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GP25May05: Canadas Shrinkwrap Comedians

Canadian Style.  Some 25 years ago, in Toronto, we quit the offices of the multinational we were visiting around 4 pm, and repaired to one of the handful of clubs our gang frequented in those days.  There you would clear the head, down a few, and pick up on what was happening in business, particularly in the mining, petroleum, and banking industries. 

Over on one side of the main room, we spied a blondish lady with a sculpted head more ample than you usually find on Canadians who was joking with several members as well as taking a few dollars off their hands.  As we drew closer, we found out she was selling ties, one grey and one maroon, both embellished with some very decorous cursive script writing.  Obviously a commemorative tie we thought.  The words were blurry, though we were sure they were distinguished, possibly a Latin phrase.  Only slowly, very slowly, did we learn that they spelled “F--- You.”  We bought a couple and told her that she had a great future as a purveyor of Canadian style. 

A Special Wit.  We suspect these knotty ties—with a patina of elegance mated to verbal fisticuffs—may sum up comedy in Canada.  Perhaps it grows out of the special Canadian circumstance.  Around 60% of the size of Russia, Canada is the second largest nation by area in the world, just ahead of the United States. But its population is a mere 33 million, vacant spaces separating many of its people.  This is big country that feels like a small nation. You act differently if you are a small fish in a big pond, even if you own the pond. 

Moreover, it never has completely become a nation.  Coming into being as a dominion on July 1, 1867, taking its name from the 16th-century explorer Jacques Cartier, who heard the Indians call their settlements kanata and so came to refer to the whole country as Canada, it has really been 3 or more nations or settlements ever since.  Ontario and Quebec at its center (two provinces that squabble with each other) tend to lord it over the provinces to the West as well as the Maritime Provinces along the Atlantic, which, in return, seethe with resentment and contempt.  All of this and more, as one can read in Canadian literature and media, makes Canadians unsure of their identity.  One can argue, in fact, that  the nation has no identity, that there is no real nation.  But, for sure, there is a Canadian culture, and from that we think Canadians derive their identity.  

Because it is a small nation or nations in a big land, Canada is always trying to cut things down to size.  Hoping to make reality more pliant.  We encountered this years ago when dealing with a huge forest products corporation that worked at being invisible, trying to be just a small little company down the block.  The Canadian comics have no room for world historical heroes and labor to cast everybody in sight as shorties from a small town. Garrison Keillor twice over.  They’ll take you down a peg.  Not for Canadians are the bragging jokes and stories of Texas that manage to make molehills into mountains and mortals into giants.  As the comedian Steve Martin once remarked, “Let’s get small.”  Of course, he must have been talking about the Canadians. 

Even the Prime Minister shrinks.  Paul Martin stood 8 feet tall as Finance Minister, having gotten the nation’s finances under control.  But now he has withered, and is down to half the size under pressure from scandal, missteps, and a no-confidence vote where he just squeaked through by one vote.  We suspect Gordon Brown in Great Britain will go down much the same path. 

Even so, certain institutions do loom too large in the nation’s life.  To cross the border into Canada is to immediately  realize that government of all sorts is much too omnipresent in daily affairs.  This is the only government on earth that has taken us aside at its gates to question us about nothing.  As well, the major banks have crept into every nook and cranny of the nation.  The pols and the bankers have been a drag on the nation’s growth and creativity.  Comedy often afflicts people stuck in the slow lane through no fault of their own. 

This is not to say that laughter abounds in Canada.  Many on both sides of the border say that the Canadian often tends to the boring.  Nonetheless, the Canadians take their comedy very seriously.  Perhaps there’s an abundance of comedy, and an absence of humor.  We remember well the English lass who had taken up residence in Canada who told us of the many Molsons she met when out for a drink.  “A Molson,” she said, “is that fellow who comes up to you who is very thick between the ears, titantically boring, but persistent beyond belief.”  It’s enough to make you change your brand of beer.   

An Abundance of Comedy.  One Canadian audience measurement firm (www.coms
core.com/press/release.asp?id=438) would have us believe that Canadians are much more likely to visit humor websites than Americans.  Moreover, Humber
College in Toronto, we understand, has the world’s only post-secondary program in comedy (writing and performance), as befits something called Humber (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian
_humour).  Moreover, Canada, in the past few decades, has produced an endless list of comedians, most of whom have drifted down to the United States to make their living.  Most noticed, on both sides of the border, are Mike Myers and Jim Carey, hardly the most talented, but certainly the most cartoon-like.  The list goes on and on.  To get some idea of the  range of talent from Canada amidst us, see http://particle.physics.ucdavis.edu/Cana
dians/comedians.html.  For a bibliography on the development of Canadian humor, see  Don L.F. Nilsen’s summary at www.hnu.edu/ishs/ISHSbibs/CANADA.doc

A Serious Export.  Even with China, Canada is still our most important trading partner.  We take 85% of its exports, to include manufactured wares, petroleum, forest products (the source of a continuing trade dispute), and, apparently, a considerable amount of marijuana, although some Canadian authorities claim this just amounts to a trickle (www.freerepublic.

And yet Canadian humor, be it through Mike Myers or Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live, is an uncharted flow that has considerable impact on both countries.  It amounts to knowledge transfer.  That is, it is sending to the United States the ability to prick balloons and cut our swollen politicians down to size in a time of hubris where  we need to be reined in.  In fact, if we can comprehend how Canadian humor makes its way into our midst, we can better understand how small nations (where most of the creative things are happening these days) can better affect the high and the mighty.  It is through culture and comedy that Canada will ultimately claim its place in the sun. 

The Comedy Deficit.  More importantly, there would appear to be a humor deficit here that affects all of us, not just the stuffed shirts that head up our institutions.  Less jokes are drifting in over the transom or through the Internet.  The late night shows, which have multiplied, just are not very funny.  Stressed out America has squeezed out the light moments.  

In this vein, we would refer you to a fairly ponderous article by Warren St. John, “Seriously, The Joke is Dead,” New York Times, May 22, 2005, pp. ST 1 & 2.  “In case you missed the obituary, the joke died recently after a long illness, of, oh, 30 years.”  “It’s a matter of faith among professional comics that jokes … have been displaced by observational humor and one-liners.”  Simple to say, there’s a dearth of jokes and laughter these days, providing a big opening for the Canadians. 

By the way, we refer you to our own Global Wit and Worldly Wisdom if you find yourself short on chuckles.  We are starting to specialize in imaginary epitaphs written by people on the way out.  For instance, Johnny Carson penned for his gravestone, “I’ll be right back.”  

Two Centuries of Wit.  Canadian comedy is not all yuk: there is here and there a devotion to comedy divine.  Novelist Margaret Atwood deserves your attention, because her bright intelligence and keen wit are in the face of everybody to include the Canadian literary establishment (http://amsaw.org/amsaw-ithappenedinhistory-111803-atwood.html).   

But our favorite remains humorist Stephen Leacock (1869-1944), born an Englishman, who emerged through a tough upbringing to bring both humor and political economic insight to the Canadian scene.  Along the way, he studied under Thorstein Veblen at the University of Chicago, and did his thesis on “The Doctrine of Laissez Faire.”  As with many of the most interesting Canadians, he is a tale, not of one, but of 3 countries.  (See www.collections
canada.ca/leacock/t5-211-e.html.)   It is not coincidental, we think, that he wrote biographies of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, leading men of comic sense in both
England and America.  He remarked, “I detest life-insurance agents; they always argue that I shall some day die, which is not so.”  Of course, he is right, since he was immortal. 

In the present day, we suspect, the comic voice and artist who deserves our attention (and is getting it in the pages of The New Yorker and elsewhere) is Bruce McCall.  He does things with pictures and words that makes him a worthy, if slightly too complex successor to Steinberg.  You can get a feel for what he has escaped in Robert Fulford’s fine essay back in 2000 (www.robertfulford.com/BruceMcCall.html).  (Canadians, by the way, have also mastered the art of the essay, and there are many popular examples.)  He cuts America down to size by imagining it at its most grandiose.  For more on this, see designer Michael Bierut’s look at McCall at www.designobserver.com/archives/001950.html.  One of his books is called Thin Ice, something we suppose Canadians dream about in the thickness of their endless winters.  Since he drives about Manhattan, eschewing cabs and the like, we can only think that he has fled his past but that he also seals himself off, in his automobile, from his present. You will find in him quite a fascination with surreal vehicles, the output of a mind that put in a stint as a Detroit  copywriter.  (See www.wirednewyork.com/forum/archive/index.
php?t-2991.html and www.jamesgoodmangallery.com/mccall/pages/exhibframez.html.)

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