From South Park to Ormeau Park – US Comedian Toby Morton Relocates

Comedy writer Toby Morton on swapping the US for Northern Ireland, meeting Radiohead and our dark sense of humour

Northern Irish comedy collective Friday Night Therapy Live (see picture below) admit to being heavily influenced by American comedians and comedy shows. Particularly Saturday Night Live, with its ensemble cast of well-known stand ups and recurring character-driven sketches.

Celebrity fans include Jennifer Saunders, and recent gigs in Belfast have received very positive responses. Yet, few within the collective could have envisaged a heavyweight of American television comedy joining their ranks. Yet the recruitment of former South Park writer, Toby Morton, really did happen.

The man responsible for voicing cult characters such as Scott Tenorman, Mr Frank Fun and Ike Broflovski made his writing and performing debut with FNT Live at a sold-out, Titanic-themed show at Belfast’s Black Box in March 2012. In keeping with FNT’s irreverent sense of fun, Morton unveiled a short animation piece entitled Titanic 2: Irish Boogaloo.

‘I’ve been curious about the type of humour in Ireland, and have heard how dark it is, so I got a hold of several production companies all around to get an idea of what’s been going on in the comedy scene here,’ Morton offers by way of explanation. ‘I met with Chris Jones of the Belfast production company Green Inc to get an idea of the comedy in Northern Ireland.’

One thing led to another, and Morton was invited by Green Inc’s Marc McElroy – a founding member of FNT Live – to join the Belfast-based outfit. ‘I became friends with the rest of the cast and decided to contribute more for the next show,’ Morton says. ‘I’ve always wanted to get back into performing and felt this was a great opportunity to not only write but get back into acting and stand-up comedy as well.’

The collaboration will continue at FNT Live shows in summer 2012, before the troupe takes on the Edinburgh Festival in August. ‘It’s been a blast so far,’ enthuses Morton. ‘I’ve noticed that as a group we’re pushing to top ourselves for each new performance. What’s really impressive about this cast is that they each bring something different to the group. It’s such a rare thing to see, in my opinion.’

Having worked extensively in television, where there’s plenty of time to edit and smooth things out before a show airs, Morton is excited by the more immediate demands of live performance. ‘You never know how the audience will react,’ he smiles. ‘If they aren’t feeling a joke or moment, and the next joke relies on that reaction, then you’ve got issues. So it’s a great creative challenge to get what you can from the audience.’

FNT Live

Although some 5,000 miles separate Ireland from America, Morton reckons the only difference between the US sense of humour and that in Northern Ireland is ‘the way it’s spelled’. There’s ‘something about taking dark subjects and finding the funny in them’ that appeals to the Colorado-born humourist. ‘That’s one of the first things I’ve noticed being over here, and one of the reasons why I feel so at home,’ he laughs. 'As disturbing as that sounds.’

Certainly, South Park is known for pushing the envelope, but Morton – who cites Charlie Chaplin, Steve Martin and Monty Python’s Flying Circus as prime influences – remains pragmatic on the subject of taboos in comedy.

‘It really depends on the audience,’ he opines. ‘As a viewer, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that’s gone too far. There’s a fine line between deliberately writing something offensive and just being an offensive person. The storylines and sketches I come up with can work in any type of show or movie. It’s just that along the way I’m an offensive person, and it’s hard not to incorporate that during the creative process.’

Outside South Park, where he was a staff writer and voice actor from 2001 to 2003 and a consultant on a number of episodes since then, Morton has written for MADtv, had a presenting role on the E! network and been a 'script doctor' for Warner Bros and Disney. He also received a 'creative consultant' credit on the 2004 South Park spin-off movie, Team America: World Police, which saw him on call for last-minute dialogue changes and scene ideas.

Of his time on South Park, Morton nominates working alongside guest stars Radiohead (‘One of the few times I’ve been star-struck’) and the show winning its first Emmy Award as highlights, but most of all he recalls ‘the panic of needing to finish an episode at the last minute each week and those brainstorms in the writers’ room’. ‘I’ll always remember the collaborating process,’ he remarks. ‘There’s nothing like it.’

It’s often said that much of the great comedy writing is now in television rather than in movies, and Morton doesn’t disagree: ‘In my opinion, too many creative hands are placed upon film scripts. Not only that, but during film productions there’s just too much time to over-think the process and too many “executive decisions”. In television, there’s a simple core of writers, and things are done much quicker with less time to over-think.’

Similarly, a lot of the best television comedy writing is now in animation, with the likes of South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad! consistently delivering the goods. ‘You can get away with a lot more in animation,’ reckons Morton. ‘There’s nothing like being scolded for an offensive joke or scene and simply putting the blame on an animated character – and getting away with it.’

But for now Morton is focused on FNT Live. Despite his illustrious CV he isn’t worried his presence might skew fans’ focus at the shows. ‘Not at all,’ he says. ‘Whatever it takes to get people to recognise this group. I’m still able to incorporate my sense of humour in the shows, which is not far off from the type of humour they already have, and South Park fans will still enjoy what they’re watching.’

FNT Live perform at the Black Box in Belfast on July 6.