john doyle

Why Canadian TV needs more excoriating humour

The Globe and Mail

Rick Mercer on CBC’s Mercer Report. (John Hryniuk)

Tonight on Rick Mercer Report (CBC, 8 p.m.), Mercer is in Parry Sound, Ont., where he drives a mini-hovercraft on the water and through the downtown streets.

That’s the advance info, anyway. What he rants about is unknown to me. Mercer’s rants have become the main reason for watching. The newsy bits and the outdoor antics are all very well. They suit the 8 o’clock audience, and Mercer’s show has good ratings. It’s a family show. The rants, however, are still on occasion refreshingly excoriating.

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A recent one, in which he savaged the posturing of Conservative MP Brad Butt, was a small masterpiece of vitriol. The issue was arguments surrounding the so-called Fair Elections Act. The MP declared in the House of Commons that he had personally witnessed campaign workers removing voter-ID cards from the garbage and using them to commit fraud. It turns out this was what’s known as a makey-uppy. A fib. Butt later retracted his statement. But, in truth, he lied, and Mercer went after him with a vengeance.

What made it relevant was that it was a justified venture into mockery of the bizarre defence of the new act that the government has been promoting. It was worthy of Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

Now Rick Mercer Report, like 22 Minutes, is in prime time, and their combined political and social satire tends to be tame. Certainly by the standards of what we see on late-night U.S. TV.

Which raises a question: Where the heck is comedy going in Canada?

CBC just cancelled The Ron James Show after five seasons. (With a phone call, according to James in an interview with Canadian Press TV columnist Bill Brioux.) James’s style and his show never reached the popularity levels that Mercer and 22 Minutes achieve. It was niche, never cool, but James’s patented, fast-paced style meant you sometimes had to watch it twice in order to get all the jokes and the nuance. A slight figure with an enormous presence, James doesn’t do take-my-wife jokes and he doesn’t do did-ya-ever-notice-jokes. His motherlode of material is about Canada and the show’s cancellation is not his failure but Canadian broadcasting’s failure to find the format and platform for him.

By the way, just after the cancellation, CBC announced two new Dragons for Dragons’ Den. That O’Leary guy is leaving along with fellow Dragon Bruce Croxon. New Dragons are tech guy Michael Wekerle and restaurateur Vikram Vij. Now if you ask me, putting Ron James on Dragons’ Den would make it, you know, entertaining. But that’s another story.

The story that matters is this: There’s been a craze for creating Canadian sitcoms but no nourishment of satirical Canadian comedy.

Global’s Working the Engels (Wednesdays, 9 p.m.), which will air later on NBC, is good, wacky comedy, with veteran Andrea Martin in the lead. A wealthy family falls from the top and the oddball members must get along and muster a living together. It doesn’t feel fresh though and, for all the off-kilter bits, it seems mechanical. CTV’s Spun Out (Fridays, 8 p.m.) is similarly limited; some great comic lines and lip-smacking performances but its rhythm is as wonky as the lighting.

The tame sitcom Package Deal is returning to Rogers’s CITY-TV channels, which is nice for those involved. CBC has committed to making Schitt’s Creek, a half-hour comedy starring Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. Might be great but, with Dave Foley on Spun Out, Andrea Martin on the Engels show and now a passel of SCTV vets coming to CBC, it feels as if nothing new has emerged in a generation.

The half-hour comedy is relatively cheap to produce and an undemanding way to fill Canadian-content regulations. That is why, in part, Canadian TV comedy is going in that direction. And yet, as we are awash in mouth-watering political battles and scandalous actions, we lack the style of savage humour about Canadian news that we so savour about the United States on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Wit for grown-ups. What is the industry afraid of? Enough cutesy, let’s have more of the excoriating humour that occasionally erupts in Rick Mercer’s rants.

Also airing tonight

Frontline: Rape in the Fields (most PBS stations, 10 p.m.) is one of two repeats you should know about. Already an award winner, this investigation delves into the hidden reality of rape on the job among undocumented female workers in the U.S. The program, made by Lowell Bergman, is tough viewing. We hear from victims. A woman who says, “I don’t have papers, I don’t speak English, so I have to put up with this,” is typical of many. Although immigration reform and undocumented workers have been widely discussed in the U.S., this story has been largely unreported because women fear speaking out. The Bridge (FX Canada, 10 p.m.) restarts from the opening episode tonight. It’s very fine and fits three sub-categories of crime drama: serial killer, mismatched detectives and social relevance. The opener is a stunner.

I’m away for a bit. Enjoy the shows, enjoy yourselves.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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