'Like comfort food': Trailer Park Boys cast reflects on 20 years of life in Sunnyvale
Low-budget short film from Nova Scotia defied odds, became global phenomenon
It's been 20 years since the lovable lugs known as the Trailer Park Boys first hit Canadian television.
Set in Nova Scotia's fictional Sunnyvale Trailer Park, the mockumentary focused on the lives of petty criminals Julian, Ricky and Bubbles, their bizarre exploits — which included lots of dope growing and even kidnapping Rita MacNeil on one occasion to help harvest the crop — as well as frequent drug and alcohol consumption.
"It was really like The Waltons, with guns and drugs and liquor," said actor Mike Smith, who plays Bubbles.
In honour of the show's anniversary, CBC News spoke to some of the cast members about why the show continues to connect with people worldwide — and its unlikely origins.
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mike Smith (Bubbles): I was playing in a band called Sandbox. We were signed to EMI and we toured Canada and the U.S., and that's basically what I did for a living.
Robb Wells (Ricky): Right before the show, I was actually working for a company called Maxx, and I had Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island as my territories. I was in sales selling bathtubs and whirlpools and showers."
John Paul Tremblay (Julian): I was in Prince Edward Island, I had started up a pizza business with Robb Wells, and a year into it, Pat Roach [Randy] came on board as a partner. We were sending stuff back to [Trailer Park Boys creator] Mike Clattenburg.
Wells: [The videos] were all over the place. There was one sketch we did about a guy that was selling cats door to door.
Tremblay: Quick Talk was another one that we did where we go door to door to try to, you know, sign up people that want to take a course on talking faster. It was just a lot of Kids in the Hall, SCTV, Tom Green stuff.
Prior to Trailer Park Boys, Sarah Dunsworth-Nickerson worked in the film and television industry doing assistant directing work and casting through her father's business, Filmworks Production Services. She met Clattenburg through an audition, and he later showed her the videos.
Dunsworth-Nickerson (Sarah): It was Robb Wells and J.P. Tremblay just being silly, just making up characters and just sending them to their friend just for their own entertainment. And Mike said to me, "I'm going to teach them how to act and I'm going to make a show."
Tremblay: He was watching this crazy stuff we were doing and he said, "Let's get together and do a short film."
Wells and Tremblay starred in 1998's One Last Shot, which was about two friends having a final night out in Halifax before one of them moved to Vancouver. Their characters weren't yet known as Ricky and Julian, respectively, but the seed was planted. But the film did have Mr. Layhie, played by actor John Dunsworth, who later became Mr. Lahey.
Up next was Trailer Park Boys, a feature-length film that was screened at the 1999 Atlantic Film Festival. By now, the Ricky and Julian characters were in place. The mockumentary looked at the lives of two small-time criminals living in a trailer park.
There was no Bubbles in the film, but Smith was responsible for recording and mixing sound. Smith had a go-to impression he'd break out behind the scenes.
Smith: It was just a character I had sort of always done just goofing around, you know, when I played hockey and stuff. I'd be doing that character in the dressing room just to make guys laugh. He never had a name at that point. The glasses came from a yard sale in Texas that a girlfriend at the time bought. Mike Clattenburg saw it and thought it was a funny character, and I think he named him Bubbles.
Clattenburg and Barrie Dunn (who served as co-producer during the early seasons of the show and played Ricky's father, Ray) pitched the show to several networks.
Tremblay: And then when Showcase was interested in picking it up as a series, we had to basically shoot a small short film showing the character Bubbles, because on paper they were uncertain of this character.
Wells: They thought that we were making fun of somebody.
The result was The Cart Boy, a film about two mall security guards (played by Wells and Tremblay) who confront Smith for stealing shopping carts from the mall. Bubbles wasn't even Bubbles yet; the character's name in The Cart Boy was Darren.
The pitch was greenlit from Showcase, and the six-episode first season debuted on April 22, 2001.
Wells: They were looking for new original Canadian content because they just started up their network and they thought we were a good fit.
Tremblay: And they actually needed some East Coast content, so we were the perfect fit.
Wells: And it was cheap, very cheap.
The show had an unusual look. It was meant to look like Cops, the American television show that followed on-duty police officers. The thinking behind Trailer Park Boys was that it would be shot from the criminal's perspective.
The show was uniquely Canadian, with nods to donairs, Rush, Kim Mitchell, Lighthouse and a Casino Taxi commercial.
Dunsworth-Nickerson: The smoking and all the swearing, the guns and just the ridiculous stuff that happens, I never saw anything like that on TV. And when we were making that stuff, it was like, "Are we actually going to do this? Like, we're actually going to do this and get away with it and it'll be on television?" It felt like something special and weird in a good way.
Besides playing Sarah, Dunsworth-Nickerson also worked behind the scenes at various points throughout the show's run, including as a costume designer and a second assistant director.
Dunsworth-Nickerson: We were a tiny crew, and so for the first few seasons, Mike Smith did sound and [played] Bubbles. He did sound with the sound gear strapped to him and holding a boom, a one-man sound team. Mike Jackson, who played Trevor, was our grip. There's a bunch of people who were on the crew that ended up sort of in the background of the show.
Hidden beneath the show's unusual look and crazy storylines, themes of love, acceptance and loyalty were rampant.
Dunsworth-Nickerson: I know people have accused the show of making fun of people in a certain circumstance. For me, it was never about that, it was always just sort of cherishing and kind of honouring these characters. I think the Randy-Lahey relationship was huge.
Characters Jim Lahey (who was played by Dunsworth-Nickerson's father, John Dunsworth) and Randy (Pat Roach), were the trailer park supervisor and assistant trailer park supervisor, respectively.
Dunsworth-Nickerson: I think they were one of the first characters that were ever not a stereotypical gay couple. They were not a stereotypical anything. Nobody in the park cared about them being gay, and it wasn't even really part of the storyline, it was just a fact.
Smith: I thought it was one of the greatest love stories in Canadian [television].
The show wasn't an immediate hit. The cast said it was around 2003 — which is when Season 3 aired — when they realized Trailer Park Boys was becoming huge.
Wells: We went on tour with Our Lady Peace and Seether and Finger 11 back in 2003 and the first show was in Kelowna, [B.C.]. We were nervous as hell going on stage. And we were like, "OK, if 10 per cent of the people in here know who we are, this would be OK." And as soon as we went on stage, the entire place just erupted. It went nuts. And I was like, "OK, I guess pretty much everybody here knows who we are." So then I started to realize that we're reaching a broader audience than just, you know, Nova Scotia.
Tremblay: We'd be at the Toronto airport and we'd have, like, seven nuns, the youngest being 72, coming up, wanting our autographs and to take a picture with us. At that point, we're like, "Wow, this is reaching a lot more than just people our age and younger people."
Smith: Nobody recognized me back then because I didn't look like Bubbles at all. I could pretty much operate [incognito]. I would only get recognized if I was standing with [them].
Dunsworth-Nickerson said before the start of the third season, there was a launch party at the Marquee on Gottingen Street in Halifax.
Dunsworth-Nickerson: Nobody came, and it wasn't that it wasn't publicized. It was kind of embarrassing. We felt like losers. And then the next year, we showed up and there was a lineup around the block.
From there, the show took off. Along the way, some of the projects have included three feature films, live shows around the globe, Trailer Park Boys-themed whisky, beer and cannabis, an animated series, a deal with Netflix and establishing their own streaming platform, Swearnet. Trailer Park Boys wrapped its 12th season in 2018.
The Trailer Park Boys brand has had incredible success.
Dunsworth-Nickerson: It was nice to see my dad get famous because he was always Halifax famous, but he was such a gregarious, open person who loved to talk to people, so that was kind of cool watching.
Smith: I think people will always come back to shows that are based around family, love, that kind of stuff. I think shows like that will always resonate with people, and they just become so familiar with the characters, they almost think of them like family. I guess we're like comfort food or something.
Wells: We got to see a lot of wonderful places. Some of the greatest memories for me are meeting a veteran that said we were the only thing that helped get them through over in Iraq, different stories like that. And that's what really makes it worthwhile for me.
Tremblay: This show has done a lot for people with mental health issues, and we've talked to so many soldiers and people that have mental health problems. A lot of these people have reached out to us and told us so many different stories over the years that that's been one thing that's motivated us to continue.
But as high as the highs have been, there have been some lows: the cancellation of the provincial film tax credit in 2015 and the introduction of its replacement; inappropriate comments made by Snoop Dogg to a female camera operator during a news interview while the rapper was in Nova Scotia for a guest appearance on the show; a 2016 assault charge in Los Angeles against Smith that was later dropped; and the 2017 death of star John Dunsworth.
Tremblay: The lowest for us have been the death of some of our cast, especially John Dunsworth and Phil Collins [played by Richard Collins]. And Shitty Bill [played by Brian Huggins], that was a tough blow, and it was hard to pick up the pieces.
Wells: It's been challenging getting through some of the lows, for sure. But we've all stuck together and we've got through it.
Twenty years after Trailer Park Boys first aired, the trio's efforts are now focused on Trailer Park Boys: Jail. While many seasons of the show inevitably involved the main characters going to jail because of their criminal plots failing, most of the show was set in the trailer park. Trailer Park Boys: Jail changes that.
Tremblay: We just hope that people will continue watching the show and we hope we don't disappoint them.
Wells: Right now, everybody needs laughter, and it's definitely the best medicine. As long as they keep enjoying it, we'll keep trying to put out content.