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article imageSeán Cullen keeps bringing the funny, in multiple art forms Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Oct 23, 2012 in Entertainment
Toronto - “It's a party game, and that's the atmosphere we're trying to bring,” comedy veteran Seán Cullen says about “Match Game”, the latest reboot of the classic American game show. “This version has got a little bit of everything.”
The multiple Gemini- and Canadian Comedy Award-winner is one of two full-time panelists on the show, the other being fellow Toronto comedian Debra DiGiovanni. Match Game, which debuted on Canada's The Comedy Network last week, is a new incarnation of the outrageous and often risqué show that became the most-watched daytime series in the United States during the 1970s. And while today's audiences are harder to shock than those of thirty-some years ago, that doesn't mean Cullen isn't having any fun.
“I'm loving it,” Cullen says. “We've had a really good time. We've shot sixty episodes in Montreal, every one with Debra and Darrin Rose, the host, and the three of us have a great rapport together. It's a lot of work, but it's very easy too, because it's so much fun being with these people. We have some great guests, like Andy Kindler, Greg Grunberg from Heroes, and Caroline Rhea.” Other guest panelists on the show include The Kids in the Hall's Scott Thompson and American comic Janeane Garofalo.
The basic format: Rose gives a statement in which a word is blanked out to one of the two contestants – for example, “My husband Gord has quite the sense of humour. In November, he put a 'Don't Open until Christmas' sign on his (blank).” Each of the six celebrity panelists tries to guess what word the contestant has chosen to fill in the blank, and each match wins fifty points for the contestant. The racier or sillier the innuendo, the better.
The original Match Game premiered on NBC in 1962, and it became a major hit when CBS resurrected it in 1973, with questions and answers often loaded with edgy double-entendres. Betty White, Richard Dawson, Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly were frequent guests. A French-language version has been successful in Quebec for the past several years.
The new series aims for an atmosphere akin to the popular '70s version, Cullen points out. “Silly, a little bit saucy, and a little bit boozy,” as he describes it.
It's a departure for Cullen, who has been a mainstay in Canadian comedy since the 1980s as a stand-up comic, improviser, impressionist, host, actor, singer, author and former Juice Pig. “You've got to learn where your place is,” he says about his supporting role on Match Game. “You're part of a team, and you're trying to figure out where you fit in. Darrin's got the hardest job, because he has to keep to the rules all the time, and he doesn't have much wiggle room. So we try to bring the funny and weird as much as we can. I'm in the number-six spot [in the order of panelists], the final one, so if there hasn't been a great joke up to that point, the pressure's on me to drop one in.”
This week, as Match Game runs on cable, the one-time star of The Producers is busy preparing for yet another return to the stage in Toronto. He's rehearsing with the cast and musicians of The Art of Time Ensemble's upcoming recreation of The War of the Worlds, the notorious Mercury Theatre radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel. Cullen stars as the young Orson Welles. “He's a hero of mine,” Cullen says of the iconic actor-director, who frightened listeners into a panic with the radio play's realistic-sounding news bulletins in 1938. “He was so capable and so brilliant.”
Although a gifted impersonator, Cullen is focusing less on mimicking Welles than on using him to serve the play itself: “I'll do a nod to Orson Welles, but I don't know if I'm going to be spot-on Orson Wellesing the whole thing. When you're just trying to do an imitation, you miss the depths of the story. I'm going to try to do justice to the story first and then see how Orson Welles turns out.”
With his reputation as a dynamic performer, it's a bit surprising to hear that Cullen loves writing most of all. He's written a trilogy of YA novels about Hamish X, an adventure-seeking orphan, and two further children's books about a Misplaced Prince. The first Hamish X book won an Arthur Ellis Award and a Rocky Mountain Book Award. “Now I'm working on a book called Dreamland, for my daughter Cleopatra, about these identical twins named Cleo and Petra,” he says. “I write one for every one of my kids.
“I love that stuff,” Cullen says about writing. “But it's a very lonely thing. The great thing about live comedy is the immediate reaction of the audience. I guess stand-up is probably the most immediate form, but I feel like I've accomplished something after I've finished a novel. I feel like I've climbed a mountain.”
And that's not all he's doing. Cullen's other projects right now include a new Teletoon animated series, Rocket Monkeys, and a sitcom in development that would be based very loosely around Cullen's own life. Along the way, he's also writing and/or providing voices for other animated series, including YTV's Almost Naked Animals.
“My career's quite scattered,” he admits.
Match Game airs weeknights at 8:00 p.m. on The Comedy Network. The War of the Worlds runs at Toronto's Enwave Theatre (Harbourfront Centre) from October 30 to November 4.
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