Monday, April 14, 2008

Here's Why Canadian Comics Aren't Funny: Lorraine Sommerfield

I won't even delve into the differences between New York and Saskatchewan; I won't touch on the predominance of Jews in American comedy, and the predominance of Gentiles in Canadian comedy; I won't even mention that the lowest, most disdained American comics are the high-energy squealers, and the "best" Canadian comics are the ones with nothing but enthusiasm (think Nikki Payne).

But I will say that Canadian comedy is bad. Very, very bad. And why shouldn't it be? Ever seen Wingfield on Ice? You know how many Canadian humourists served their apprenticeships writing gags for For Better or Worse cartoons? Think about some of the stuff from Woody Allen's nightclub act: "I had a rough marriage. Well, my wife was an immature woman and, ah, That's all I can say, she...See if this is not immature to you: I would be home in the bathrroom, taking a bath, and my wife would walk right in, whenever she felt like, and sink my boats." This was sophisticated, deep, intelligent humour. Now think about Payne blowing smoke out of her ass while wearing a tartan quilt.

But even smart Canadian comedy is a kind of pastoral, town hall kind of performance.(I can think of three exceptions: Jeremy Hotz (who was born in South Africa), John Wing, and Russell Peters.) But the rest just sounds like a guy/girl from Sudbury drove down to share his/her observations of fin-de-siecle Canadian life. I'm not saying people from Sudbury can't be funny. But are they?

Witness the incredible number of Tim Horton's jokes in Canadian comedyy. I don't think I've ever heard Richard Lewis riffing on McDonald's or Paula Poundstone talking about the lines at Wal-Mart. But Canadian comics invariably build acts around how much wood you can buy at Rona or Home Depot.

And it's not that the jokes are banal, it's that they're really, really simple: "I went into Tim's today. Yeah, don't you hate it when the guy in front of you doesn't know what's he's ordering. 'I'll have an...I don't know...double...wait...no, single...etc.'" That's one Tim's joke.

Here's the other: "Yeah, those Tim's menus are so confusing. I went in yesterday to order a coffee. But I came out with a double triple mocha grande frapped latte quadruple triple chocolate grande. With cream."

And, here, the joke's that people order complicated coffees. If you can write material like that, who needs New York?

It's a lot like those big-box jokes that were popular in the States about fifteen years ago: "I went into Costco for some mustard. I came out with an eighty-five gallon jar. I had to roll it home."

But here's another problem: Canadian comics don't take chances. Peters comes closest with his ethnic jokes. And he does it because he gets good non-WASP audiences. Lo and behold, his stuff plays in American cities.

Ron James? Conan O'Brien came to Toronto, and James was doing jokes about portages.

But look at Lorraine Sommerfield's reaction to a comic making a joke about peanut allergies. This WASPy Toronto Liberalism/delusion explains why so many Canadian stand ups do jokes about how hard it is to close a cottage for the winter.

The offending joke: [The comic holds his forefinger an inch apart from his thumb] If something this big is gonna take a kid out, guess what, he's not gonna make it.

That's a decent joke. It's not explicit; it's not crude. Kids have peanut allergies; peanut allergies are serious; serious topical issues are fodder for good comedy. But not in Canada. No, in Canada we don't do that Chris Rock thing. Sommerfield's offending line is 0.1% Louis C.K and 99.9% Shari Lewis. Yet Sommerfield reacts as follows: "A doctor friend was with us that night. I asked her the current stats on kids with peanut allergies. "One in 30," she responded quietly. "One in every class."

She responded quietly! The atmosphere was suddenly sombre. More SUV jokes, please.

Sommerfield continues: "I don't have a politically correct bone in my body. Pick on any sacred cow you like, especially in a crowd that cautiously backs their SUVs down the driveway so they don't run over their recycling boxes. Pick on us, pick on how we parent, pick on our navel-gazing obsession with our tired little First World problems at a time when the Earth is going to hell. That's all fair game; a kid's affliction with a life-threatening allergy isn't even close to being fair."

And here's the crux of the problem: "I'd tell you I jumped up and ran out in a self-righteous clamour, but I didn't. I didn't think I'd heard correctly. When he finished up a few minutes later, I knew I wasn't alone. The same way he wondered how something as small as a peanut could cause such upheaval, I was left wondering how something so small as that peanut could scrub so much enjoyment off the evening."

Get up and walk out because of a peanut allergy joke? What are you going to do when Gilbert Gottfried talks about his September 12, 2001, flight making an unscheduled stop at the Empire State Building? Pick on any sacred cow you like, Sommerfield says. Sacred cows like what? The Premier? The TTC? Muskoka? The Minister of Natural Resources?

Pick on any sacred cow, but no jokes about peanut allergies. In 1968 Mel Brooks makes a movie called The Producers; in 2008 a comic in Canada makes a joke about peanuts.

WASPs ruined Canadian comedy; they weigh on the comic sensibilities of our good young Jews, and they get all the cushy CBC writing jobs. Look at our signature comedies: Air Farce, 22 Minutes, Red Green. One takes place in a goddamned forest, and the other two feature cast members kidnapped straight from the ould country. They sit in church on Sunday and pen lines about the rector. You know where Red Green's really popular? Wisconsin. I'm serious. And Air Farce's talent? Just take a look at their jaw lines and faery hair. For crissakes, they're writing jokes about the Queen!

Mercer's scripted stuff is decent. Why? Look at the names of a few of his writers: Jeff Blumenthal, Mark Goldberg, and Sandy Steiner.

Look at Air Farce's creative team: Roger Abbott, Craig Lauzon, Alan Park, Don Ferguson.

I'm Canadian. If other Canadians like this stuff, fine. Great. But there has to be something behind this WASPish lead curtain.

1 comment:

Craig said...

Just so you know. I am not a WASP. While I do have some English blood I'm more Aboriginal and French than anything else.

 
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