Speakers Corner: An oral history
The story behind the groundbreaking local media phenomenon that transformed the corner of Queen and John into the world’s first YouTube.
Cast of characters
Paula Virany was the video editor of Speakers Corner. She was entrusted with the task of going though all the video content every week and deciding what to include in each episode. Both curator and editor, Virany had a knack for giving the show an entertaining flow.
Andrew Currie and Albert Howell are better known as The Devil’s Advocates, a comedy duo who appeared regularly on the show from 1996-1999. Their schtick, which mostly consisted of them mocking people who appeared on the previous week’s episode, led to a Comedy Network show called Improv Heaven and Hell that ran for two seasons.
Dance with the Devils
Paula Virany: The Devil’s Advocates really got what Speakers Corner was all about, which was an interactive, public phenomenon. They were able to grab a hold of the footage on Speakers Corner and create a greater conversation about what’s going on, and I just love them for doing that. Some people said their humour was a bit spicy, but that’s what they were doing.
Andrew Currie: Albert [Howell] and I met at the Second City touring company in the mid-’90s and we were both on the main stage together. We definitely got along, had a huge affinity for each other, and had huge respect for each other’s comedy and styles. In 1997, we were at his apartment, and he had been trying to get me to watch Speakers Corner forever. I never had any interest, just because it would make me cringe seeing people like that. I think the idea of Speakers Corner was amazing: Having an electronic soapbox where anyone could come on pay a loonie, and the loonie goes to charity—very noble of Moses Znaimer. But the reality was that, since it was so close to the clubs, you would mostly get guys coming to the booth complaining about how they couldn’t get laid, and likewise you’d get girls complaining about why guys where such big douchebags. That’s what I didn’t want to watch, but Al sat me down and said, “You’re going to sit through an episode whether you like it or not.” Little did I know he had an ulterior motive: He wanted us to do a sort of guerilla injection into Speakers Corner.
Albert Howell: I had never seen anything like Speakers Corner before. I was fascinated by it. For a while there, I was sort of obsessed with it, and I used to videotape it back in the day when we had videotapes. Andrew and I used to hang out all the time and we’d be over at my place. I played a couple of shows and we just started making smart-ass remarks at the TV back and forth. It was making both of us laugh a lot doing that, and we thought we should do this.
Andrew Currie: We literally came up with the characters in maybe 15 minutes. The idea of the horns and glasses were just to hide our identity as much as we could. The British accents seemed a natural fit because they were pompous. The cigars were something we could do with our hands, and that was pretty much it.
Albert Howell: The reason we chose the devils outfits was because the first time we did it was on Halloween.
Andrew Currie: Paula [Virany] was really part of the equation. She could have shown us at our worst. She was usually pretty complimentary. We would get through all our notes and the editing was entirely up to her. We would keep going and going and going. Sometimes, we would make a joke about the fact that we’re running out of loonies and don’t have bus fare to get home.
Paula Virany: Another thing I loved about The Devil’s Advocates is people talked back. They dished out and they also took it on the chin. They did it with a lot of grace and humility. Those comments were spicy, but people were spicy right back.
Andrew Currie: I think we peaked the third time we were on. The third time, I had an idea that we were going to do a break-up episode. It started off with us on together and then we had some stupid fight and we basically said, “We’re breaking up. I’m striking out on my own. I’m gonna do my own thing. You do your own thing. Best of luck to you.” That kind of thing. Then Al did his own version of The Devil’s Advocates. He went sort of low-rent with that real guerilla, super-political kind of thing, and my take was all showbiz and polished. They both sucked. At the end, he happened to walk on set as I was doing it—and by “set” I mean the booth—and then we sort of made up on screen. In my mind, that was the best episode we ever did.
Albert Howell: I really liked the first one, just because it was so shocking. We were so cruel. I don’t think anyone was expecting that. There was another one where there was a guy who was very muscular. We made fun of him and he came back and made fun of us. We just kept going back and forth for a while. That was a pretty good one.
Paula Virany: We did a whole show, a special on The Devil’s Advocates. We felt they merited that, because they had done so much work. We had hours and hours of them and people saying we love them, we hate them, we’re big fans. We started getting fan mail. Then they got picked up by CTV. For two years, they had a special on the Comedy Network.