Hilarity reigns on The Debaters

THE audience titters as the host addresses a question to the debaters:

"According to economist Milton Friedman, capitalism is the economic system where greed causes what?" he asks.

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"Pollution, bigotry, alienation, climate change, the disintegration of the family, inequality, and votes for Stephen Harper," Charles Demers replies.

"That was good," Al Rae approves. "That was like a George Carlin rant with no jokes."

The crowd roars its approval and the stars of The Debaters take their bows.

The show sees 12 comedians make opening rants, square off with their opponents in the bare-knuckle round, and reply to firing line questions with astute arguments, pithy remarks, or bizarre claims. (The term 'Sasquatch' did not evolve from a timepiece manufactured in Regina known as the Saskwatch, despite Roman Danylo's assertion to the contrary.) After making their closing arguments, the audience chooses a winner.

North Shore audiences will have a chance to see it all go down at Centennial Theatre Nov. 29.

While hilarity reigns onstage, the show's West Vancouver creator avoids the spotlight like a prison escapee.

"It is kind of a strange feeling to put myself forward as a story in the context of The Debaters," Richard Side, 55, explains over tea at a North Vancouver café. Side is full of praise for the show's producers and comics, but is reluctant to talk about himself.

"The whole thing is about not taking focus from the performers. Maybe it's part of being a kid and keeping my head down," he offers.

Growing up in Dawson Creek, Side says he shied away from the type of verbal brouhahas he regularly provokes on The Debaters.

"I would avoid conflicts," Side explains, his normally verbose personality subtly contracting as he reflects on his childhood. "Six kids, two drumsticks at Christmas. There was always a fight at the dinner table."

As his show became a staple of CBC Radio and TV, Side has remained behind the scenes, watching a procession of Canadian comics joust and joke on issues ranging from the relevance of poetry to the necessity of government secrets to the attractiveness of vampires relative to zombies. That contrast between his temperament and his show is somehow unsurprising given what Side calls his "split personality" education at the University of British Columbia.

"The theatre department didn't really know what to make of me and neither did the commerce department," he says.

Wedged between faculties, Side says he once managed a production of summer stock for theatre credit and then wrote a manual on managing summer stock for his commerce class.

"I thought I'd try to double dip," he says, laughing. Side seemed destined for a practical career, but while deciding between attending law school and earning a master's degree in business, he decided to become an actor, writer and producer.

After a youth spent as a self-described "elite comedy nerd," Side was drawn to Vancouver's burgeoning early-'80s improv scene alongside local luminaries Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles.

He reveled in the freedom and spontaneity of the comedy, but says it was the structure within the madness that made it work. "You learned the liberation of being able to free-associate and just go with the flow within that specific format," he says.

Side eventually segued into television, where he had bit parts in locally filmed shows like 21 Jump Street and The Adventures of the Black Stallion.

He also served as a writer on Kung Fu: The Legend Continues and the video game Jackie Chan Stuntmaster and has played an elf in three movies including the Will Ferrell comedy, Elf.

Like his early theatre work, Side says part of the reason The Debaters works is its combination of tightly-written rants and inspired improvisation.

"It comes to life with a live audience," Side says. "There's something at stake. You don't know how it's going to turn out. We don't know who's going to win."

The Debaters debuted at the 2005 Winnipeg Comedy Festival, but after his initial elation in watching the show he'd imagined come to life, Side decided the program had run its course.

"We did the four debates, and I honestly thought, 'That's it, there aren't any more topics.'"

After 370 debates, Side can't seem to believe he's at the centre of it all.

"I'm the guy behind the curtain, cooking them up, trying to find who would be good in a fight. 'Oh, that guy would be good against that woman.'"

However, the notion competitive ire could strangle the show's humour is a concern for Side.

"I worry about ramping it up too much for the debaters because they keep track of their win-loss records. They can be really disappointed if they lose the debate," he says. "I feel like sometimes when Sean Cullen loses a debate, his feelings are actually hurt. . . (Cullen) lost pancakes vs. waffles, which was the rematch of pie vs. cake," Side explains. "He tore all the signage off the stage after he was announced as the loser of the debate and he stormed out."

While Cullen's tantrum was purely theatrical, Side says it's a reminder that comedy isn't a sporting event.

"It's part of the fun that there's a little bit of something on the line: there is a winner, there is a loser. . . but we don't want to play it up too much to the detriment of the entertainment."

While the show continues to attract top Canadian comedians and host Steve Patterson keeps plugging sponsors like "The Smart Kardashian Sister," and "Polaroids: what polar bears get from sitting on the ice all day," Side wonders what the show will mean for his life.

"It won't last forever," he says, listing his predecessors on CBC. "Air Farce, Madly Off in All Directions, Double Exposure, these shows that came up before us and have been like real marquee comedy shows for CBC Radio, they all have their day. But we're in a sweet spot right now, and we just want to see if we can ride it as long as possible. For the sake of my children!" he finishes, banging his fist on the table and then laughing; both because it's funny and to show that no harm is intended.

jshepherd@nsnews.com

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