We all think we know how prank comedy works. That's a problem, because a big part of comedy is surprise – if you know what’s coming, there’s a whole lot less to laugh at.
Shows like Jackass got a lot of laughs out of stunts, as well as featuring Spike Jonze going out and doing crazy things while made up to look like an old man (see also the movie-length version, Bad Grandpa). Then, Sacha Baron Cohen took his pranking of interview subjects as Ali G to a whole new level in Borat, but after that, prank comedy largely stalled.
Aside from shows like Nathan For You, which turned the pranks back onto the host, what was next? Here’s a clue: if you think prank comedy has nowhere to go, you really need to see Nirvanna the Band the Show.
The brainchild of Canadian comedians Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol, the duo behind low budget films The Dirties and Operation Avalanche, Nirvanna the Band the Show (which has literally nothing to do with Nirvana the band, Kurt Cobain, '90s grunge or flannel shirts) began as an early web series project by the pair. Now a half-hour sitcom from SBS VICELAND, it’s about a pair of friends – conveniently named Matt and Jay – who share both a Toronto apartment and a passionate desire to play a gig at The Rivoli, a local concert hall that’s a big deal for local musos.
The fact they show zero interest in actually playing musical instruments and are basically a band in name only is, to them, completely beside the point. They have a dream, the dream involves fame, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve it.
While “idiots with a crazy dream” is a fairly standard set-up for comedy, it’s the way Matt and Jay (along with producer Jared Raab) go about putting it together that makes Nirvanna one of the most consistently surprising shows on television. While each episode features the framework of two bumbling friends trying to seize fame by any means, they’re built up out of a collection of staged scenes and improvised pranks.
It's all put together in such a way that it’s impossible to know where their stunts end and the scripted footage begins. And if you don’t care how the show is made, it still works just fine as a very funny sitcom.
Having worked together for so long (the original web version of Nirvanna was created almost a decade ago), the team have honed their rewrite-heavy process to a point where throwing out a script and using the footage in a completely different story is no big deal.
It gives them the ability to focus on what’s funny in smaller sequences. Bigger ones – like the episode filmed almost entirely on the sly at an amusement park or the final episode’s bank drama – are funny on their own merits even as you’re left wondering, "How the hell did they get away with this?"
When the duo smuggle a camera into what certainly seems to be a real-life premiere screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s hard to figure out exactly how many laws they’re breaking. But the idea isn’t just to rile the audience – though they do that, as Jay has to loudly describe everything taking place onscreen to Matt, who was temporarily blinded earlier on.
When they’re eventually thrown out of the cinema, the outraged fans turn on them. What follows is a fight scene that’s so obviously a parody of the fight scenes from Netflix’s Marvel series it can’t be real… and yet pinpointing the exactly moment when we went from real-life prank to comedy bit is almost impossible.
This isn’t a one-off moment. Nirvanna the Band the Show is a series built around the idea of putting onscreen things you can’t believe they got away with and then blurring the lines so you’re never fully sure how the things you just saw happened.
When the team were interviewed by Toronto’s NOW magazine for a cover story, they filmed an episode about getting inside the magazine to plant a fake concert listing. Remember their movie Operation Avalanche? It played at Sundance, so of course there’s an episode where the duo try to sneak a fake film into the projection booth at Sundance.
Matt and Jay’s obsession with pop culture feeds into the format of the show itself. Packed with in-jokes and references to film and television, it hardly ever stops to advertise what it’s doing, instead creating a feeling where everything feels like a reference – which is pretty much how being online can feel.
The overall plot still makes perfect sense, but scene-by-scene, the whole thing races by in a blur where it doesn’t matter if you grab every nuance. The point is that you feel like you’re in the pair’s pop culture bubble.
Getting prank comedy right is a tricky thing. Push it too far, and the laughs die as the audience starts to worry about the people being pranked. Nirvanna the Band the Show gets the balance just right. It’s a show about two pop culture obsessed idiots you can’t help but side with even as they take their stupid ideas to increasingly crazy heights.
Whether you’re watching for the thrill of a show where anything can happen, the camaraderie between two (somewhat) lovable losers or the nostalgia buzz from a firehose of pop culture references, this is a show unified by one undeniable fact: it’s really, really funny.
Watch Nirvanna the Band the Show at SBS On Demand: