David Russell

Interview with David Russell & Laura Owen
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Connoisseurs of fine whines: Staff writer BOB ROSS finds Laura Owen and Dave Russell of TV's Complaint Department have a cult hit on cable.
by Bob Ross.  The Province 
August 2, 1992
(Copyright The Province (Vancouver) 1992)

"You know, you just can't get any good gravel in Vancouver," complains one caller.

Another grouses: "I went to a garage sale and all that was left were two cushions and a funnel."

And a third bellyaches: "My roommate refuses to pick up his socks. Could you guys please ask him to?"

Sitting in the Kitsilano studio of Rogers Cable, Laura Owen and Dave Russell are reminiscing about some of the vintage whines they've heard as co-hosts of The Complaint Department.

In the past six months the cable-access show has developed a hip following that's turned it into a late-night cult hit.

"We never know what to expect," says the effervescent Owen. "We get the regular complaints - about transit, about doggie-do in the park, panhandlers, that sort of thing.

"Then there's the truly weird stuff. Someone complaining that their dog has chewed everything, or someone else wondering why you're not supposed to fold bus transfers."

But more than anything, the show seems to owe its popularity to the two hosts' breezy banter.

Both Owen, 27, and Russell, 24, have roots in Theatresports, an improvisational comedy group where they met about five years ago.

"The show is like an improv situation where a caller will spark one of us to go off on a tangent and the other will follow along," says Russell. "We'll follow each other through the tangent and come back again."

Adds Owen: "The improv comes in handy because we never seem to get stopped dead in our tracks. Plus we know each other pretty well and we can hack on each other without the other one taking total offence or anything."

The Complaint Department airs live on the second and fourth Monday every month from 10 to 11 p.m. on Rogers cable 4 in Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby. It repeats Thursday at 6 p.m., Friday at 9 p.m. and Sunday at 11 p.m.

The show also owes part of its cult charm to its low-budget hokeyness.

One night a light-bar came crashing down in front of Russell as he did his straightfaced best to ignore it.

Another night, Iggy, a cameraman's pet iguana who appears as a guest host, decided he wasn't going to be removed from Owen's shoulder, where he was perched.

"I'm trying to carry on talking normally while I'm trying to peel Iggy's claws out of my sweater," says Owen.

Guests on the show are plied with Double Bubble gum.

Recently the phones went dead minutes before airtime.

"It was one of our hottest shows," says Owen. "The phones never came back, so we just had to wing it. We improvised, we read mail, we invited crew members on the set . . . we even invited anyone who lived close by to come down . . . and two people actually turned up."

They've also kept things loose by pretending to broadcast from Albertville for the Winter Olympics and, last Monday, from the summer Games in Barcelona.

When the brouhaha over aerial spraying for gypsy moths was at its height, they did a theme show by hanging the set with paper cutouts of moths.

It's hard to nail down the size of the audience, since no ratings are ever taken, but estimates have it as high as 40,000.

"There's a big recognition factor," says Owen. "I can't walk down Denman Street without people coming up and talking about the show."

It's all volunteer work for Owen and Russell, but they'd like to see the show move to commercial TV.

"We're making some overtures, but there's nothing firm yet," says Russell. "No question, we'd like to start making some money."

But they never want to start taking themselves too seriously.

"If it became a really serious platform, the show would lose its sparkle and the ability for us to have a little bit of fun with callers or have fun between ourselves," says Russell.

For the moment, Owen makes ends meet with a weekend stint as a newscaster on Richmond radio station Z-93.5 FM. She's also trying her hand at writing murder mysteries.

Russell aspires to be an actor, but he's taking a realistic approach, finishing his education degree at Simon Fraser University.