#1Dec 2nd, 2006
Maybe it’s because we Canadians are repressed or modest...or we watch way too much curling
BY SCOTT FESCHUK
Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, once remarked of his native land that Canada could never have produced a movie called It’s a Wonderful Life. Way too boastful, he said. Had the perennial holiday favourite been made by Canadians, its title would instead have been It’s An All-Right Life.
Rarely can a nation’s essence be captured in a single remark, but this one comes close. The punchline plays to the stereotypical Canadian trait of an almost-pathological modesty. It suggests a film that would be in keeping with the well-worn depiction of Canada as a country that’s every bit as unremarkable as it is polite, and it is always polite. Also, Michaels’s joke is funny. And few countries know funny quite like Canada.
Even with the international reach of musical artists ranging from Shania Twain to Rufus Wainwright, even with the border-transcending literary success of such authors as Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje, Canada’s most prominent cultural export remains humour. During the past few decades, Canada has definitively emerged as the class clown of the global schoolhouse: Many of today’s funniest American comedians are in fact Canadian—a list that includes Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Foley, Samantha Bee, Norm Macdonald, Leslie Nielsen, Michael J. Fox, Tom Green and Dan Aykroyd.
(And this is by no means a comprehensive inventory: It fails to include such legendary and departed luminaries as Phil Hartman and John Candy. As well, it leaves aside the touchy fact that, even to this day, no one in the United States is quite sure whether we’re trying to be funny with the whole Céline Dion thing.)
American commentator Sarah Vowell has asserted that the very notion of the existence of a Canadian comic flies in the face of the national code and seems as oxymoronic as an American communist or a Jamaican bobsledder. Comics must be bold and fearless and audacious! Canadians? Aren’t they the ones who watch curling?
And yet, of the 20 top-grossing comedy films in Hollywood history, almost half have significant Canadian connections, including two of the Austin Powers movies and three Jim Carrey pictures. On television, Canada is responsible for one of the most influential comedy series of all time— SCTV—not to mention one of the bravest—The Kids in the Hall—and one of the most satirically brilliant—Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom. And then there’s the unintentional comedy consistently provided by Pamela Anderson’s acting and Rex Murphy’s hairdo.
So what is to account for Canada’s prodigious comedian birth rate? Why, in seeming contrast to our mild-mannered national character, has humour become a defining pastime, practised by fabulous film star and ordinary film viewer alike? In a nutshell, why are Canadians so funny?
This question tends to dog the more famous Canadian comedians, who get the query from entertainment reporters more frequently than J.Lo gets a new husband. The Kids in the Hall once skewered the obsession by entitling a skit “Why Are Canadians So Funny? Theory #262.” (In typical Kids fashion, they didn’t so much answer the question as mock it.) Meanwhile, Carrey has come up with an efficient one-word reply: repression. And there may be something to that—although a man whose A-list Hollywood career was forged from laxative gags, grievous crotch-related trauma and a peculiar insistence on speaking out of his bum cannot effortlessly make a legitimate claim to being a tight-lipped introvert.
The search for an answer might more successfully begin with a consideration of Canada’s place in the world. It is, in a word, precarious, like that of a mouse alongside an elephant or, to update the image, a Twinkie within the grasp of Kirstie Alley.
Canadians exist in the shadow of the world’s only superpower—a titan not only economically and militarily but culturally a phenomenally prolific engine of film, television and whatever it is that Paris Hilton does. America is huge and dominant; we are small and not. And there can be perhaps no more fertile ground for the development of an entirely justified penchant for self-deprecation, which is an essential cornerstone of the brand of comedy perpetrated by Myers, Short and others.
Indeed, the nurturing of a healthy sense of humour can be viewed as an efficient coping mechanism for one’s inferiority complex. Or, to put it in a more positive sense, the ability, the willingness—and perhaps even the wisdom—to be funny reflects one’s reticence to take oneself too seriously. As Mark Breslin, founder of the Yuk Yuk’s chain of comedy clubs, has said, “Comedy is the cry of the intelligent and powerless.”
Throughout its history, Canada has typically defined itself by comparison rather than by declaration—as no longer a British colony, as different from the United States. As Canadians, we do not see ourselves as native to the continent’s prevailing culture, yet we are inescapably immersed in it, exposed to America’s television shows, drawn to its films, creeped out by its Joan Riverses.
The upshot is that we can dissect American culture and analyze it as outsiders, an opportunity that allows us to participate in a unique way, arriving from a unique point of departure. The late Phil Hartman once noted that the best comedians are keen observers of life. And most Canadians grow up as ardent observers of the American experience—in much the same way that, say, a nerdy kid in school might regard with fascination and curiosity the behaviour and actions of the influential and popular class jock. (The level of interest only increases if the jock happens to possess nuclear weapons.)
We have as a nation both a degree of objectivity and a novel perspective. In this way, Canadians are like members of the crew of the starship Enterprise beaming down to a strange new planet, using their singular viewpoint to take note of its quirks, eccentricities and flaws, and then necking passionately with the nearest alien female.† Canadians prosper as comics because comedy tends to thrive on the margins, on the fringes. The 49th parallel is in many ways the world’s longest undefended window display, and we are a nation whose noses are pressed up against the glass. This can’t help but shape who we are.
This past March, Carleton University in Ottawa held its annual Kesterton Lecture, a prestigious forum previously afforded to such noted Canadian thinkers as Margaret Atwood and Pierre Berton. The 2005 lecturer? Brent Butt, star of the runaway sitcom hit Corner Gas. The choice seemed in itself a profoundly Canadian statement—an affirmation that comedy is the equal of any art form.
Butt’s lecture was funny, and the audience laughed a lot. But the comedian was also quite earnest in discussing the craft of comedy, in relating what works, in explaining how dedicated he is to honing his skills and his scripts. If a scene is being shot in a field, Butt said, he’ll have his portable desk hauled out amid the wheat so he can sit down and write between takes. In this anecdote, in the tales of Jim Carrey’s relentless drive to make it in Hollywood, in the stories of the SCTV cast’s all-night brainstorming sessions, we are presented with another potential explanation for why Canadians are so funny: because no one takes comedy more seriously.