Flailing, but full of promise: Trigger Me This goes up in a too-bold bang at Indian Summer Festival

The Peak speaks to Trigger Me This’ host Richard Side about offensive comedy, failure, and what it means to have a productive conversation

Image from Indian Summer Festival.

By: Winona Young, Head Staff Writer

“For the love of God, Mike, play the cat videos!”

Onstage, Trigger Me This host and creator, Richard Side, was half-frantically trying to get back on the audience’s good side after a rocky end to an evening. Over the course of one (1) evening, audience members walked out, hecklers got heated, and the panel of comedians on stage grew quieter and quieter as the evening drew on. 

Later on when I sat down with Richard Side via phone call, I asked him if he thought the show was successful.

He didn’t even pause. 

“No, I think it was successful in that I got a lot of feedback,” he laughed.

Billed as an evening for interactive theatre, stand-up, and all too daring discourse, Trigger Me This shot its shot and missed. But despite its shortcomings, this is only just the beginning for this show series.

Trigger Me This: An Evening of Comedy, Outrage, and Debate” was the comically-loaded live show of Richard Side.

The show, held at SFU Woodwards as a part of the Indian Summer Festival, was one of the several iterations of the live show, with its largest audience yet. And even with its earnest intentions of fostering nuanced discussion, it was also a night of comedy. And like many comedies, it was subject to Murphy’s Law, so everything that could go wrong went wrong.

The evening of course began with a few laughs. The first act consisted of local comedians with a timed set. The lineup was refreshingly (and I found out later, purposefully) diverse. The lineup included Yumi Nagashima, Zarqa Nawaz, Darcy Michael, Mayce Galoni, and Dakota Ray Hebert. But these comedians weren’t joking around when it came to pushing the envelope with their comedy. The first comedian Darcy Michaels, talked fondly about his husband but confessed to the audience that he’s “into dudes, mainly because it’s trendy.” Dakota Ray Hebert, a First Nations comedian, mentioned how bad she was at dirty talk, throwing out lines in bed like, “Fuck me like you’re the Indian Act!”

Trigger Me This had a fantastic stand up line up and started out full of laughs. Courtesy of Indian Summer Festival.

And while these jokes would have been outrageous if they were spoken by the group’s Token Straight White Man, Mayce Galoni (who was a great sport about his tokenism), they worked with these comedians. Mainly, because these offensive jokes laugh at homophobia and colonialism, not with it. 

The second act is where Trigger Me This started to misfire. After each audience member was given a bootleg iClicker, we were shown controversial comedic clips. After each clip, the audience along with the panel of comedians on stage, would vote on a scale of whether it was offensive or not. Discussion would ensue — both from the audience and the comedians.

The clips began tame enough. The first clip shown was from Toy Story 2, wherein Stinky Pete in the “bloopers” of the film was soliciting two Barbies. 

It was a 50/50 split of the audience finding the clip offensive or not. One of the comedians quipped, “Straight white guy misunderstanding boundaries? Wow . . . ” The audience seemed ready to laugh and cringe and comment for the rest of the evening. Then the George Carlin clip came on. 

For those who don’t know, George Carlin was an American comedian and is acclaimed by comedy fanboys (including myself) alike. In the clip in question, Carlin disparages political correctness by slowly listing out every kind of slur possible, and then doubled down on how context for words is always important. Cue the Kill Bill theme song, because this was just the beginning of a combative evening.

One audience member in particular spoke up, heated, and demanded that the comedians onstage should not only be familiar with all of Carlin’s works, but as experts, they ought to understand his comedy. And just like that, the crowd became the live version of an uncomfortable YouTube comments section.

As the show went on, Side lost track of time, hecklers began calling out comments, and some even left. The evening ended with Just For Laughs gags and kittens on screen as a palate cleanser, and, just like that, was over. 

When I finally sat down with Side a week after, we spoke over the phone about what happened, what he was thinking, and what it means to have a productive discussion nowadays.

Side is known for his work on CBC’s The Debaters, and even a brief stint in Will Ferrell’s Elf. When I ask him what his role is for Trigger Me This, he began, “Creator. Ah let’s say, producer. Inventor? Experimenter! Maybe that’s a better word.” 

I began by asking Side why he was initially inspired by the polarization within social media environments. Side was both curious and worried about whether or not nuanced discussions are able to even happen in the first place. Given his work with comedians over the years, as well as his background in interactive theatre, he expressed how difficult it was to find nuance when others criticized artistic work. He then talked about his family. 

“I have teenage kids, and I worry that this level of polarization might make them cynical,” he said.

I mention to Side that when I first picked up this pitch, the title of his show ignited an immediate reaction from everyone in the room. What exactly was he trying to accomplish with this show?

“Certainly, it’s part of a progression of workshops that I had done, and to present contentious or possibly outrage-producing material,” Side began. 

Side is the brain behind CBC’s the Debaters and has a passion for how comedy can create discussion. Image via IMBD.

Material, he soon elaborated, that isn’t hidden in the depths of the Internet but on Netflix specials and stand-up sets. By presenting this material to audiences, he hoped it would produce discussion. 

“Is [the material] offensive? Where is the line of offensiveness? And is it possible to have a more inclusive discussion of that with other points of view, all points of view, any point of view, and any emotional reaction too, folded into a discussion for the purpose of generating insight?” he elaborated.

Generating nuanced discussion is what Side was after — hecklers and people leaving is decidedly not what he was aiming for. Ironically, earlier in the night, Side jokingly warned that if any audience members felt offended, “please, by all means — leave!”

As I said before, Side admits that although the event wasn’t successful in a traditional sense, he was successful in receiving a lot of feedback. And to him, that affirmed that there is a demand for discourse that goes beyond our phone screens. When Side recounts the evening, he holds his own well — not so much as embarrassed but humbled.

“What happened here was some comments came on early that kinda put a chill on things and I can see the comedians backing away because this isn’t their hill to die on,” he said.

In the audience of attendees was SFU’s (soon-to-be-former) president, Andrew Petter. When I asked Side what Petter thought, he goes into a fit of utter gratitude. 

“Well, I’ll find out soon, but I have to thank SFU Woodward’s and I have to thank Indian Summer Festival for taking a chance, for risking it,” he said.

“I take 100% responsibility for whatever happened. Simon Fraser is one of those great institutions, it’s always been a progressive institution . . . I’m very thankful there is an interest in this level of experimentation and gesture,” he concluded. 

Over the hour we talked, Side and I’s conversation eventually dissolved into a feedback discussion about the show itself. He also posed questions to me — ranging from whether or not university students would be interested in this to what is the difference between Millennials and Gen. Z, even asking about the lighting of the show. 

When I mention that putting up the house lights would have made the audience feel less anonymous, Side explodes with enthusiasm commenting, “Well, this is so smart! This is, like, simple things.” It becomes clear that Side is not only passionate about his show, but he is genuinely interested in bettering it. 

At the end of our interview, Side was hopeful about the show’s future. 

“I won’t say this is a failure,” he declared. “I say it’s a movement; it’s a progression. And if nothing else, it [created] a lot of conversation.”