Ask Michelle Daly what excites her most about her new gig as Toronto Film School’s Director of Writing for Film & TV program, and she’ll quickly tell you it’s all in the possibilities – a subject she knows more than a little something about.
After all, the Toronto born-and-raised creative executive spent nearly a decade as the CBC’s head of comedy, listening to the pitches of aspiring screenwriters, exploring their potential and ultimately bringing the most promising of those pilots to the small screen.
“When you first get a pitch from somebody, it’s a magical time when it’s nothing but possibilities,” said Daly, who managed the creative development and production of such CBC hits as Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience, Baroness von Sketch Show, Workin’ Moms, TallBoyz, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes during her time with Canada’s public broadcaster.
“I feel like that’s where we’re at with all these students, too – there aren’t any kind of roadblocks and no one is saying ‘no’ to them just yet…so, anything is possible for them. I love that kind of feeling of freedom and hope.”
A self-described “lifelong learner” herself, Daly took over the reins of Toronto Film School’s screenwriting program on Aug. 16 with a desire to pass along some of that same hope to a new generation of talented young screenwriters.
Toronto Film School President Andrew Barnsley said welcoming Daly to the TFS team to fill the shoes of Adam Till – who recently made the move to Yorkville University to head up the Bachelor of Creative Arts program – was an “absolute thrill.”
“I have been fortunate enough to have worked with Michelle on various television projects over the last 20 years, including Schitt’s Creek,” said Barnsley, an Emmy-winning executive producer on the Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara fronted show.
“Having excelled as a senior broadcasting executive, Michelle brings a perspective and approach that will elevate our students’ work and positively impact how they approach their writing careers.”
For Daly, a career in the television industry was something she gravitated toward right out of high school. She knew from the start that she wasn’t suited to a 9 to 5 office job – she wanted something different; something that offered a little less commitment and a little more variety than that.
“TV was so new to me. Nobody in my family had ever entered into TV, so I didn’t know just how amazing it was in terms of opportunity, and change, and all that kind of not-regularness of it,” she said.
After graduating from Centennial College’s Radio & Television Broadcasting program, Daly worked in production for about 10 years – including a stint as an assistant on The Kids In The Hall – before landing at The Comedy Network, where she served as the Director of Content from 2002-2011.
During her time at The Comedy Network, Daly managed the creative elements on such programs as Corner Gas and Dan for Mayor – an experience that prepared her for her next role as a production executive at the CBC.
“Then, after about two and half years, I was asked to become the head of comedy at CBC, which I gladly accepted because it’s an awesome job,” she said, admitting that, at the time, the broadcaster wasn’t exactly known for its lineup of comedy hits.
“The stars and moons aligned at just the perfect time. Corporately there was a nice change in terms of people higher up wanting alternate programming that reflected true public broadcasting, which takes risks and challenges the audience. And out of that came some pretty amazing shows that I’m super proud of and that have been recognized around the world – it’s pretty excellent.”
“We had such really great properties come in almost one after the other….and what they all have in common is that there’s a point of view in every one of them – something very specific that each show is wanting to say,” she said, noting that she’s most proud of her contributions to her ‘Little Engines that Could” – Baroness von Sketch and Kim’s Convenience.
“With Baroness, to make a show that has four middle-aged women be so appealing to so many – including straight men – is pretty incredible. And to have it achieve the success it did is even more so,” she said of the Rose d’Or prize-winning sketch comedy show’s five-season run.
“And with Kim’s, for so long as a broadcaster, I was looking for a beautiful comedy, set in downtown Toronto, that’s reflective of everybody in Toronto. I’m super proud of it.”
Looking forward to the next phase in her career, Daly said when Barnsley first approached her to lead Toronto Film School’s 18-month Writing for Film & Television diploma program, her first instinct was to jump right in.
Right now, she said, is an especially amazing time for students to be entering the world of content creation, given the diversity of options available to get their work produced and seen.
“You can just do it on your phone, which to me, is just so satisfying. I love the kind of fail fastness of something like that,” she explained.
“We see lots of people creating content on TikTok and Instagram – it’s everywhere and it’s amazing. It’s fascinating to me. I’m hopeful for what’s next and I’m really excited about where we’re going as an industry.”
While Daly admitted the Covid-19 pandemic has left everyone in the television industry “exhausted,” she also said she’s also been impressed by the level of resilience people working within it have shown.
“I personally just found last year so hard and challenging on a lot of levels – and I wasn’t a producer trying to get a show off the ground safely, while also responsible for a crew of 100+ people’s health and safety,” she said.
“I was super inspired by the industry’s resilience last year and I love how everybody came together to try to get the industry back up and running.”
With brighter days hopefully on the horizon, Daly is now anxious to help launch the careers of Toronto Film School’s Emmy-winning screenwriters of tomorrow.
“Teaching is totally new to me, but I’m hopeful that my lived experience and insights will be useful to students and can help shape their future careers,” she said.
“To be able to give back and to help people just getting started in the industry to find their passion for it is an amazing opportunity. I’m super excited to be at the beginning of this magical journey with them.”