This summer, John Semley asks the tough questions of our nation: Are we Canadians really a funny people? And, if so, how did we get that way? Each week, for 10 weeks, he will explore a new facet of our history in humour.
Any worthy Canadian diner can be gauged on its facility with three very basic orders. First, there's the standard egg-and-meat plate, a dummy-proof foundation for any greasy spoon and a meal suitable to gently prod you into the throes of waking life. Then there's the Banquet Burger, that uniquely Canadian (or maybe even just Southern Ontarian) designation for what Americans, either bereft of imagination or immune to air of festivity that should rightly accompany ordering The Perfect Food, boringly term the "bacon-cheeseburger." Finally, there's the club sandwich. A proper club sandwich. Not chicken and bacon and tomato and lettuce on a kaiser roll or ciabatta. I'm talking three slices of white or brown toast (the levels are what makes it a clubhouse), sloppily quartered, and driven through with frilly toothpicks.
Consuming a club sandwich is the act of living life itself. The first quarter rewards your patience. The second allows you to fully evaluate the sandwich: is the chicken tender? The mayo curdled? The bacon anything less than crematory crispy? The third, the sandwich's midlife, is perhaps the most fulsome, an opportunity to enjoy the club on its own terms. Then there's the final quarter, the confrontation with finitude, the reckoning with the knowledge that your sandwich, like anything, is coming to an end.
There is a version of this analogy in I'll Seize The Day Tomorrow, which indexes writer and broadcaster Jonathan Goldstein's movements as he counts down to his fortieth birthday. In Goldstein's sandwich metaphor, life is cleaved into the halves of a foot-long sub. Goldstein orders the 12-incher with the best of intentions, hoping to save the second half for lunch. In his weakness and humanity, he succumbs, gobbling it down in its entirety.
"Forty," he writes, "is like beginning the second half of a twelve inch sub: during the first half, you feel like you have all the sandwich in the world, like there will never be a time when you aren't cramming sandwich into your face; but then comes the second half and the end is in sight. If it was a good sandwich, by the last bite you'll want to undo the top button of your pants and lie down. Hopefully in a good way."
The seven of you who have followed this series from day one may have noticed the times when I've taken issue with unchallenging, buttoned-down comedy. Jonathan Goldstein, architect of CBC Radio One comedy program WireTap and card-carrying capital-h Humourist, would seem to be a kind of modern Leacockian: a mannered fireside-type who wants nothing more from life than a foot-long sub and an acceptably restful snooze. He'd be the kind of terminal vest-wearer I'd find categorically insufferable, we are not for two critically mitigating factors: 1) Goldstein is fretful and anxious and constantly grappling with the modest expectations of Canadian existence; and 2) Goldstein is actually funny.
I'll Seize The Day Tomorrow is very funny, the work of a legitimately unique voice in Canadian humour. Unlike Canada's earlier wits (McCulloch, Haliburton, Leacock), Goldstein puts across no particularly patent idea of what Canadian humour is. And contra our nation's later luminaries (Gallant, Feguson), there's no comparably ironclad notion of what it isn't. Goldstein's anxious. Not about Canadian humour or Canadian identity, or even about turning 40. About everything. In one bit, he pays such fixated attention to a screening of Kubrick's 2001 that he bothers to note that "there is precisely one joke in the entire movie." He's Canada's resident neurotic: Larry David without all the sneering misanthropy; Woody Allen without all the…uh…what-have-you. He notices things. He fears that saying "Madame" is a coy affectation on par with "M'lady," or that his scruffy midlife crisis beard is making people sad. He gets hung up.
It's the domain of pretty much all intolerably folksy comedy to find humour in "the little things." Goldstein does something a bit different. When he finds himself, 38 weeks shy of his fortieth, "downtown at a remaindered bookstore, browsing through fad cookbooks from the nineties," it's not about pinpointing some meaningful insight in the ambling patterns of everyday life. It's about those patterns–the half-attentive rhythm that finds us leafing through old marked-down cookbooks–being themselves funny.
What's refreshing about Goldstein's neuroses is that they seem like something of a put on. Fretting and agonizing become modes of experience in themselves. Each tic just registers something weird, or silly, or banal about life itself. It's its own catharsis.
As the book's title suggests – or, really, straight-up spoils – the sort of revelatory, life-ordering eureka moment Goldstein seems to be lazily clutching for as he slouches towards 40 is permanently deferred. There's no nirvana, no illumination-by-divine-grace, no cartoon light bulb that flashes over your head as life's odometer clicks over to some preordained number. Life's a late night coffee; some Ikea cafeteria meatballs; a plate of eggs shared with your dad; a pleasantly stuffed gut leading you into a rewarding nap.
So while the back end of a footlong sub, or that tomato-soggy final quarter of a club sandwich, may signal their own consummation, there's always another sub, another clubhouse. Or you can seize the day today and order the Banquet Burger.
Next week: We wrap up Canada Laughs with more probing insights, scattered observations, and half-formed demi-jokes.