Illusionoid is an improvised comedy podcast that’s a mash-up of every sci-fi/fantasy show you’ve ever seen, and a bunch we guarantee you haven’t. We caught up with the hilarious Paul Bates, Lee Smart, and Nug Nahrgang after their show featuring special guest, Colin Mochrie.
P&C: How did Illusionoid get started?
NN: We got together the first time for a Globehead improv tournament at the Bad Dog Theatre when it was still out on the Danforth.
PB: How many years ago was that?
LS: God, 2008?
NN: 7 or 8. And so we did it for fun. Just like, “Oh, we’re gonna throw a team together.” And we wanted a name that was magic and science together.
PB: Well, we used an online science fiction name generator…
NN: …and “Illusionoid” came out and we’re like, “We love it!” And then I think it was literally seconds before we went on stage: “Well, what are we doing?” ”Everything’s Doomsday!” We just decided everything was gonna be going bad. No matter what, it was gonna go evil. Everything was Twilight Zone.
LS: Yeah, dystopia.
NN: Dystopian future. And we did real well, and we did not win.
PB: We got beaten by Lisa Merchant and Alex Hatz…
NN: …playing immigrant characters.
PB: Yeah, you can’t beat immigrants.
LS: You can’t beat immigrants…
PB: It’s against the law.
NN: And then we didn’t do it the next year, because we were all doing other things.
LS: And we were still mad.
PB: Still mad at immigrants.
NN: And then in 2010 we got back together to do it, and did we win?
LS: Yes, we have the picture of us winning with the streamers.
NN: Yeah, we got magic tricks from Morrissey’s Magic Shop up on Dufferin, and we just did terrible magic tricks. Glowing thumbs, and streamers coming out of our mouths.
LS: The concept was that it was somehow illusions. We riffed on that; magic and those things.
PB: And then we went back and did it again this year and won again.
NN: So we’re two for three on Globehead champions.
P&C: When you did that, were you physically improvising, or was it [improvising in front of mics, like the podcast]?
NN: No, we were physically improvising.
PB: A while after that Globehead, the 2010 one, so I think in 2011, Nug was like, “We should do things. We should record things.” And [he] bought a microphone, plugged it into a MacBook and we just met at Lee’s place and we just did a couple. And then we sat on that for something like…
LS: A year.
NN: We recorded four at [Lee’s] place, and then three…our friend Ted Sutton had a studio at the time and we went in and did three in the studio, because he was like, “Yeah come on in, I’ll record it.”
PB: And sat on those for years…
NN: …because I went away on cruise ships with Second City.
PB: We sat on those and we didn’t know what to do with them, and again, Nug is the driving force in a lot of this…
LS: Oh gosh, yes.
PB: …Nug set up a website and an iTunes account and we added sound effects and we just started putting them up to see if it was fun or not.
NN: We made an intro, we recorded that and we added the music.
PB: And there was that long day of breaking the story of what Illusionoid is.
PB: He’s an insane computer in the end of the universe, at the end of time…
LS: We tried to rationalize the plot line.
NN: So we have, like, an overall story for the whole show. It’s like Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt.
There’s a host, and it’s this man from the future, the last surviving human, and he’s sending these stories backwards in time to us now, in hopes that we’ll prevent these horrible things from happening.
But yet there’s no real chance for anyone to prevent this.
LS: Plus, the stories are so cryptic and disconnected, no one could understand. You would never, ever…
NN: “What of that am I supposed to stop?”
PB: “A mermaid isn’t supposed to fuck a guy?”
NN: “And why am I supposed to prevent this? The hotel is what I’m supposed to prevent?”
LS: “Which part of this…?”
NN: And the most fun for me is because we say, like, all of these stories somehow lead to the creation of Illusionoid. Then we put these stories online and I’m writing the…you know…[synopsis] for each episode and I’m like, “How does this connect to Illusionoid?”
I have some friends who are fans of the show, and they think they have parts of it figured out; parts of the overall story. “Ah, Carstairs is involved somehow!” And then I go, “Sure!” Because we don’t know. It’s just a fake story to get all these fake stories a home, really.
LS: It’s a paper conceit.
PB: Very simply, we really enjoy screwing around together and improvising, so it’s a lot of fun.
LS: And the tone of it…all of us are such nerds, and all sort of thrive on the ideas of science fiction and thinking about the future and dystopia. We’ve been steeped in that stuff and we send it up at the same time, because the tropes are so obvious to everyone. It’s fun to invert them and play with them.
P&C: I heard a little bit of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 when we were [inside Comedy Bar] so I thought, these guys are probably fans of that too.
LS: Well we did call Bob [Derkatch] “Manos, the Hands of Fate” tonight.
NN: That’s a classic. It’s the one movie that everyone remembers being the worst, and that they had the most fun making fun of. You can buy it on, I don’t know what season it is, but you can buy it as part of that season. But you can also buy just Manos as a two-disc set kinda thing. So on one side it is the horrible Manos movie, and then on the other side it is them making fun of it.
PB: Oh, that’s wonderful.
LS: Tonight though, I loved the Trouble Brothers. (two characters played by Nug and Paul)
NN: And I killed them! We had to. We were playing too many guys already. We had to kill those guys.
P&C: How many characters do you usually play?
NN: It depends. We’ve done episodes where we’ve all only played one character, but then we’ve done other ones where – and then with the benefit of editing after the fact – we can actually make Paul’s voice sound like a girl, or Lee sound like a monster, or…
P&C: Oh, you really do that?
NN: Yeah, we add effects when we record in the studio. When you’re Googlon the Robot…
PB: We android-ize my voice.
NN: And you can change the pitch to make a monster sound lower, or a guy sound like a girl.
PB: Yeah, like [in] the first one I play a Moon Spider.
NN: (high-pitched voice) “I’m a Moon Spider!”
LS: The improv is the raw material. Then we affect it afterwards.
NN: And even the raw material we barely edit. Somehow we’ve gotten really good at coming in at 20 minutes, around 20 minutes. So there’s some episodes that are like, maybe 15, and other episodes that are 22, but we always land around the 20-minute mark and if it’s a little longer we’re like, unh, who cares.
P&C: And are Bob [Derkatch] and Jay [McCarroll] normally both…
NN: No, tonight was real special to have Bob. I was talking about it one night when I saw Bob here because he wanted to come see us perform…
P&C: He was loving it!
NN: He wanted to see it, but he was like, “Hey if I’m coming, why don’t I bring my theremin?”
LS: So cool.
NN: And I went, “Oh my God, please bring your theremin!”
PB: Bob’s awesome.
LS: It added an amazing element. I was telling him that that scoring, which we don’t usually have throughout, really imbues it with a tone that we haven’t had before, live anyway.
NN: Jay usually does it live with us. But I remember when Bob volunteered I got hold of Jay and said “Hey, Bob wants to bring his theremin to our next show. Is that cool? I don’t wanna step on your toes,” and he was like, “Oh my God, the more the merrier. A theremin? This is the best.”
So just to have two nerd musicians… And I know Jay just thinks Bob is the greatest, so that’s a real fun time, too, for Jay to work with Bob. Just like for us to work with Colin [Mochrie].
PB: Jay’s getting good on that Moog.
LS: He certainly is. He was touching in at just the right times…
NN: He doesn’t get enough time to play. I think if he ever bought himself one, he would buy that app and then play with it forever.
LS: It’s an app for the iPad that emulates an old Moog synthesizer, which is from the ‘70s, so if you heard shows like Space: 1999 or Dr Who, essentially that is the sound of those things, and it adds such a retro, weird element to it.
P&C: I was amazed watching him, because he’s so fast. I know Mark Andrada when he’s in the back is fast, but [Jay’s] really on top of all those sound effects.
LS: Yeah, he was anticipating tonight, too. Some cool stuff; there was not much lag.
NN: There’s like a little delay on the app for the sound effects. So you can load up whatever sound effects are inside your iPad. So I put a ton of sound effects on the iPad, and then you can put a picture on the button too, so I can program each thing. So he can just reach up and go “Sub Door,” or “Torpedo,” or “Sonar.”
And there’s a little bit of a delay between touching it and playing, so Jay has been getting better at, “Oh, they’re gonna mention a torpedo,” so he’s already got it there, so he’s actually pushing it before we finish the word now, which is really amazing.
LS: And sometimes that pushes us to reference what the sound is as well. That happened a couple of times tonight.
NN: Like when Colin said, “I’m gonna sprinkle this on…” (explosive sound effect) “Guys, when I said ‘sprinkle’…” You’ve gotta justify the noise, too.
LS: Well the best thing for a musician to add is to be a player, as well. Not just to be following along, but to be someone who’s working and adding something that you can react to as well, so they’re actually improvising with you.
NN: We gotta get them jackets.
PB: I think I have a coupon.
P&C: And are you all friends with, or have you all performed with Colin before?
NN: Yeah. Colin’s a friend of mine. Colin and I have actually been comic book shopping together. Colin’s a big nerd; I’m kinda outing him this week. I did another interview this week where I kinda outed him as a huge nerd.
PB: Oh yeah, I ran into him once at the Silver Snail.
LS: Colin hired me for Second City. He was in the, he was the guy directing the Touring Company when I auditioned, so he hired me for the job.
PB: And in my case, if you’re a Second City actor, sooner or later you’re just friends with Colin, just because of his generosity. It’s not like I ever worked with him really, in any capacity that was significant. He’s just like, he’s just a guy that gets to know you and he’s super nice and generous with his time.
NN: I think Colin and I had run into each other a few times, and then we were both on The Tuxedo with Jackie Chan on the same day, and he was like, “Oh, someone I know.” And then we started hanging out. And then we went comic book shopping and now he and I are working together on a TV show in Sudbury for most of the summer.
LS: It’s probably the best job you can have, to be able to make a living as an improviser, and he’s done an exemplary job of doing that.
LS: Here, in the UK, and touring around…
P&C: The States…
LS: It’s so rare. It’s so rare to make your living improvising.
PB: One of a handful of human beings.
NN: And you know, even talking to some people tonight, “How the heck did you get Colin?” “Oh, we asked him. We asked, then he said yes.”
P&C: Is he actually living in Toronto again?
NN: He has never not lived in Toronto. He maybe lived in LA years ago, but no, he lives here, his son just graduated from NYU film school, and he’s just back home, and he and Deb live up, I think in Leaside.
PB: He’s a terrible racist though.
NN: Oh, the worst. He hates anybody not white. That’s the worst thing about Colin.
LS: Talk about, “You can’t beat an immigrant.”
PB, P&C: (laughs)
NN: You can’t tell him that. Horrible racist.
PB: You know, but he’s just such a generous guy. We forget…
NN: It makes you forgive the racism.
LS: The iron fist in the velvet glove.
P&C: That’s all going on the blog.
PB, NN: Nooooo…
LS: Disclaimer, disclaimer.
P&C: So how many episodes have you done now?
NN: This week will be 25.
PB: So we’re a month away from…
LS: …our first year.
NN: By the time number 27 comes out, that’s our first year. We’re gonna call it a season and start Season Two.
PB: See if Jay wants to do a new theme for us.
P&C: Anything else you want to mention?
LS: We were nominated for a Canadian Comedy Award…
P&C: Oh yes! Congratulations.
NN: Podcast. When we lose that…
P&C: What other podcasts are you up against?
NN: Well, we’re up against Stop Podcasting Yourself from Vancouver, which is huge. They’ve signed on to a network of podcasts that puts them out, so you can subscribe to the network and get all of the podcasts. They’re part of Maximum Fun, which is really great.
Maximum Fun has Jordan, Jesse, Go!, and so many other great podcasts. It’s gonna be real tough. If all of their listeners listened to us, we would be millionaires. I don’t really know how it works with a free podcast. But it would be the greatest thing in the world.
We’re up against Hold Your Applause, but they’re not even doing that podcast anymore. We’re up against Sean Cullen and The Seanpod. And Sean’s done our show, too.
LS: He’s very funny.
NN: He’s very funny. We just recorded with Scott Thompson this week; we did three with Scott, which was a really good time.
PB: We’re always trying to think what else to do with this. I love the podcast as it is, and we think about, “Can we pitch this as radio? Can we pitch this as TV?” But whatever comes…because it’s mainly for fun.
LS: There’s something pure and fun about putting it out there, but obviously we all have to make a living somehow. It’d be great to convert what we love into something we can get paid for.
P&C: Well, look at Comedy Bang! Bang!
NN: That is one of my favourites to listen to, and I’m so happy they got a TV show.
The other podcasts I think we have something in common with [are] Superego, because they record it and then add the sound effects later. But they just do bits, they don’t do stories like we do. And then Thrilling Adventure Hour, where they’re doing new scripts, like new radio shows, but scripted and do it live… I love those shows so much.
LS: It’s a Golden Age.
PB: It’s the Wild West, man.
NN: Other cliché!
LS: Well, the amount of creativity. There’s never been an avenue for people to create stuff and put it out there… Ten years ago we would never had the facility, the ability to do what we’re doing.
PB: Anybody who wants to be on the radio can be on the radio. It’s awesome.
LS: It’s amazing. People can listen to us and go, “Hey, I’m listening to Illusionoid this week,” and it’s a real thing. Whereas you had to go through the channels to get into radio before.
PB: It blows my mind to think that we get people writing on our pages: “I listen to this on the train in Brooklyn.” Y’know? People in Brooklyn listen. And then you check the stats; it says people in China listen, people in Ireland listen. That’s so cool.
LS: How the hell does a guy in Ireland hear about this?
NN: I’d love to have more listeners, but we’re closing in on 25,000 total downloads. And I know there are other podcasts out there that get that every time they put out a podcast.
PB: If you get 700 people listening to a podcast, that’s still one of the biggest audiences I’ve ever had. So it’s great to have that reach.
LS: Surprisingly we have a lot of listeners in the Netherlands, and places like Sweden and Norway. I don’t know if it’s because it’s weird, and they’re sort of, they love the weirdness and the sci-fi…
PB: We should do a Girl With The Dragon Tattoo-style one.
NN: We can make that happen guys…