Vanity Fair devotes its January issue to celebrating comedic geniuses, and more than a handful of the spotlighted actors and writers have Canadian roots. But before all that celebrating begins, an essay by Bruce McCall ponders the dearth of Canadian comedy, and wonders whether it even exists.
McCall, an ex-pat Canadian author and illustrator living in New York, offers eight reasons for the possible non-existence of Canadian humour, most of which are unfortunately longstanding clichés about Canadian culture and attitudes. But he’s right about one thing: We could be a lot funnier than we are.
He opens by describing us as a bunch of unassuming, agreeable types:
“Canadian society was carefully devised to run on the oiled ball bearings of amity and cooperation, ensuring a near-Scandinavian calm, as in: an aversion to firing semi-automatic Russian assault weapons into schoolrooms; the casual embrace of free health insurance even for deadbeats; debate over same-sex marriage that’s about as heated as that over licensing dogs; open arms to immigrants, swarthy and otherwise; volunteering for U.N. peacekeeping duties, no questions asked; and a national disinclination to jaywalk, even at three A.M. on an empty street, because, heck, they told us not to.”
True, we may be relatively peaceable, but we also have our share of shameful episodes when it comes to immigrants and first peoples alike. Not exactly humorous stuff on the surface, but the Americans and Brits don’t shy away from the dark stuff in their cultures, past and present. (Think Bill Hicks; think of Monty Python’s grotesque “Bring out your dead” bit.) So why are we all Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town?
Later in his essay, McCall pulls out a typical excuse for Canadians sucking at sharing our culture on a grander stage: American and British culture overpowers us; we don’t stand a chance. Canadians just don’t have the balls to tell it like it is and show the world what Canada is really like. Instead, comedians revert back to the same old tropes: hockey, beer, cold weather, being polite and bashing the U.S. Of course nobody else finds that amusing (and if we’re honest with ourselves — do we?).
Nor does cutting-edge comedy get the time of day in Canada. Take David Steinberg’s position on the struggle for air time: In an article on comedy guru Martin Short in the same Vanity Fair issue, Steinberg reflects on his short-lived comedy series, “The David Steinberg Show,” which was replaced by “Stars on Ice”: “Because in Canada, anything ‘on ice’ is better.” It’s clear why our brightest talents head south (Steinberg is now one of the leading directors of TV comedies in the States) — no one in Canada seems to give them the time of day.
There’s no question Canadian humor exists; the problem is it’s not living up to its potential. We have a lot more to offer beyond the few hackneyed characterizations McCall gives.
As his seventh theory has it, passion spurs great comedy, or any creative creation for that matter. The best thing that could happen to the Canadian comedy scene would be for its humorists to get passionate about topics other than hockey or beer. Nobody can top Bob and Doug McKenzie, so it’s time to put that routine to bed.
In fact, let’s put the excuses to bed, too, and start embracing all that is weird, ugly and fascinating about this country – not to mention potentially hilarious.