It seems like before Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol of Nirvanna The Band The Show finally book a performance at Toronto's Rivoli – their Pinky and the Brain-esque quest that routinely crashes and burns in every episode of their Viceland television series – it would be nice for there to be an actual audience in place for them to play to once they do.
Harsh, perhaps. But take, for example, The Book, a new Halloween episode of NTBTS now streaming for free on Viceland's YouTube channel, which has, at the time of writing, only about 1,800 views. When you see the VFX insanity and utter creativity of this episode and take in how impressive and skillful it is, this metric can only seem disappointing (not that low viewership in Canadian television is a new problem; far from it). But those views reflect sentiments other creators in the TV industry are lamenting about Canada's greatest television show that no one's watching.
"One of the best shows ever made and hardly anyone will ever see it," Justin Roiland tweeted Oct. 20 to his half-million Twitter followers. Roiland, a friend of NTBTS, is the main voice and co-creator behind Rick and Morty, the U.S. Cartoon Network's wildly popular series that commands a legion of fans that go to extreme lengths to express their passion for Roiland's show. Yet, when Roiland retweeted a link to The Book to his 558,000 followers, fans replied with screenshots of being unable to watch the show: Viceland Canada's content is currently unavailable to Americans, and thus, essentially, the mainstream.
(In response to requests for NTBTS viewership data from The Globe and Mail, a representative of Viceland Canada wrote, "New shows take time to find an audience and last season was a solid start. The Oct. 27 season 2 premiere Halloween episode was the best premiere we've had to date for a Canadian original series on Viceland. As the show started as a web series it also retains a solid online audience, it is one of the highest season-pass purchased shows on Viceland in 2017.")
At the same time, Johnson and McCarrol are just happy to be working – even if they're struggling for eyeballs. "As of right now, [Viceland America] doesn't even have an announced date for the airing of it in the United States," Johnson says on the couch of his NTBTS set and editing studio, an apartment that, in any corner, has stacks of VHS tapes waiting to be riffed on. "If it were me, I wouldn't know where to watch it."
"I would just pirate it," says McCarrol, sitting at the piano he plays with alacrity on the show. "And that's where people are watching it. I go to all the pirate sites now and we're on 'em, proudly, heck yeah, and I see lots of views, and it's just like … well, good!"
Then again, if and when Americans do end up watching The Book – legally or otherwise – it's unlikely they'll understand its many beats of Canadiana, including, in one scene, when Jay does a "really big Art Attack" to get Matt's attention, or the Treehouse of Horror-inspired title sequence taken from The Simpsons that features Rob Ford's tombstone in Trinity Bellwoods Park.
Regardless, these jokes are part of NTBTS's charm – a joyful irreverence for all things Ontario in the 1990s, such as in The Boost, another episode from the new season, where Matt secretly drugs Jay with amphetamines to ensure victory in a GoldenEye 64 tournament at Toronto's fabled A&C Games.
"To these characters, winning that GoldenEye tournament is the exact same stakes as sneaking a film into Sundance," says Johnson, referencing an earlier high-concept episode from last season. "That's become the new focus of Season 2 – where can we put our characters in opposition to their own plans without them even knowing it?"
"We start to explore some of Jay's character, too," says McCarrol, who imbues NTBTS with lovable naiveté. "He's so easily convinced by Matt, and he's so lit up by Matt's enthusiasm … but then he starts questioning: Why are we not getting what we want?"
"You can see Matt starting to get really wounded in Season 2," Johnson says, mentioning that this damaged dynamic is the beginning of a major arc to come. "He's starting to see Jay pull away and be a bit more of an individual, while at the same time, realizing that if he loses this band … Matt no longer has a friend."
"Whenever Jay has moments of clarity, you can see it freaks Matt out. It also keeps Jay looking – just peering out the window," McCarrol adds.
Bickering like a married couple, Matt and Jay's constant back-and-forth enabling, backstabbing and belittling of each other has thus far made for great television and Season 2 doubles down. As their friendship grows rockier – or perhaps more bipolar – it hasn't put a damper on the ambitiousness of their plans to snag a show at the Rivoli, making for some of the biggest stunts the show has pulled off to date. (Indeed, when audiences see episodes taking on Mrs. Doubtfire, Hackers and Indiana Jones, the Dog Day Afternoon bank-robbery finale of Season 1 will feel simple in comparison.)
It's a marvel, then, that they're able to secure the footage they get; Sacha Baron Cohen's character Borat Sagdiyev – a persona that similarly relied heavily on unsuspecting people on the street – was essentially retired after fan recognition made it impossible to shoot.
"Two-hundred-thirty days of the last two years we've been out on the street shooting," says Johnson, who recently tore through Fan Expo cosplaying as X-Men's Professor X, likely for an upcoming Nirvanna bit.
"[That] comes with the time that we're at," McCarrol points out. "As I said, nobody's seen our show."
The new season of Nirvanna The Band The Show premieres Nov. 3 on Viceland.