In the backyard of 6015 Willow Street, a house with a long history in Halifax of artistic endeavours, there's a door leading to a basement room with ceilings scarcely high enough to accommodate the many donated film-quality spot lights. Plastic chairs face a set that looks a little like a teen's bedroom. Posters, paintings, multiple TVs all tuned to concert footage of Sonic Youth (or whatever happens to be around, it could have easily been Good Morning, Vietnam), a picture of an eye of providence, an Exxon Mobil sign. One wall is adorned with plastic guns and knives.
Paul Doucette lies on a coffee table, draped in a Pittsburgh Steelers blanket, with an iPhone charger in his mouth (a roommate inquires, "Is that mine?") connected to a Tandy 1400. He's "in a coma state," explains his co-star Hugh Stewart, patiently waiting for the scene to start.
Folks file in as lighting is being set up, drinking beer or complimentary cans of Arizona iced tea. Stewart makes a quick announcement to the audience of more than a dozen---tonight's episode has a special effects component that requires setting up a green screen during a 10-minute intermission: "So feel free to hang out, go to the Circle K, have a cigarette, whatever you want."
So starts Tuesday's live shooting of football comedy show Flag on the Play.
Their 20th episode centres loosely on the National Football League's Pro Bowl and what a load of bunk it is. As they discuss the game, Stewart must save Doucette from his coma by "entering his dreamscape" and resolving Doucette's internal conflict caused by a mystical curse, forcing him to love both the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. There is also a surfing scene. Here is where I desperately try to avoid saying "This ain't your Grandpa's football talk show."
Flag on the Play is a locally made comedy/sports/occult/improv show on YouTube. It is shot in front of a live audience on Tuesday nights, edited from Wednesday to Saturday and uploaded on Sunday. On Monday the process starts all over again for the Flag team, which includes Evan Elliot, producer John Davies (one of the writers of Hobo with a Shotgun), Patrick Campbell, Riley Turner, Paul's cousin Mike, Stewart, Doucette and Eleanor, the set cat. It started as a lark, a way to keep the momentum built from a short lived basketball video blog, Full Court Press, also shot in the home.
The first few shows had roughly two people in the audience, but thanks to its Facebook group (and word of mouth), the audience has grown. They've had Halifamous guests: actors Shawn Duggan and Glen Matthews, Picnicface member Cheryl Hann and Hobo director Jason Eisener. The show is a mixture of genuine sports commentary and sketch comedy from people who don't consider themselves comedians. The inspiration came from an ESPN sports talk show Stewart would listen to while at his office job: Mike & Mike in the Morning features two hosts remarkably like Stewart and Doucette.
"It's a pretty big influence on us. It's a little guy and a big guy and the big guy used to play football and the skinny guy is a nerd and they fight a lot about football," says Stewart. It's clear that FOTP is a parody of mainstream sports shows---that carries over into the sport world's extreme commercialization. Turns out there's comedy gold there, too.
"When you listen to ESPN there's incessant ads, everything is brought to you by someone and every five minutes there are commercials," says Stewart. "So then we started talking about getting sponsored by Arizona." A request was sent, but they got a form letter in response. Stewart doesn't blame them: "I don't think any company would want to be associated with some of the crazy things we say on the show."
Undeterred, each week the two offer up the "Arizona Tall Can Pick of the Week," which they both count as their favourite part of the show, dedicating each week's can in a new way, sawing it in half, shotgunning them or waterboarding each other with the contents.
Stewart and Doucette have known each other since elementary school. "We became friends because I broke Hugh's glasses and his mom set up a play date," says Doucette. On the show they provide a perfect balance. Doucette knows the facts: "I grew up in a football house," he says. On the show he plays the role of "this dead-serious football guy."
And while Stewart's love of the sport is a more recent development, it came from the same contrary place as many of his rants on the show. "When I was a kid I hated sports because a lot of people who liked sports wanted to beat me up," says Stewart. "Now I think because all of my friends are like, 'Ugh, sports are so stupid,' I think that's why I started liking it."
They talk of sports as a great equalizer, being the last communal thing North Americans have to share. "You go to work and you meet some other dude and you need to have a conversation---it's about sports," says Doucette. "It gets you through so much shit."
Until, of course, you bring up the Illuminati.
Flag on the Play is anything but accessible, having the framework of a mainstream show, but with bizarro content, nothing to do with sports. Tongue-in-cheek bits about serious topics like distribution of wealth (on the show they often promote Stewart's fake society HARP: Hate All Rich People), the hypocrisy of owning cell phones, racism and commercialization.
"You can be really serious and talk about the state of the world but no one is going to listen, everyone is going to get super bummed out," says Stewart. "If you have fun with it, you can talk about heavy stuff and get political and people will listen."
"I'm not as into the social justice stuff," admits Doucette. "I learned about Foxconn from Hugh's rant. My role is to be the football guy and talk about wizards once in a while, but when that stuff started rearing its head, we were like, 'Well, our YouTube page is flagontheplay911, let's just go with it.'"
"The show is an extension of what we do when we hang out," says Stewart. "Get angry about things and watch conspiracy documentaries."
Elliot and Davies met Stewart and Doucette in high school. With their film and editing backgrounds, Doucette, Elliot and Davies make up the three-headed hydra of post-production where the show is shaped. The editing process is extensive for the seven-minute show. Doucette estimates that he spends roughly 30 hours a week on FOTP. But he doesn't mind. "The whole idea is like a rap mixtape. Not to sound cliche, but it's like Lil B."
They see their quick-draw process like a machine, one that they will continue to use after football season is over.
"We knew February would come. We're thinking of a video game show next," says Doucette.
"But it will be nice to have our Tuesdays back for a bit," says Stewart.
Flag on the Play's season send-off promises to be a doozy. They are planning on transforming Gus' Pub into a true sports bar for one night---Sunday, February 5---with a Super Bowl party. There will be a live FOTP before the game, prizes, merchandise for sale at "ridiculous prices, like glossy signed photos of us for $50, all proceeds going to HARP." Doucette and Stewart plan to sit in a cordoned off area, making appearances to shake hands every 15 minutes.
It's not surprising that their Super Bowl party plans to be as ridiculous and over-the-top as the show. For Doucette and Stewart, the inclusions of occult imagery fit in perfectly with the way sports are worshipped and manipulated. It's easy to get the impression that they are testing the viewer; how far can they go? Stewart admits that any conversation about trying to make the show more accessible leaves him feeling grumpy and ready to quit.
"This year we saw the Tim Tebow thing as a joke," says Doucette. "He's a media character that came out of nowhere. We ignored it because of oversaturation, but you just couldn't help it. You couldn't talk about football and not talk about this one Christian. And football is religion."
"It's a weird culture," says Stewart.
"And you can drop wizards into it," says Doucette. "Everything is already blown up so much and so strange that you can say that Bill Belichick has a Hadron Collider and is using the Higgs boson to travel through time."
For this reason a lot of sport-loving citizens have devoted a corner of the internet to what the internet does best: conspiracy theories.
"When we were doing basketball, the conspiracy theories were there," says Stewart.
"The Illuminati is more involved in basketball," says Doucette, joking. "There's not as many with football."
"Well, there is now," Stewart says, laughing.
It's intermission. There's a flurry of activity surrounding the green screen set up, tall dudes hunch under the basement beams, hurriedly arranging the lights, and moving set detritus out of sight. Stewart stands in front of the camera, half in shadow as they adjust the lights. He's not bothered.
"If it looks like garbage," Stewart says, "that's part of the charm."
Evan Elliot responds, "I assure you, it does." The audience laughs.
They set up the shot again, each lightning-fast take consists of a very loosely scripted monologue from either Stewart or Doucette. Sometimes the script consists of a list of names and a scribbled half-joke to work in. They rattle off players, stats and their predictions mixed with non-sequiturs about reptilian shapeshifters, ancient aliens or the Kempt Road McDonald's. No two takes are alike, but all are hilarious.
Though there is a lot of joking amongst crew and audience, things on set are ever-so-slightly stressful. Battery life is limited, and Stewart and Doucette are acutely aware of their audience's patience. Doucette thanks everyone multiple times, Stewart apologizes profusely after every delay in the night's entertainment, offering audience members Arizona tall cans from a plastic bag. Despite their apologetic behaviour, they know the live show is a treat.
"I like to think it's fun to see two hours of chaos," Stewart says. "It's fun to make people laugh."