Arts & Culture

Boys in the ’Hood

Countdown to Liquor Day marks the end of the Trailer Park Boys’ ten-year run. How did creator Mike Clattenburg turn white trash into comic gold?

by
Photography by Michael Tompkins

• 2,774 words

Photograph by Michael Tompkins

Despite the gloss of first impressions, Trailer Park Boys was never about guns, or dope, or excessive profanity. When Ivan Reitman, producer of the first Trailer Park Boys movie, saw the series, he accurately noted that it was about family, the residents of Sunnyvale Trailer Park representing an extended, if criminal-minded, clan. By extension, it was our empathy for each of the family members that kept us watching. There was Julian’s yearning to strike it rich one day (only to repeatedly sabotage this desire with ill-conceived plans). There was Ricky’s oft-stated goal to just spend time with his wife and daughter (inevitably bungled by repeated stays in Van Allen Correctional Centre). There was Bubbles’ primordial longing to have a real family (though we knew that, no matter what happened, he would always remain loyal to Ricky and Julian).

This longing extended to the secondary characters, whose lives were as poignantly constructed as the show’s central trio: Mr. Lahey, the park’s supervisor, just wanted to run a nice operation; Randy, his assistant, just wanted Mr. Lahey to get sober; J-Roc, the park’s aspiring white rapper, just wanted to be a star; Lucy, Ricky’s chain-smoking life partner, just wanted a better man than Ricky… On and on it went, each character’s faults incorrigibly getting in the way of his or her own aspirations. In this, we saw renditions of ourselves, albeit drenched in the show’s deadpan, mordant, and occasionally surreal humour.

Mike Clattenburg, the director, head writer, and creator of Trailer Park Boys, has described his brand of wit as “humour of the possibly real.” It was always his ambition to coax the audience into believing situations that were simultaneously believable and patently absurd, an ethic that permeated the show’s seven seasons; 2006’s Trailer Park Boys: The Movie; and the final instalment of the Sunnyvale saga, Countdown to Liquor Day, which opened in theatres across the country on September 25.

For me, these were the show’s defining brush strokes: the boys engaging in roving gun battles with nary a scratch; J-Roc literally believing he was a black man; Ricky’s seven-year-old daughter, Trinity, wearing a nicotine patch; Julian’s omnipresent rum and coke, the ice fresh even after he’d just crawled away from a car wreck. But the ridiculousness of these moments was easy to overlook, given how distracted we were by the show’s existential glare.

Ask Clattenburg’s friends and colleagues for insight into his unusual comic sensibility, and they all sound remarkably opaque: Mike had this vision, he knew what he wanted all along, there was just something, um, different in the way he looked at things. Executive producer Barrie Dunn (who also played Ricky’s father) put it to me this way: “After a while, I gave up trying to understand him and just started thinking of everything he does as Clattenburgian.”

By all accounts, this sensibility came from Clattenburg’s father, a drummer with the Dutch Mason Trio, one of Canada’s most famous blues outfits. Clattenburg’s parents divorced when he was six months old, and by the age of eleven he was living with his father in a suburb of Dartmouth, a working-class city across the harbour from Halifax. His was a woolly coming of age, infused with the sort of hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, and ultimately soft-hearted types who would later serve as inspirations for the residents of Sunnyvale Trailer Park. “I was away at radio college,” Clattenburg told me over the phone from St. John’s, where he was directing an upcoming CBC series called Republic of Doyle, “and my dad would go around telling everybody that I was driving a truck for Ben’s Bread. And he’d do it in a way that no one could tell he was joking. Then I’d run into people in the mall, and they’d say, ‘Hey, I hear you’re driving for Ben’s Bread,’ and I’d be like… what? It just amused him that this blatant lie would get back to me.”

While studying at the Kingstec campus of Nova Scotia Community College in the Annapolis Valley, Clattenburg realized that his interests lay more in cameras and television production than in radio broadcasting. After graduating, he worked at a community channel in Halifax, followed by a handful of producer gigs with local CBC affiliates. Along the way, he reunited with two friends from high school, John Paul Tremblay and Robb Wells, who were running a pizza joint in Charlottetown. The three started shooting little black and white sketches, and in 1998 they made a thirty-minute film entitled One Last Shot. Roughly edited and completely improvised, the short introduced two wastrels who would act as prototypes for the protagonists in Trailer Park Boys, as well as a drunken pet store owner who would later be reprised as Jim Lahey.

The trio then made a rambling full-length feature called Trailer Park Boys, which told the story of two low-lifes named Ricky and Julian who, rather improbably, assassinated pets for a living. The concept was intended as a satire of television violence, particularly as depicted on American cop shows. In reality, Clattenburg was an animal lover, known for rescuing strays from the lot. “This is what people don’t realize,” Jonathan Torrens, the actor who played J-Roc, told me. “Mike is the kitty guy, not Bubbles. Despite making a TV show about a pair of hoodlums, Mike’s actually a very soft guy.”

Trailer Park Boys, complete with its ironically homey theme music, was shown at the 1999 Atlantic Film Festival, where it was seen by local television producer and actor Barrie Dunn, whose reaction was as follows: “This cannot stop here.” After he contacted Clattenburg, the two started pitching Trailer Park Boys as a TV series. They knocked on the usual doors—the Comedy Network notably turned them down—and eventually found receptive ears at the Canadian network Showcase, which was trying to revamp its own production schedule. After several months of discussion, Clattenburg had a commitment for six half-hour colour episodes, and the conversion of Trailer Park Boys the movie into Trailer Park Boys the series began.

It was a fraught process, the humour of the possibly real not easily described in conference calls. Showcase executives wanted to see scripts, whereas Clattenburg wanted to improvise the dialogue. (He finally relented during a fractious, drunken meeting at the Gem restaurant in Toronto.) They tangled over the show’s intended mockumentary format, and Showcase was uncomfortable with the amount of profanity. (Trailer Park Boys is actually far from uncensored: Clattenburg didn’t want to use the words “cunt,” “nigger,” or “faggot,” feeling that they were more negatively electrified than the rest of the show’s lexicon.) The producers were also reluctant to sign writers as inexperienced as Wells and Tremblay, while Clattenburg insisted they were an integral part of the show’s creation. There were conversations that degenerated into arguments, which devolved into heated battles, only to be defused by Clattenburg’s antics: with the tension at its thickest, he would say, with a completely serious tone, “Well, if you look at the work of, say, an Al Packino or a Robert Denayro… ” the joke being that Showcase was entrusting considerable funds to a director who, in the space of three seconds, could mispronounce the names of two of the biggest actors on earth. The reaction was usually a puzzled, if not mirthful, silence.

Trailer Park Boys debuted on the night of April 22, 2001, displaying many of Clattenburg’s cinematic influences. The mockumentary format—in which the characters were constantly glancing at the camera, and in some cases threatening the camera crew—was pure Cops, a show Clattenburg credits as being “more cinéma-vérité than actual cinéma-vérité.” The show’s manic energy was Raising Arizona. Its pathos was Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road. The characters’ devotion to uniform—Julian’s black outfit, Bubbles’ Coke-bottle glasses, Ricky’s filthy houndstooth shirt—was a nod to the films of Wes Anderson. The gritty realism, which neatly balanced the show’s more picaresque moments, came from an experimental 1997 movie called Gummo, which Clattenburg considers one of his favourite films.

The show’s comic sensibility, however, was all Clattenburg. The beat-up Chrysler Ricky drove, a vehicle affectionately known on the lot as “the shitmobile,” was his actual car. The boys’ habit of writing on walls, trailer sidings, and the automobiles of people they disliked was Clattenburgian as well: on set, it became well known that if you did not tightly guard your personal belongings, the director would childishly deface them. Like the character Ricky, who in one episode announced, “Mr. Lahey and Randy to the fuck-off department, Mr. Lahey and Randy to the fuck-off department,” over a department store PA system, Clattenburg will, if the mood strikes, amuse himself by making fake calls over public intercoms.

Critics hated the show. Most famously, the Globe and Mail’s TV critic John Doyle described it as “tedious,” “moronic,” and “indescribably lame.” (He came around a year later, admitting that its modus operandi was not apparent to him at first.) Others failed to notice that it was a comedy at all, difficult to believe given dialogue such as the following, in which a drunken Jim Lahey describes his loathing for Ricky: “He grew up as a little shit spark from the old shit flame and then he turned into a shit bonfire, and then driven by the winds of his monumental ignorance he turned into a raging shit firestorm. If I get to be married to Barb, I’ll have total control of Sunnyvale, and then I can unleash a shitnami tidal wave that’ll engulf Ricky and extinguish his shit flames forever.” The show’s rigour was the culprit: Clattenburg had delivered a cast of characters who could, with complete integrity, deliver such outrageous soliloquies.

For two years, Clattenburg heard not one positive thing about Trailer Park Boys, a period he told me was “like someone taking a sledgehammer to my gut.” To Showcase’s credit, it renewed the show for a second season. It was toward the end of this instalment that Clattenburg finally heard his first accolade: Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson sent Clattenburg an email in which he raved about the show. (Clattenburg later worked Lifeson into one of fans’ most cherished episodes, in which Ricky kidnaps Lifeson by wrapping him with duct tape and marching him out of a Halifax hotel while loudly announcing, “Hotel security—this man is drunk as fuck, he’s on drugs, he’s a male prostitute, and I’m gonna escort him outta here.”) It soon became apparent that the show’s earliest word-of-mouth generators were musicians, fitting given that many of the actors and Clattenburg himself played in bands. The Tragically Hip asked him to shoot a Trailer Park Boys–themed video for their song “The Darkest One,” and Brian Vollmer of the ’70s hard rock band Helix performed a cameo in the 2006 film.

Shortly after, Clattenburg heard about pockets of non-musician fans cropping up from coast to coast. Slowly, these pockets grew and began to meld. By season four—in which the boys pledged to sell enough dope to buy Sunnyvale—Trailer Park Boys was drawing healthy numbers, winning Gemini awards, and showing in syndication. Interestingly, the same process has only just started to happen in the United States, where DirecTV is finally airing it with the swearing intact. The timing probably isn’t a coincidence: since the show debuted, the mark of “quality sitcoms”—e.g., The Office, Arrested Development, 30 Rock—has become exactly the kind of opaqueness associated with the Clattenburgian sensibility, in which it can be difficult to locate the joke at first. Yet once you find it, it’s difficult to turn away.

And now there’s Countdown to Liquor Day. As always, the plot is the same but different: the boys emerge from jail, dream of a big score, screw it up, and return to jail, their final impressions delivered while wearing grey jumpsuits. The complication this time out is that Mr. Lahey falls in love with Julian, and it is Julian’s ultimate sympathy for Lahey that interferes with their goal. Clattenburg promises that unlike Trailer Park Boys: The Movie, which was perfumed for a potential American audience, Countdown will mark a return of the show’s deadpan originality. “I think that somewhere around the middle seasons,” he told me, “we started to wink the bit a little. With this movie, we tried to get back to the realism and get away from broad humour. We tried to come from a realistic place for each character.”

After Countdown, fans of the series will have to content themselves with reruns, as well as the touring comedy shows put on by Ricky, Julian, and Bubbles. (In public appearances, the trio is never out of character, perpetuating the conceit that the actors are indistinguishable from the characters.) Mr. Lahey and Randy also have an act they periodically take across the country; John Dunsworth, the seasoned stage actor who played the dipsomaniacal Lahey, told me that they are treated like rock stars wherever they go.

For aficionados, it is a small source of consolation that the show might have ended sooner. It was following season five, during which the boys conceal several kilos of black hashish by moulding it into a driveway, that Clattenburg first felt he might be running out of ways to manipulate his characters’ carved-in-stone DNA. Walking away, however, proved difficult. The show was a major hit, everyone was still having fun doing it, and Clattenburg was employing a cast and crew of as many as sixty people—no small accomplishment in Atlantic Canada.

Shortly after the last full season ended, a reporter for a local paper called the Coast wrote that Trailer Park Boys was rumoured to be returning for an eighth season. But, determined to end the series before it began to decline, Clattenburg had already gathered everyone who worked on the show at the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax, and told them that Countdown to Liquor Day would be it. Few were surprised.

Given a world in which only artistic considerations mattered, the end of season seven might also have been an appropriate point at which to wrap the show. In that season’s narrative, the boys decide to export Ricky’s latest crop to the United States, where American anti-drug laws have escalated prices. To get the dope over the border, they make the unlikely decision to ship it via model train. Along the way, Bubbles loses his mind to stress, a demented puppet named Conky returns from the grave to provoke Bubbles, and a stolen locomotive named “the Swayzie Express” draws the attention of police. Nonetheless, their plan succeeds, and the boys emerge after brief jail sentences with over $400,000 to split between them.

The season ends with a coda of sorts, the characters each describing how the haul has benefited their lives: Julian has finally gotten rich; Ricky is happily living with Lucy, his daughter, and a new baby (even though Randy is actually the father); and Lucy has found satisfaction with Ricky. Lahey has quit drinking, Bubbles has more than enough money to feed his kitties, and Randy announces, “I know what I want in life now: all I really want to do is get high and mow lawns in the trailer park. And that’s okay.” Then, as the camera pulls back and up, granting us a serene aerial shot of Sunnyvale, we realize we’ve just witnessed something never before seen on Trailer Park Boys. The characters’ longing has abated, if only for that moment.