“I don’t know if you know Mariposa. No matter if you don’t. If you know Canada at all you know at least a dozen towns just like it, with the same square streets, the same maple trees, the same hotels and the same churches, and with the one, wide main street, sensibly called Main Street. Is it a busy town? Well, I should say.”
But, of course, we do know Mariposa. The quirky centre of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town has just clocked 100 years on the shelf – and to mark that moment there’s a new two-hour TV adaptation on CBC.
The story’s return to the airways (CBC first did a series based on the book 60 years ago) isn’t just a nostalgia trap, however. It’s also an opportunity to explore Leacock’s ongoing impact – his fans range from Groucho Marx to The Goon Show gang to John Cleese to John Lennon – but most of all on comedy itself.
“Leacock was a rock star of his time. He was the guy who put Canadian comedy on the map of the world stage,” says Malcolm MacRury, the veteran screenwriter who penned CBC’s latest adaptation. “He set the template of what Canadian comedy could be through small-town observation, with all its eccentricities.”
Take Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie. The hit shows both feature fictional small towns – Dog River and Mercy, respectively – as microcosms for the nation and our struggle to define Canadian identity.
Or consider the hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie and shows such as The Beachcombers or The Red Green Show. “I’d even argue that Trailer Park Boys is a profane homage to Leacock and Mariposa,” says MacRury. “Bubbles, Ricky and Julian are kind of the modern, foul-mouthed versions of [hotelier]Josh Smith, [barber]Jeff Thorpe and the Reverend Drone. They even call it the Sunnyvale Trailer Park, another tip of the hat to Leacock.”
Why, in a country now dominated by urban issues, does the small town still resonate? MacRury, who’s dreamt of adapting Sunshine Sketches for 20 years, points to the way small-town stories allow for the “gentle, satirical exploration of hypocrisy.”
“The small-town-based shows are filled with the values and qualities of thinking that have always been in our makeup,” says Gordon Pinsent, who narrates CBC’s Sunshine Sketches in the role of the elderly Leacock. “Plus, they can’t do any harm. They’re like telling a joke that you know – at least in Canada – will get a laugh. The Americans are great at doing big, urban-based comedies. Our forte is homespun, regional stuff that gives us a voice that’s distinct from them.”
MacRury – who has also penned several episodes of Republic of Doyle and HBO’s critically acclaimed western Deadwood – also insists that the primary draw for sitcoms about small towns is that they are “simply funnier and wilder than big cities.
“We think that big cities are the cutting edge, full of wide diversity and lifestyles – and that’s true. But they tend to play out in private lives, behind closed doors,” he says. “In small towns, the eccentrics are part of the community, for all their good and bad. You can’t escape them. I remember Gordon [Pinsent]telling me that he knew 10 times the number of characters back in his hometown of Grand Falls, Nfld., than he’s known in Toronto.”
John McCullough, a film professor at York University, also credits the CBC and the National Film Board for helping to cement a regional, comedic sensibility: “Forty years ago, these institutions viewed it as their mandate to represent folks from every region, not just the big metropolitan centres.”
That mindset still exists, but as those organizations’ nation-building clout has lessened with funding cuts, McCullough says there’s a new momentum behind regionalism in Canadian programming – lucrative, province-wide tax credits designed to lure TV production outside of major centres.
“If you shoot outside the biggest centres, you can get up to a 40- to 55-per-cent rebate on your labour costs,” he says. “So it organizes private and publicly funded TV production in Canada around the profit motive, and you have places like Hamilton, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg becoming regional production centres.”
McCullough points out that while Canadians have had success with urban sitcoms such as Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom and CTV’s Robson Arms, (both of which achieved cult status with viewers), we’ve yet to have an urban comedy become a mainstream hit.
“Even King of Kensington, set in Toronto’s historic market, came across like a small village,” he says.
For a break-out hit, Canadians still look to sketches – sunny or otherwise – of little towns. It’s part of who we are.
“But if you have forgotten the little town by the lake, and long since lost the way to it,” intones Pinsent’s Leacock at the end of Sunshine Sketches, “you still sometimes dream in the dull, quiet of the evening that you’ll go back and see the boy you left behind you. Mariposa. Mariposa.”
CBC-TV’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
Follow us on Twitter: