The State of Comedy in Canada

The question of what it means to be Canadian is posed ad naseum in my pais de origen.
Constant navel-gazing and sociological excavation fueled by the insecurity of living next to the most powerful country in the world invariably leads to the lint-covered axiom that we're a tolerant people who love to drink beer and if you think we are too friendly, we will apologize.

Humility abounds north of the 49th parallel, but we'll shed our bashful essence to assert that Canada produces the greatest hockey players in the world and that we generate more funny people per capita than any other nation.

We have exported a comedic pantheon to our biggest trading partner. Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, John Candy, Seth Rogan and Ivan Reitman all became household names in Canada after finding fame and fortune in American film and television.

I've proffered a socio-geographical explanation to American comics and television producers who are impressed with the inordinate number of high-caliber Canadian comedians.

We are ostensibly a working-class nation suffering through the annual humdrums of long winter months and depressingly limited hours of daylight. Interminable winters that can boast deadly temperatures of -40 C force people indoors where they become captives of climate. We often gather at over-crowded house parties that take on the social dynamics of a maximum-security prison. Add the most popular drug of choice, alcohol, to these soirees and you've got a potentially volatile situation. Somebody better be funny -- or there will be a fistfight.

To avoid being swallowed up by "American culture," Canadian content laws help preserve the Canadian identity vis-à-vis the medias. It's an important policy that has enabled Canadian musicians to develop and thrive by forcing radio stations to play their music and helps to create work for other Canadian artists.

Since a nation's true wealth is measured by its culture and the art it produces, subsidizing artists is a prudent investment with invaluable returns. Canada steps up to the plate by annually investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the film and television industry.

You would think a country with such fertile comedic ground and nurturing government programs would produce bumper crops of hilarious television series and a respectable number of risible films. Sadly, it's more accurate to describe the Canadian comedic film and television landscape as a barren wasteland.

Canada has made many good dramatic films but it would be impossible to discuss comedies of quality with a straight face when Meatballs circa 1979, would likely rank highly in that genre's canon. (There are many terrific francophone comedies, but that's another discussion).

The majority of government funding for the Canadian film industry is geared toward production. Tax credits and other incentives lure Hollywood producers north of the border where they can mitigate production costs and feed their insatiable avarice.

There is money earmarked to encourage the development of original film and TV, but determining what projects will receive funding is an Orwellian process that includes decision making bureaucrats and network executives who can't recognize a good script or understand what makes a good comedy. I imagine a scene ala Terry Gilliam's Brazil:


CLOSE UP of a HUMOURLESS EXECUTIVE reading the last page of Ricky Gervais' Extras. Without cracking a smile, he places the script squarely on the desk before stamping the title page in bright red ink, "NOT FUNNY!"

Canadian television comedies are produced with the same abysmal success rate as comedic films. In the past twenty years, there has only been a handful of comedic series that can be considered successful.

If the three major Canadian networks were not mandated to air Canadian programming, they would air none at all. It is much more profitable to purchase American programming which always garners higher ratings than anything made in Canada. (Simply because American programming is exponentially better.)

C.T.V. and Global, the two private networks, schedule the minimum number of hours needed to satisfy government regulation. Of the 21 hours of prime-time television, C.T.V. airs two Canadian half-hour comedies a week; about 5% of it's total primetime programming. Global, on the other hand, airs a whopping 0%. They do not have one Canadian comedy series on the air.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Canada's public broadcaster) receives substantially more funding than its competitors (C.T.V. and Global) and is forced to air exclusively Canadian content. With those parameters, you would think the C.B.C. would be cranking out comedic gems year after year. You'd be wrong.

The C.B.C. produces world-class documentaries, top-notch news, peerless nature programs and a few decent dramas but it can't make a narrative comedy to save its life. Other than a couple of respectable news parodies and stand-up broadcasts, C.B.C. produces (with rare exception) insufferable, unfunny series that Canadian stand-ups have ironically mocked over the years.

Failing to come up with anything decent and original in not-so-recent history, the C.B.C. has desperately resuscitated, The Kids in the Hall. Their talent aside, the sketch troupe is an anachronism that was popular in the late 1980's.

And what can only be described as a moment of insanity, the C.B.C. has ordered a sitcom series called Men With Brooms, based on a ridiculously silly film about the popular Canadian sport of curling that featured the necrotizing Leslie Nielson. I can only infer the C.B.C. executive thinking to be, "Hey, I know it was an unbearably, unfunny 90 minute movie, but on television it'll only be 30 minutes of agony."

The dearth of good comedic film and television doesn't represent the comedic talent in Canada. It does represent a system that doesn't work for comedy; which is a delicate, nuanced art form.

Canada produces great comics. It should produce great comedic film and television. If something doesn't change, comedic television and film will continue to be tragically unfunny. And to be honest, I'd rather watch a fistfight.