‘Is the very concept of ‘Canadian humour’ an oxymoron?” Canadian humorist Bruce McCall asks in the current Vanity Fair, a special “comedy issue” guest edited by Judd Apatow.
Irritating question, isn’t it? Especially when asked by someone who grew up in Simcoe, Ont., and made his name churning out comic illustrations and funny bits for the Shouts & Murmurs page of The New Yorker. I mean, McCall’s Canadian and he’s funny. So what’s he doing asking if Canadians are funny? It’s a bit like watching Barack Obama step up to the podium to say, “Are black people capable of political achievement? Well, hmm, I dunno.” Or Tina Fey musing, “You know what? Christopher Hitchens may have been right about us gals not being funny.” It’s annoying, because McCall’s very existence should refute the question.
Except, crucially, his piece just isn’t particularly funny. It’s wish-washy and full of outdated cultural clichés about hockey, beer and Tim Horton’s doughnuts. So in this way, McCall’s unusually unfunny answer to the question “Is the very concept of ‘Canadian humour’ an oxymoron?” becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. He unwittingly proves the very thesis he kinda-sorta sets out to dismiss: that Canadians are a bunch of earnest, unoriginal hockey-, beer -and doughnut-loving dullards. When nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
When I first came to Britain a few years back, I thought I was coming for love and professional adventure. Instead, it soon became clear to me that I was sent on a mission by God (or Stuart McLean, depending on your belief system) and that that mission was simple: It was my job to prove to the world that Canadians are funny.
At first, I went about it all wrong. I laughed and smiled a lot and told jokes at every opportunity. In short, I was good-natured and eager to please, which the British uncharitably interpret as boring. And while boring is not a good thing in Canada, in Britain it is roughly tantamount to turning up at a dinner party reeking of pee. Socially speaking, in Britain it is much better to be a wise-cracking sexual harasser with a coke habit than it is to be an affable dentist with a passion for Sudoku. So I learned to stop smiling and to laugh only when I absolutely could not contain myself – which was often, since I was hanging out with a lot of dubious, silver-tongued characters in seedy pubs. (When in Rome, etc.)
Anyway, the point is, I learned to stop trying so hard. And better yet, I decided to beat the Europeans at their own game. I took a page from the Age of Englightenment and wrote a highly rational and scientific Manifesto of Canadian Humour which I now whip out every time some pompous twit takes it upon himself to explain to me the meaning of irony. Here are the key points:
1) Contrary to popular belief, Canadians are not particularly nice. Sure, we obey traffic laws and generally pay our taxes. But we can also be quite hard when we want to. To anyone who accuses me or my countrymen of genetically ingrained sweetness, I present the following list: tar sands, immigration crackdown, separatist violence, Kyoto withdrawal, allegations of torture in Afghanistan, Newfie jokes, Stephen Harper, Conrad Black, Harold Ballard, Bev Oda, Rob Ford and that woman who left her monkey at Ikea.
2) Unlike the Americans and the Brits, we revere our humorists. This year, Canada’s Giller Prize was awarded to Will Ferguson, a writer whose previous works include Bastards and Boneheads: Canada’s Glorious Leaders, Past and Present; Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada and Canadian History for Dummies. The Brits gave their Booker to Hilary Mantel, who is in the middle of writing a very violent trilogy concerning the most humourless English monarch of all time. And who did the Americans give their Pulitzer to? No one! The judges took their duties so deadly seriously, they surveyed the scene and decided no one was worthy of their super-duper fancy-dancy literary prize. Not even the guy who wrote American History for Dummies.
3) The British have irony, the Americans have vulgarity and we have Rick Mercer ranting about about Tory budget cuts. Snort if you wish, but I’d take a beer with Mercer over a beer with Ricky Gervais or Adam Sandler any time. Why? Because Mercer is funnier than both those guys put together. They say comedians are only as good as their material, and while it’s relatively easy to take the mickey out of paper-pushers or wedding singers, Mercer manages to make Canadian politics funny. And that, my friends, is no laughing matter.
4) Just because we blend doesn’t mean we’re bland. Can you imagine anyone saying Canadians weren’t funny if Jim Carrey, Andrea Martin, Seth Rogan, Martin Short and John Candy were as identifiably Canadian as Eric Idle, John Cleese, Bill Nighy, Russell Brand and Dudley Moore are British?
5) We’re not as earnest as people think. Really we aren’t. Honest. I mean it. From the bottom of my heart.
6) I don’t see any monkeys in anybody else’s IKEAs.