HF - Where did you film it?
MR - At U of T, in one of the lecture halls.
RB - If you want to get into one of those places, just say you’re a film student. We showed up and they were like, “film students, huh?”
MR - We’re continuing education students! (Laughs)
HF - Over five years, you’ve made the equivalent of a feature film on your own. Some artists would look at that process, taking a live sketch, evolving it, shooting it over almost a year, as an insane investment of time. But in this landscape of comedy, so many people so hungry for so few resources…you recently got money to work on a more conventional series, which seems like things are progressing. Can you talk about that?
MR - It’s a little bit under wraps, because it’s nothing specific yet.
RB - There’s a lot of people got deals like we got going, and most of them come to nothing. We’re optimistic, we’d love to make something happen, but…
MR - Our film canon, I think, is a huge reason why we’ve been trusted with that kind of deal.
RB - Even if we do get a chance to do something else, which would be a million to one shot, that’s the stuff that speaks for itself. We got to control everything, warts and all, we made all those decisions. Anything that goes a level beyond that, there’s going to be interference, there’s going to be compromise. It’s not going to be unadulterated.
MR - But it is about growing it. That’s something we’ve tried to do with our films, we’ve tried to big it up each time. Bigger production value, learning…
RB - (laughs) How do you move a camera?
MR - How do you move a camera around, efficiently, is a real thing. It’s about expanding into TV eventually, for sure. If nothing else, the films were a great way to learn.
RB - Film school.
MR - You think about so many actors who are sitting around for months at a time doing nothing, auditioning maybe, waiting for a role, waiting for a role, then when they book a gig and get on set, they haven’t acted in half of a year! They’re not ready to go.
RB - A lot of people say, “well I can’t make a short film, I haven’t gotten a grant yet!” It’s like, who the fuck says you should be getting money? Just do your thing! You’ll get paid when someone decides you should get paid.
MR - There is a kind of “no excuse” thing today with technology, where you can easily make something.
RB - Just hustle, go out of pocket, and if you stick around, and you’re making something worthwhile, you’ll get money. All these people applying for money before they even know what project they’re doing, that just makes me gag. It’s like, you don’t actually like doing this, then.
HF - You can definitely sense that you care about the work. Obviously you care about money, but you’re going to make your work regardless.
RB - We’ve always said this, people who want to do things are going to do them. People who want to talk about doing things, talk.
MR - We’re a gang. We don’t like people just talkin’ that talk.
RB - A lot of people do that. If you have a really good idea, don’t talk about it, because you’re letting the air out of the balloon.
HF - And people will steal your ideas.
AN - And it’s never as good as if you have the idea and you just do it immediately. If you revisit it, some part of it goes away.
RB - If you tell someone about it, you’re also getting the excitement of making that thing out of you. In a way, if you tell the story about it…
MR - I talk about everything all the time. This all just sounds idealistic to me.
RB - Well, you’re a little different.
MR - I’m like a cup that’s spilling all the time.
HF - It’s surprising in the comedy scene to see some humility in a way. (They all laugh) Hear me out…an acquiescence of ego, if you will. Tony Ho, as I understood it, was you three, featuring other people. But it’s always exciting and refreshing to see a film like ‘Valentine’, which Roger isn’t even in. You’re getting credit for directing it, but some of these films, one of you is just not involved at all…
RB - Everyone is involved in some way.
MR - One film I’m not involved in at all, because I was in Brazil, was Giordano.
HF - Did it take any discussion, to be like “I understand that Dan Beirne should be the guy.”
RB - With ‘Valentine’, I thought at the time, Dan is more sympathetic as an actor than me. He can really bring a likability to it that I hadn’t figured out yet. Also, I just straight-up wanted to focus on the directing. I don’t want to be switching hats, I cared a lot about that one. I think it’s some of the best acting that these two have done, that I’ve seen Dan do, I got to work closely with Tim Moore to make it look the way I wanted. That’s the one that is most close to how I imagined it in my head, to a finished product.
MR - I think a big part of our comedy, particularly in sketch…we have ridiculous elements, sure, but we always want to keep it incredibly realistic, or grounded in reality, so that we can make out twist or comment out of that. We have less characters like “ ooooh, how are yoooou” (fakey British accent)…
RB - (laughs) How are you going to type that one? You know, those “how are you?” characters…
MR - The scenario may be ridiculous, but the characters inside of that are real and recognizable. In doing that, something like ‘Time’, that I’m not in, about a man and his dad…I can put on a moustache and put white hair in, and look kind of ridiculous, which is fine…
RB - You can get away with that on stage at a sketch show, but if you’re trying to sell it as a movie, people will be like “eh, no dice, this is just silly, I can’t go along with this.” Because in the first minute of that scene…what we do, is we fill the tank with a lot of tension, a lot of awkwardness and maybe some real emotion, and then the catharsis and the laughter comes with the ridiculous thing that blows that up. It’s like, oh this guy’s dad was in jail, and he seems really broken up by this, and then it’s like, oh, maybe this is actually a Slaughterhouse Five situation. Is the guy time travelling? Or is this kid just punishing his father?
MR - So anyway, we cast Rob Baker in the role, because he looks more appropriate, and he’s a great actor. And I think Roger and I specifically always wanted to direct. We realized very early on that it’s hard to act and direct at the same time. It’s too split of a focus. So we take turns directing only.
AN - That’s mostly how we did it at first, right, you two would take turns directing it while we were shooting.
HF - So, you had Rob Baker as a believable dad in ‘Time.’ But then, Adam as the dad in ‘Western’ was totally ridiculous.
RB - That was a lesson learned, because that to me was one of the jokes. Everything else was so specific, and stylistically on point. Hanna Puley did an amazing job making everything look like a sweaty, dirty Western. To me, Adam is the most ridiculous part of the scene, both in acting style and the jokes he makes, I wanted to represent that visually by making him look like a piece of shit sketch character. People fucking hate it. Everyone’s always asking, “why the fuck did you fuck up your movie by making Adam look like that?” And I say, “well, uh, it was a comment…”
AN - We didn’t do enough with it, though. They’re not wrong. We just needed to make it more so.
RB - I will say that it was deliberate, it wasn’t a mistake. I mean, how can you watch the whole thing, and go “this all looks great, but you really dropped the ball there.” Clearly it was considered, whether or not you like it is another thing.
MR - I think, looking back…I’m sure everyone says this about their work, but I would probably change something about every movie we’ve made.
AN - We might cut half of that ‘Western’ movie.
MR - Yeah, ‘Western’ is like 70% execution.
RB - I’m pretty sure it’s like 17 minutes long. I remember going back and going, “oh god, what was I thinking?”
MR - We could just cut off the first three minutes.
RB - Which I think (editor) Morgan Waters wanted us to do, and we said (in jokey dumb voice) “I don’t know Morgan, we’re trying something different.”
HF - I really like it, but I think if people discovered you through that video, they would obviously have a very different interpretation that me, who has experienced Tony Ho live, and seen your other films. But it was a pleasure to see Adam revelling in that ridiculousness.
RB - On set he was killing it, and I still think it’s very funny in the movie. It’s just how we visually represented it. We’d love to go back and redo it. But no, we’re moving forward.
HF - You don’t think it’s worth revisiting this, to make a version that will be discovered by new viewers in the way you’d like?
MR - I think you could just do that indefinitely, forever. We could make a cut now, and in three years we’d do it again. You hear the early tapes of your favourite bands, you always enjoy that, right?
HF - You very specifically don’t put any of your live sketches online. How did you feel about releasing this comedy album, with a live audience, and as with a lot of your live shows…a lot of the comedy doesn’t result in laughter until certain points. You can sense the tension, you can sense people in the room are cringing and feeling that comedic energy even in the awkward moments. Listening to it as a comedy album, you think “wow, there are very few moments when people are laughing out loud.”
MR - That’s just sort of where we live.
RB - But they do laugh. I don’t think it’s about people laughing out loud throughout. I think it’s about calculated moments where they will laugh, and you’ll get a big laugh here that’s a big payoff. A lot of our sketches will get laughs in the last couple minutes of the scene. We do a lot of heavy lifting at the beginning, then when we get to the end we can speed bag the jokes and then get out.
MR - I think in a very technical way of speaking about our comedy, I think a way we differ in our approach is that our humour is narrative-based a lot of the time. The humour comes out of the narrative situation and the events that build from one to another, as opposed to wacky characters or joke-a-minute, you know, beating a premise to death. That is a conscious approach we take. We certainly do those things sometimes, and in other groups, but this has a heavy narrative focus. And that’s our payoff.
RB - I find it much more rewarding to do play a scene, and you don’t get a laugh for the first few minutes, but then you get a huge laugh at the three-minute mark, because we’ve kept them with us, because we’re telling them a story, and I find that those tend to be the scenes that are a lot more memorable than a game of the scene. Rather than, wacky premise, hit it, hit hit, hit it, leave. People laugh the whole time, but if you ask them the next day what their favourite sketch was, they’ll say “uh, I remember a guy yelled at one point?”
AN - With the album, what I think we achieved is building a nuanced world. A point of view to immerse yourself in, you know. It’s just sort of a lot of ideas and perspectives floating by you and around you, and that’s a really enjoyable experience I think. Like, if I was driving somewhere, I would love to listen to this kind of this, because you can allow yourself to stop paying attention and just pick up on ideas as you go along.
HF - I do feel like you pulled off narratives that are enjoyable in just hearing them. Was the live audience there because it was part of the SiriusXM thing, or did you feel like it added to the recording, or would you have been happy to have done it without that audience there?
RB - They gave us the option to go and use their studios. But I think you can get a little insular, and fussy, if you work on it that way. I had listened to the Mitchell and Webb radio show, and they do it live with an audience. You really don’t hear that much, a sketch thing with a live audience. You want people to feel like they’re there, like they’re immersed in it, you can sense the cringe and the squirm, you can hear it. That to me was a gut feeling of the way to go.
HF - It’s interesting to me that the only other artists that you’ve mentioned as touchstones or possible influences are the Coen Brothers, and Mitchell and Webb. They both really put themselves out there making work that didn’t really fit within the systems they were working in, and then people loved it and it caught on. That seems to be happening with you, the lives shows regularly draw solid audiences, your film work is gaining more recognition. Do you still feel like outsiders?
MR - I do feel like we’ve arrived in the Toronto comedy scene. We are established in a way.
RB - With that comes the realization that it doesn’t really mean anything (laughs).
MR - I think it’s about expanding beyond that local bubble. That’s the next step for us, it’s on our minds.
RB - That’s the danger, as soon as people get to know you, they are instantly getting on forgetting you. They’re like, “okay, Tony Ho, sad, dark, not a lot of jokes, got it. Who else is here now?” Before you age out, you have to find a way to keep shifting it, you gotta Bowie it.
AN - It’s like, if you are an older gentleman and you have a young girlfriend…
RB - (laughs) And you have to regularly swap.
AN - You have to get cornrows, or you have to get an earring, you know.
RB - You gotta hustle to keep her interested.
MR - We’re doing it for the kids.