It only takes 20 minutes for Jonathan Torrens to get approached by a fan. We’re sitting in the bar of a Fredericton hotel, talking and drinking tea, when the waiter comes up to us with a business card. He hands it to Torrens and begins talking about his band.
This is where Jonathan Torrens becomes the most Canadian guy in the room. He takes the guy’s card, talks about the band, even asks about management. There’s a four-minute break in my notes while Torrens stops to chat.
Over the course of our interview, two more people will come up and ask him for photos – and all three will open with the same line.
“I watched Jonovision every day!”
Jonovision ran from 1996 – 2001, and was for many teens of the era, the go-to show. It covered everything from sex education to hard-hitting topics like “My Best Friend Stole My Pants.” It was a talk show for teens, and Jonathan Torrens was our Ricki Lake. Only just out of his teens himself, Torrens was the relatable host and anchor of the show.
“As someone who grew up in the regions, I was always very sensitive to not wanting the show to feel Toronto-centric. At the same time, because it was kind of pre-Internet, it was really for a kid in The Pas, Manitoba or St. Johns, Newfoundland. It was a really cool portal for what teen culture is,” Torrens says.
“The really weird thing is when you say you’re doing a show for 12 to 16-year-olds, 12 is so different from 16. A 14-year-old in Vancouver is so different from a 14-year-old in Fredericton. So the show was kind of a hodge-podge of what we could afford to do and what we wanted to do.”
Torrens was already well-known on Canadian television, having done seven years as a host and sketch performer on the youth-centered consumer affairs show Street Cents. (RIP, The Pit.) So when he got in front of the camera again at Jonovision, he tried to keep the talk-and-sketch-for-teens format going, without much initial success.
The ratings weren’t huge at first. In fact, Torrens remembers busing in kids during school hours to sit in the audience. “It’s like, do you want to go to science lab or anywhere else in the world?
“I remember once I’m doing an intro and I hear beats. So I turn around and a kid in the back row is listening to his Discman! People did not care. So it was really cool when it started to get traction.”
Once the show started picking up steam, Torrens introduced “Jonopalooza.” It was the ultimate battle of the bands, showcasing Canadian talent like Wide Mouth Mason and an early version of Sum 41. On his stage, Torrens allowed many bands to get their first television spot.
“Jet Set Sattelite was at the Forks in Winnipeg, because we did a tour across the country. Tegan and Sara, they were on early on. Treble Charger was on,” Torrens remembers.
“But more satisfying to me in retrospect is all the kid bands that never would have had access to a national audience that got to come and play on Jonopalooza and have recorded video of themselves playing as a band. There were some great kid bands, and that was really fun.”
And that was part of the appeal of Jonopalooza for the audience. There was always a chance that YOUR GARAGE BAND could make it to the CBC! While the show was popular, its bread-and-butter guests were regular kids, just like its audience.
“We didn’t get marquee acts. I always wanted Sloan, just cause I’m from Halifax, and I’m a fan. We did not have Superfriends but (we had Matt Murphy’s next band) Flashing Lights. Matt Murphy is an unbelieveable songwriter so that was for me a real thrill. It’s funny, I was just saying to (podcasting partner Jeremy) Taggart, the Our Lady Peace tier, we didn’t ever get that. But you know, our ratings were pretty decent. It was good exposure for the bands that did come on for sure.
And it’s here that Torrens is able to name-drop with impunity. He’s worked with nearly every Canadian celebrity under the sun, yet still sounds humble and grateful for it all. He thinks back to hiring Scott Speedman for a Jonovision sketch, and meeting an 11-year-old Ellen Page on CBC’s Pit Pony. I ask him if there’s a performance where he just knew someone was going to be huge.
“Yeah, you know who I thought that about? Ryan Gosling, who was in a Jonovision sketch,” Torrens laughs. “It was some inane thing where he was a kid in his bedroom on the phone and I was checking in with him from the studio. And I remember thinking ‘this is like bringing an Uzi to a kitten fight. This kid has so many skills and he’s punching way below his weight just being here.’”
Jonovision was the launching pad for much of Torrens’s future career. From his turn on Degrassi: The Next Generation, to the much-beloved J-Roc on Trailer Park Boys, and now the hit CBC show Mr. D. But it almost didn’t happen.
Like many Canadians, Torrens wanted to see what else was out there, and moved to Los Angeles on his 30th birthday.
“I ended up staying for six years, and it was really partially out of self-imposed exile. Because by the time I turned 30, I’d been on CBC for 15 years. And it’s a small enough market in this country that I was dangerously close to being typecast as like, teen TV guy forever.”
While Torrens continued to work, he never found the same level of fame in America, partly due to his versatility.
“I learned that they want to know if you’re a Schwimmer or a Seacrest. And you can’t be both. Are you sitcom, an actor, or a host? We want to know what you are. So as someone who has always done kind hybrid things, Street Cents was a consumer affairs show with sketch, Jonovision was a talk show with sketch, Trailer Park Boys is a mockumentary, Joe Schmo was a fake reality show, I like the idea of being able to do a combination of all of those things.”
So Torrens came back to Canada, and to the CBC. Now he works on a Netflix show that shoots near his home in Truro, Nova Scotia. He hosts a podcast with Our Lady Peace drummer Jeremy Taggart, and he’s writing a book for Harper Collins called Canadianity.
“I guess I’m not a Seacrest or a Schwimmer. I’m a Schweacrest!”
BONUS VIDEO – Jonathan Torrens talks about his favourite ’90s CanRock bands!