So, three buddies are sitting in an ice-fishing shack drinking beer and discussing … whether they can use whitefish and walleye for "sushis and sashimis." After much banter, the wisest of the three concludes that the fish is not sushi-grade, and there's no need to pluralize those words.
Yes, that is Letterkenny, and hasn't Canadian comedy come a long way since Bob and Doug McKenzie instructed viewers how to open a beer without taking your snowmobile mitts off? Or has it?
For all its aggressively foul-mouthed negativity and vicious parody of small-town masculinity, Letterkenny nestles deep in the bosom of a Canadian comic tradition dating back to Stephen Leacock and Charlie Farquharson, continuing right through the McKenzie brothers and more recently seen suckling the Trailer Park Boys. It's a tradition that's irreverent, ironic and mercilessly self-deprecating, mocking Canada as a nation of snowbound hosers.
Which is why I was intrigued to hear this week that New Metric Media, which produces Letterkenny for CraveTV, has just signed a deal with the Canadian streaming service to get cracking on another 40 episodes of the cult hit and sell them to the world. Is the world ready for Wayne, Daryl and Squirrely Dan?
That question reaches all the way from Listowel, Ont., (real hometown of Letterkenny creator and star Jared Keeso) to Parliament Hill. The Liberals' new cultural policy, unveiled last month under the title Creative Canada, has placed a particular stress on exports, largely defining success as the creation of content that can be sold internationally. But comedy is notoriously local, and can be a tough sell outside its original market.
Letterkenny is shot in Sudbury, Ont., but Listowel itself is located in the rich farmland west of Toronto and the show rejoices in gloriously baroque verbiage spoken in the mumbled accents of rural Southern Ontario. Meanwhile, its thin plots are mainly an excuse for the macho posturing and insult contests waged by the Hicks, Skids and Hockey Players. The profanity-spewing, beer-swilling culture that it parodies will be instantly recognizable to many Canadians, and you couldn't exactly dub the show into foreign languages.
Still, every society has its Listowels and its good old boys. "We like to call it broad in its niche-ness," Mark Montefiore of New Metric said this week from Los Angeles, where he is busy talking to platforms and networks to figure out where he might place his "six-packs" of Letterkenny episodes. Before it moved to CraveTV as the service's first original series, the show began online as a series of shorter pieces entitled Letterkenny Problems, and Montefiore points out that half of the 30-million YouTube views the franchise has earned come from outside Canada. The YouTube bits are popular in the rest of the English-speaking world, with Americans and Australians as well as the British and Irish.
The deal with CraveTV, however, not only includes support for a live Canadian tour by the comedians next March and for merchandising Letterkenny apparel and its beer (Puppers lager from Stack Brewing in Sudbury), it also anticipates somehow adapting the show for foreign-language markets.
"Comedy traditionally has a tough time travelling; the vernacular doesn't translate," Montefiore says. "We have talked about what does this show look like in Germany, in Lithuania, but we do have an international audience for the show we [already] have."
Of course, Letterkenny draws on universal comic tropes and styles: With their rapid-fire, deadpan duologues, Wayne and Daryl revive the old crosstalk tradition that was a staple of the vaudeville stage. The Hicks and the Hockey Players, meanwhile, provide versions of the reliable figure of the "lovable rogue," the working-class trickster whose outlandish behaviour destabilizes society even as it captures an audience's sympathy.
That figure has a particularly strong history in Canada (recent examples might include Fred Ewanuick's Hank Yarbo and Eric Peterson's Oscar Leroy on Corner Gas, as well as several of the Trailer Park Boys) and, in all these shows, the bush-league society that the rogue is destabilizing is distinctively Canadian. There's a way in which Letterkenny does feel an awful lot like an inside joke among those people Stephen Harper once called "old stock Canadians."
Also distinctively Canadian is the twisting irony on which Keeso and his co-writer Jacob Tierney rely. Part of the show's secret is the way it takes aim at contemporary urban sensibilities. Sometimes, it simply mocks them as Wayne (Keeso) and Daryl (Nathan Dales) flip insults at tourists, but sometimes it sneakily apes them. In one recent scene, the boys discuss how they might lure racist or homophobic "degens" to a party so they can beat them up – perhaps by using "ethnicities" or gays as bait. Once again Dan (K. Trevor Wilson) saves the day, this time with lessons learned in his women's studies class. "There are a lot of viewpoints, social commentary that reflects Canadian values," Montefiore says. "They are called the Hicks, but these are smart, quick-witted characters."
YouTube comments on that scene include some from irony-challenged viewers on both sides of the border who complain that guys like this don't actually talk about things like that. Letterkenny has to hope that its another commentator who truly represents international reaction to the Hicks when he cries with an expletive: "I wish we got this show in the States."