Culture  The art of conversation

Mile End talk show Parc Avenue Tonight

The Montreal Gazette’s Bill Brownstein has called it “a postmodern talk show.” CBC radio describes it as “a very, very, low-budget version of The Tonight Show.” Creator and host Dimitrios Koussioulas proposes an alternative epithet, describing his project as “the kind of show South Park kids would do.”

“Parc Avenue Tonight” is a new web-based micro talk show based out of Mile End. Koussioulas and his producer, Natalie Vansier, explain their show as a way to get to know Mile End’s familiar faces, to “discuss nothing in particular with the people we see everywhere, but don’t necessarily know a lot about.” The first eight episodes, all available online, include guests ranging from taxidermy-artist Kate Puxley, Rastafari food distributor Stretch, Mexican restaurant Tachido co-owner Mariano Franco, to filmmaker Matt Silver.

The “Parc Avenue Tonight” venture is just one of the manifestations of the natural curiosity that dictates Koussioulas’ life. When I first met him last summer, he had a job tending a posh bar on Parc. Before this bartending gig, Koussioulas dabbled in film animation, copy writing, advertising, and art dealership. He’s already exploring future possibilities, including a return to advertising, writing a book, and, most intriguingly, waste management. But for now, Koussioulas is invested in the talk show world.

“Parc Avenue Tonight,” with its candid and casual style, provides an alternative to the increasingly prevalent argumentative talk show model. “Those are the worst,” Koussioulas emphasizes. “The View is the worst. It’s a nightmare show.” The “Parc Avenue Tonight” team tried to keep every aspect of the show as straightforward as possible, in some cases to Koussioulas’ chagrin. “I wish I was wearing makeup, man,” he laments. “You can see some shine, man.” But overall, Koussioulas has a pretty good gig: he sits behind his desk – wearing his suit and tie uniform – asking the questions he wants while sipping brandy and smoking throughout the show. The emphasis on natural ease doesn’t prevent Koussioulas from delivering zingers to his bemused (and sometimes taken-aback) guests. In one episode, after listening to Puxley describe her creative process, Koussioulas jumps right in with one of his characteristically cheeky lines: “I like that you’re attractive and you do gross stuff.” But it’s all in good spirit for Koussioulas, who simply loves conversation. The show reflects the team’s desire to bring back, as Vansier puts it, “discussion for the joy of conversation.” In a time where politically correct and highly informed opinions seem de rigueur, many people have grown reluctant to declare a strong conviction, especially to a relative stranger. But unlike many prolific orators, Koussioulas is perhaps an even better listener. “When’s the last time I heard an opinion, man?” Koussioulas laments. “I haven’t heard an opinion in months.”

And Koussioulas wants to hear your opinion on (nearly) everything. Just don’t talk to him about your next vacation or where you’re going for dinner. These are the type of worn-out topics Koussioulas desperately avoids. The show itself was born of a desire to offer an alternative to the promotional veneer of most popular talk shows, by steering people away from the conventional interview. Koussioulas attributes this to his own forgetfulness, as he reports frequent memory lapses when it comes to straightforward questions. Be that as it may, Koussioulas’ offbeat questions seem for the most part to catch his guests off guard, lending a freshness to their answers. He largely glosses over career-related prompts, sticking to jaunty questions that can border on the absurd, but delve beneath the surface of their public personas. Franco, for example, is much more than an owner of Tachido restaurant – he is also an avid figurine collector. Puxley is more than a taxidermist  – she is also the wife of an Italian opera singer.

The 16 episodes making up the first season were filmed over ten days this past summer in Koussioulas’ Parc Avenue apartment. The continuity of the interview is preserved in an effort to communicate immediacy and authenticity.“ A couple of our guests were hesitant to be on the show,” Koussioulas explains, “because they were afraid to be spliced into some weird monster.” The episodes, which usually last between ten and 15 minutes, were each filmed in a single take, which avoids the possibility of misrepresentative editing. “It’s just going through,” Koussioulas emphasizes. “If you’re a fuck up, you’re a fuck up.”

So why the Mile End? “Montrealers are made to believe we’re secondhand international citizens,” Koussioulas says. “So if you do something in Montreal, you kind of presume nobody is going to see it.” A Montrealer born and raised, Koussioulas wanted to find a way to communicate his enthusiasm for his hometown. Restricting the show’s scope to Mile End allows for an in-depth look at the neighbourhood’s demographic. Mile End was an ideal fit for a micro show for the producers, who were in search of self-fashioned celebrities, both local and international. “In the Mile End you don’t need real celebrities,” Koussioulas jokes. “Everybody acts like a celebrity, everybody is ready to be a celebrity. We chose everybody based on looks,” he adds, grinning. “We’re from the Mile End too. That’s the truth.” With the three members of the “Parc Avenue Tonight” team living in close proximity to their guests, the show occasionally takes on a slightly self-deprecating tone. Viewers include less Mile End folk than expected, as YouTube stats show people across Canada and the U.S. tuning in. Koussioulas attributes this to an “underestimating of how much self-loathing the [Mile End] cool have.”

The show is already promisingly popular, leaving its producers pleasantly surprised. “It’s kind of like we’re drug dealers,” Koussioulas offers. “We’re like here, you like this, you want more in your veins? Maybe you should hire us.” Parc Avenue Tonight has also garnered a surprising amount of praise from mainstream media, and producers have been approached by advertisers. “I wish we had known so many people would watch it,” says Koussioulas. “We might have done it differently.”

Vansier points out that the challenge with web television is getting people into the rhythm of watching the new episode every Thursday. But the “Parc Avenue Tonight” team sees the silver lining to its underfunding. “Without any money we can be as lazy as we want, which is true Mile End spirit,” Koussioulas argues. “Being a good creative person is doing the least amount of work possible.”

This doesn’t mean the team doesn’t have an eye for details. “No one’s asked me about the bananas yet!” Koussioulas exclaims when I bring it up. Koussioulas offers a banana to his guest at the end of each episode. “Instead of having a time signal,” Vansier explains, “I’d wave him a banana.” Koussioulas recounts how he used to draw banana and apple cartoons for a girl he loved. “I draw cartoon bananas really well. I love bananas. It’s my favourite fruit.” Vansier and Koussioulas promise to clear up the banana myth when filmmaker Mark Slutsky comes in on January 17 to demonstrates how to peel a banana.

Bananas aside, where exactly does “Parc Avenue Tonight” fall on the spectrum between journalism and entertainment? Admittedly, the project seems to have taken off at a somewhat lackadaisical angle. But their approach appears to have shifted somewhere along the way. “What you have to prove with a talk show,” Koussioulas explains, “is that you can be interesting: be random and spontaneous; have something to say everyday.” After asking so many silly questions in an attempt to avoid the blatant self-promotion of many talk show guests, Koussioulas seems to have discovered that these silly questions were, after all, not all that silly. “Parc Avenue Tonight” reminds its viewers that what makes individuals unique tends to lie in the seemingly mundane details. Their probing interviews reveal multifaceted characters, making guests appealing as bizarrely fascinating – and ultimately real – people. Whether the Parc Avenue Tonight team knew they would come up with these attention-grabbing portraits is unclear, but it works. Beyond appealing to their viewers, the results seem to have taken the creators themselves by surprise.