Jonny Harris: Finding the Funny

The host of TV’s Still Standing is on a mission to spotlight Canadians laughing in the face of hard times


By Peter Feniak

Photo: Alkan Emin.

How did Jonny Harris celebrate after watching his debut as the puckish Constable George Crabtree on television’s Murdoch Mysteries? He didn’t. “I was sure that I would be replaced immediately,” he told a reporter. A decade later, Constable Crabtree remains a much-loved character on the top-rated series.

In 2015, the comedian signed on to host a CBC-TV show himself. Rising above his own doubts, he scored again with Still Standing, a witty on-the-road series profiling small Canadian communities. With its audience growing each year, the show’s fourth season will begin airing on Tuesday, September 18. And Harris won’t be replaced.

As Still Standing’s inventive, award-winning production team shines a light on colourful Canadians in interesting towns, Harris is the glue that holds it together. “He’s a caution,” The Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle has written, adding, “There is a delightful quality to his genuine curiosity about the people in obscure places, and great skill in his ability to lampoon the town without crossing any line.” Quick, quirky, and endearing, Harris is fun to be around. And he has a mission, expressed in his voice-over at the start of each episode:

“When you grow up in a small town in Newfoundland, you see that people have a sense of humour about hard times. I turned that into a career—and hit the road. Now I’m on a mission to ‘find the funny’ in the places you’d least expect it: Canada’s struggling small towns, towns that are against the ropes, but hanging in there—still laughing in the face of adversity.”

Still Standing has taken him coast to coast to coast—from Skidegate and Tumbler Ridge, BC, to Fogo Island, NL, and Inuvik, NWT. And at each stop, Harris and the team “find the funny”—and lift community spirit in the process.

Harris wasn’t sure it would work. “I wondered if people would be a bit wary of us,” he says as we talk in Toronto, “if people would be thinking that we were there to sort of poke fun. I think now people realize we’re not there to roast them or embarrass anybody in any way.” April MacDonald of The Inverness Oran agreed in reviewing the show’s visit to Mabou, Cape Breton: “The show was not about scrutinizing the area; it was about a common understanding of what makes people and tiny communities tick.” As for Harris onstage: “Mabou wasn’t Still Standing last Friday night; they were doubled over, laughing in their seats.”

The show’s visits are carefully planned. The crew arrives in the chosen town—cameras ready—for days of discovery and joking around. Harris is on the scene shortly after, shaking hands, up for anything. He’ll dig mussels, prepare perogies, or help birth a baby goat. It all peaks at a rousing community concert with the host onstage, spinning richly entertaining stories saluting local products and personalities. Harris absorbs and masters a new 45-minute monologue each week—a task that would make most comedians blanch. “Memory is a muscle, in a way,” the modest comic says, “and that muscle is in good shape right now.” When I compliment his relaxed, quick-witted performance, he replies:

“Well, thanks. I believe that, yeah, we’re sort of doing a good thing. And if you think about it, it’s a bit like…well, sometimes the nicest thing you could do for a person or a community is get up in front of people and say a few nice words about them. It really only ever happens maybe at your wedding and maybe at your funeral. To get in front of people and have nice things to say, that’s what we’re doing.”

Harris and three fellow writer-comedians create the onstage monologue over intense late-night sessions. Not sure what will make it to the final edited show, their joking covers all it can. On concert evening, Harris’s colleagues warm up the crowd. Then Harris sprints out in front of the Still Standing backdrop—a vintage Canadian map lit with Christmas lights.

In the meet-and-greet that follows the show, Harris signs autographs and chats. “It’s sorta nice,” he says in his lilting Newfoundlander’s tone. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You know, we love this town, but every now and then you get frustrated about things. It’s good just to be reminded about what’s great about it.’ That’s always the best feedback for me.”

Wait—is this a comic completely without cynicism?

“You know, I’m just like every other comedian,” Harris says. “I have my periods of despair and gloomy thinking. But when I’m on the job, that sort of gets pushed to the side. You focus on the positive things, on the commendable efforts that are being made. You know, the level of volunteerism is amazing. It seems in every little town, there’s a pocket of 10 or 12 people who work their job, they raise their kids, and then they do stuff for the town. I really feel like it’s different from the cities.”

Laughter in the Face of Adversity
Harris knows something of small towns. He grew up in Pouch Cove, NL, “a little fishing town, pronounced pooch cove—nobody really knows why.” (Town population: just over 2,000; its motto, citing its far-east location: “First to see the sun.”)

Eventually, he commuted to high school in St. John’s, then moved to Corner Brook to pursue a degree in theatre at Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus. With those roots, Still Standing fits Harris like a glove. “You know our show’s tagline—‘Laughter in the face of adversity’? I think that’s a bit of a Newfoundland thing. People ask me, ‘Why are there so many funny people from Newfoundland?’ And I think it does come from knowing economic de­­pres­sion. Wit and hu­­mour are a way of not only enjoying yourself but having a bit of a spar with your buddies. It’s not about who’s got the fancier watch; it’s about who’s got the wittier comeback. It’s sort of a way of establishing yourself. Growing up, you ask your parents, ‘Why do people like Newfie jokes?’ And my mom, when I asked her about it, she said, ‘Well, it’s because we’re comfortable enough in ourselves that we don’t mind having a joke now and then—on ourselves.’ She sort of put it to me as a point of pride.”

Harris isn’t blind to the challenges faced by small towns. Fewer than 19 per cent of Canadians now live in rural communities, a vast decline over the years. Rural towns have had to confront loss of industry, the disappearance of jobs and families, regionalization, and balky cellphone service. “It’s hard to keep the young people, ” Harris says.

“There are so many towns that we’ve been to where people are fighting tooth and nail to keep their school because they know that without their school, it’s going to be very difficult to attract young families. It’s everything we grew up with in the ’80s and ’90s in Newfoundland—people don’t want to leave home, but sometimes they’ve got to.”

Harris gets small towns—and their eccentricities. “You can be a newcomer for 10 years!” he laughs.

And yet, he says, “I’ve found that despite today’s social climate, where there’s a lot of hypersensitivity, people in rural areas aren’t waiting to pounce on something you’ve said and say, ‘Hey, that’s out of line!’ People are proud without being precious. When I first started, I thought, I have to go out and do brand new material each week in front of people—there’s no way it’s going to go well; there’s just no way. But people are so laid-back and sort of happy to have us there that it always—or so far—has gone well.”

Doing Stand-Up
Harris’s parents still live in the same house in Pouch Cove, though he chuckles, “They purged the house entirely of me. I think my old bedroom is a sewing room now. Every time I come home, they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re trying to clear out the attic. Can you do something with this?”

His brother is a Newfoundland paramedic; his parents, now retired, made a cameo appearance in the Fogo Island episode of Still Standing, clearly proud of their son. In his younger years, though, they weren’t too sure where their son was headed:

“I don’t think they ever realized that I was funny when I was growing up. I think I was quite well into my career when they said, ‘Oh, he was being funny all the time.’ I think they thought I was a bit odd. My dad taught at MUN [professor of philosophy, Memorial University of Newfoundland] and my mom was a conference coordinator for the university, so they were very glad that I did that Fine Arts degree. In fact, they encouraged me to go. I sometimes say they’re the only parents in history to suggest theatre school for their child.”

In Grenfell’s theatre program, Harris did plenty of serious work. “We did some Chekhov, Three Sisters, which was great.” His talented class included Susan Kent of This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Sherry White, who wrote the award-winning film Maudie. He found his feet as an actor over five years at Newfoundland’s Rising Tide Festival—“a summer stock repertory festival in Trinity Bay, a lot of it supported by tourists.” He also “found the funny” in himself through sketch comedy, inspired by local legend Andy Jones, once a member of the comedy group CODCO:

“I put together a show, and we got a little bit of funding, and Andy actually came on as the director. The show was called Out of the Bog. It did pretty well—I got asked to do excerpts from it at the Halifax Comedy Festival. And while I was there, I was watching all the other stand-up comedians, and I thought, Geez, you know, I think I should write some material that’s more like what these other people are doing—straight-up stand-up comedy.”

Harris went on to do stand-up on TV’s Comedy Now! and shared great times with the wild sketch group The Dance Party of Newfoundland. He brought his talent to a number of Newfoundland projects, including the film Young Triffie’s Been Made Away With and the TV series Hatching, Matching and Dispatching. And then came the call to audition for Murdoch Mysteries.

Initially, his Constable George Crabtree was a bustling, overeager youngster who lightened the program’s tone as he shared criminal investigations with the cool, brilliant Detective Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) and blustery Chief Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig). Now, a decade into the series, his character has deepened. This past season, Crabtree was caught in a deep, doomed romance. To Harris, the evolution of the lead characters on the collegial Murdoch team has been a boon to all the lead actors:

“I get to be outlandish and preposterous, and I do relish those moments as the guy who got hired for comedic ability. But I love when I get a bit of dramatic stuff, whether I’m sent to prison for possibly killing somebody or getting shot or having my heart broken. I enjoy sort of walking the other side of the street there. And it’s true for Yannick and Helene [Helene Joy plays feisty Dr. Julia Ogden], and Tom. When they get to be funny, they really enjoy it—and they all do that very well.”

The Efficient Tourist
Once the shooting for Murdoch has ended, Harris returns to curling rinks and Legion Halls for Still Standing. Though the show’s focus is on small towns, he and the team took a chance in 2017 by taking it to Fort McMurray, AB, a city of more than 65,000. Harris acknowledged the exception to a capacity crowd at the Keyano Theatre, explaining, tongue-in-cheek, “When I suggested Fort Mac, I took the population statistics from May 4, 2016.” That was the day after a massive wildfire prompted a mass evacuation. “Wow, talk about Oilers versus Flames,” Harris joked. He was taking a chance at a laugh with a community that had suffered badly, but his sincerity shone through. “We were all with you,” he told the audience.

Still Standing proved a tonic for the cheering crowd. Fort Mac’s spirit echoed that of all the Still Standing small towns: it could laugh in the face of adversity.

“People ask me, ‘What’s your favourite town?’” Harris tells me. “And it’s hard to pick one, because you really do develop a bit of an affinity. In a way, I’m like the world’s most efficient tourist. You know, you move into a place, get to do all the neat stuff, meet all the neat people. I think for the crew, everybody who travels with the show, there’s a genuine connection, a brief love affair. A little bit of your heart will go into it.”

Harris’s profile continues to rise. Twice-nominated nationally as “Best Featured Performer” for his Constable Crabtree, he won a Canadian Screen Award as “Best Host” for Still Standing and, twice with his writing team, the award for “Best Writing in a Factual Series,” most recently for the Fort Mac episode. In March 2018, along with Emma Hunter of The Beaverton, he hosted the prime-time broadcast of the Canadian Screen Awards.

His busy schedule has its costs. “Since Murdoch and Still Standing are both going, I’m almost never home. Just every year a little bit for Christmas.”

What’s next? He’s not sure, but big-city life hasn’t captured the boy from Pouch Cove yet.

“Maybe in a few years I wouldn’t mind taking advantage of something a little more rural, maybe have a little bit of land, do some hiking, some dirt biking. I like the idea of cutting my own firewood and stuff. Yeah…I’m really looking forward to that, actually.”

Photo: Alkan Emin.