North of Weird: Yellowknife is Alt Comedy’s New Stomping Ground

A thick New Zealand accent cuts through the airwaves, softly recounting a childhood memory of starting a pen rental business. The tale ends with an unfortunate classmate consuming a pencil and a peal of laughter. Two voices — the Kiwi’s and a Brit’s — move on, trading jokes and stories in an easy bantering tone. You’re listening to the Sailing on Sound podcast recorded in a small snow-covered studio in Yellowknife.
Run by the alternative media collective SOSMedia, the podcast is an audio compendium of creative exploits in the Northwest Territories. On the show, New Zealander Paige Saunders and Brit Jeremy Flatt hop from topic to topic, from failed entrepreneurial enterprises to dating and bad breath — all with a deeply absurdist edge. Mostly revolving around conversations between the duo, the show sometimes features guests and stunts cooked up by the team.
The podcast — and in fact all the burgeoning endeavours of the newly formed media collective — came about because of the prohibitively high cost of hotels in Yellowknife.
The main creative partners, Flatt, 28, and Saunders, 24, met by accident. In the summer of 2010, Flatt knocked on Saunders’s door after a 48-hour redeye flight from Colchester looking for couch-surfing accommodation. The two soon discovered a shared love of absurdist humour and began the SOSMedia collective.
“I like to think that when Jeremy and I met there were thunderclaps and the earth shook,” Saunders says. “We’ve been inseparable ever since.”
Before his move north in early 2009, Saunders says he “was just another unsatisfied employee working at an IT company on New Zealand’s south island. I was feeling really down and needed to make some radical changes.” This included packing up and moving halfway around the world to Yellowknife.
The Sailing on Sound headquarters operates out of a converted room in Saunders’ house. All its creative whims are financed with contract work, often for the territorial government. The team balances money-making work (say a series of community cooking videos) with other more creative projects — a porn musical and a storytelling series based on the popular Moth format are currently in the works.
Recently, another member was added to the fold: the Canadian indie cartoonist Marvic Adecer. In the spring of 2011, Adecer was trying to figure out the next step in his life. Originally from the Philippines, the 28-year-old spent his adolescence in southern Ontario and then traveled extensively across Canada while publishing his work independently. When a few friends in the Northwest Territories suggested a move to Yellowknife, Adecer jumped.
“I figured I’d make money to finance my comics habit,” he says. “If I failed, I’d just walk off into the tundra. Lucky for me, I met these guys.” Adecer discovered the podcast while searching for a roommate in town. Its wit and originality stood out: “It’s not just some dudes in a basement. They never talk about it as a podcast. It sounds like you’re listening in on a conversation among friends.”
Yellowknife sits 400 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle and has a population that barely scratches the 19,000 mark. Winter temperatures plummet below minus 30 degrees and the place suffers from many deeply engrained social problems. But for the SOS team, living in the north gets the creative juices flowing. “Yellowknife attracts a lot of eclectic people,” Adecer explains. “You have to make your own fun out here.”
Every morning in the shower, Saunders dreams up new podcast topics. “I’m always thinking about business opportunities, but I’m also thinking about dumb things. If something’s dumb and funny, I’ll write it down.” Each part of the team contributes something different to the show: Saunders is the writer, as well as a self-described comedy nerd, Flatt is a musician and Adecer draws up the posters and contributes illustration work. Other creative types passing through Yellowknife also appear on the show, such as New Zealander Charlotte Hilling and Canadian Thomas Whittaker who surface occasionally as panelists.
It’s all part of their uniquely entrepreneurial approach to comedy, Saunders says. “We think, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if this existed?’ And then we’re like, ‘Well, could it?’”
The punch line is often about pushing a joke as far into reality as possible. The team created an online presence for a gay zoo in San Francisco (an idea that was later picked up by the Huffington Post). Later on, they bought hockey gear and formed an Underwater Hockey League at a local pool. In November, the league was featured on CBC’s The National.
“Peter goddamn Mansbridge was like, ‘Hey, look at these dickbags!’” Adecer says. “And that’s cool to be acknowledged. We’re not doing this in a vacuum.”
“I’d like to do this for the rest of my life,” Saunders adds. “To have a long record of trying things out. There’s such potential for an exciting life.” (Amy Stupavsky)

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