Scheming Your Way Into Fame with Nirvanna The Band The Show

We chat comedy with the duo behind Viceland’s incredible adrenaline burst of cinema verite comedy, Nirvanna The Band The Show.

Viceland’s Nirvanna The Band The Show is like no other comedy series you’ve seen before.

Yes, you’ve heard statements like this before, and naturally you’re skeptical. But Nirvanna The Band The Show is different. Not only is this show not afraid to think outside the bun, it’s willing to burn down the whole bakery. That might not make a ton of sense, but it’s that freewheeling disregard for logic and convention that fuels Nirvanna The Band The Show with the seemingly endless energy that’s at this show’s disposal.

Breaking the show’s plot down almost seems ridiculous due to how inconsequential the series’ title actually is. This show has absolutely nothing to do with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, or even music, really. It’s a show about two hopelessly optimistic best friends who have a very simple goal of performing a show at Toronto’s The Rivoli. The only catch is that they don’t even have an act. That is merely a technicality for Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol, the two comedians who make up the show’s titlular band, as they go about trying to build fame and find success with their actual ability falling second to everything else.

Nirvanna The Band The Show operates with a chaotic style that seamlessly incorporates scripted elements into avant-garde guerilla-style filmmaking. This is a show that can simultaneously feel like Flight of the Conchords, Nathan For You, and Tim and Eric, which is a pretty powerful ability. With the series blazing a positive trail for itself on Viceland and set to tackle Star Wars: The Force Awakens in their latest episode, we talked with Matt and Jay about their crazy brand of comedy, the importance of realism in their work, and why Mario Kart 64 is a crucial tenant of any friendship.

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DEN OF GEEK: Right off the bat, as someone that is from Toronto and has actually done comedy at the Rivoli, watching this show just made me smile so much. To see you guys doing an Entourage title sequence but with Toronto iconography was sort of mind blowing.

MATT JOHNSON: It was a dream come true for us, too, because we never had a VFX artist who could pull off these big things like fancy title sequences. It turned into such a perfect fit though because it’s so rare to see a stupid, schlocky comedy show combine very low production value with things like that. Stuff that makes you go, “How is this show even capable of doing this? Did they hire somebody else to do this? And if so, why?” It’s just one of our favorite things to do, with some really good title sequences on the horizon.

DEN OF GEEK: I was a fan of you guys back when this was only a web series, but talk about that process of transitioning from that to a full television show. 

MATT JOHNSON: Yeah, for us it was mostly a process of trying to figure out how to keep it as much like the web series as we could. So much of the pressure that Jay and I faced when we were younger and making the web series saw people saying, “Why don’t you make a pilot or something?” But that felt like it was getting away from so much of the stuff that we liked about working on the internet. Doing things without permission. Doing things without a script. Doing plots that don’t go anywhere. All of those tenants of web series, especially in the mid-2000s, were all things that we really liked.

So for us it was less about trying to upgrade the series for TV and more about trying to figure out how to not lose the formal approach of working with no budget. A lot of restraint was in play. We’d be like, “Well, do we hire actors for this? No, we do it just like we did the web series with no actors. Do we build sets when we want to do something more complicated? No.” Even though we have the money to do these things that other television shows would do to solve these problems, we are always adamant that we must do everything in the real world as much as possible because that’s what makes the show good in our opinion.

DEN OF GEEK: It’s such a great juxtaposition between extremes. I was familiar with the web series, but if you’re not, there’s such a feeling of, “Is this actually happening? Is this real?” going on as you watch this show.

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MATT JOHNSON: Well, that’s the essential philosophy of the entire series. Jay and I, more than anything, when we watch something that we really love the best feeling to experience is not, “I can’t believe how funny this is!” or “I can’t believe how smart this is!” It’s those moments where you say, “I can’t believe I’m watching this.” That’s not necessarily a new experience for viewers, but for Jay and I anyway, it’s the most important. When we see something really crazy in Nathan For You or even Rick and Morty, when it does that thing that you can’t believe that they’re getting away with, that’s when this becomes magic. It’s like when a child is watching a movie and doesn’t understand how it works. “What am I watching?” It’s Jurassic Park. Even though our aesthetics are so junky and we’re dealing with small things, the facts that we do it in such a real way gives us such a joy. It’s more rewarding than being funny or even being interesting. We want to create that feeling. 

DEN OF GEEK: On the other side of all of this, you also have Spike Jonze’s involvement with your TV show. What did he help bring to all of this? What is someone like that doing in a show that’s still very homemade?

MATT JOHNSON: I mean, that’s a simple answer. He’s giving us the credibility with the network to do these insane things. We would have been shut down or told no so much earlier if it wasn’t for him saying, “I understand what these guys are doing and I want them to keep doing it.” It was him championing what we were going for back when we didn’t even really have things together that allowed us the freedom to keep making the show.

JAY McCARROL: We learned that you get a lot of mileage from understanding what your voice is. When you have a strong idea and you know exactly what you’re doing, it becomes hard for people to throw up resistance. It becomes much easier to work with you. 

DEN OF GEEK: On the topic of knowing your voice, a lot of this show is about deconstructing the medium, having fun with form, and getting reflexive with it all. Are you both big on those heavy sorts of meta moments?

MATT JOHNSON: Well, we don’t shy away from them. The show is about people who are very much raised on North American media, so it makes sense to a certain degree that these things would inform who they are. We don’t think too much about it. A good example is in the Christmas episode we do this commercial break gag like how Jimmy Fallon or any talk show host would cut to commercial. It’s almost like Matt and Jay have such an obsession with the media—I think most people our age have an obsession with the media—but that manifests itself in the formal decisions that the show is making. With most TV shows, like The Big Bang Theory or whatever, you don’t get the feeling that the characters have authoritative control of their show. Nor should they. You don’t expect form to follow character, whereas in our show, form really is following character. And we love that. 

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DEN OF GEEK: This show is also obviously about friendship in a lot of ways, too. Is it important to properly tap into that dynamic between the two of you? 

MATT JOHNSON: Of course. It’s funny because Jay and I were just talking about the difference between us and the characters, since so much of this show depicts our actual, real friendship. I think it’s probably obvious that we just are who we say we are in the show.

JAY McCARROL: I think it sort of developed because so much of the style of acting that we saw when we started the web series—we were watching what? Arrested Development, The Office—any time we’d see an actor deliver something that didn’t feel like acting, we liked that. Our first couple of web series episodes see our characters simply being defined by this autopilot that doesn’t allow us to be anyone else. That way, if you’re not constrained by your character’s character, you can get comfortable not “acting” at all, which gave us the most mileage out of these sincere moments. Then when it gets edited together you can put this thing together that looks like great acting, but it’s really just controlling the discipline of turning yourself off.

This is also following a very modern trend in television, and also storytelling in general, which sees North America moving away from family being the most sacred relationship possible. The ’80s and ’90s were really dominated by that, but now friendship—real friendship—has taken that over. 

DEN OF GEEK: It’s funny because this show is obviously steeped in your own experiences, but one of my favorite moments from the series is when you guys are playing Mario Kart 64. You take these personal moments of friendship, but they become deeply relatable to your audience and allow them to join that friendship, too. It’s unbelievable to see moments like that on TV.

MATT JOHNSON: Just wait until you see episode seven. We do the same thing, but with GoldenEye 007.

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DEN OF GEEK: That’s beautiful. Even stuff like that Mortal Kombat “Toasty!” reference in your Daredevil fight, or namedropping Secret of Mana later. They’re all these perfectly authentic character moments.

MATT JOHNSON: You’ll never see us have a reference to something that isn’t absolutely near and dear to our hearts. Things that we’ve spent hundreds of hours through our childhood playing. So it’s awesome to hear that material connects and that the joy is clear because it’s all completely real. We fake so much in the show already that it’s important that these moments at least ring true. No one is going to question that we don’t actually know what Mario Kart is.

DEN OF GEEK: Off of that, you guys also do a great, very contemporary Star Wars story in “The Blindside” where Matt gets blinded before the film. Why was it important to fit a Star Wars episode into the season?

MATT JOHNSON: We have a lot of ideas regarding what we want these characters to explore. When we were trying to break out the season and putting up our episode idea cue cards Star Wars was obviously on that list. In our everyday lives we quote Star Wars to each other, so we knew we had to touch on it here. With a subject like that, once the cameras turn on, we don’t even need a script. We could do an entire episode on GoldenEye 007 in the same way. It writes itself and we don’t have to learn anything new.

DEN OF GEEK: Lastly guys, is there one set piece or moment that really stands out for you from the season? Something that you’re particularly proud of?

JAY McCARROL: Mine would be that we were able to film an entire episode at Canada’s Wonderland. 

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DEN OF GEEK: Oh my God!

JAY McCARROL: But we’re not only so proud of the act of being able to do that, and all the little tricks we pulled off to make it possible, but also just having an episode that takes place in Canada’s Wonderland that we like and think is fun. I’m still glowing over that! It’s coming in episode six. 

MATT JOHNSON: And for me, there’s a moment in season one’s finale—and it’s a small moment—but we’re 3D printing a gun at a public library and on the way out Jay tries to negotiate late fees—it’s actually over the VHS tapes that he rents in episode one that are now overdue—and the librarian is just so matter-of-fact and taking these fees seriously. It’s my favorite moment with a real person that we’ve shot.

Nirvanna The Band The Show airs Thursdays at midnight on Viceland.