Thankfully, it’s only once in a lifetime that a career documentary producer gets to be involved in the creation of a new genre; in this case, surreality-based programming.
For years, Ralph Ellis, one of the principals of Keg Productions, has been harbouring the twisted notion that, somehow, wildlife (the genre he’s been producing since 1964) and comedy (the character trait for which he’s most renowned) could be combined successfully. Friends would nod, and smile in that indulgent way that friends reserve for the completely deranged.
Time passes, the planets align. We sit down with comedian Peter Wildman and create a bible. Ground rules, as it were.
‘Look at that, it’s hilarious when animals fall down.’
‘Ha. Ha. Wait. It’s not getting up again.’
‘Okay, rule one. It’s only funny when they get up again.’
Put three comedy writers in a room. Hire three respected zoological advisors. Try to find common ground. Try to end world hunger.
‘Okay. Let’s say that beaver is asking the other beaver out on a date…’
‘Beavers don’t date.’
‘Why don’t you experts have a sense of humour?’
‘Why can’t you writers be funny?’
‘Okay rule two. We never hold group meetings again.’
After burning through the Keg library and using up all the funny bits, we realize that we still have 17 episodes left to fill.
‘Hello. I’m looking for funny animal footage.’
‘I’m sorry, sir. It’s our corporate policy that animals aren’t funny.’
Click. (True story.)
We sit for weeks screening in the corner of vast footage libraries. Two monitors each. Both on fast forward. We spit at each other to break the tension. Library staff watch us and smile in that indulgent way that… Etc…
‘Nice idea,’ they say, ‘but you’re doomed because animals aren’t funny.’
‘And librarians are?’ we ask.
We decide to make it easy for foreign broadcasters to version it by adding their own host. The issue of how well comedy travels comes up. A lot.
‘Do Tanzanians find penguins funny?’ we ask ourselves.
‘How will this dancing duck sequence play in Lithuania?’
Buck Staghorn’s Animal Bites was the shortest title that Stephen Ellis and I could come up with. International sales were fun.
‘What genre would you like me to be?’
It runs on Discovery Channel Canada, an all-documentary service. It received funding as a children’s series. And it won the gold award for best comedy series at the New York Festivals and gold again for best variety series at Houston. Either way, when the Surreality Channel launches, we’re ready.
Kip Spidell has been producing, writing and editing at Keg for almost ten years. He’s currently doing two hours on bear attacks, which aren’t funny. At all.