Laughter is the best medicine and Still Standing’s Jonny Harris delivered the prescription to Chemainus last week during filming of a segment on the town for the CBC-TV series.
Harris, who also portrays George Crabtree on another popular CBC-TV series Murdoch Mysteries, provided comic relief as a much-needed remedy to a public ailing from COVID overload.
Based in Toronto, Harris, 44, has now criss-crossed the country the last several years to film 79 episodes of Still Standing. He was previously in the area to do a show on Lake Cowichan, but had never been to Chemainus before.
Being from Newfoundland where other mural projects have popped up, Harris was familiar with the story of the Chemainus murals. “Chemainus is a town that was on our radar for a while,” he said. “It was sort of neat to see the place where it all started.”
Harris and the show’s complete writing and production team sketched out how to present the mural story as well as other facets of the town and its personalities.
“We have a great team that does research on an area and puts together what we call a field document, the story we’re going to tell and who we’re going to speak to,” he explained.
“It’s amazing how much goes into it. It really pays off in the end. It really is more than a glance at the town.”
What ensues is a combination of education about each location, with a humorous twist.
“When you’re branding a comedy show, educational is the last word they want you to use,” Harris laughed.
“But you learn a few things about a community you otherwise wouldn’t learn much about.”
Chemainus is part of the filming for the seventh season of Still Standing, with Harris and crew highlighting many interesting people from communities hit hard by various economic impacts but developing creative ways to move forward. The Chemainus story, naturally, revolved around the previous sawmill closure in the early 1980s and how tourism evolved through the mural program to keep the town going.
Similar stories from around Canada have generated a tremendous interest with viewers and made the show a huge hit. There are even people who make Still Standing destinations part of their must-see travel plans.
“It’s perhaps become the biggest thing in my life,” said Harris. “I just feel like Still Standing, I sort of learned a little bit about in the process and I think I’ve worked harder on it than anything else.
“With Murdoch Mysteries, you’re not generating content, you’re taking content someone else is generating.”
Being the front man of the show is humbling because of the feedback it generates as a unifying force for Canada through visits to places people might not have ever known about, never mind thought of traveling to, and educational for Harris as well.
“Obviously we live in a geographically vast country,” he said. “The fact we’ve gotten to see so much of it, time and expense alone it would be a feat to see half of the places.”
Working on the show in the beginning, no one – including Harris – had any idea how long it might last or how much of an audience it might attract.
“It’s such a competitive market to even get through a first season and to catch peoples’ interest with it isn’t easy,” he conceded.
“Getting numbers and return numbers, it becomes a thing. To have a show where people are still eager to see the new episodes and turn their TVs on at eight o’clock on a Tuesday night, that’s a good place to be.”
Harris is currently going back and forth between Still Standing and Murdoch Mysteries. He returned to work in his role as George Crabtree Monday, with filming of Still Standing episodes not picking up again until September.
Harris’ constable character is left out of the Murdoch Mysteries script a few times whenever there’s an occasional conflict.
Sometimes Harris can’t believe he’s on the verge of doing his 80th episode of Still Standing. The day of shooting the live show for the program always brings a rush of adrenaline and questions persist.
“If you’re accurate with the storytelling, are the jokes going to be funny? Is the crowd going to be receptive?” he pondered. “I don’t know if that ever goes away those pre-show jitters.”
Harris’ ability to learn all about a town from advance research, interview people over the course of a few days and then get on stage to wrap up the town’s story with some trademark laughs takes a masterful craftsman.
Harris tends to find a theme for each location and, for Chemainus, “it’s a place where things tend to get saved,” he said. One day, “I’d like to spend time in Chemainus in a non-working capacity.”
He used to conclude each show with a clever skit referring to his mom calling and asking him how things were going. Harris would then recite the town’s highlights.
“I like the mom thing,” he said. “I felt like after a few years the joke was getting a bit old.”
Harris and the writers changed the format to a poetry recap for each town, but many diehard viewers were still enamored with the previous ending and thought maybe it was stopped because his mom was in ill health or something.
“We actually got some feedback people were concerned about my mom,” he chuckled.
The well-crafted packaging of the show continues to capture the imagination of viewers but, like anything else, Harris is never sure how long it will last.
“I think the show has got some legs,” he reasoned. “It depends how long my legs hold up.”