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John Doyle: Toronto’s Dead Raccoon reveals dark side of Canadian humour

Imagine a new political ad on TV. Let's call it "The Exit Interview."

It would be rather like the one presenting the argument that young Justin Trudeau is not ready to become prime minister. Except that in this one, those shown doing the evaluating are looking at Stephen Harper's résumé and making conclusions. It's important to imagine that, as in the ubiquitous anti-Trudeau ad, somebody says, "I see he's included his picture."

After some darkly humorous jibes about the candidate being secretive, suspicious of questions, strangely obsessed with suppressing science, seeing terrorists everywhere and in general being backward and out of touch, there's a joke about his hair. And someone concludes, "Yeah, the hair. It looks like he puts it in the fridge every night."

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The hair is fair game, since young Mr. Trudeau's locks are fair game, apparently. But it would never happen. Humour is considered dangerous, hereabouts.

That's more than a pity. The Canadian sense of humour is vastly underrated. In the official narrative, anyway. Sometimes I think it is seriously misunderstood. We are capable of dark, savage, gruesome mockery while we like to tell the wide world that we're nice. Funny-nice. Jolly people.

The evidence to the contrary is in the recent Twitter phenomenon about that dead raccoon in Toronto. For a couple of days, the hashtag #DeadRaccoonTO was a sensation. In part, it was a sensation because it was blackly comic, cruel and sent up many safe rituals.

A dead raccoon on the street started it. Toronto Animal Services failed to remove it in a timely manner. So the fun began. Flowers beside the dead critter. A photo and candles. Handwritten notes expressing loss and pain. A donation box.

Next, a politician, no less, took it up a few notches. Councillor Norm Kelly, once the deputy mayor and Toronto's de facto mayor when Rob Ford entered drug rehabilitation and started a leave of absence, took to Twitter to declare, "Residents are being asked to keep their green bins open tonight in honour of #DeadRaccoonTO."

The entire phenomenon wasn't so much tongue in cheek as it was an intuitively created Situationist act of rebellion. (Look up "Situationist" if you don't know. I have limited space here.) The spectacle of ritual mourning was being diminished and subverted. What is done when children are shot or cyclists killed, was sent up with some savagery. It was near-Swiftian satire. An extreme position was taken up to ridicule the position itself.

Some people were disgusted, of course. An animal had died and its death mocked. So, you know, what the hell happened to Canadian sensitivity to nature? Where had our national sense of kindness gone?

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Fact is, it was hilarious and necessary. A safety valve of scoffing satire to free us temporarily from the rote rituals that surround death in our urban world.

The Canadian entertainment racket likes to tell itself and the public that we are a country of humourists. Look at all the comics who have made it big, or are earning a decent living in Hollywood. It's an exaggeration. There is little we've done that's groundbreaking. Mainly, an outsider's fascination with U.S. popular culture has facilitated some comics and their successful careers. But it's tame stuff.

And in our day-to-day television humour, tame is what rules. This Hour Has 22 Minutes is funny but far from savage. Rick Mercer hits his groove where he is outraged, and he takes the high moral ground. Mockery of stuffiness and the pompous is what we get. Gentle stuff, really.

Beneath the surface, our natural sense of humour is more extreme and ruthless. The Dead Raccoon phenomenon tells us that. We can be grotesque, vicious. And feel the better for it.

Listen, it's a fact that Mr. Harper, Our Glorious Leader, has hair you figure has to be put in the fridge every night. I've been saying it for years. The Dippers or young Mr. Trudeau's people can use that. I'm good with it.

In an election year, somebody might benefit from finding truth in the extreme, and harnessing our naturally vicious sense of humour. It's very, very underrated.

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