Hailing from Winnipeg, the Toronto-based Sharilyn Johnson has done it all – writer, performer, communications professional, entertainment reporter and radio host. An entertainment reporter since 1995, Sharilyn’s focus turned to comedy in 1998, serving as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg’s entertainment weekly Uptown Magazine and hosted three seasons of the weekly radio program ‘Laugh Tracks’ on CJUM. Sharilyn’s comedy coverage and contributions have also been heard on CBC Radio’s ‘Laugh Out Loud’, and featured in the Winnipeg Free Press and ‘The Apiary’.
In 2008 Sharilyn founded the popular comedy news site Third Beat Magazine featuring comedy related news, events, reviews, and interviews, and is the current Chair of the Communications Committee for the Canadian Comedy Awards & Festival. A student of ‘Television and Sketch Writing’ at The Second City Toronto, and ‘Writing for The Daily Show’ with J.R. Havlan (Writer) and ‘Writing for The Colbert Report’ with Tom Purcell (Writer, Exec Producer) at the People’s Improv Theatre, Sharilyn can now be seen at the Toronto Fringe Festival performing her one women show ‘Fake News Fangirl’, ‘the completely true story of one women’s adventures in the world of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert fandom’.
For those who are not familiar with the show, can you tell us what it is all about?
There’s an overall arc to the show, about comedy in general, sort of a personal philosophical struggle. The stories within that are all fandom-related, and each one serves a specific purpose in telling the larger story.
I talk about becoming a fan of both of them, how I met Jon, the greatness of feeling Stephen’s joy at a live taping. I distill down to a few sentences exactly why the tosses were always such huge deal for fans. I talk about how shit-scared I was to take the P.I.T.’s Writing for the Daily Show and Writing for the Colbert Report classes with J.R. Havlan and Tom Purcell. It’s pretty jam-packed. Oh, and the cocaine-fueled hotel room tryst with a former Daily Show correspondent. That one’s a real crowd pleaser.
The show is currently playing in the Toronto Fringe Festival, which is part of a circuit of fringe theatre festivals. Stephen did a show at the Montreal Fringe Festival when he was just starting out, so I’m in good company.
How did the idea come about? What inspired you to take your fangirling to the next level?
It’s a story I really wanted to tell, as a writer. I’m a ridiculously analytical person, so I’ve long been aware of fandom’s function in my life, for better or for worse.
As far as it actually becoming a show, I started thinking about it in 2007, but didn’t start actively working on the script until early 2010. I took a workshop with Molly Prather from Los Angeles, who specializes in developing solo shows. I ended up working further with her to sort through the 2.5 hours worth of material I churned out, and fit it together into an hour-long show. I was very lucky to land Laura Anne Harris, who also is a solo show wizard, as my director after that.
You started out as an entertainment reporter and communications professional. What made you want to start focusing on comedy? Did you always want to be a writer and performer?
My work in comedy has almost exclusively been in non-performing functions, and I intend to continue that way. While I really love sharing this story with people, performing full-time has never been my goal, and it’s honestly pretty shocking to me that I’m even doing this. It wasn’t long ago that I was an awkward, nerdy girl with stage fright. At least the stage fright part has changed.
I still cover comedy as a journalist primarily on the site I run (Third-Beat.com), have been in and out of television writing, and have been juggling part-time and contract communications gigs so I could have the flexibility to do this show. I’ve been away from the regular 9-to-5 for a few years, and frankly I’m really jonesing for stable office life right now. Horrible thing for a creative person to say, isn’t it?
Why do you think the show has been so well received? Do you think people who are serious fans of a fandom wish they could do something more with their fan status?
That’s one element of it, that the experience of fandom is pretty universal. I also think it’s a much more substantial story than a lot of people expect. It’s not just a laundry list of reasons to love these guys. I wanted to make it accessible to someone who has never seen TDS or TCR, but also provide tidbits that hardcore Jon and Stephen fans would appreciate. I hope I accomplish that. And a lot of people say they really appreciate the personal honesty in it. I explain my decisions, but don’t disown them, which I think is key in a show like this.
The show’s synopsis mentions that you wrote ‘horrible fan fiction about your heroes’. Was this show an extension of stories, or did you realize that there was a different, better way to express your inner fangirl?
The fanfiction is just an example of how quickly you can accept something so bizarre, simply because it’s connected to fandom. I definitely did fanfiction wrong. I couldn’t bring myself to write the guys in any type of, shall we say, “typical” fanfiction scenarios. So while my boring G-rated fics aren’t in the show, another fan graciously allowed me to use a very visceral piece of her writing. I never get tired of hearing the audience reaction to it.
I don’t think there’s a single “better” way to express your inner fangirl. It’s different for everyone, at different times. If writing a 20-part epic piece of fanfiction makes you happy, and feel creative, and makes you excited about your day? Then you should definitely do that. If I’m stressed out and need an endorphin boost? Munchma Quchi is just a few clicks away on my PVR, and there’s nothing wrong with having watched that a few times. Or a few hundred.
I just think it’s just important to pay attention to how it all makes you feel in the moment, and not do anything out of a sense of fandom obligation, because that’s not really the point of it. Easier said than done.
From the information on the shows website fakenewsfangirl.com, the show seems to mainly focus on ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’. How do Stephen Colbert and ‘The Colbert Report’ enter into the story?
Jon definitely dominates, because I became a fan of his a full decade before Stephen. There are some places where I talk about Jon and Stephen together, but the Stephen-only sections aren’t lengthy. I had to cut a lot. I’ve been backstage at TCR, been in the greenroom, met Stephen…. None of that is in the show, because it didn’t serve the show’s larger story. I had to be ruthless in that regard.
You mention having ‘an out-of-control infatuation with a young, hot comedian named Jon Stewart’. What is it about Jon Stewart that captivated you?
I was a 15 year old comedy nerd desperate for a hero, and Jon came along at the right time. The first glimpse I ever had of him, he was doing a bit on his old talk show wearing a pink sequin evening gown, blonde wig, and lipstick. And as much as I love me some deep, biting, political material? Goofiness is my weakness. I instantly adored him. And when they came back from break and I saw him as his hot self, I was like “well, that’s it, I’m sold”.
Cut to me hiding a copy of US Magazine in my driver’s ed textbook, so I could stare longingly at his photo spread. Needless to say, I failed driver’s ed.
When did this ‘infatuation’ spread to his partner in comedy Stephen Colbert?
My admiration of Stephen never had crush-like properties like with Jon, maybe because I was older when I became a fan. It wasn’t until seeing him in real life in 2005, on a Daily Show panel at Just For Laughs in Montreal, that I took any notice of him. We’ve gotten to know Stephen’s energy and joy so well, but it’s easy to forget that before the Report, he was kind of hard to read on-air. So when he came bounding onto the stage, being the way he is when he’s not fully in character, it was a wonderful surprise.
When I saw a Report taping a year later, my mind was just reeling afterwards. I’ve consumed more comedy than most people, but no performer had ever engaged me quite like that, or shown such a sense of love towards their audience. I was blown away. Still am, every time.
What is it about ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘The Colbert Report’ that make fans so invested in every aspect of the shows? Is it the hosts, the writing, the format, their uniqueness, intelligence or something else?
I think those are all reasons why people watch the shows. But when it comes to hardcore fandom, those who get strongly attached don’t do so because of anything quantifiable. It’s because it makes you feel something bigger, beyond just being entertained. It could be that these shows make you feel connected to the world in a certain way, or they’re the only thing that can take your mind off your problems, or something completely else. And again, this is different for everyone. I know what mine is, and that’s a big part of my show, so I’ll keep this one answer spoiler-free.
What is next in the pipeline for Sharilyn Johnson? Do you plan on doing anything else related to ‘Fake News’ fandoms? Would you do a similar style show for any other fandoms you are apart of?
Things are going so well with the run in Toronto right now, it’s tempting to tour this show further, but even a small show like this is a huge financial risk and major time commitment. I think it’s served its purpose.
While I’ve been a part of other fandoms, I can’t imagine those translating on stage the way this one has. I’ve been working on an essay related to another fandom, which I may or may not publish at some point. And if the opportunity came to consult as a writer on a similar project of someone else’s, I’d jump at it. But this show is really my best story, and I’m not confident I’d be able to replicate it.
What’s next: In the immediate future, off to Montreal for my annual coverage of Just For Laughs on Third-Beat.com, finishing a few freelance jobs, and ramping up my work with the Canadian Comedy Awards & Festival which happens at the end of August. After that? Sleep!