It goes without saying that the Canadian national identity includes a unique sense of humour. It also goes without saying that this particular style of humour tends to be very meta, but we manage to find opportunities to talk about it anyway.
Early Years in TV
The earliest examples seem to be the Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure, printed in the Halifax weekly Acadian Recorder in the 1820s. The fictional letters were from the point of view of a farmer, whose quirks embodied the modern Canadian everyman. In the realm of television, there was a strong start in the 1950s with Sunshine Sketches and Wayne & Schuster. It was in the 1970s, however, that things started to get meta.
Second City Television, aka SCTV, was a fascinating Russian nesting doll of a show. The concept was that SCTV was a small American television station, and the show alternated between a running look behind the scenes and the various shows produced at the station. Keep in mind that in real life this show was a Canadian production. At some point somebody at the CBC network decided that this didn’t quite meet the Canadian Content standards, and asked for at least two minutes of identifiably Canadian content in each episode.
The response was The Great White North. Mostly unscripted, it featured Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie. Part exaggeration, part fabrication, they were what Canadians imagined Americans thought Canadians are like. It became massively popular practically overnight. A spin-off album released in 1981 featured Geddy Lee singing the chorus on the “hit single” track. The album won a Juno, is certified triple platinum, and is undoubtedly a Canadian classic. The spin-off movie, 1993’s Strange Brew, is also a classic, but to a slightly lesser extent. A large part of the success of the SCTV bit and the album was embracing and gently mocking their own Canadian-ness. Strange Brew focused more on the characters, and the story (loosely based on Hamlet). This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just wasn’t quite what fans were used to.
The 90s Shift
In the following years, there was plenty more semi-ironic self-deprecation, primarily from a variety of TV sketch shows. It was in the 90s that things went up a notch (like with so many things). Especially infamous is 1995’s Canadian Bacon, which depicted a war-hungry president obsessed with approval ratings, and xenophobic gun-toting vigilantes. A little ahead of its time, I’d say. In keeping with the tradition of everything being meta, the movie had Canadians play prominent American roles, and vice versa, from president Alan Alda to RCMP officer Steven Wright.
Then on September 17, 1997, the sixth episode of South Park aired. Entitled “Death“, featured the first appearance of “Terrence & Phillip”. Ostensibly a Canadian cartoon enjoyed by the kids of South Park, the show-within-a-show mainly focused on fart jokes and trading insults. Initially, they didn’t make a big deal of the Canadian-ness of the characters, aside from the occasional “aboot”. It was the 1999 movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut that took it to a whole new level. In the movie, the boys go to see the new Terrence & Phillip Movie (called… sigh… “Asses of Fire”). It is from this movie that the boys learn that you can light a fart. Kenny tries it first, and dies in an absurd and escalating series of events. The response, of course, is for the parents to declare war on Canada.
The song from this scene, Oscar-nominated “Blame Canada”, is legend. For the most part, the lyrics alternate between a study in scapegoating and a list of ridiculous stereotypes and insults. There were two things that I noticed happening in pop culture, especially in newspaper op-ed pieces. The first was a huge wave of people essentially patting themselves and their fellow Canadians on the back for being able to take a joke. The second was a wave of apologizing for being so self-congratulatory. Can’t get much more Canadian than that.
Former prime minister Kiim Campbell said she wasn’t offended and understood it as satire rather than mockery. Even Anne Murray, who’s referred to as a “bitch” in the song, was completely good-natured about it. Allegedly she was asked to perform the song Oscar night, but had a prior commitment. The task fell to Robin Williams, who was just as fantastic as one would expect.
It’s All In Good Fun, Eh?
Probably the most recent high-profile example of this is “Canadian Idiot“. From “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 2006 album Straight Outta Lynwood, the song is a parody of Green Day’s “American Idiot”, and mostly lists stereotypes. Again, the tone tends to be mocking the type of person who thinks this way, there is no malice or callous mockery directed towards actual Canadians.
Indeed, it seems that being able to laugh at ourselves, and be gracious when others join in, is an unofficial national pastime.