Very Important People host Vic Michaelis is very famous and has places to be

Very Important People host Vic Michaelis is very famous and has places to be

Vic Michaelis has places to be. 

Not least of all, right next door at the aquarium — the host of the internet talk show Very Important People hasn’t been back to Toronto in over three years, and has some sites to show off.

That long absence makes a certain sense: the improv comedian and actor is on track to nab an Emmy later this year, while also becoming one of the more famous Canadians (to be fair, Canadian-American) that virtually no Canadians have ever heard of. 

But they’ve done it by heading south of the border to craft their sudden web-based fame as the host an internet talk show series that now boasts millions of views across YouTube and TikTok.

Coincidentally, as filming for the second season of Very Important People begins next month, it’s also the next place they have to get to. 

A woman wearing a brown shirt stands next to a light.
Vic Michaelis, host of Dropout’s Very Important People, sat down with CBC News to talk about the internet, Twisters and comedy. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

Controlling the conversation

A sort of elevated reboot of an older CollegeHumor sketch, Very Important People tasks improv comedians with giving spur of the moment interviews after sitting through some truly incredible makeovers: ones that throw costumes and even prosthetics at blindfolded guests, leaving them transformed into aliens, misshapen body builders and, occasionally, screaming cavemen. 

That leaves Michaelis as the host: a character also named Vic Michaelis, though here they’re playing a journalist who is in no way, they stress, the same person as themselves. That unflappable cable access-esque character is drawn from Michaelis’s love of TV personalities from Carol Burnett, to Mary Tyler Moore, to Lucille Ball: all the “very physical femme comedians.”

It’s also helped them become a master of not only comedy, but also of controlling the conversation. I try to glean where they’re from, and am instantly, skilfully, deflected by their pitch to go see Twisters, in theatres July 19. It’s the beginning of a seeming obsession with disaster movies that runs through our chat. (“I’m not associated,” they quickly explain. “But I’m really trying to make Twisters 3.“)

Later, I learn they were born in New Jersey, before moving around the Illinois area for years and ending up in Kleinberg, Ont., at 15 — then on to a short stint at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. It was there that Michaelis built up the “Canadian style comedy” that still lives in their work: an unshakeable commitment to “whatever absurd premise is happening.” 

But when I ask their pronouns, I’m kindly brushed off (“they/them, she/her, not really a wrong answer on that one,”) before Michaelis congratulates me on covering off the pre-interview necessities. When I ask them what roles they’d like to play, they quickly turn the question around on me. I can only grunt out the first answer that comes to mind: “stunt actor.”

A four panel composite photo shows a grimacing woman being fed dry protein powder by a man wearing a lumpy bodybuilding costume.
Michaelis is fed dry protein powder by Zac Oyama, who is playing a character named Tommy Shrigley, a guest on Very Important People. (Kate Elliott/Dropout)

“So I asked what kind of actor you would want to be,” they cut in, staring with fake — but piercing — intensity, “and you said: ‘One where I have no lines, and my face is not on camera.’ “

There’s a silence. I blink.

It’s that full bodied inhabitance of the character that has built the fictional Vic Michaelis up into a kind of legend: one where fans make dedicated detective pages trying to work out the character’s arcane backstory gleaned from hints dropped throughout the show. Does Vic really have a twin sister named Katie who’s a vlogger? Does Vic really not know what “pleasure” is? Is their 95th birthday actually coming up? Are they secretly a bird?

It’s an intentional element of their show — finding non-traditional ways to engage with an audience that watches traditional TV less and less. In this instance, the strange mannerisms and odd details dropped throughout the chaotic show were deliberately designed as part of a large and complete secret character bio shared between Michaelis and the production staff.

WATCH | Get to know Vic Michaelis: 

Get to know Vic Michaelis: True, False or Challenge

Vic Michaelis, comedian, improviser and host of Very Important People, is known for challenging their guests with fully improvised interviews. This time, CBC’s Jackson Weaver flips the script, putting Vic to the test in a game of True, False or Challenge.

While Michaelis won’t show me that bio, they will share one aspect of the character: “Bird, confirmed.” 

They also note that the deliberate lunacy of the show, which pits them against their equally looney guests, often has them scrambling for a response — or scrambling to get away as guests throw heavy props, or pressure Michaelis to do things like take fake but unlabelled drugs or eat very real dry protein powder.

Their reaction to those situations is a result of the guidance they got from an acting workshop teacher years ago, which eventually led them to the strategy they still use.

Michaelis says that in that acting class, their role was that of a victim. “They said ‘We think you’d be really good at being like somebody that gets killed on a procedural.’ 

“It’s like the physicality — the death scene, the drama of it. And so that always lives in the back of my head. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, that is fun. Maybe I can be — What would a victim do in this situation?’ “

It is, to be frank, a truly insane character choice to guide one’s career by — especially for a second degree taekwondo black belt, who lists their father as their best friend and whose other major acting role is in the time-travelling, Hallmark Hanukkah movie Round and Round

Emmy aspirations 

But that instinct has led Michaelis to a prime spot, and the next place they plan to be: on the Emmys stage come September, holding a couple of trophies that not only validate their journey, but the shifting landscape of network TV, talk shows and entertainment. 

“It is so cool and crazy,” Michaelis said, “watching this, like, niche internet company venture into an award space with like some of these big streamers.”

They’re referring to Dropout, the 25-year-old production company known as CollegeHumor until its Sept. 2023 rebrand. The new name denotes a pivot to more awards worthy content, as opposed to the inane Jake and Amir skits and videos featuring messages from panicked CEOs of companies like Skype, Oreos and Tide that the brand was once known for. 

Michaelis first got involved in the company as a member of Upright Citizen’s Brigade, the Los Angeles sketch and improv comedy group — and contributed to some of the lesser known, lesser watched content.

But after a recent rebrand and the launch of a self-contained streaming service called Dropout.TV, the company’s outlook changed, and therefore Michaelis’s did, too.

Michaelis’s work transitioned to smaller CollegeHumor videos, to bigger and bigger Dropout roles — as the service itself positioned itself to take over prestige TV — angling directly for younger online audiences, and the respect that comes from traditional awards shows.

Very Important People is now gunning for (and is predicted by Variety to receive) a coveted Emmy nomination for short form comedy — along with other eligible online shows like Hot Ones that are challenging the staid and flagging talk show format

And its sister show, Game Changer — where Michaelis got their start — is aiming to invade the game show category and upend Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, which together hold more than a century of airtime. 

A person wearing a pig mask is given makeup by someone standing over them.
Ally Beardsley receives their makeover ahead of appearing on Very Important People in character as one of the three little pigs who has since formed a militia. (Kate Elliott/Dropout)

The success or failure of that attempted invasion will be a test of several things. First, whether eschewing traditional cable models in favour of self-contained entertainment hubs can pay off. Also, whether the answer to a lack of young people watching TV is just to bring the TV to them — as Michaelis does with Very Important People.

“So much of media is also meeting people where they’re at, right? And sort of challenging them to try new things and look at new things in a way that also feels comfortable,” Michaelis said.

“As opposed to, I think, fighting against online culture and TikTok and Instagram reels and things like that — why not use those in order to get people to support what you’re doing.”

But outside of the internet — the final place they want to go?

“People keep being like, ‘Well, what would you want to do after this? Like, what’s the dream?’ And I’m like, this is the dream. This is what I would want to do,” they said.

“I really don’t know what else I would ask for — other than to eventually be in a disaster movie.”

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