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Interview with Matt Watts of Canadia: 2056

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Matt Watts has been responsible for some of the better CBC Radio comedy programs of recent years. Steve the First and its sequel Steve the Second used the concept of random schlubs surviving standard-issue Mad Max-like dystopias to some degree of success. While the two Steve series were uneven in spots, Watts has at least proven that he can do satirical science fiction. Canadia: 2056 is his most consistent effort to date and has already been renewed for a fifteen-episode second season.

The two Steve series will be given a second airing on CBC Radio One starting July 23. Both Steve the First and Steve the Second are being rerun weirdly — Monday through Friday at 11:30 AM until August 1, which is of course the best way to air limited-run niche series. That's still better than the fate of The Adventures of Apocalypse Al, which is sitting in CBC Radio archives despite J. Michael Straczynski's involvement.

This email has been in my archives since July 4, 2007. At least you get to read this interview before everyone involved with it is dead.

How well has CBC Radio promoted Canadia: 2056 and the two Steve series? Should there be more promotion for CBC radio dramas overall or is it worth it considering the smaller audience for radio when compared to television? How could podcasting/"the INTERNET®" help, since the MP3 player is not going away any time soon?

No comment (read into that however you like.)

Why have you picked sci-fi themes and parodies as fodder for your radio dramas? Such a thing is atypical for CBC Radio considering shows like Monsoon House, Man, Woman & Child, and Madly Off in All Directions tend to be more typical of CBC Radio's comedic output. I know you're influenced by science fiction and "zany madcap humour" but it's almost out of place compared to giving established Canadian stand-ups a half hour to play with. Not that I hate Man, Woman & Child, but I've been familiar with John Wing Jr. since the early 1990s and it's sort of sad that I've been aware of his work since I was twelve.

I picked science fiction as a genre for radio because I figured that I might as well make the most of the medium. You can take the audience anywhere with radio. Why not do something you couldn't do on television? With that in mind, I've tried to keep things fairly simple in terms of the storylines. To me it's about the relationships, not about the "flash" of science fiction. When it came to Canadia, I really wanted to do something about US/Canadian relations and I wanted to use a war as a backdrop. I wanted to explore more general themes of how these two countries interact without getting into a political debate about the current (or recent) war, so that meant I could set it in the past or the future. I get really bored with historical dramas.

You think my stuff is "zany madcap?" Huh… I never looked at it like that. I guess Canadia has a farcical quality to it, and Steve was definitely absurd. Zany Madcap it is!

[NOTE: That "zany madcap" bit was referring to the fact that Matt Watts was influenced by radio comedies like The Goon Show. You can tell I was having a Ron Obvious moment there.]

How do you feel about science fiction, arts-wise (film, television, softcore porn etc.) and/or as a literary genre? How popular a niche is science fiction in Canada, in your opinion? You don't think CBC wasted its money helping bankroll Doctor Who and Torchwood and thereby indulging Russell T. Davies' wildest fantasies, do you?

I love science fiction but I think it can be alienating when it puts the emphasis on the "science" and not on the "fiction." The story always has to be engaging, regardless of the genre.

I think its popularity as a genre is fairly consistent throughout the world. Canada hasn't produced a lot of science fiction television or films, but we've produced a lot of written sci-fi. I honestly don't know if there'd be an audience for my kind of sci-fi in Canadian television. If Canadia was a television show, would it have a big audience? I'm sure it would have a loyal audience; I just don't know if that's enough. Look at the nightmare the Red Dwarf guys are having trying to get funding for their film.

As for Doctor Who, I'm biased. Sci-fi or not, it's my favorite show, and it has been since I was about four years old. I can't even give you an honest criticism of the new show, because I cry every time the credits start and don't stop until about half an hour after it's over. It strikes some kind of weird nerve with me (no one hugged me as a child, all I had was TV.) I love the show. I'm glad CBC is putting money into it. I wish they had some kind of say in the production.

I wish they could get me over there. I think writing on that series would be the greatest job ever. It's my dream. It'll never happen but it's nice to dream.

Embarrassing child-like reaction aside, I think the CBC should be doing a lot more co-productions with the BBC. Less American influence, more UK, I say. Team up with Auntie Beeb! Let's face it, our tastes are more in line with the UK's, aren't they?

How do you compare your CBC radio dramas to your other work? Your most well-known roles outside of CBC Radio are for your involvement in Ken Finkleman's sitcom The Newsroom and Don McKellar's film Childstar. How important is "know someone in the business" in comparison to "make sure what I'm writing doesn't suck shit?"

The Newsroom was great. Although I was a creative consultant the third year, I was really just an actor for the two years I was on the show. Those two years were probably the most fun I've had in my life. With my radio stuff I have a lot more control and a lot more pressure. I write the episodes, then go in and record them. It's totally different. I'm a lot more concerned with the final product than I was on The Newsroom.

As for knowing people in the industry? Someone can open a door for you, but once you're in there you'd better have a fucking great script. The most important thing is always the writing. Otherwise, you're just going to look unprepared and foolish, and that "friend" in the industry is likely to never help you out again.

How does it feel getting people like Mark McKinney (Kids in the Hall; Saturday Night Live) and Peter Wildman (The Frantics) to be involved with your radio dramas? How does the "marquee name" – well, as much as CBC budgets will allow for radio drama – attract casual interest for the dramas, or are listeners there because CBC Radio isn't just rebroadcasting routines from the Winnipeg Comedy Festival?

I don't know what the listener numbers are, or if having marquee names actually increases listenership. Having Mark on the Steve series came about because we'd been looking for a project to work together on for years, and he really liked this idea. It was never about landing a name – he was involved in the project since pretty early on.

I love Peter Wildman. My producer actually brought him in for the part [of Captain of the USS Pickens] not because of his name, but because he thought he'd be good in the role.

I was pretty excited to have Peter on because I was a fan of his as a kid. Mark I've known for years, so it was nice having a friend around who had a better idea of what was going on than I did.

I'm against trying to get marquee names in general, only because it's distracting. Why bother? Just make it good.

I got pretty excited when Donnelly Rhodes [Battlestar Galactica's Doctor Cottle] agreed to be in Canadia – he plays the president in the opening credits. I didn't try to get him because I thought it would help gain listenership – I'm just a fan. His voice was perfect.

What's next for Matt Watts? What sort of subjects do you feel you'll go to once (or if) you ever exhaust making fun of Canadian cultural mores through a sci-fi based comedy radio program? Does the idea of making veiled jabs at CBC programming decisions through the sci-fi conceit seem subversive to you, or do you not believe in that "subversive" crap and need the money?

Yeah, I do love poking fun at the CBC. I really love the place, so it's never done out of malice (just to be clear.) I assume that the jokes are relevant to anyone that works in any kind of large corporation. If Canadia continues there'll be plenty more of that kind of stuff.

I don't know if I feel the need to comment on Canadian culture so much. I feel like Canadia has been that outlet for me.

I loved writing Steve the First because its premise was simple: a bum like me saving the world after an apocalypse. I knew exactly how this one character would react to all the absurdities and hell that he'd encounter.

I'm working on a feature that will hopefully move beyond my computer. It's in keeping with the tradition of most of my stuff in that it's about a boy and a girl (I know it's not always clear, but ultimately everything I write is about a boy and a girl.) Unlike everything else, it's set on Earth and there are no apocalypses or aliens. It's not science fiction at all. It's the least sci-fi thing I've written. It's 100% sci-fi free!

Joe Mahoney [producer, Steve the First and Steve the Second; story editor on all Matt Watts' radio dramas] has been pushing me to novelize the first Steve series, and I've been tinkering with that over the last few years. Maybe that's what will be next, although it's the scariest and most daunting thing I've ever tackled.

I just keep writing and hope that someone will be interested in it.

For more reading, visit Matt Watts' page and the CBC Radio Canadia page (or at least a vague simulation).

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About Cameron Archer

  • Diane Kristine

    Cool interview, thanks. I’ve seen him around the blogosphere and loved The Newsroom but don’t catch a lot of radio drama.