Are Canadians so funny because they’re making fun of America?

January 5, 2013

Canadian writer Bruce McCall begins his Vanity Fair article on Canadian humor with the premise that his co-nationals aren't funny -- because they're too polite and because all the funny ones are subsumed by American culture. But, this it turns out, is just standard Canadian self-deprecation at work: The rest of the essay explores the subtly biting national humor, which it turns out is often about Canadians resisting the sense of being suffocated by their southern neighbor.

The list of famous Canadian comedians is long – really long: John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman (all of whom, like many others, came through the famous Toronto branch of Chicago's Second City improv club), Leslie Nielsen, Jim Carrey, Rick Moranis, Seth Rogen, Eugene Levy, Samantha Bee, Mike Myers, Mort Sahl, and on and on. Another Canadian is Lorne Michaels, the impresario of "Saturday Night Live," a role that makes him an unofficial arbiter of American comedic talent.

There are so many that, as McCall writes, you have to wonder if Canadians are breaking into American comedy or if American comedy is Canadian. "America absorbed Canadian comedians, or, Canadians would say, Canadian comedians absorbed America," McCall says. But what ties the so-successful Canadian sense of humor together?

There's an American joke that Canada is like a loft apartment over the world's greatest party. It turns out, judging from McCall's history of Canadian humor, that they might all be chuckling at us up there. The unique national brand of humor is, he writes, a response to -- and way of coping with -- the oppressive weight of American culture.

It is impossible to fully express Canadian resentment of America’s cultural dominance, and the sense of impotence and helplessness involved has been oppressing Canadians since that fleeting high-water mark of self-regard in 1814 when British troops burned down the White House as revenge for the U.S.’s having torched the Canadian Parliament a year earlier. Humor—subversive, ironic, usually dark—is one of the very few weapons available to the oppressed. Which is why the Jews, the Irish, the Russians, and the Canadians are so funny. Being Canadian, however, the Canadians keep it to themselves.

This somewhat-resentful sentiment often comes out in satire, which, McCall writes, "suits the shy Canadian temperament: you can savage your victim while masked in somebody else’s identity. Anything to avoid drawing attention to yourself, which is against Canadian societal law."

Sometimes the jokes are a bit more direct, like the old Jim Carrey bit, at the top of this post, about how Americans react when they learn he's Canadian. (The video is safe for work.) Note that it's only self-mocking on the surface: It's actually a fairly cutting portrayal of American ignorance toward Canada. "You Americans might like to tease us," he seems to be saying, "but we're laughing right back."

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Max Fisher | January 4, 2013