VANCOUVER – In Canada, a live, studio audience sitcom taping is a rarity.
One of the most popular ones, CBC’s “The King of Kensington,” aired in the ’70s.
Suddenly, however, a couple of Canadian comedies are venturing forth with the same four-camera, live studio audience format that has worked in Hollywood in shows ranging from “I Love Lucy” to “The Big Bang Theory.”
Toronto audiences lined up earlier this year to see tapings of Dave Foley’s new comedy “Spun Out,” airing later this season on CTV. In Vancouver, the bleachers were filled for tapings of “Package Deal,” which premieres Monday, September 30 (check local listings).
The series stars Randal Edwards (“The Killing,” “The Best Years”) as a young lawyer named Danny who has just met the love of his life, Kim (Julia Voth). He also has a great loft apartment, which is where his two goofy brothers, played by comedians Harland Williams and Jay Malone, like to crash. Eugene Levy and Pamela Anderson add a little star power in recurring roles.
The underlying premise of the series: will Kim be cool with this three-brother package deal?
It’s all somewhat based on a period of time in the life of creator/executive producer Andrew Orenstein.
“This is a show about me and my stepbrother,” says Orenstein, who grew up in Toronto but moved to Los Angeles when he took a chance on a career writing for television. He went on to become a writer and producer on several hit U.S. sitcoms, including “3rd Rock from the Sun,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Everybody Hates Chris.” More recently, he was behind the CBC sitcom “18 to Life.”
Orenstein’s stepbrother is ten years older. He’s basically the Harland Williams character in “Package Deal,” “but don’t tell him that,” says the producer.
“When I started dating my wife, I would talk about my brother in reverential tones,” he says. When she finally met the older sibling, he wasn’t quite the superman Orenstein had made him out to be.
Orenstein learned he had a blind spot when it came to his brother. He took a closer look at the sibling rivalry between his own two sons and, voila, a sitcom was born.
Williams has turned out to be the perfect older brother in more ways than one. He’s the only cast member who has experience in four-camera sitcoms, starring in “Simon” (1995-96) and as part of the ensemble in “The Geena Davis Show” (2000-01). “I played Geena’s sidekick in that one,” he says, “and here I am back in the motherland.”
Williams admits going to work through a famous Hollywood Studio arch, like at Disney or Paramount, is more exciting than checking into this dull, converted warehouse “stealth studio” tucked into an industrial corner of suburban Vancouver.
“It’s like we’re wedged between a Canadian Tire and a broadloom manufacturer,” he says, “and I think there’s a kayak maker on the corner.”
The fact that there actually is a river behind the makeshift studio is just so Canadian, says Williams. “If I wanted to, I could shoot a scene, go catch a salmon, and come back in and shoot another scene. Now you don’t get that in Hollywood.”
The 50-year-old “Just for Laughs” veteran grew up in Toronto as the middle child between four sisters. Being among brothers is cool, he says, even if it is “fake.”
What’s odd is being the older guy. “I always think of myself as a kid because I’m in the entertainment industry and what I do is so much fun,” he says. “But then I got here and realized I’m the only one that’s really done this before. Sometimes the gang comes to me with questions or we just talk about stuff. It’s new to me. It’s weird. It makes me feel a little bit old.”
Still, he’s happy to take on the mentor role. “When I was comin’ up and doing my first few sitcoms, I would have liked to have a voice like that.”
Edwards says Williams is valued not just for his sitcom experience but also for his great sense of play. “I think of Harland as this giant rabbit, with these big, padded boxing gloves, and he’s just-Boom! Boom! Boom!-drumming on you all day,” says Edwards.
“Everything that comes out of his mouth is funny,” he adds. “When you look at him, he gives you this persona that you think you’re going to get, and then what comes out of him-he’s so intelligent, so quick.”
Edwards is even more impressed with Williams when the cast ventures out in public. “He’s the most genuinely humble celebrity I’ve ever met. This is the guy who has been put in front of me to say, this is how you treat people with respect in this business.”
On the night of a performance, the studio audience reacts as each member of the cast takes turns trying out alternate lines on succeeding takes. Williams never does anything the same way twice, and Malone and Voth shine in a scene calling for a bit of physical shtick.
Voth, a Regina-native, was a model before branching out into acting and television. (Her likeness also appears in “Resident Evil” video games.) She admits it’s hard to hold a straight face in front of the studio audience with Williams, Edwards and Malone cutting up.
“I was so nervous,” says Voth. “Even in my modeling days, I didn’t like runway ’cause, damn, there’s a thousand people out front. But there’s great energy on this set, and Harland and the guys just make everything super fun.”
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.