Tragedy, Mel Brooks once said, is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die. By that definition, Canadian comedy is falling into an open sewer, heading straight to the ER for free health care, and then dying while waiting for a doctor.
Joking (?) aside, Canada has a serious reputation for exporting comedic talent to the rest of the world – less so for convincing funny people to make movies within our own borders. Yet it only takes a single spit-take to realize that we in fact have a long and storied history of producing some wickedly hilarious films, against all odds.
Just what exactly constitutes a “Canadian” comedy is a Bill C-11 gag with many different punchlines. But for the purposes of this list, the films had to be shot in Canada, directed and/or written by Canadians, starring Canadians, and financed with Canadian money. Except, well, when they weren’t.
For Canada Day 2023, The Globe and Mail presents the 23 Best Canadian Comedies Ever Made. No kidding.
23. The Exchange (2021)
Directed by Dan Mazer
Almost completely lost when it was released during the depths of the pandemic, this high-school comedy written by Canadian Simpsons veteran Tim Long is, as my colleague Simon Houpt wrote, “as shamelessly Canadian as it is commercial.” Which is exactly what makes it such a light delight. Following a nerdy teen (Ed Oxenbould) who runs into tensions with the French exchange student (Avan Jogia) charming the entire (fictional) town of Hobart, Ont., The Exchange is a big-ish bet, well-funded and slick. Yet it slipped in and out of theatres with barely a shrug, let alone the full-throated chuckles that it deserves.
Streaming on Crave.
22. Waydowntown (2000)
Directed by Gary Burns
In an era of remote work, Gary Burns’s early-aughts comedy can seem even more unnerving than when it was first released. Focused on a group of Calgary office drones who bet a month’s salary to see which one of them can last the longest in the city’s system of above-ground pathways, Waydowntown injects a high-concept premise with caustic wit.
Currently unavailable digitally in Canada.
21. Starbuck (2011)
Directed by Ken Scott
If the story of a mediocre dude who learns that he’s the biological father of more than 500 children sounds like a bad Vince Vaughn comedy, then you’re right. But that movie, 2013′s Delivery Man, is actually Ken Scott’s remake of his own, far more entertaining 2011 Quebecois comedy, Starbuck. While the Hollywood version goes limp, the Canadian film is as potent as these kind of amiable comedies come. Partly it’s the French-language sincerity, but the biggest difference is that Starbuck stars Patrick Huard, whose warm persona runs circles around Vaughn’s overgrown frat-bro shtick.
20. Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)
Directed by Jason Eisener
Famously developed into a full-length feature after director Jason Eisener submitted a faux-trailer for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse, the Halifax-shot Hobo with a Shotgun is a gleeful homage to 1970s vigilante sleaze. Dripping with goopy gore and centring on a hard-nosed performance from Rutger Hauer, Eisener’s movie is filthy with the kind of shock-laughs that can only be delivered by the smartest of sicko-cinema fiends.
19. Coopers’ Camera (2008)
Directed by Warren P. Sonoda
Husband-and-wife comedy team Samantha Bee and Jason Jones star in this underrated gem (titled Coopers’ Christmas in some territories). The couple play parents to an 11-year-old who captures one disastrous Christmas through the lens of a second-hand VHS camcorder circa 1985. Brisk and deranged, the National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation meets Cloverfield production revels in a self-aware kind of juvenilia, while director Warren P. Sonoda (Trailer Park Boys) executes a series of jaw-dropping gags (including one very revealing cameo by Dave Foley).
Streaming on Prime Video.
18. My Internship in Canada (2015)
Directed by Philippe Falardeau
After his Reese Witherspoon vehicle The Good Lie died a quick and unfair Hollywood death, director Philippe Falardeau returned to his Quebec roots with the rarest of Canadian productions: a political comedy. One that’s funny. Focusing on the last honest man in office – a rural Quebec MP (Patrick Huard) who finds himself with the deciding vote over whether the country goes to war – Falardeau’s film wrings laughs out of places expected and surprising, including a bit involving a Stephen Harper stand-in, which is far better than it sounds.
Streaming on Prime Video.
17. Maps to the Stars (2014)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Is David Cronenberg Canada’s secret comedy king? There is plenty of sick humour to be found in the margins of his many masterpieces, including his latest, Crimes of the Future. (Try not to laugh as Viggo Mortensen struggles to eat dinner in his “digestion-assistance” chair.) But the director’s most blatant comedy – well, satire – is this collaboration with novelist Bruce Wagner. Some might see Maps to the Stars’ characters – including Julianne Moore’s movie star and Robert Pattinson’s limo driver – as too severe to be funny. But the film operates at the intersection of deadpan comedy and high-art shock. And there might not be a funnier scene in all of Canadian cinema than when Mia Wasikowska beats a character to death with a Genie Award.
16. The Twentieth Century (2019)
Directed by Matthew Rankin
My one great regret with this list’s self-imposed rules is that I wasn’t quite able to justify including a Guy Maddin film, funny as The Saddest Music in the World and The Forbidden Room can be. But in lieu of Maddin, I’ll include his fellow Winnipegger Matthew Rankin whose gonzo portrait of William Lyon Mackenzie King is the most bizarrely beautiful quote-unquote comedy this country has ever produced. Unbridled in its enthusiasm, and unrestrained in its comic hysteria, Rankin’s film uses the peculiar language of Canadian humour to tell the story of Canada itself.
Available on-demand, including Apple TV.
15. Crime Wave (1985)
Directed by John Paizs
Oh wait, another Winnipegger. John Paizs’s film operates on a very specific, surreal wavelength, designed to play as if it’s a long-lost educational movie rather than a straightforward narrative. Focused on one man’s case of writer’s block, the film was praised by The Globe’s Jay Scott after its Toronto Festival of Festivals premiere (“If the great Canadian comedy ever gets made, Paizs may be the filmmaker to do it”), but otherwise forgotten. It took a decades for cinematheques and genre scholars to pick up on its comic adventurousness.
14. The F Word (2013)
Directed by Michael Dowse
I’m not sure that anyone outside Canada truly appreciates Dowse’s rom-com. First: Its nervous U.S. distributor CBS Films retitled the production What If, undermining its ribald-but-sweet vision. Second: I can’t imagine that international audiences get as much of a thrill watching Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan court each other around a Toronto that’s not pretending to be New York or Chicago. Third: Canadians sorta can boast that we helped make supporting players Adam Driver (pre-Star Wars) and Mackenzie Davis (pre-Station Eleven) stars.
13. Psycho Goreman (2020)
Directed by Steven Kostanski
Steven Kostanski’s low-budget movie is a hyperactive riot. Telling the splatter-heavy story of an ancient intergalactic evil awakened by two young siblings, Pyscho Goreman (or ”PG for short,” as the kids say) cements Kostanski’s reputation as the heir to Canada’s tax shelter era throne.
Streaming on Shudder.
12. Meatballs (1979)
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Ivan Reitman’s summer-camp answer to Animal House holds up surprisingly well against my adolescent memories of watching highly edited versions. There is a sweetness to the story that balances out its more sour comic beats, while Bill Murray’s chief goofball nicely heralds the career that he would go on to build, often with Reitman’s help. It is easy to blame Meatballs for giving 1980s Canadian comedies a dumpster-dive infamy thanks to its league of tax-shelter imitators (including three unrelated sequels and the entire Porky’s empire), but Reitman’s film broke out for good reasons.
11. La grande séduction (2003)
Directed by Jean-François Pouliot
Focused on the lengths a small fishing village goes to in order to convince a visiting physician (David Boutin) to stay put, Seducing Doctor Lewis (as it’s known in English-Canada) goes down easy. The film, written by hitmaker Ken Scott (see Starbuck, a few notches above), so easily rides its cute premise that it has been remade not once but twice: Don McKellar’s English-language The Grand Seduction was released in 2013, while France made its own version in 2015, titled Un village presque parfait (An Almost Perfect Village).
Available on-demand, including Apple TV.
10. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Directed by Edgar Wright
The one big exception to this list’s rules, Edgar Wright’s romcom might not be a true “Canadian” comedy. It was shot and takes place in Toronto, stars Canadians (Michael Cera, Alison Pill, Ellen Wong), and is based on the graphic novel series by Canadian Bryan Lee O’Malley. But Wright is British, and the only reason the film came together was thanks to Hollywood cash. The entire production, though, is just so explicitly Canadian – and so in love with a very specific “Torontopia” era when it felt like anything was possible – that excluding it from this roundup would be treasonous.
9. Turning Red (2022)
Directed by Domee Shi
Wait, did I say one big exception? Make that two, as Pixar’s animated ode to puberty is only, let’s say, 75 per cent homegrown. Director Domee Shi is Canadian, her film takes place in Toronto, features Canadian voice talent (Sandra Oh, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and has a climax set at the gosh-darn SkyDome of all places. But, yeah, it wouldn’t have been made without the deep pockets of Disney. Still, Turning Red gets a pass because it not only reminds audiences of what Pixar can do when it’s not in an Elemental-y slump, but showcases one of this country’s brightest, funniest filmmakers, who is surely just getting started.
Streaming on Disney+.
8. Fubar (2002)
Directed by Michael Dowse
In the battle of Canada’s duelling dirt bags, I’m going to go with Michael Dowse’s headbangers over the Trailer Park Boys. While Ricky, Julian and Bubbles have sparked a more prolific franchise than Fubar’s Terry and Dean, it is the Albertan everyman (played by Dave Lawrence and Paul Spence) who have stood the test of balls-to-the-wall time. Dowse’s original mockumentary remains a high-beer mark of Canadian comedy, as committed to its central bit as it is sincere in its love for its “just give’r” heroes.
7. I Like Movies (2022)
Directed by Chandler Levack
The breakout hit of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Chandler Levack’s feature directorial debut instantly cemented itself into this country’s comedy canon. As tender as it is bruising, the film follows narcissistic teenage video clerk Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen), who wants more than anything to get out of his self-imposed suburban malaise. The film, set in Burlington, Ont., circa 2002, works hard for your laughs and love, all while making it look deceptively easy. With star-making performances from Lehtinen (channelling the child that Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman never had), Romina D’Ugo (as Lawrence’s jaded boss) and Krista Bridges (as Lawrence’s exhausted single mother), I Like Movies is hilarious, heartbreaking and genuine.
6. Le déclin de l’empire Américain (1986)
Directed by Denys Arcand
Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire endures as a sparkling repository of wit. (Even if certain elements have aged badly.) Focusing on a group of Montreal academics who gather for one weekend to debate the finer points of sex and sexuality – the 1980 Quebec referendum looming just in the background – Arcand’s film is cutting, fast and eyebrow-raising, remaining his very best work. (The director’s decades-late sequel, The Barbarian Invasions, comes a close second.)
Streaming on Hoopla.
5. Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996)
Directed by Kelly Makin
By all accounts, the Kids – Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson – hated making this film. (As McDonald would later say, “We had gone and done probably the stupidest thing we could do for our feature-film debut – a comedy about depression. Then, my girlfriend Tiffany left me; my best friend in the troupe, Dave, and I broke up; and then my brother-in-law and Scott’s brother kill themselves.”) As is the case with a few other titles listed here, Brain Candy was eviscerated upon release, when it was talked about at all. But almost three decades later, this satire of the pharmaceutical industry goes down like a miracle drug. It is as intensely weird and dark (hello, Cancer Boy) as it is full-throated funny, with all the Kids’ myriad tensions coming together to fuel a deeply hilarious film.
Currently unavailable digitally in Canada. But if you do some searching on YouTube …
4. Goon (2011)
Directed by Michael Dowse
Michael Dowse, who appears two other times on this list, has one film that rises above his other films: an epic of fire and ice that is as bold as it is bloody, as charming as it is enjoyably crass. Following the rise of a single-minded hockey brute (Seann William Scott, stretching himself way past American Pie’s Stifler) and the handful of eccentrics skating around in his orbit, Goon balances its profanity with a big, mushy heart. Bonus: it’s that rare Canadian comedy to spawn a sequel that is almost as good as the original.
3. BlackBerry (2023)
Directed by Matt Johnson
It would be easy to populate a fifth of this list solely with Matt Johnson films (The Dirties, Operation Avalanche). I even briefly considered cheating by slipping in his TV series Nirvanna the Band the Show. But I’ll calm down and limit myself to his very best work: BlackBerry, an intensely entertaining epic-in-miniature that confirms Johnson as this country’s most talented mischief-maker. Shot as if captured by hidden cameras, this tale of Canada’s most infamous case of corporate greed has an air of DIY guerrilla, you-are-here naturalism. You’re pulled in, tossed around, given a shake – just as Research In Motion co-chiefs Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel, tender and tragic) and Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton, belching fire) reconfigured their own world to upend the way we all communicate. Johnson’s film radiates live-wire energy. Waterloo vampires forever, baby.
2. Strange Brew (1983)
Directed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas
If “Canadian comedy” exists as a definable thing, then it starts with Second City Television. While the tendrils of the troupe can be felt nearly everywhere in contemporary comedy, SCTV’s greatest and most direct gift to the film world is still Strange Brew, a wildly funny retelling of Hamlet through the lens of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas’s iconic hosers, Bob and Doug McKenzie. As genuine in its affection for its working-class dimwits as it is ambitious in its cinematic surrealism, Strange Brew leaves you with the best kind of hangover.
1. The Wrong Guy (1997)
Directed by David Steinberg
David Steinberg has only directed three films in his celebrated, television-heavy career, and two of them are … well, we don’t have to talk about the Burt Reynolds vehicle Paternity, nor Going Berserk (despite the presence of SCTV’s John Candy, Eugene Levy and Joe Flaherty). But Steinberg’s third – and perhaps final? – film, The Wrong Guy, vaults the Winnipegger into Canada’s Cinematic Hall of Fame (which doesn’t yet exist, but who cares). A loopy parody of murder-mystery tropes, The Wrong Guy embodies “Canadian comedy”: it is subtly sharp, brilliantly deadpan, secretly genius.
Dave Foley, then at the height of his fame thanks to NBC’s NewsRadio, co-writes and stars as a clueless business executive who mistakenly believes he’s the prime suspect in his boss’s murder. As Foley’s doofus goes full Harrison-Ford-as-Richard Kimble mode, Steinberg swerves the story into a series of increasingly hilarious bits of bizarre misadventures that subvert tropes with a fierce determination.
Foley gets to show off his flair for smart-dumb slapstick, while Steinberg stuffs the film’s margins with a murderers’ row of Canadian character actors (Colm Feore, Enrico Colantoni and Kevin McDonald) all eager to get seriously silly. Woefully underappreciated during its initial release – and the subject of a brutal pan in these very pages – The Wrong Guy deserves a full acquittal.
Currently unavailable digitally in Canada, which is its own sort of crime.
Did You Hear the One About My Favourite Canadian Comedy?
Rick Mercer, comedian and author of The Road Years (Random House Canada, November, 2023): If you want a funny movie that stands up to the test of time, look no further than the Edward Riche penned film Rare Birds. Based on the Newfoundland novel of the same name, the 2001 feature film stars Canadian comedy legend Andy Jones and William Hurt and the insanely talented Molly Parker. This is pure fun.
Hurt plays Dave. His wife has left him alone with his passion project – a failing gourmet restaurant on a remote cliff in rural Newfoundland. Luckily or perhaps unfortunately for Dave, local schemer Phonce (played by Jones) comes up with a brilliant scheme to salvage Dave’s dream. He fraudulently creates evidence that one of the world’s rarest ducks has been spotted in a marsh adjacent to the restaurant. Birders from all over the world descend on this corner of Newfoundland turning Dave’s restaurant into a global going concern.
It’s a killer script, a romantic comedy with some brilliant twists and turns. The spectacular scenery, the giant bail of cocaine washing up on shore and the international espionage make for definite favourite.
Chandler Levack, director of I Like Movies: Stéphane Lafleur’s subdued black-and-white hangout movie, Tu Dors Nicole, depicts a brother and sister each vying to take over their parents’ suburban house for the summer.
Packed with surreal visual comedy and the funniest gag ever funded by Quebec (that’s Martin, a child who inexplicably speaks with an adult man’s baritone), this film deserves sanctification for its dreamy portrait of Quebecois summertime ennui.
Mark Critch, co-creator of Son of a Critch, This Hour Has 22 Minutes: My favourite Canadian comedy would have to be La grande séduction. Set in a tiny Quebec fishing village, the film focuses on the unemployed locals who try to trick a doctor into moving to their town to fulfill the requirements needed to get a factory to open there. It’s been remade into an English film starring Brendan Gleeson (which I also was in) and has just been turned into a musical with score by Alan Doyle. This story resonates more than ever before as rural communities fight for health care. It’s charming, moving and very, very funny.