Comedy

How three Torontonians went from laid off to creating buzzy comedy series Next Stop

From apartment hunting to being unemployed to Uber pooling, Next Stop explores the lives of young Black Torontonians.

From apartment hunting to Uber pooling, Next Stop explores the lives of young Black Torontonians

Mahlet Tilahun, Jordan Hayles and Vanessa Admas in Next Stop episode “Pool” (CBC)

A Toronto anthology series

Filmed in 2018 and now streaming on CBC Gem, Next Stop is a four-part comedy series created by Jabbari Weekes, Tichaona Tapambwa and Phil Witmer.

"It's to get the Toronto we see and live every day as first-generation… what we see in our city every day," said co-creator Phil Witmer, who also worked on all the original music for the series.

Weekses, Tapambwa and Witmer had all been involved in the media industry prior to Next Stop. Both Weekes and Witmer worked for Noisey, VICE, and Tapambwa had been part of a short film project. But when all of them were laid off from their jobs, the three decided that they should finally give filmmaking a serious shot.

"Let's actually put our best foot forward in this industry," said co-creator Tichaona Tapambwa. "And we were looking for the best way to enter in."

Tapambwa said they drew a lot of inspiration from shows created by Black filmmakers such as Issa Rae and Cecile Emeke, as well as successful anthology series like Easy. 

These popular shows are based in LA, Chicago and London, UK—none in Canada. So they decided to follow the anthology format but make it Toronto-specific.

After looking at a lot of great content produced by Black storytellers in Toronto, they noticed a lack of every day, anthology-style storytelling.

"They focus on even more so heavy dramatics or lean toward more sketch comedy," Tapambwa said. "We felt like we wanted to find the perfect middle ground, we wanted to marry those two things because we didn't see it in the market.

We saw a gap and we were like, maybe Next Stop can fill that gap.- Tichaona Tapambwa 

Small production, big talent

After sending early scripts and going through "a lot of terrible ideas," the team wrapped up their pre-production work and started rolling the camera in March 2018. 

They didn't have a structured outline or a specific number of episodes in mind when they started filming. "We were treating each episode as its own film almost, united by similar themes of similar cultural backgrounds, similar settings all in different parts of Toronto," Witmer said.

Without access to huge fundings or top actors, the creators were able to connect with a former co-worker and friend—Jordan Hayles and Vanessa Adams as the main cast members.

Vanessa Adams as seen in the Next Stop episode “Mosquito” (CBC)

"We can just tell that if you were to put if you were to be put in front of the camera, you would work magic," said Tapambwa.

"[They're] just really naturally charismatic people," Witmer added.

Being a small crew, the cast members were also highly involved in the creative process.

"That script is not a Bible," said Witmer. "If they want to add a little more different tune of phrase or from their own life experiences… it was even more natural than when we first started writing or rehearsing."

In the episode "Duppy," the creators' friend Sharine Taylor narrates the no dialogue Toronto fairytale—which Tapambwa describes as a "Jamaican ghost story" about unemployment, anxiety and depression.

"This is going to be basically our kind of Teddy Perkins episode where we're becoming a haunted house horror movie," said Witmer.

The flaws and beauty of Toronto

"Warden patties are trash."
"Toronto is passive-aggressively rude."
"Where did Kawhi go off right after we won the championship?" 

The creators sure threw in some controversial topics and shades in the series. But they also have some mixed feelings toward Toronto as storytellers.

"We're on the same level of anyone who's watching this, and kind of feeling the same things that the characters are feeling," Witmer said. "These are born out of the same frustrations as well."

In the episode "Pool", three Torontonians sharing an Uber engage in a heated debate on whether Toronto is the place to be for young creatives. 

Next Stop's Vanessa Adams and Jordan Hayles. (CBC)

Three passengers cramped in the backseat, the physical limitation of space also represents the metaphorical ceiling in Toronto's media industry.

Maybe Toronto is one long Uber ride and you're stuck with people you're getting into arguments with… and it's like, 'why am I keep seeing you guys all the time?- Phil Witmer

Growing up in Flemingdon Park, North York and having friends from multiple nationalities, Tapambwa said he loves and appreciates Toronto's diversity. 

"I'm allowed the opportunity to see different things and experience different things… It's a beautiful city that helps with my storytelling."

But Toronto is by no means perfect when it comes to film and media. 

As demonstrated by the conversation in "Pool", many young creatives grapple with the decision as to whether to stay or leave for places like New York City for more opportunities. 

"We have a lot of potential. We haven't totally accomplished it yet, but I see it there and that to me is really beautiful," said Witmer.

"I would say my relationship to Toronto is kind of like having been in love with something for a very long time and you know all its flaws… but that is that hope and knowledge that they can be better that keeps me going here. I wouldn't be anywhere else."

Follow @CBCComedy on InstagramTwitter and Facebook for updates on Next Stop, and watch the series on CBC Gem.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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