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john doyle: television

In its short but feisty life, Sun News Network has emerged as the finest of comedy sources. I've said that before. But now it's even funnier.

I thought few instances of rip-roaring satire in the history of Canadian comedy could match the time Sun News host Ezra Levant marked Earth Day by assaulting a potted plant with a chainsaw. Levant, wearing a lumberjack shirt and a hard hat, began by making a lengthy speech at a pulpit. He spoke about God, quoted from the Bible and mentioned twice that Earth Day coincided with the birthday of Lenin. For the benefit of those possibly confused, he made it clear he meant Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the noted Bolshevik and founder of the Soviet Union, not the Lennon from the Beatles.

Then an assistant fired up the chainsaw and, after some small difficulty getting a grip on the instrument, Levant committed an assault on the unfortunate plant.

Sheer genius. Earth Day, Soviet communism and a chainsaw wielded by a guy not too familiar with the instrument.

Then there was the time Levant ventured into avant-garde, provocative comedy. When NDP leader Jack Layton died, Levant donned an orange fright wig, wielded a can of Orange Crush (Levant really does like to wield something and one hesitates to speculate on what he does with his hands when he's off the air) and sat down with Sun News crony Michael Coren to discuss how Layton's funeral made a mockery of religion. Weird, you'll agree, but funny in a weirdly out-there, shock-comedy kind of way.

Daily and weekly, the network has specific themes it uses to bond with its tiny band of viewers. Mainly, its theme is the CBC. In this, Sun News closely resembles the Conservative Party of Canada. For both outfits, attacking the CBC is a handy tool for gaining attention and raising funds. The Conservative Party does it all the time – connecting with its members by issuing dire warnings or canvassing members about how to cut the public broadcaster. Their themes, and their devotion to these themes, are so similar that Sun News might, in some quarters, be considered the comedy branch of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Why, recently, Conservative MPs on the House of Commons standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics requested Sun News stars Levant and Brian Lilley to appear to jaw on about the CBC and the CBC's assertion that some of its activities should continue to be exempt from the Access to Information Act (a matter before the courts this fall). They demurred, being wise showbiz slickers and knowing that their shtick would be diminished by absence from studio lights and the comedy stage that is the Sun News studio.

Mind you, as with all comedy, things can go awry on Sun News. One evening not long ago, on the program Byline, host Lilley went into one of his well-practised attacks on the CBC. He pointed out that the partner of Kirstine Stewart, boss of all CBC English services, is Zaib Shaikh, the sexy guy from Little Mosque on the Prairie and that the sexy guy might have production deals with the CBC. The fact that CBC has a policy on such matters, as does any modern corporation, cut no ice. A photo of Stewart, who is what is known as "a looker," appeared. A photo of her beau appeared too, though he seemed to be in a leather jacket and wearing shades, looking like the terrorist in some old Bruce Willis movie.

Then Lilley made fun of the name of Hubert T. Lacroix, president of the CBC, calling him "Herbert," "Hubert" (English pronunciation, for a laugh) and "Hubie." Now, I ask you – is this funny? Well, I guess it might be at the fun level of schoolboys pulling the pigtails of the pretty girl in the playground and running away going "Nyah, Nyah, Nyah!" And then making fun of some other kid's name.

Next, Lilley made a speech about "the cozy, economically beneficial relationship between the CBC and the consensus media." That means me, and this newspaper. On the screen behind Lilley's well-coiffed head there appeared a column I wrote about CBC-TV's lack of arts programming. As the column sat there, Lilley talked on about "the beautiful, wonderful, glowing stories they run on how great the CBC is and yet CBC is the biggest customer of the Globe-owned business."

Whoa, there, well-coiffed TV guy. On this matter, Sun News can lick my pecs, as they say in the comedy racket. (And yeah, there are pecs, twice-a-week Pilates does that, and the lattes help.) The column in question tore a strip off CBC for its failure to present arts programs on TV. The idea that this column and newspaper indulge in "beautiful, wonderful, glowing stories" about the CBC is so utterly at variance with the truth that it is hysterically funny. In fact, I was reminded of the time I had lunch with the boss of all English CBC services – the one before Stewart – and I made sure to keep my water glass full because the man was so angry about what I'd written that I thought he'd burst into flames at any second.

The thing is, Sun News Network's tiny band of viewers might not be aware the column featured on Byline was a passionate attack on CBC. One assumes they know Levant is having a laugh when he assaults a potted plant on Earth Day. But they might not grasp the hilariousness of the idea of this column being ultra-cozy with the CBC. Comedy gone awry, as I said.

(In the matter of viewership, in the April 18-July 31 period, in weeknight prime time, Sun News averaged 25,000 viewers, CBC NN 111,000 and CTV News Channel 45,000. In mid-August, Sun News boasted of a breakthrough: One night, Charles Adler had 62,000 and Byline 80,000. This was an anomaly, as the next night Adler dropped to 30,000 and Byline to 19,000.)

At the same time, its viewers might also not be aware that Sun News Network's owner, Quebecor, might benefit a lot from a diminished CBC. Or might benefit from details revealed under requests made under the Access to Information Act. On that, in a nutshell, CBC says it adheres to the law but is not obliged to reveal certain "creative" and journalistic matters because it competes for viewers with other broadcasters. In Quebec, CBC Radio-Canada is the main competitor of Quebecor's vast media empire. See what I mean? Comedy gone awry again. Or, perhaps, not funny at all.

Still, Sun News does its noble best to keep the laughs coming. There was the time Levant made a visit to the Toronto CBC HQ and, before even entering the building, started bothering some guy. The guy was trying to eat a sandwich, and Levant kept pestering him, the way Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory pesters people, as when he knocks on Penny's door and goes, "Penny! Penny! Penny! Penny!"

Levant has obviously seen The Big Bang Theory and was emulating Sheldon. Good for him. Comedy is hard, but practice makes perfect, even if there are unfortunate victims while the laughs are being polished. Just ask the potted plant.

And with that I leave you for about 10 days. Mr. Andrew Ryan will be your guide.