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John Semley’s ‘Mother Canada’ tattoo, which, he realized, both sends up and – in its severe ironicism – embodies the essence of Canadian humour. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)
John Semley’s ‘Mother Canada’ tattoo, which, he realized, both sends up and – in its severe ironicism – embodies the essence of Canadian humour. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

The front lines of funny: Exploring how Canadians became so hilarious, one book at a time Add to ...

Let me start this series about humour in Canadian literature and the function of humour in shaping the Canadian identity by clarifying, first things first, that I hold no particular belief in the “Canadian identity.”

Sure, there are certain quirks of language and custom – like prefacing even the most non-intrusive question with “pardon” and calling dinner “supper” – that might help distinguish a Canadian from, say, an American or a booklet of carpet samples. But I’ve always viewed the hubbub over the Canadian identity (or lack of) as a whole lot of needless hysteria.

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What makes a Canadian? I don’t know. One of those little flag patches on your knapsack? An appropriate civic address? Maybe the fact that we lack some rigid standard of nationhood, some holy trinity of baseball and hot dogs and Bruce Springsteen to clutch on to when the going gets rough, makes us interesting as a nation. This, for a long time, had been the general thrust of my thinking as an adult male, made in Canada.

Then something happened. News stories started appearing a few months ago detailing a proposal for an enormous, 10-storey-tall “Mother Canada” statue in Cape Breton, the plot of some Toronto food-packaging tycoon. The idea seemed, more or less, earnest enough: a war memorial for fallen Canadians. Okay. But who had ever heard of “Mother Canada”? Mother Russia, Britannia and Uncle Sam, sure. Even Johnny Canuck. But “Mother Canada”? The idea of some towering personification of national identity was ludicrous. (Though the proposed design, which had Ma C. stretching out toward the Atlantic, her back turned to the whole nation, nicely summed up the hard-won chilliness of a mother’s love.)

Mother Canada – the name alone – became an instant joke. Friends would joke about taking Mother Canada to Timmy’s for a first date. I’d just text the words “Mother Canada” to people, the name (and, I guess, its implications about some colossus of Canadian identity) serving as its own punchline. Within weeks, I had Mother Canada tattooed on my tricep: a plain-looking woman half-smiling, head bedecked with a polar bear pelt, flanked by the word “PARDON.”

I was basically mocking, in my own muddled and severely ironic way, the very idea of expressing fealty to any notion of nationhood. My Mother Canada tattoo, drilled into my stupid, permeable flesh, would stand in contrast to all those jocky types in college with Canadian flag tattoos accompanied by something totally meaningless like “I. AM.” or “CARPE DIEM.” Then, at some point, it hit me: the joke’s the thing. In attempting to undermine the absurd idea of national identity, I’d accidentally reasserted my own. I was trying to be funny. And Canadians, we’re told, are funny.

So, that’s what this series is about. Canadians being funny. And the Canadian instinct to be funny. And even more specifically: Canadians being funny in literature (and literary non-fiction and essays and stuff like that).

In the intro to The Penguin Anthology of Canadian Humour – which I was, as if by the graces of Mother Canada Herself, able to get my mitts on, the Toronto Public Library network boasting 64 copies and zero holds – Will Ferguson employs the well-worn adage that writing about humour is a lot like dissecting a frog. “You may learn something about anatomy,” he writes, “but the frog itself usually dies in the process.”

Sure. But nobody dissects a frog so that the frog may live a long, prosperous life, full of hopping, bagging flies, and not being dissected. The whole point of frog dissection is to learn something about anatomy. And so it is with a series on humour in Canadian letters. The aim isn’t just to retell jokes. It’s to try and understand how that whole notion of Canadians being funny – be it fact, myth or something in-between – took root in the first place.

I’ll be vivisecting the dead frogs of observational humour, Québécois satire, Stephen Leacock and Stuart Mclean. I want to look at the modes of Canadian humour, but also the clichés – all the folksy Leacock/McLean “Ol’ Miss McGillicuddy was never much for numbers…” provincialism.

Of course, humour is subjective. And the things that make me laugh (intentionally misspelling words, painstakingly filigreed descriptions, hungover self-loathing) may not tickle you, reader. So outside of snarking at the buttoned-down demeanor of so much Canadian humour, I want to share some of my favourite stuff: the stuff that’s sharp and sad and really, truly funny. Stuff like Ivan E. Coyote, Jonathan Goldstein, R.M. Vaughn and Mavis Gallant. In Gallant’s great story With A Capital T, about time spent writing photo captions at a Montreal daily, an editor admonishes the narrator, warning “I think you’re subversive without knowing it.”

With little diligence, I hope to show that this is what Canadian humour can be: cynical, self-parodying, crude, severely ironic. Subversive without knowing it.

Next week: We travel back in time (not literally) to the heady days of pre-Confederation humour to grapple with the early Maritime satire of Thomas McCulloch’s Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure. Should be a thousand laughs!

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