Kris Siddiqi and Nigel Downer are doing it for themselves. As creators, writers and stars of the new CBC Gem Comedy Series Bit Playas, the two Second City alums have carved out a unique place as leading men-cum-nerds in the streaming world of episodic sketch comedy. The premise of their series is simple: two People of Colour (POC) friends/actors – Ahmed (Siddiqi) and Leon (Downer) – are struggling to make it in the Canadian TV industry because they are only ever given small parts in other people’s productions.
Almost needless to say, this is a case of art directly imitating life. In discussing the origin of Bit Playas, Siddiqi is forthright about his frustration of “constantly trying, not getting work, and the little work you do get has a good chance of being a stereotype, or what I like to call ‘The Diversity Quota’”. (In this vein, the subtext of the word “urban” is brought to hilariously head-shaking light in the pilot episode.) Siddiqi wanted to see a show that focused less on the Colour part and more on the People part – in particular, nerd people. The “one and only person” he could make such a show with was Downer because “we’ve been friends for years, we’ve been performing for years and, not to brag, we’re pretty charming. BUT most importantly, Nigel knew exactly where I was coming from. Plus, I fully admit he’s an even bigger nerd than me!”
Bit Playas’ developmental journey began with the two nerds spending hours on end of “alone time” at their favourite coffee shops, hammering away at ideas, visuals, and jokes they wanted to see in the show, and fleshing out a theme for each episode. After pitching the show to CBC, they quickly turned around the “show bible” and returned with even more details. Once CBC had reached the “Let’s see more” stage, Siddiqi and Downer went back to a coffee shop to write four episodes (“Shout out to Simit and Chai!”). When they had been delivered and approved, four more were requested. From these eight episodes, they created a trailer to apply for the Independent Production Fund (IPF). “That really gave us some traction and a visual/stylistic sense and reference of what we wanted to do with the series – how we wanted it to look,” explains Downer. A year later (“that’s short in film/tv production years”), CBC green-lit the series, and the duo “hit the ground running and scrubbed through all 8 episodes again, ending up with 5-6 drafts for each episode”.
The first season features eight 10-16 minute episodes, which take on video games, cosplay, comics, and marijuana culture in Canada, along with race, prejudice and privilege. Out of the eight, Downer singles out “Dads” (episode 4) as especially important because “it’s an episode that gets to the heart of Ahmed and Leon’s characters. Why they act they way they act. Why they make the decisions they make. It’s about our parents. And their parents. Generations and how ideologies and culture are passed on.” For Siddiqi, it was especially important to show how the entertainment industry can still stereotype: “how some still ‘see’ people of colour in a certain way and to contrast that with showing who people of colour really are: people! And in this case, nerds!” It was also important to show that all people are flawed and interdependent:. “No matter how preachy or hard-working or lazy or whatever we are, we all need each other more than we know it.” So is any foible or topic off limits for the show? “Nope,” Downer immediately replies, “as long as it is tackled with respect and knowledge.” Siddiqi offers one proviso: “delicious southern Ontario butter tarts! You do NOT make fun of those, dammit!!!!”
As the series’ creators, do they have a favourite episode? “Yup. Kinda,” nods Downer. For him, it’s a tie between episode 6 (“Comic Con”) and episode 7 (“D&D”). “In Comic Con, I got to fulfil a dream of mine: cosplay! I haven’t missed a Toronto Con in decades, but this was the first time I dressed up. The people loved my Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop). And the D&D episode because… well, have you seen the golden locks I’m wearing in that episode?! Exactly.” Siddiqi’s favourite is also “D&D” “because, I mean, hey, I LOVE D&D! This episode had the least changes in it from when it was first written. PLUS, seeing us in our Fantasy gear is a lifelong dream come true!” He awards an honourable mention to episode 1 (“Auditions”) because all the goofiness and visual gags “came off exactly how we wanted, and it’s a perfect intro into our world”.
The first season features many notable Canadian actors, including The Second City’s Ann Pornel, Kirsten Rasmussen, Paloma Nuñez, Chris Wilson, and Nicole Passmore; comedians Gwynne Phillips and Carol Zoccoli; and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee from CBC-TV’s Kim Convenience as Leon and Ahmed’s Star Wars-loving landlord, Mr. P. If stars like, say, Ryan Reynolds (“What?! He’s funny. And Canadian.”) or God of War game director Cory Barlog (“I don’t know why or how, but I just want to meet him, so this seems like a good way”) want a part, Siddiqi and Downer assure that they will make it happen. Even without these gets, Downer and Siddiqi are thrilled at the “really amazing” response to Bit Playas – from friends and family to “random people on social media”. “It’s been so cool!” marvels Downer: “both of our anxiety about how the show would be received has settled… a bit.” Siddiqi elaborates with an example: “One of the first tweets we got was pretty much the response we all hoped for – a comedian from the West Coast tweeted ‘…finally feel what y’all felt when you said “Girls” was so relatable…This s&*$ is too real!’”
This May, Downer will return to The Second City as part of the Mainstage 84th Revue cast, which will be the fifth he has written and performed in. He describes writing a show for The Second City Mainstage as “hard. Really hard. But so rewarding when you have more than 300 people laugh at your jokes and/or clap in support during a scene because of the relatability.” Like that experience, the process of creating Bit Playas “was pretty dang fun from beginning to end.” Siddiqi concurs: “It’s a very cool feeling to say that this lil’ idea you came up with is now a real, watchable thing! It was such an awesome task to coordinate all these post-production artists and have their visuals and animations line up with our edits and timed gags, and to see the final product felt amazing! The challenge was to assemble the Avengers of graphic artists – and we did it!”
Yes – nerd alert! – they did. And thanks to their talents and these partnerships, Siddiqi and Downer’s show is more than just “ a real, watchable thing.” It’s a public service that proclaims loudly that nerd-dom transcends race, comedy exceeds stereotypes, and talent will always escape “The Diversity Quota”.
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020