Degrassi producer back in school
At 36, Degrassi’s executive producer is young enough to tap into own teen memories
As a teenager 20 years ago, Brendon Yorke admits a bit sheepishly that he and a friend used to watch Degrassi High after school and mock it mercilessly.
“We’d watch and laugh. But, like, we would watch it. I’m sure people do the same thing now and that’s cool. I want to give them stuff to laugh at,” Yorke said.
The irony isn’t lost on Yorke, who at 36 is executive producer and head writer one of the youngest in the business of a show that plays in more than 120 countries around the world.
After three previous incarnations as The Kids of Degrassi, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, the show took a nine-year hiatus before returning in 2001 as Degrassi: The Next Generation, becoming more popular than ever. It currently reruns on Sunday nights at 8 p.m. and weekdays at 1 p.m. on CTV.
As it enters its seventh season, CTV and The N, a U.S. cable channel dedicated to nighttime teenage programming, have ordered 24 episodes, four more than seasons 5 and 6, and 11 more than season 1 of Next Generation, which started with 13.
Yorke, who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, says he was “a typical smart-mouthed kid who would get in trouble but would get good marks.”
That attitude, Yorke said, “is one of the things that I carry into Degrassi on a daily basis. You know what the kids are up to, you can remember the schemes and the scams, and the attitude you had for your peers and adults.”
After “blowing out a knee” playing hockey in Grade 11, Yorke stopped hanging out with the jocks and started hanging out with the “freaks … and the more creative types,” something he said gave him a broader perspective in writing for the show.
After obtaining two degrees one at McGill and one at Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts program, followed by a few years as a “gofer” in the television industry Yorke said he was no closer to knowing what he wanted to do with his life other than storytelling.
An unlikely opportunity presented itself when Next Generation started seven years ago and Yorke became the blog writer for the series’ website at a time when the Internet was beginning to explode.
That meant learning about 25 different characters and then portraying them convincingly for the hordes of teens coming to the site on a daily basis.
That caught the attention of long-time executive producer Linda Schuyler, who began the original Degrassi back in the 1980s.
“When Brendan was writing (blogs) as Paige, there was Paige and when he was writing as Toby, there was Toby. Boy, this guy had really captured the voices of the characters,” Schuyler said.
His first sample script was “torn to shreds,” Yorke said, but by season 4, he had authored one of the series’ most controversial shows, about a school shooting.
At the beginning of the current season, Yorke was appointed executive producer. Schuyler said the timing was right; he was about the same age as she was when she created the series and became executive producer 25 years ago.
The challenge for Yorke and his writing team is “keeping it fresh and making every episode feel new and different and high-stakes.”
The show is also about reflecting the true teenage experience and that means tackling tough issues like pregnancy, drug use and sexuality. A Next Generation episode dealing with abortion did not air for several years in the U.S., but when it did, it was one of the series’ best-rated episodes ever, Yorke noted.
“We would rather try to push the envelope and get reined in rather than trying to play it too safe.”
Season 7, Yorke promised, will bring some “really big changes” and will also follow a few of the show’s best-liked characters as they tackle university life.