The small crowd at Toothy Moose applauds as Brian MacQuarrie approaches the stage, Moleskine notebook in hand. He opens it to the page his routine is scribbled on, rests it on a stool sitting in the spotlight, and grabs the microphone. He chuckles. “OK. I’m going to try some new stuff and some old stuff. Hopefully you guys are on board with this.”
“I like the idea of performing a show and everybody misses out on it,” MacQuarrie said while preparing jokes for tonight’s stand-up routine. “The best word I’ve ever heard in performance is turn-away; how many turn-aways did we have? How many people wanted to be a part of that show and missed out?”
Born in Antigonish, N.S., MacQuarrie has been doing improvisational theatre and standup comedy since 2003 when he was accepted at Dalhousie University. Since then, he has found success as a comedian, overcome a mental breakdown and is making a career as an actor.
In 2003, MacQuarrie became captain of the University of King’s College improv team and met Mark Little, Evany Rosen and Kyle Dooley. Together, they began doing sketch comedy under the name Picnicface.
In 2007 the troop released its video, Powerthirst, on YouTube and it went viral. Many members came and went in the early stages of Picnicface, but once their video went viral the quick jump to stardom solidified the official eight members — one of them being MacQuarrie.
“We originally started with four, five people in the audience, then we got to the point where we’d just see this lineup of people going around the block. It was like, ‘Really, you guys want to see us?'” says MacQuarrie. “We’d do a show, have some drinks … it was the best ever.”
The group quickly became recognized by big names such as Disney, CollegeHumor and FunnyOrDie. They were also invited to the YouTube Canada launch in Toronto, and began making an independent film: Roller Town.
Soon after the completion of Roller Town in 2011, The Comedy Network decided to give Picnicface its own show.
“It was the coolest experience in the world. I wrote a television show with my friends,” says MacQuarrie. “Fans were coming up to me saying they were fans. It was great. It was jarring.”
Picnicface was in the midst of shooting its TV show and was about to release its film when MacQuarrie began struggling with mental illness.
“Then something just sort of unhinged for me … I ended up having a mental breakdown,” he says.
MacQuarrie has a history of depression and anxiety. He was flying to and from Toronto and Halifax and was barely sleeping. He says he was purposely trying to gain weight. He was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, as well as marijuana, and disconnected himself from the other members of Picnicface.
“My brain just went clunk.” MacQuarrie mimics the noise and quickly twitches his head. “I lost my mind. Absolutely lost my mind. I rented a hotel room for three months. I would walk around the hotel in my underwear all the time. I was out of my mind. Several days without eating food. Just drinking glasses of water. I lost my mind.”
In the midst of his breakdown, MacQuarrie received a phone call saying that his TV show had been cancelled.
“I hated the idea of the show being cancelled. Some people were like, ‘Did Brian drive the show into the ground?’ Um, no. Even if I was out of my mind, I was signed up with so many contracts … if they wanted a TV show they could have made me do it.”
Picking up the pieces through teaching
After his show was cancelled, MacQuarrie says he apologized to everyone he could and began teaching students and people affected by mental illness. He volunteered at Dramafest, a three-day theatre festival held at Dalhousie for high school students, taught at Improv U in Quebec, and ran his own mental health improv classes at Dalhousie. Teaching these classes helped MacQuarrie cope with his own mental illness.
“I believed that I could change the way people thought about mental health. My manager said to me, ‘This is career suicide. Kiss comedy goodbye.’ And it was just like, ‘I don’t think that’s true. I need to do this for myself.’
“It was really humbling to have these moments with these people and I got to see their development as people. So it was one of the best things that I ever did.”
MacQuarrie met a firefighter at one of his classes and began to work out with him, which resulted in MacQuarrie losing a lot of weight. He tried to audition for the role of Lex Luthor in the upcoming Superman film, but was not hired. He moved to Toronto, but moved back to Halifax less than a year later.
After doing small acting roles for a while and doing standup regularly, MacQuarrie was cast in the Halifax film Relative Happiness. MacQuarrie plays Gerard, a failed love interest of the main character, Lexie.
“I got a call and was asked to do a reading for [Relative Happiness]. So I did. They said, ‘Well, it’s close to what we want’ and I was like whatever you want, I’ll do it. I’ll spend the days working on a character and you’ll have something that sort of stands out.”
MacQuarrie was also cast in his first lead role since Picnicface in the feature film Your Wife or Your Money, which is currently in post production. MacQuarrie plays Warren, a role specifically written for him, who has “this kind of unstoppable force who would do anything for his girlfriend.”
“Maybe no one will want to see it, but maybe people will see it in England. Maybe people will see it in L.A. or New York.”
MacQuarrie also acted with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara on the series Schitt’s Creek.
He has been applying for grants in order to write his own movie scripts and is currently writing an “anti-romantic comedy” television pilot with Petra O’Toole.
With the help of friends, MacQuarrie has also been working on a new animated series called Eric the Pillager, an adult comedy about vikings. MacQuarrie does the voice of Björn, a less than intelligent man who provides comic relief. MacQuarrie is most excited about the fifth episode because he came up with the episode idea all on his own. They are currently trying to get a deal with Teletoon for the show.
“That’s why I had a mental breakdown. I wasn’t living the way I wanted to. The people I’ve met I wouldn’t have met if I didn’t lose my fucking mind. I wouldn’t be working on this pilot that I like. I wouldn’t have got the movie,” says MacQuarrie.
“Yeah, the world is a terrible place, but it’s also incredibly beautiful. Life is fucking amazing … It’s taken a while to rebuild, but I’ve never been more confident than I am right now.”