By: Emma Jean, Staff Writer
Improvisers make their whole craft out of knowing how to adapt to brand new situations on the spot. What happens when a pandemic forces them to do it in real life? If you’re the long-running Vancouver improv group The Sunday Service, whose weekly shows have run for years at the Fox Cabaret, you, well, improvise.
According to founding member Ryan Beil during an online show, “Normally, in a perfect world, we would be performing live at the Fox Cabaret every Sunday night here in Vancouver BC, but we had to move our shenanigans online.” Those shenanigans can now be found on their YouTube channel, where viewers can watch live-streamed episodes every Sunday night at 9 p.m., as well as archived episodes from the past seven months of quarantine. If you’re someone like me who is looking for some joy in their life, then these shows are a must-watch, with some episodes reaching nearly 10,000 views.
Though occurring over Zoom, the format of the shows has remained the same; the group, consisting of Ryan Beil, Mark Chavez, Caitlin Howden, Kevin Lee, Aaron Read, and Taz VanRassel stick to their format of working from audience suggestions — this time using the YouTube live chat function to create side-splitting scenes on the spot from their individual apartments. In a twist of convention, they are forgoing the door fee by live-streaming each show on their YouTube channel, and are instead asking viewers of the show to buy a ticket if they feel so inclined to support their performers.
The weekly shows have been a consistent bright spot for me throughout the dreary monotony of quarantine, as each week the team members and obvious pals turn the live audience chat’s suggestions into hilarious riffs and vignettes during the many short-form games each week. Segments range from classics like “freeze” (where performers freeze in the middle of a scene and switch out performers) to very niche set-ups like “Taz Berates a Plant.” They also bring outrageous premises to new heights in the long-form stories developed over the second half of the hour-long show, as well as plenty of razzing between scenes. It’s a genuine delight to watch, as the performers seem to be having a blast doing it. It’s no wonder guests from across North America like comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who did an eight-week run with the Service during the early months of quarantine, as well as locals improvisers Vivian Tang and Maddy Kelly, have made guest appearances to join in on the fun.
The online nature often adds to the program; rather than fighting against the rare but inevitable technological hiccup that comes with online performing, they often embrace a freezed camera or flash of someone’s video, bringing an already funny scene to an absurd new level of silliness. During a mock couple’s argument in a recent show, an accidental flash of an off-screen performer’s video, as well as a frantic effort to get off screen, turns the tables as a partner interjects, “And who was that guy?” In this case, the guy comes back and reveals himself as their father-in-law, and also a time-travelling Alexander Graham Bell — somehow, it hilariously works.
Their online reach hasn’t just been used to pull in great guests, however. For the latter part of quarantine, the Service has partly pivoted their shows into fundraisers that have allowed both support for their performers and charities that need it. A portion of their funds is being used to help support non-profit organizations that are committed to supporting Black and Indigenous creators in the arts. These have included the Indian & Cowboy Podcast Network, an all-Indigenous audio platform, and the Black People in Improv Comedy Safety fund, which is creating a financial safety net for Black improvisers.
If you’re like me and the passage of time has lost all meaning to you, having a constant to look forward to each week can be calming . The Sunday Service has been that for me. If comedy fans, or fans of feeling joy in general, want to support local performers, causes, and watch something genuinely hilarious, the Sunday night shows put on by the Service are a great place to start.