It’s been 20 years since the Trailer Park Boys made their first hit on Canadian television.
The mockumentary, set in Nova Scotia’s fictional Sunnyvale Trailer Park, focused on the lives of petty criminals Julian, Ricky, and Bubbles, as well as their strange exploits — which included plenty of dope growing and even kidnapping Rita MacNeil to help harvest the crop on one occasion — and frequent drug and alcohol consumption.
Actor Mike Smith, who plays Bubbles said that”It was really like The Waltons, with guns and drugs and liquor.”
In honor of the show’s anniversary, CBC News spoke with some of the cast members about why the show continues to engage with audiences around the world — and its unlikely origins.
For clarification, the interviews have been condensed and edited.
Mike Smith (Bubbles): Sandbox was the name of the band in which I was playing. We were signed to EMI and toured Canada and the United States, that’s basically what I did for a living.
Robb Wells (Ricky): Right before the show, I was working for a company named Maxx, and my territories were Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. I used to work in sales, and I used to sell bathtubs, whirlpools, and showers.”
John Paul Tremblay (Julian): I was in Prince Edward Island, where I had started a pizza business with Robb Wells, and a year later, Pat Roach [Randy] joined us as a partner. We were sending stuff back to Mike Clattenburg, the founder of [Trailer Park Boys].
Wells: [The videos] were all over the place. There was one sketch we did about a guy that was selling cats door to door.
Tremblay: Another one we did was Quick Talk, where we went door to door to try to sign up people who wanted to take a course on talking faster. It was mostly Kids in the Hall, SCTV, and Tom Green.
Sarah Dunsworth-Nickerson worked in the film and television industry as an assistant director and casting director through her father’s company, Filmworks Production Services, prior to joining Trailer Park Boys. She met Clattenburg through an audition, and he later showed her the videos.
Dunsworth-Nickerson (Sarah): It was just Robb Wells and J.P. Tremblay joking around, making up characters and sending them to a friend for their own entertainment. And Mike said to me, “I’m going to teach them how to act and I’m going to make a show.”
Tremblay: He was watching this crazy stuff we were doing and he said, “Let’s get together and do a short film.”
One Last Shot, a 1998 film starring Wells and Tremblay about two friends who have one last night out in Halifax before one of them moves to Vancouver, was released in 1998. Although their characters were not yet identified as Ricky and Julian, the seed had been planted. But the film did have Mr. Layhie, played by actor John Dunsworth, who later became Mr. Lahey.
Trailer Park Boys, a feature-length film that screened at the Atlantic Film Festival in 1999, was up next. By now, the Ricky and Julian characters were in place. The mockumentary focused on two small-time criminals who lived in a trailer park.
Although there was no Bubbles in the film, Smith was in charge of sound recording and mixing. Behind the scenes, Smith had a go-to impression he’d use.
Smith: It was just a goofy character I’d always played around with when I was playing hockey and stuff. In the dressing room, I’d be playing that part just to make guys laugh. He didn’t have a name at the time. The glasses were purchased at a yard sale in Texas by a girlfriend at the time. Mike Clattenburg noticed it and thought it was a funny character, and I think he named him Bubbles.
Clattenburg and Barrie Dunn (who played Ricky’s father, Ray, and served as co-producer during the early seasons of the show) pitched the show to several networks.
Tremblay: And then, when Showcase expressed interest in picking it up as a series, we had to essentially shoot a small short film showing the character Bubbles, because they were unsure of this character on paper.
Wells: They thought we were making a joke about others.
The result was The Cart Boy, a film about two mall security guards (played by Wells and Tremblay) who confront Smith for stealing shopping carts from the mall. Bubbles wasn’t even Bubbles yet; the character’s name in The Cart Boy was Darren.
The pitch was greenlit from Showcase, and the six-episode first season debuted on April 22, 2001.
Wells: They were looking for new original Canadian content because they just started up their network and they thought we were a good fit.
Tremblay: And they actually needed some East Coast content, so we were the perfect fit.
Wells: And it was cheap, very cheap.
The show had an unusual look. It was designed to resemble Cops, a popular American television show about on-duty cops.
Trailer Park Boys was conceived with the intention of being shot from the perspective of a criminal.
With nods to donairs, Rush, Kim Mitchell, Lighthouse, and a Casino Taxi commercial, the show was uniquely Canadian.
Dunsworth-Nickerson: I’ve never seen anything like it on TV, with the smoking and all the swearing, the guns, and all the crazy stuff that happens. And it was like, “Are we actually going to do this? when we were making the stuff ” “Are we actually going to do this? Like, we’re actually going to do this and get away with it and it’ll be on television?” It felt unique and strange in the best possible way.
Aside from playing Sarah, Dunsworth-Nickerson worked behind the scenes on the show as a costume designer and a second assistant director at different points during its run.
Dunsworth-Nickerson: We were a small team at the time, so Mike Smith handled sound and [played] Bubbles for the first few seasons. He was a one-man sound team, with his sound gear strapped to him and a boom in his hand. Our grip was Trevor’s actor, Mike Jackson. There were a number of crew members who ended up in the show’s background.
Hidden beneath the show’s unusual look and crazy storylines, themes of love, acceptance and loyalty were rampant.
Dunsworth-Nickerson: I’m aware that the show has been accused of making fun of people in some situations. It was never about that for me; instead, it was all about cherishing and respecting these characters. Randy and Lahey had a big friendship, in my opinion.
The trailer park supervisor and assistant trailer park supervisor, respectively, were played by Jim Lahey (Dunsworth-father, Nickerson’s John Dunsworth) and Randy (Pat Roach).
Dunsworth-Nickerson: I believe they were one of the first gay couples who were not stereotypical. They didn’t fit into any stereotypes. Nobody in the park seemed to mind that they were gay, and it wasn’t even a plot point; it was just a fact.
Smith: It was one of the best love stories I’d ever seen on Canadian television.
The show didn’t hit right away. The cast said that they knew Trailer Park Boys was becoming huge around 2003, when Season 3 aired.
Wells: In 2003, we went on tour with Our Lady Peace, Seether, and Finger 11, and our first show was in Kelowna, [B.C.]. We were terrified as hell going on stage. And as soon as we stepped onto the stage, the entire place erupted. It was completely out of control. And I was like, “OK, I guess pretty much everybody here knows who we are.” And then I realized that we’re reaching out to more people than just Nova Scotia.
Tremblay: We’d be at the Toronto airport, and seven nuns, the youngest of whom was 72, would come up to us and ask for our autographs and a photo with us. At that point, we’re like, “Wow, this is reaching a lot more than just people our age and younger people.”
Smith: Back then, no one knew me because I didn’t look anything like Bubbles. I’m pretty good at operating [incognito]. Only if I was standing next to [them] would I be recognized.
According to Dunsworth-Nickerson, a launch party was held at the Marquee on Gottingen Street in Halifax prior to the start of the third season.
Dunsworth-Nickerson (Dunsworth-Nickerson): Nobody showed up, and it wasn’t because it wasn’t publicized. It was a little embarrassing. We had the feeling that we were losers. The following year, when we arrived, there was a line around the block.
The show took off from there. Three feature films, live shows around the world, Trailer Park Boys-themed whisky, beer, and cannabis, an animated series, a partnership with Netflix, and the launch of their own streaming platform, Swearnet, are only a few of the projects along the way. Trailer Park Boys wrapped its 12th season in 2018.
The Trailer Park Boys brand has had incredible success.
Dunsworth-Nickerson: It was nice to see my dad get famous because he was always Halifax famous, but he was such a gregarious, open person who loved to talk to people, so that was kind of cool watching.
Smith: I think people will always come back to shows that are based around family, love, that kind of stuff. I think shows like that will always resonate with people, and they just become so familiar with the characters, they almost think of them like family. I guess we’re like comfort food or something.
Wells: We saw a lot of beautiful locations. Meeting a veteran who said we were the only thing that got them through in Iraq, and other stories like that, are some of my favorite memories. And that, for me, is what makes it worthwhile.
Tremblay: This show has done a lot for people with mental illnesses, and we’ve spoken to a lot of soldiers and people with mental illnesses. Many of these people have reached out to us over the years and told us so many different stories that it has inspired us to keep going.
However, there have been several lows, including the cancellation of the provincial film tax credit in 2015 and the introduction of a replacement; inappropriate comments made by Snoop Dogg to a female camera operator during a news interview when the rapper was in Nova Scotia for a guest appearance on the show; and a 2016 assault charge against Smith in Los Angeles that was later dropped.
Tremblay: The lowest for us have been the death of some of our cast, especially John Dunsworth and Phil Collins [played by Richard Collins]. And Shitty Bill [played by Brian Huggins], that was a tough blow, and it was hard to pick up the pieces.
Wells: It’s been difficult to get through some of the low. But we’ve stayed together and made it through.
Twenty years after the first episode of Trailer Park Boys aired, the trio is back with Trailer Park Boys: Jail. Although several seasons of the show eventually involved in the main characters’ criminal plots failing, the majority of the show was set in a trailer park. Trailer Park Boys: Jail changes that.
Tremblay: We also hope that people keep watching the show and that we don’t let them down.
Wells: Right now, everybody needs laughter, and it’s definitely the best medicine. As long as they keep enjoying it, we’ll keep trying to put out content.