Much like its residents, Canada’s sense of humor is genteel. And whether or not you knew it at the time, chances are you have, at some point, enjoyed a work of Canadian comedy. Kids in the Hall, SCTV, and Slings and Arrows are just a few of the shows that have leaked onto American airwaves, occupying the off-hour slots on cable television or streaming briefly on the US Netflix. If you’ve watched any of these shows it means you’ve gotten at least a sense of what has, historically, made Canadians laugh. And you know that in many cases, it’s themselves.
I should know: I was born in Toronto with my eyes suctioned to a television screen, weaned on a steady diet of patriotic comedy fare that played on the Comedy Network. There, the stoner-timed mockumentary hijinks of Trailer Park Boys played alongside the satirical sketch of Royal Canadian Air Farce, in which middle-aged improvisers would do sunny impersonations of flannel-clad citizens, harumphing politicians, and Quebeckers expressing their disdain for the rest of the country. I certainly wasn’t any of the people I saw being caricatured onscreen, but I remember feeling a deep sense of solidarity with them as I grew up. In these series, whether overtly “Canadian” or otherwise, I found my experience of being alive represented acutely and brilliantly.
Granted, I didn’t have much to compare it to. I’d had limited exposure to American comedy shows until I actually moved to New York, and even then, it took a long time to understand what people here found funny and why the Canadian shows I’d loved so much as a kid hadn’t made it across the border. I soon came to understand that Americans saw Canadian comedy as a toned-down, lesser sibling of their own raucous humor. Trailer Park Boys, for example, is full of crummy opportunistic townies who don’t get away with any of their get-rich-quick schemes, but many here would say that that’s basically just It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. SCTV’s brief lifespan was a fraction of what SNL’s has been. The Red Green Show, a popular sitcom-sketch hybrid from the early 2000s, billed itself as “a Canadian version of Home Improvement” if you just “add Canadian-born comedian Steve Smith and call him by his not-so-handyman alias, Red Green.”
I’m also aware of how “Meanwhile, in Canada…” our shows sound. There’s no doubt that our comedy offerings pale at the sheer scope of the American stuff, and it’s all fine and good to see Canadian comedy as parallel to American, tacking along the same hems of Western culture with just a little less venom and fewer issues to riff on. But I’m here to tell you that if Canadian comedy appears twee or irrelevant, you’re just not watching it right.
The best way I can begin to describe the magic of Canadian comedy is through one of my greatest comedic influences, a sketch duo known as Wayne and Shuster. The Canadian pair were touted as masters of “literate comedy,” which aptly describes what I have loved about so much of Canadian television. From the pun-based parodies of Wayne and Shuster to the quippy sincerity of Slings and Arrows to the extreme meta-humor of Lorne Michaels’ pre-SNL oeuvre Kids in the Hall, Canadian comedy could always be counted upon for its coherence. SCTV, with its star-studded cast of Second City improvisers, served up intelligible spoofs and clever bits whose apolitical nature certainly didn’t preclude them from timelessness.
There are practical elements at play here. Wordplay is not as reviled in scripts there as it is here, and Canadian content has always tended away from the scatological and the profane, leaning instead into the hyperbolic and the absurd. What the shows lacked in punch, they more than made up for in their consistency, as if laying bare a scientific methodology for humor-making. Even shows that seemed to move in the opposite direction of literacy did so consciously: Red / Green spoofed rural stereotypes with exaggerated lumberjack tropes; Trailer Park Boys took the inanity of small town life to a whole new level; Corner Gas somehow painted an optimistic portrait of a gas station using a revolving door of characters caught in an endless loop of folksy banter. Exposure to Canadian comedy felt like a UCB class for the price of a cable subscription.
Now, it may be irresponsible to defend “Canadian comedy” in such broad strokes, especially since a show like Slings and Arrows has about as much in common with Kids in the Hall as Futurama does with Cheers. And since I don’t like to generalize without a second opinion, I asked Brent Butt (real name), the creator and star of Corner Gas, to weigh in. Butt has been doing standup and producing comedy in Canada for upwards of 30 years. He agrees that Canadian comedy has a unifying characteristic, but for him, it isn’t literacy. It’s authenticity.
“With American shows, it’s a big deep competitive world with hundreds of new shows being made all the time, [and] that maybe restricts some of the freedom to jerk around,” he said. “When we were making Corner Gas, most of us felt like, ‘Well this is great, we somehow talked the network into doing a show about a gas station in Saskatchewan that nobody’s gonna watch.’ End result: there was an authenticity with Corner Gas, because we weren’t selling it. We were just doing what we legitimately thought was funny.”
It turns out, by the way, that Canadians aren’t the only ones who find this authenticity magnetic. Butt told me that Corner Gas has its loyal fan base of Americans, too, ranging from small towns in Iowa to major cities like Detroit and New York City. Like me, they have pointed to how “the comedy and the humor is different in what they see,” that “there’s a strange wordplay, and [it] has its own rhythm to it.”
Notwithstanding its ability to self-deprecate, Canada can’t catch a break. Last year, John Oliver performed a 15-minute segment about Canadian politics on Last Week Tonight, taking the country’s 2016 prime ministerial candidates to task with such quintessential British vehemence that many used it as a balm for their rising panic surrounding the American election. I noticed that while my fellow expats stateside were all sharing the content, gleefully reminiscing on the doldrums they’d left behind, many Canadians on my feed were complaining that Oliver’s segment might have done more harm than good, making a mockery of the system when he didn’t have skin in the game that risked turning an already low turnout of young Canadian voters sour on politics altogether.
By contrast, Canada’s native comedy remains optimistic. Its sense of humor is an indication of the country’s ability to wield its foibles as its strengths. To this day, the small-town characters you see lampooned on prime time are remarkably similar to the ones you see spiriting Canadian ideals and hospitality in real life. I can’t help but think of Come From Away, the Canadian musical currently running on Broadway that tells the true story of a coastal town in Newfoundland (the Florida of Canada, jokes-wise), where dozens of American aircraft were grounded after 9/11. The citizens of Gander, Newfoundland slur their oots and aboots and meet every morning for orders of business at the local Tim Hortons, but these same citizens handle an international emergency with grace, efficiency and compassion, deftly making use of the limited resources they have on hand to help thousands of bewildered Americans without a second thought.
Look, I’m not here to tell you to switch your subscription. Canada has its flaws, and the comedy betrays it. If America’s wolfish late night humor was borne up by its troubled history and the polarity of its politics, then Canada’s guileless, literate humor might well be a function of its ignorance about similar issues. Our comedy shows are still overwhelmingly white, and there has yet to be one that addresses First Nations issues or deeply-held stigmas about mental health with any acuity. But if IFC’s recent pickup of the all-lady series Baroness Von Sketch is any indication, then Canadian comedy is catching up to the times. It’s literate as ever, and getting woke to boot.
No doubt the past six months have made you all at some point wish, or at least joke, that you could move to Canada. Well, the land of low-stakes optimism and quiet authenticity is closer than you think: It’s on TV.
Sam Corbin is a Canadian writer and performer based in Brooklyn. Please direct all marriage offers to @ahoysamantha.