Essential Episodes: Nirvanna The Band The Show

nirvanna the band the show index
It’s rare for the first episode to be one of the best a show ever makes, but that’s the case with Canadian comedians Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol’s mockumentary Nirvanna The Band The Show. A series where some of it is scripted but the majority of which is improvised on the fly, most of the episodes also involve a daft stunt which is all in the hope that Johnson and McCarrol’s two man band can get a gig at a local venue called the Rivoli.

Admittedly it wasn’t quite the first episode ever as there was a web series which preceded it, but this was the first televised episode, and it’s a bloody fantastic one which contains all of the best elements of the series, from Matt and Jay’s incredibly infectious enthusiasm at the possibility of being able to play at the Rivoli to a very misguided stunt that will hopefully get them noticed, some really fun improvised scenes and also a couple of extremely smart and extremely funny homages to various much loved movies.

Jurassic Park is the main one in this first episode, as lead characters Matt and Jay obsess about Spielberg’s much loved dinosaur movie, with Matt gleefully impersonating Sam Neill’s reaction to the first time he saw a dinosaur while Jay plays the theme tune to the movie in the background. Though it initially just seems to be two friends larking about it ties in with the episode in beautifully funny ways later on, largely concerning the way Samuel L. Jackson remains calm in the movie by smoking many a cigarette.

After the opening credits (in which somewhat surprisingly they use the theme tune to the BBC’s old Ski Sunday show) where they pretend to run on the spot in various locations but amusingly Jay gets easily distracted and in one scene eats a burger instead, as with most episodes it starts with them devising a plan to get a gig, and after phoning and speaking to the manager of the venue they’re told they need to send him a photograph of the band. A quick trip to the library sees them looking through books of famous photos of bands when a random member of the public suggests they get one taken in Sears, and that’s when the episode takes a completely different direction.

The photo shoot sees them larking about in fantastically daft ways, with Matt smoking three cigarettes for instance, and Jay wearing painfully tight leather pants, the photographer has no idea she’s being filmed by is clearly enjoying the process. And that’s one of the best aspects of the show, unlike. say. Nathan For You (a show I adore an enormous amount) the members of the public involved are never the subject of the joke, and Matt and Jay always make sure they’re enjoying the process, and that it’s Matt and Jay who are the ones being mocked. And that’s definitely the case here where after receiving the photo, and it being discarded by the waitress at the Rivoli, they decide to make a massive banner using it and put it up opposite the venue. All the while not noticing that Jay’s penis is on display after the leather pants tore and it dropped in to view.

One of the best and silliest penis gags I’ve ever seen, Matt can’t help mock Jay and his insistence at wearing leather pants, his delight at such a faux pas is hilarious, as is the footage of the public noticing it and laughing as much as you might expect them to. Naturally Jay is horrified and so they decide to paint over the penis, but due to accidentally using wood varnish instead of paint, and with yet another nod to Jurassic Park, Matt gives Jay a cigarette to help him calm down but the lit cigarette causes a fire and soon the banner is in flames.

I haven’t even mentioned some of the episode’s best moments above as there’s so many parts that will make you laugh hard, with Matt and Jay turning up on the street in paper mache versions of their own heads being one of the funniest images of the entire series, while the way it ends with Matt giving a film noir-esque speech is truly a delight as well. Their interactions with various people are almost always entertaining, with the way the Rivoli manager struggles to hide his disdain for the name of the band being a very funny bit, and the montage of the duo devising the plan is all kinds of lovely too.

A friend from Toronto mentioned that the whole thing is even more amusing if you know the Rivoli, and that it’s not that great a venue, but no knowledge of the city or the movies they’re paying homage to is needed, especially as the episode shows us Matt and Jay watching and loving the film. Trying to guess what’s scripted and what’s improvised is all part of the fun too, some parts are obviously one or the other but it’s surprising just how hard it is to guess at times.

In interviews Jay has commented as to how they enjoy that aspect of the show, and how “We love it when unexpected things happen…We make a meal out of anything that is unexpected”, and though it’s sold as a scripted programme very little of it is, with the show often devised in the edit out of a ridiculous amount of hours of footage, with them then shooting the odd extra scene if need be afterwards. It’s definitely what makes it so unique, and the way they manage to get away with some real craziness as the film crew secretly film them is joyous stuff indeed.

Sadly the Canadian channel the show airs on, Viceland, closed down in March 2019 and though they’ve almost completed a truncated four episode third season of the show they’ve yet to find a channel interested in airing it, which is insane giving how critically acclaimed it is. Hopefully someone will pick it up soon though, as this is one of the smartest, most inventive sitcoms around, and I’d be amazed that if after watching this first episode you didn’t become an enormous fan of it for the rest of your life, and possibly beyond that too.

★★★★★

Alex Finch.
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If you’re based in the UK you can watch the first series on All4 here.

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