September 15, 2019

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Back to school

Degrassi stars Pat Mastroianni and Stacie Mistysyn — Joey and Caitlin — revisit series finale

Joey Jeremiah wasn’t as cool as everyone thought he was.

“I played the character of how I thought cool people are like in high school. The guy was suave with the girls and fearless, but I think fans could look into his eyes and see a shy awkward kid who wanted to be accepted,” says Pat Mastroianni, who knows Jeremiah better than anybody: the actor portrayed the iconic teen character on Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High and later as an adult on Degrassi the Next Generation.

To many Canadian kids growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, Jeremiah was the epitome of cool. He played in a band, the Zit Remedy (later the Zits), who only had one song, Everybody Wants Something; he was a joker who had plenty of friends; and his girlfriend was Caitlin, the crush of many teenage boys watching the show on CBC.

“If you knew me in Grade 9 you would say, ‘You are nothing like that character. You don’t have the confidence, you don’t have the bravado.’ I was insecure and very naive. I didn’t know anything. I was awkward, and would go to the arcade after school with my awkward friends,” Mastroianni says over the phone from Toronto.

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Joey Jeremiah wasn’t as cool as everyone thought he was.

Event Preview

Click to Expand

Degrassi School’s Out with Joey and Caitlin Live
● Park Theatre
● Saturday, July 6
● Screenings at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., followed by Q and A
● Tickets $25, VIP $75 at eventbrite.ca

"I played the character of how I thought cool people are like in high school. The guy was suave with the girls and fearless, but I think fans could look into his eyes and see a shy awkward kid who wanted to be accepted," says Pat Mastroianni, who knows Jeremiah better than anybody: the actor portrayed the iconic teen character on Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High and later as an adult on Degrassi the Next Generation.

To many Canadian kids growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, Jeremiah was the epitome of cool. He played in a band, the Zit Remedy (later the Zits), who only had one song, Everybody Wants Something; he was a joker who had plenty of friends; and his girlfriend was Caitlin, the crush of many teenage boys watching the show on CBC.

"If you knew me in Grade 9 you would say, ‘You are nothing like that character. You don’t have the confidence, you don’t have the bravado.’ I was insecure and very naive. I didn’t know anything. I was awkward, and would go to the arcade after school with my awkward friends," Mastroianni says over the phone from Toronto.

Mastroianni’s experience off the show was similar to what fans of the series were feeling, which is probably why it struck a chord with kids of a certain age: each of the characters in the series had his or her own insecurities and problems, and the show dealt with each issue head-on.

CBC</p><p>The kids who went to Degrassi Junior High were a snapshot of Canadian society.</p>

CBC

The kids who went to Degrassi Junior High were a snapshot of Canadian society.

The distinctly Canadian series didn’t deal with fantasy like other teen series such as Beverley Hills 90210 did; the kids who went to Degrassi were ethnically diverse, had problematic home lives, dealt with real problems, drove crappy cars and dressed like the people watching at home.

"It was the yin and yang of television, but no one was better or worse. It was a different viewpoint. Beverly Hill 90210 had the best stuff, the best clothes and the best cars, and on ours, we had the Clutchmobile and the clothes were probably from the Salvation Army," Mastroianni says.

Being a kid of Degrassi

Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High were filmed in Toronto at real schools, mostly during summer holidays.

It took about two weeks to shoot an episode, with the initial read-through on a Monday, a final read-through a couple days later, two to three days of rehearsals and six days to film, says Pat Mastroianni, who portrayed Joey Jeremiah on the Canadian teen drama.

Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High were filmed in Toronto at real schools, mostly during summer holidays.

It took about two weeks to shoot an episode, with the initial read-through on a Monday, a final read-through a couple days later, two to three days of rehearsals and six days to film, says Pat Mastroianni, who portrayed Joey Jeremiah on the Canadian teen drama.

“I like to refer to my fellow cast members as a band of brothers. We went through this thing and experience together, and unless you were there, you wouldn’t know what it was like,” he says.

The cast was discovered through an open audition process with producers distributing fliers around Toronto-area schools. Mastroianni picked up a flyer and was one of 500 kids who tried out for the series.

"Producers were looking for authentic kids," Mastroianni says.

CBC</p><p>In high school, the kids who went to Degrassi dealt with problems of bullying, death, sex and relationship failures.</p>

CBC

In high school, the kids who went to Degrassi dealt with problems of bullying, death, sex and relationship failures.

The cast became extremely close during the filming of the show and would hang out together and do things such as rent cottages in the winter. But after the series ended in 1991, many of the actors went their separate ways as they furthered their education or took various jobs in the entertainment industry.

Mastroianni ended up joining another ensemble cast on the show Liberty Street, created by the team behind Degrassi, which was initially pitched as a Joey Jeremiah and Caitlin Ryan spinoff.

The show dealt with young adults living in an apartment in Toronto, but was cancelled after two seasons on CBC.

“Our head writer was the same head writer of Degrassi and tried to speak about Generation X, but the show missed the mark a bit. It was trying to be Melrose Place and Degrassi, but the cast never meshed,” Mastroianni said.

He joined the cast of Degrassi: the Next Generation from 2001 to 2006 while at the same time working for his father’s construction company.

“One day I would be starring on Degrassi and the next day I would be driving a dump truck. It didn’t matter that I was an actor, I wanted to help my dad do well,” Mastroianni said.

His father sold the business in 2010 and the actor signed on with a talent agency doing bookings at comic conventions.

He then started his own company doing the same thing, while also appearing at conventions with other castmates from Degrassi.

Seeing the interest in Degrassi, he started the website degrassitour.com and organizes all manner of screenings, appearances and get-togethers for fans and former cast members.

One notable absence is cast member Neil Hope, who played Wheels. Hope died in 2007 in Hamilton, but it wasn’t until 2012 that his family and friends learned about his death, reportedly from natural causes.

He had lost touch with his family, friends and castmates over the years.

During the series, Mastroianni even took Hope on a double date to his grad since Hope didn’t graduate high school.

“I wasn’t surprised. He wasn’t the healthiest guy. He didn’t take his medication and had an indulgent lifestyle,” Mastroianni says.

“I mourned him in my own way. When I was contacted about it by the media I didn’t want to talk about it. It was my own business.”

During the recent Degrassi Palooza fan convention in Toronto, a memorial book was left out for fans to sign and express their feelings about Hope and the character he portrayed.

The book is being donated to the University of Toronto that has a large archive of Degrassi memorabilia.

“I wanted to include the memorial in the archive and share the stories of the lives he touched and thought that was a wonderful way to pay tribute to him,” Mastroianni says.

Between the première of Degrassi Junior High in January of 1987 to the end of Degrassi High in January 1991, the show dealt with a variety of real issues teens were facing including pregnancy, abortion, AIDS, suicide, bullying, divorce, drug use, death, racism, depression, eating disorders, cancer and homosexuality.

The shows were never censored in Canada, although the United States, England and Australia all had problems with certain episodes, especially when it came to abortion.

"Most dramatic television at the time that dealt with heavy topics, drama and big issues were things like Hill Street Blues and E.R. — nighttime TV shows. Those were what you would watch for substance, not some fluffy kids show," Mastroianni, 47, says.

"We tried to find a balance by sneaking in a message without being too heavy. We spoke to them as friends. Whatever choice characters made on the show, there was a consequence."

 

School’s out

Winnipeg Free Press files</p><p>Degrassi High, School’s Out featured featured (from left): Anais Granofsky (Lucy), Stacie Mistysysn (Caitlin), Pat Mastroianni (Joey), Dean Ifil (Bronco), Kirsty Bourne (Tessa), Stefan Brogren (Snake), Mike Carry (Simon), Irene Courakos (Alexa) and Neil Hope (Wheels).

Winnipeg Free Press files

Degrassi High, School’s Out featured featured (from left): Anais Granofsky (Lucy), Stacie Mistysysn (Caitlin), Pat Mastroianni (Joey), Dean Ifil (Bronco), Kirsty Bourne (Tessa), Stefan Brogren (Snake), Mike Carry (Simon), Irene Courakos (Alexa) and Neil Hope (Wheels).

Those consequences all came to a head for several of the show’s characters in the final official episode of Degrassi High, School’s Out, a 90-minute movie that aired on CBC in 1992.

In the movie, the major plotlines centre on Joey cheating on his girlfriend Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn) with Tessa (Kirsten Bourne); and Wheels (Neil Hope) getting in a car accident while drunk, which results in the death of a child and debilitating injuries to Lucy (Anais Granofsky).

Additionally, the F-word is spoken by Snake (Stefan Brogren) and Caitlin, marking the first time the word was said on Canadian television. (The word was edited out in the U.S. when it aired there the following year.)

CBC</p><p>Joey Jeremiah cheated on Caitlin (right) with Tessa in School’s Out.</p>

CBC

Joey Jeremiah cheated on Caitlin (right) with Tessa in School’s Out.

The cast shot a few different scenes of Snake talking about Joey’s affair with Tessa and Caitlin getting mad at him for it, using phrasing such as "sleeping with" but no one knew what was going to air until they saw it on TV, Mastroianni says.

"I remember being in the basement of my house with the cast and some friends having a screening party… We looked at each other and mouths dropped: ‘Oh my god, what the hell?’ I think there was a huge inhale across Canada. I can imagine 1.7 million people watching and hearing that word, and kids watching with their families," he says.

Various online sources put the number of viewers at about 2.3 million, making it one of the most-watched Canadian TV movies of all time.

For Degrassi fans who missed it the first time around, or want to see it again, Mastroianni will be in town Saturday for two screenings of the film at the Park Theatre with Mistysyn, who will also participate in a one-hour question-and-answer following the movie. There’s also a special VIP experience before it.

“People were talking about how much it helped them and how they wished they could go to that school."

The screening is just part of the growing Degrassi nostalgia that has been building over the past few years as Mastroianni started recruiting his former castmates to participate in various fan-oriented endeavours.

Those include tours of former sites where the shows were shot, appearances at Comic conventions and pop-culture expos, screenings of the movie and Degrassi Palooza, a fan-centric event in Toronto on June 15 and 16 featuring more than 20 cast members, writers and directors. Three hundred fans travelled to the gathering from as far away as Australia, Switzerland and Maui.

"For these folks, this is them saying, ‘Some people go to Disneyland for holidays, some people go to Mexico, for me this my homecoming, this is my high school reunion because I could give a rat’s ass about my real high school, but these were my friends. These were the people I went to high school with," Mastroianni says.

"People were talking about how much it helped them and how they wished they could go to that school. Some people say, ‘You did this to get attention, to get the love,’ but it was the opposite. This was for us to give them the love for supporting us over the years and watching the show."

 

Humble beginnings

There wasn’t always such a strong attachment to the show though, says Mastroianni.

Winnipeg Free Press files</p><p>Joey (Pat Mastroianni) comforts Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn) following the suicide of a fellow student in a special one-hour episode that aired in 1991.

Winnipeg Free Press files

Joey (Pat Mastroianni) comforts Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn) following the suicide of a fellow student in a special one-hour episode that aired in 1991.

When the series originally aired, it wasn’t immediately popular, he says, noting cast members weren’t famous or recognized — even by their real classmates in school. "You didn’t brag about it or talk about it. It wasn’t popular. You weren’t cool if you knew the show," he says.

Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High — continuations of an initial series called the Kids of Degrassi Street — won numerous Canadian Screen Awards, Geminis and Emmys during its initial run, but gained renewed interest with the public in the 1990s when reruns started airing on CBC after school in the 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. time slot.

Suddenly, Mastroianni says he was getting recognized everywhere around Toronto, where he grew up and still lives, by people on the streets and in bars.

He knew he was famous in a Canadian way when people bought him drinks or he got to skip lines, but without social media, he had no way to know how far interest in the show had spread.

Everybody wants something

The Zit Remedy — later to be known as the Zits — was a band for most of the series, but throughout its entire time as a group, Joey, Snake and Wheels only wrote one song: Everybody Wants Something.

The Zit Remedy — later to be known as the Zits — was a band for most of the series, but throughout its entire time as a group, Joey, Snake and Wheels only wrote one song: Everybody Wants Something.

"Everybody wants something, they'll never give up. Everybody wants something, they'll take your money, and never give up."

The lyrics were simple, but effective. The 90-second tune led to plenty of opportunities for the band: the Zit Remedy managed to play a school dance with that one song, record it and made a video for it. Over the years, it has been covered by various bands, and Pat Mastroianni, who played singer/keyboardist Joey Jeremiah, has heard it in various styles from acoustic folk to ska and hard rock. (He admitted to never hearing Winnipeg thrash-punk band Propagandhi’s version, though.)

The Zit Remedy’s lack of skill was part of the show’s charm, Mastroianni says.

“The Zit Remedy was the band, you know someone like that: ‘You’re horrible dude. Give it up,’” he says with a laugh.

“But that’s why people loved them even though they only had one song. I don’t know why they aren’t in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.”

And for the record, the actors didn’t know how to play instruments, but were shown how to play that song, they revealed in 2001 during a mini-reunion on the Jonovision TV show.

That changed in 2001 when the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas held a Degrassi marathon organized by the programmer at the time, Kier-La Janisse, a Canadian who spent several years as the assistant programmer at Cinematheque in Winnipeg.

The event featured 10 to 12 hours of Degrassi episodes followed by a screening of School’s Out. Mastroianni and Brogren were flown out for the event, and it was then Mastroianni realized how much the series meant to people.

"It was an amazing time. We sat in the back row with the fans and I have never been so heckled in all my life. People were turning around and giving me heck eye. I got to see my performance affecting people," he says.

He returned to the role of Joey Jeremiah in the reboot of the series, Degrassi: the Next Generation, which featured Spike’s daughter Emma attending Degrassi Community School, where Snake teaches.

The series aired for 14 seasons, but Mastroianni only signed on for five.

"At the end of the day, it wasn’t for me. I was always in conflict with my character and the writers. I have no passion for it anymore, but I’m glad there was a new generation that was relatable to people. Every generation needs its own Degrassi," he says.

rob.williams@freepress.mb.ca

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