There are several things Canadians are known for. Beer, for one. Also bacon. And snow. And hockey. And for being resolutely, insufferably apologetic.

But perhaps more than anything else, we are known for our comedy. Or more to the point, our comedic talent.

We are best known for throwing American culture back in its face

Just look at our leading ex-pats and exports: in no particular order, Samantha Bee, Jim Carrey, Michael J Fox, Mack Sennett, Marie Dressler, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Michael Cera, Will Arnett, Ellen Page, Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Gosling (hey, he was hilarious in Nice Guys), Rich Little, Tommy Chong, Colin Mochrie, Tom Green, Alan Thicke,  Ivan and Jason Reitman, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels and cast members Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman and Norm MacDonald, and the entire cast of the Toronto-based sketch-comedy series that became Canada’s answer to Saturday Night Live, SCTVJohn Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis.

Add to that long list the often deliberately, sometimes unintentionally, funny William Shatner.

I can guarantee that if you’re not Canadian you will see at least one of the names above and think, “Gee, I didn’t know he/she was Canadian.” That’s because once we’re safely ensconced in Hollywood, we tend to downplay our origins. I mean, why rock the boat?

Before the arrival of Brits who can feign American accents, such as Hugh Laurie and Martin Freeman, Canadians were the primary covert fake Americans on TV and in movies.

But we don’t export all of our comedy. We save some for ourselves, like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) national news satire This Hour Has 20 Minutes, The Royal Canadian Air Farce, Corner Gasand Trailer Park Boys. CBC Radio is rife with comedy programming. We are masters of homegrown self-deprecation.

Our national identity, if we have one, could be said to be low self-esteem

But as far as the rest of the world is concerned, we are best known for embracing US culture and throwing it back in its face. Politely.

Our national identity, if we have one, could be said to be low self-esteem, or at the very least chronic insecurity. We have no real ‘star system’ of our own because deep down we truly believe that, to quote Mike Myers, “We’re not worthy”. For a Canadian to be considered a star in Canada he or she must first succeed in the US. None of which applies to French Canada, which avidly supports and celebrates its culture – particularly comedy. It is surely no coincidence that the world’s largest annual comedy festival is held in French-speaking Montreal, Quebec.

Cold comforts

So what is it that makes us so hilarious?

According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the first major work of purely Canadian humour was Presbyterian minister Thomas McCulloch’s satirical Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure, which ran from1821 to 1823 in the Halifax weekly Acadian Recorder. They have been described by the critic Northrop Frye as "quiet, observant” and “deeply conservative in a human sense”.

Canadian humour is the art of observation

I think we’ve outgrown the “conservative” part, but the rest still holds.

A Canadian comic character actor whose name I’ve long since forgotten once told me: “American humour is the art of overstatement, English humour is the art of understatement, and Canadian humour is the art of observation.”

According to Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood in her 1974 essay What’s So Funny? Notes on Canadian Humor: “If laughter and audience in English humor are saying ‘I am not like them, I am a gentleman,’ and if their American counterparts are saying ‘I am not like them, I am not a dupe,’ Canadian laughers and audiences… seem to be saying ‘I am not like them. I am not provincial, I am cosmopolitan.’”

She goes on to describe this as “the laughter of recognition and identity, in which the laugher is laughing at, not with. His laughter makes him feel superior to the butt of the joke, and he can say to himself smugly, ‘That person is stupid, or crude, or absurd; I am not like that.’”

So comedy makes us feel better about ourselves. In a sense, it’s an act of self-preservation. But also, denial.

Common wisdom has it that the Canadian sense of humour is borne out of the inherent isolation of our large and under-populated country. That and the weather. The prevailing image is of small groups of fur-wrapped Canucks, huddled together in some remote snowed-in hunting lodge, cracking wise and laughing their bums off in an effort to keep them warm.

And yet the most popular TV show in Canada right now is The Big Bang Theory

And there may be some truth to that. Coming from a smaller community certainly gives one a unique comic perspective. SCTV’s greatest material came from the period they were working out of isolated Edmonton, Alberta, free from distraction and far away from the meddling interventions of network suits. Canadian comedy in its purest form, like maple syrup, is crafted primarily for one’s own enjoyment.   

Laughing through tears

SCTV is best known for its eerily accurate satire of US pop culture. Making fun of our neighbours to the south is something of a shared strength for Canadian comics. Canadian culture struggles in the shadow of the overpowering US influence flooding across the border. The most popular TV show in Canada right now is The Big Bang Theory, a US sitcom about outsiders. We can relate because, in a broader sense, we too are outsiders, on a national scale.

We are constantly inundated by US culture, and yet we have no real stake in it, aside from our exported talent. This puts us in a unique position to observe and ridicule, and get away scot-free (appropriately, the Scots enjoy a similar freedom).

We are funny in self-defence because we are ‘other’, and humour is inclusive, much as Atwood suggests. Or maybe we’re both wrong. I once floated some of this to Ivan Reitman, and he looked at me like I was crazy. And I guess he would know. Early on in his career, he produced two of the most successful comedies ever filmed, Animal House and the original Ghostbusters(which he also directed).

Yet Reitman also exemplifies the small-town theory: though he was raised in Toronto, he came of age at McMaster University in the mid-sized steel town of Hamilton, Ontario. So did Dave Thomas, who was born in the even smaller St Catherine’s. Eugene Levy and Marty Short were both born in Hamilton. John Candy and Jim Carrey are from tiny Newmarket; Mike Myers from suburban Scarborough.

But more than anything else, I think, our humour comes down to our communal self-loathing. At the height of SCTV’s success as an export to US television, when movie offers were pouring in left and right, Thomas talked of walking the streets of LA and looking over his shoulder, convinced that at any moment someone was going to shout, “Hey you! You don’t belong here! Get back to Canada!”

And how Canadian is that, eh?

Rob Salem is a veteran TV and movie critic, formerly with the Toronto Star.

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