Letterkenny director on how success has (or hasn't) changed the small-town Canadian comedy
Letterkenny (TV series)
While Schitt's Creek was taking Netflix and the Emmys by storm over the last few years, one of its compatriots was busy breaking out on Hulu. The hit Canadian sitcom Letterkenny has quietly built a substantial following stateside since debuting on Hulu in 2018, and while it hasn't — and probably won't — pick up any Emmys, its creators wouldn't have it any other way.
"Our show has grown at its own pace, which is really nice. We never felt like we were under a microscope," says Jacob Tierney, who developed Letterkenny and co-writes most episodes with creator-star Jared Keeso, along with directing every installment. "We began as a pretty little show, with nobody paying a lot of attention to us, and luckily, we still kind of live that way. We're left alone to do our own thing."
That thing is a show that centers on the small town of Letterkenny — populated by a mixture of "hicks" (farmers), "skids" (goth drug addicts), hockey players, and other eccentric denizens (including Tierney as flamboyant pastor Glen) — and is characterized by rapid, wordplay-filled dialogue, extensive comedic riffs and running gags, and low-stakes plotting. It's an approach that hasn't varied much over six years and 10 seasons (with an 11th on the way); a typical episode summary from season 10 reads simply, "The Hicks recruit help for picking stones."
"I don't think we feel pressured to do anything other than make a good show," Tierney says. "After this many episodes, sometimes you can lose track of yourself and be like, 'Oh my God, are we phoning this in? Is this not funny?' [But] I think if we feel like we can keep each other creatively engaged, then we can keep an audience creatively engaged. Sometimes we've definitely looked at each other and been like, 'Are we gonna do more? Okay, let's do more. People seem to want them.'"
With Letterkenny's latest season newly streaming on Hulu, Tierney sat down with EW to chirp about making the show, why the set feels like summer camp, and why even he can't tell who's Reilly and who's Jonesy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I'd like to dig into the process of making Letterkenny, starting with the writing. How does it start when you're putting a season together in the writers' room?
JACOB TIERNEY: There's no writers' room; that's not something we do. Jared and I usually just discuss the vague arc, and we send out assignments to different writers, and then everybody gets rewritten by Jared, basically. Often, we'll give writers assignments like, "Come up with 400 jokes about the following topic. We're looking for quantity here. Let's get 400 ways to insult somebody like this."
How do you develop all the wordplay and tongue-twisting riffs on the show?
There's no real secret to it. Often, things that we actually talk about while we're working will end up in the following season if something strikes us as funny or there's some kind of wordplay. We love wordplay, and Jared loves to write it, so it's just become our bread and butter.
Has the rhythm and speed of the dialogue ever presented problems for the actors?
It can, but we're really lucky. Our cast knows what the deal is at this point; they show up very prepared. And the truth is, there's kind of a freedom in falling into the rhythm of what the script is asking you to do. But yeah, it's a lot of dialogue. Especially often for the three boys, the Hicks, to just sit around and do eight pages on space masturbation or whatever. It's a lot of information.
Talk about the process of directing the show.
I direct them all, which I think is a particular and unique thing about the show: It's always me behind the camera. So all the actors are getting their information from the same sources; it's me and Jared. That's who makes the show, and everybody knows that. It makes it very easy to go somewhere with a question. There's not 15 people whose opinions you're going to have to seek out, and it usually makes it a pretty steady ride.
The good news for me as a director is, I know all the material when we get there; I don't have to learn anything. And part of the discipline [of the show], and I think the discipline of making a sitcom, is that you're trying to create a place for people to come back to where they feel welcome. So it's like, "OK, don't change their positions at the fruit stand." You just kind of let things be what they are, what they should be, what they have been, and let the dialogue and the acting do the work for you.
Some of the actors were friends even before they started working on the show, it seems like there's a real camaraderie that comes through on-screen. What is that experience of filming like for you?
Yeah, they all get along really well. I think they're a bunch of a--holes, but they get along really well with each other, which is nice. [Laughs] Yeah, I mean, we call it summer camp for a reason. We work outside, we usually work pretty decent hours. It's a nice place to go to work, and we do genuinely like each other. And because the cast has become so big and expansive, you always get a fun new person to play with every day. It's like, "Oh, the McMurrays are here! Jim Dickens is here!" Everybody has enough of an expansive world and companions with people that make them laugh, so it's a really fun environment.
Speaking of that massive ensemble, are there any characters you've introduced over the years that you'd like to bring back?
No! There's enough of them. I can barely fit them all in a f---ing frame. [Laughs] I don't want more actors; I have plenty. I barely know which one's Reilly and which one's Jonesy. I don't know which one's Dax and which one's Ron.
I'm not sure I know either.
I don't think they know! I think they learn both lines, and then they're just like, flip a coin to see who says what.
As we've said, so much of the show is rapid-fire dialogue, but then you often have those long silent scenes, like the fights or group dancing scenes. How do you approach that aspect of it?
Well, that's the fun, is the balance. You do these very fast-paced, very flat, long scenes, and then in every episode, I'm given the opportunity to do something different with the visuals. It keeps me popping and keeps me thinking, which is great. And that's what people expect from the show now, and we're happy to give it. And Jared loves to pick songs. He basically has just been making a mixtape this whole time.
You say you still live like no one's paying attention to the show, but it does seem like Letterkenny has become a real sensation over the last few years. How has it felt to have the show cross over in that way?
I mean, it feels great, but it's also been a pandemic, so I don't know. [Laughs] I don't see anybody apart from people I work with. But we can definitely feel that there's a bigger audience. But what I kind of like, too, is that people still think of it as their show. The fans feel like we're still their little secret, even though we know that we're doing pretty well. It's nice that we don't feel like something that's being shoved down people's throats.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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The banter-filled misadventures of the hick, skid, and hockey player denizens of the small Canadian town of Letterkenny.