The Surprising Quality of Canadian Comedy: A Primer for Americans

One of my favourite exchanges from The West Wing is a typically Aaron Sorkin back-and-forth between Amy Gardner and one Donatella Moss, who’s just been informed she was actually born in Canada, and was therefore endowed with certain inalienable rights.

“Canadian, huh?” Amy asks.

“Yeah,” Donna responds.

“You feel funnier?”

“No, but I am developing a massive inferiority complex.”

Not just a succinct exploration of the Canadian stereotype, it also manages to summarize the state of Canadian television comedy: not that funny, and burdened with a complex that’s kept it from transforming in any positive direction for as long as most Canadians can remember.

But lately Canadian comedy has experienced a strong resurgence, led by a trio of shows – Kim’s Convenience, Baroness von Sketch Show, and Letterkenny – that are gaining not just national acclaim, but international acceptance. Yet importantly for Canadian culture watchers, they’ve achieved both without betraying their Canadian roots, or sticking fastidiously to the tired conventions of traditional Canadiana.

Let’s Go Back

Canada’s funniest, most successful television comedy show of all time was likely SCTV. A famous cast, lasting legacy, and most importantly international syndication, are a triumvirate of accolades that Canadians rely on to know we’ve created something of merit. Since 1984, when SCTV ended, Canada has continued to produce comedy on television, primarily through its public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the privately operated Canadian Television (CTV) broadcast network. But, to put it bluntly, it’s mostly sucked.

With the exception of Kids in the Hall, which managed to achieve a consistently funny output for seven years, there have only been a few semi-funny, or inconsistently funny shows since the 1980s. Two of the most prominent in Canadian minds – This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Royal Canadian Air Farce, both on the CBC – were politically-focused, relatively high-brow, and thoroughly polite. Both peaked in the 1990s by capturing a pre-internet zeitgeist lampooning the more ridiculous aspects of Canadian current affairs. When they were good, the jokes landed and the shows served as safe cultural outlets for baby boomers who were going through middle age and could appreciate the occasional guffaw at one public figure or another; laughing at the silliness of the politicians they’d elected. The shows were slightly more self-effacing than American equivalents, and for a while they served as notable, albeit relatively minor, cultural touchstones for the country.

Other than that, Canadian comedy TV was a bit of a wasteland. It was nigh impossible to compete with The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Friends, and the glut of other better written, better produced, and better acted comedy programs on American networks, and later, cable television. The market was there, of course – Canadians lapped up those American shows, but it was a small market and the CBC and CTV struggled to produce original programming that could compete. Shows were launched and quickly forgotten, as both networks struggled to try and recreate any form of magic that would again capture the coveted baby boomer market and all their middle-class wealth. The comedy programs aimed at my age range – what we now call millennials – was even more forgettable.

Yet the stereotype persisted of Canadians as an inherently funny people. In reality, all of the people widely considered Canada’s comedic exports over this time period – Jim Carrey, Mike Meyers, even Ryan Reynolds – got their starts not on Canadian TV or film, but through the traditional American avenues. Canadians may have been funny, but Canada’s cultural industries were not in the business of highlighting, promoting, or developing that funny. Even the vaunted Just for Laughs festival grew to international acclaim precisely because it was not limited to Canadian talent. Like most of our cultural exports, Just for Laughs stopped being a Canadian product the instant it achieved any sort of success. It’s now just a big comedy festival, scrubbed of any Canadian features except the occasional announcements in French.

For those of us who are in any way involved or interested in the Canadian arts scene, this is a familiar tale, and the summation of that legendary inferiority complex. If something is good, it’s probably not Canadian. If something is Canadian, it probably isn’t good. And if something is good and Canadian, it’s probably not Canadian in any identifiable way anymore. This paradox has roots that stretch back before SCTV and across a far wider swathe of our media. So let’s divert even further into the past for a second to talk about why a distinctly Canadian expression of culture, and comedy in particular, is worth caring about.

Way, Way Back

In the middle of the 1900s Canada was a scared little country, just like many smaller countries in the West at that time. Our greatest fear wasn’t an atomic bombing from the Soviet Union though. No, we, similar to today, were far more scared of our supposedly friendly neighbour to the south.

Canada, from its inception, has always been worried about annexation on the part of our Yankee neighbours. The era of Manifest Destiny had Canadian politicians pulling their hair out trying to find a way to protect what they viewed as Canada’s own national interest of spreading from sea to sea to (northern) sea. After the Second World War though, that anxiety had morphed from a concern for geopolitical absorption into a fear of cultural annexation. A tiny country, only a few million in population, and with no physical or linguistic barriers between us and the USA, there was serious fear that Canadians would eventually just start thinking exactly like Americans, and simply offer ourselves up as states 51 through 60.

This was such a pressing national concern that in 1949 our federal government literally commissioned a hugely influential report, called The Massey Report, which provided recommendations on how we should go about forming and protecting a unique Canadian culture. Like most government reports, federal politicians mostly ignored it at first. But by the end of the 1960s the government had set up a series of unique cultural institutions for the tiny Canadian market. Financed by taxpayers, they affected most streams of cultural production: art, literature and publishing, music, film, and yes, television.

Perhaps the most important element of those cultural institutions was the creation of Canadian content requirements. Put simply, a certain amount of prime time, on both radio and television, had to consist of Canadian created content. While Canadian radio has always managed to fill that time with Canadian artists who happened to make it big in the USA (you will hear Bachman Turner Overdrive if you listen to any station long enough), television requirements were stricter and required more than just one famous Canadian actor to qualify.

While Canadian television dramas had a few recognizable hits (Degrassi, Due South, Road to Avonlea, etc.), Canadians have mostly been burdened with terrible comedy since the 1960s. This terribleness takes many forms and has many sources, but most of the origin of the poor quality lies in The Massey Report.

It’s important to remember that the commission and the resulting report weren’t just about building an economic base for Canadian culture, but building the culture itself. To that end, the report and the politicians who acted on it, decided that Canadian culture had to be defined from the top down. And the culture that they (and the early cultural elites they anointed) gradually came around to define was, to be nice about it, not very funny.

Canada, according to the products resulting from The Massey Report, was defined mostly by its battle with nature. The themes of Canadians confronting and fighting the wilderness have been central elements in our stories for decades. Despite the increasing urbanization and diversification of the population, Canada has remained – in the cultural industries financed by the government – a rural, or, at most, small-town country, populated almost exclusively by white people, surrounded by natural majesty. Where cities must be mentioned, they are always in contrast to the clean, pristine, and purifying presence of Canada’s vast preserves of nature. You know, the places where those dangerous Americans can’t influence us with their hip-hop, reality TV, and guns. Heck, even the iconic images of our national sport involve a solitary rink in an empty field. This was never exactly subtle, and it has infected almost every aspect of our national stereotype and self-understanding.

That understanding of what counts as Canadian poses a number of problems, especially in a country that is increasingly diverse and urban, but I think you can imagine where the problem lies for comedic TV in particular. Man versus nature makes for some pretty shitty comedy. Good comedy – especially in the sitcom format perfected by Americans – requires personalities, a level of disbelief and surreality, and the constant novelty that will provide a source of confrontation for next week’s episode. Two dudes camping in the forest in the middle of winter isn’t usually conducive to witty banter and misunderstandings.

The other major problem facing Canadian comedy TV is the overwhelming need to be polite. While not explicitly stated in The Massey Report, it is the other Canadian stereotype the world knows, and which we’ve implicitly been supporting through our cultural industries. Canadians are just very nice. Why wouldn’t our television highlight this? Well, if the two dudes camping in the forest are exceedingly nice to one another while they sit alone in the middle of winter, you’re not exactly creating a formula for riveting television, comedy or drama.

So when you combine these two issues, the products that result are usually flat out unwatchable. But the late 2000s and early 2010s did sow a few seeds that bridged the gap between these earlier, terrible shows, and the gems that are showing up today.

The In-Betweens

Prior to the last couple years, if you asked a Canadian “What’s the most Canadian comedy show?” There was probably one overwhelming answer: Corner Gas.

Corner Gas, which ran on CTV for six seasons, would appear to be a typical experiment in Canadiana-via-The Massey Report. It’s about a small town gas station owner in rural Saskatchewan (the North Dakota of the north), and the hijinks that ensue with his quirky coworkers, family members, and the stereotypical townspeople. In all honesty, most people my age didn’t find Corner Gas that funny, but it did finally connect with the vaunted Baby Boomer demographic, without inspiring outright hatred from the younger folk. It’s somewhere around a rerun of Mad About You in terms of idiosyncrasy and blandness. Not unwatchable, but not innovative in the least either.

Most of that blend of bland and blithe was owed to its creator, Brent Butt. Yes, that’s his real name. And yes, it’s a hilarious name. But Butt had been working the Canadian standup circuit for years, and had perfected the aw-dad-with-a-lemon-twist routine until he’d found something that fit The Massey Report qualities of small-town mundanity, with enough modern touch – “Isn’t it funny when old people try to use slang like ‘shizzle’?” the show asks unapologetically – to feel like a more modern, more American-ready sitcom.

Similarly, the other semi-famous show of the time period – semi-famous for Canada meaning Canadians may have actually heard of it and possibly watched an episode – Little Mosque on the Prairie was a clear modernization of The Massey Report. It took the settler-alone-against-the-wilderness of Little House on the Prairie and turned the settler family into a Muslim-Canadian community. “Don’t you see how modern and hip that is?” the show literally begged you to nod and agree.

I’m actually not super qualified to speak much about this show – I only watched a few episodes – but from what I recall it was exceedingly polite, exceedingly boring, and exceedingly small-town. The jokes, from what I remember, seemed to rely on the collision of stereotypes of Muslims and small-towns in equal measure. In a country where Muslims only made up 3.2% of the population in 2011, but obviously received significantly more media and societal attention, the politeness and boringness were almost explicitly intentional. Muslim-Canadians were just like other Canadians, see? With so many restrictions, it had a limited shelf-life, and a limited repertoire of jokes, but it was noteworthy for at least trying to present something different. The white hegemony of small-town Canadiana, at least, was being challenged.[1]

But the three shows I want to highlight feature none of the limitations of these two examples, or the numerous others that aren’t noteworthy in the least. In fact, they mostly thrive by subverting expectations, outright betraying the ideals of The Massey Report, and finding comedy in places and ways that the majority of Canadians actually live. In so doing, they are helping to modernize the concept of Canada in a positive, forward-looking way.

Kim’s Convenience – A Convenient Bridge

The most conventional of the shows, Kim’s Convenience is about a Toronto convenience store owned and operated by Mr. “Appa” Kim, a first generation Korean immigrant and occasionally-rough-but-ultimately-lovable family patriarch. The episodes revolve around him, his wife, Mrs. “Umma” Kim, and their two children: Jung, the 20-something former bad-boy who was kicked out of the house as a teenager and once did time in juvenile detention; and Janet, the younger golden child who’s attending the Ontario College of Art and Design. They all navigate life, love, work, and the crazy modern-day world.

If that last sentence sounded condescending, it’s only because the premise is distinctly unoriginal. What is original is the fact that it’s a Canadian show that isn’t a walking textbook example of The Massey Report. It makes no bones about being defiantly urban, and even defiantly Torontonian.

Toronto is Canada’s largest city and one of the most diverse in the world. Over 50% of the city proper (there are numerous suburbs around the core) are members of a visible minority, and the show shares that diversity in every establishing shot, every customer appearance in the store, and most notably in the show’s main cast.

And while there are a few laughs to be had on account of Mr. and Mrs. Kim’s accents, the show won’t let you laugh at the accents, but with the misunderstandings that are endearing, everyday realities for immigrants living in a complicated city like Toronto.[2] The authors of The Massey Report would never have imagined a Canada as diverse, urban, and accented as that in Kim’s Convenience, and that’s what makes its premise noteworthy.

But a noteworthy premise isn’t what makes people watch a comedy show. It’s the funny. And Kim’s Convenience is funny. The New York Times recently described it as a show for people who “miss when Modern Family was good” and the sense of humour, delivery, and overall quality is reminiscent of the ABC hit. There are witty retorts, lightning-fast dialogue, some longer-form setups, and the occasional awkward cringe moment thrown in. The result is a typically-Canadian-polite smorgasbord of comedy styles that works because of the excellent performances of the cast and the writing and production team at the heart of the show.

And there is a heart to the show. While comedy is obviously at the forefront, the four-person family unit is engaging and has enough recognizable conflicts brewing underneath – season two focused on bringing the two stubborn men in the family closer before pushing them apart again in the season finale – to lend themselves to some heartfelt moments. They’ll feel familiar to fans of any similar family comedies, like The Simpsons or the aforementioned Modern Family, but that familiarity means they hit the emotional beats you want and expect.

So in a way Kim’s Convenience is a feat of Canadian comedy in the most simple sense: it’s a funny show that holds up against its American counterparts in all the metrics that matter. But it does retain a unique sense of Canadian-ness that sets it apart from similar American shows. And that sense of Canada is more than just the fact that it’s set in Toronto and not one of a dozen American metropolises, although that sense of place does help. An easy, if a bit disingenuous way to describe the difference might be: less stereotypical.

American shows have, for years, struggled to feature a minority family (and sometimes even a minority character) at the centre that don’t devolve into some form of stereotype with ease. More modern shows have done a better job of this (usually when they feature people of colour in creative leadership roles behind the scenes) but America’s longstanding issues and focus on race mean decisions are often made to zoom in on character’s status as a minority, usually via stereotypes. To be clear, Kim’s Convenience still walks a line between playing into some stereotypes of Asian immigrants (overbearing parents with high academic expectations, rebellious second-generation children who suffered some form of child abuse), and letting race fade into the background. Generally the show does a pretty good job of not allowing race or culture to be a source of ridicule or punishment for characters, and tackles some immigrant issues – usually the gentler, more polite ones that make for a family-friendly sitcom – with a fair level of nuance. As per the cheap summarization, it’s simply less stereotypical than American shows.

That factor allows the show to play into both the politeness stereotype Canadians love to shower themselves in, as well as the newer, more beloved stereotype Canadians have become known for in the past few decades: being more accepting and less racist than our southern neighbours. To be clear, Canada actually has serious race problems, especially affecting Indigenous peoples. But the stereotype is there, and a national culture relies, to a certain extent, on stereotypes. So Kim’s Convenience feels Canadian because the show feels more accepting of the Kims than we’ve become accustomed to in an American program.

A large part of the credit for striking these tone balances, bringing the funny, and retaining the opportunity for heartwarming family moments, is owed to the show’s creator Ins Choi. Choi started by putting on Kim’s Convenience as a play, originally on the country’s under-appreciated fringe circuit. The show was a hit, and confirmed that Canadian demand for comedy could consist of something beyond the overwhelmingly white, small-town comedy that was largely still being pushed on us as a nation. Choi brought out deeply personal stories that were honest, funny, and relatable, regardless of whether you were a first-generation Korean-Canadian from Toronto, or a third-generation white guy from Edmonton. I saw Choi perform at our Fringe Festival about five years ago, and his storytelling prowess was clear from the moment he took the stage. What wasn’t clear was that he would be able to turn that prowess into a television show put on by the CBC. The same CBC which was once accused of being so conservative in their programming decisions that they passed on Corner Gas, presumably because Brent Butt’s name was too risqué.[3]

So Kim’s Convenience isn’t notable just for being a good Canadian comedy show, or even a good show that parades a relatively new set of Canadian stereotypes. More so it’s noteworthy for the change in the process it represents. A change in how our national culture is being promoted. It’s a point I’ll return to later on, but needless to say, the CBC producing a show that uses the words “holy shit” in the dialogue is a huge change. That it’s an Asian-Canadian actor saying it in a convenience store in a dense urban area is an even bigger change. That Kim’s Convenience is otherwise a traditional, easy-to-digest sitcom probably helped move the project along significantly (the show’s co-writer, Kevin White, actually wrote for Corner Gas). But regardless, changes are afoot at the CBC.

For more evidence, we’ll move on to our second example.

Baroness von Sketch Show – A Sketch of Life at 40

For anyone who doesn’t know, the “SC” in SCTV stood for “Second City” – the improv comedy theatre company with headquarters in Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Along with the SCTV cast, alumni have included Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carrell, and Stephen Colbert, among others. It was essentially the feeder school for Saturday Night Live for many years, and the Canadian outlet has produced some serious talent over the years. One thing the Canadian outlet hasn’t produced since SCTV was its own high quality sketch-based television show[4].

That changed in 2016 when four women, all current Second City-ers (Citoyens? Citizens?), were given the green light, by the CBC, to produce a new sketch comedy series. The result is Baroness von Sketch Show, which stakes out a unique ground in the world of sketch comedy.

Sketches vary drastically, including in length and believability. Every skit is led by at least one of the four creators, and features topics across a broad spectrum. As may be expected for a series written, produced, and starring four women, there are plenty of female, and female-issue, focused skits – historical suffrage struggles and pockets on dresses, to name two – but the show doesn’t rely on a feminist tone for its jokes to succeed. It spreads ridicule across most aspects of modern life, including, yes, the patriarchy, but also the more mundane parts of existence in a big city.

One sketch for instance consists entirely of a friend visiting a new homeowner. The homeowner explains how difficult it was to “ask my parents for the money for the down payment.” The friend promptly walks away, dumbfounded. It’s about a minute long. It’s funny for the velocity of the setup and punchline, as well as the obliviousness of the character, but also harkens back to the social commentary of This Hour Has 22 Minutes (house prices in Toronto have skyrocketed in the last twenty years, and are now over 20 times the average annual pre-tax income). This type of interplay between socially aware subtext and socially oblivious, awkward, or embarrassing characters makes the show accessible to all, while keeping a thread of social commentary that keeps the scenarios from feeling stale, polite, and identifiably Canadian (in the boring sense).

More than feminism or the sense of Canadian place though, Baroness von Sketch Show has a unique perspective in that the female stars are all over forty years of age. Unlike most sketch comedy, which often plays to a presumed younger audience, numerous sketches are devoted to the experience of hitting middle age as a woman. One such skit shows two women being refused entry to a club because they don’t have ID. The bouncer only lets them in once they mention the friend they’re meeting inside is named “Linda”.

“You have a friend named Linda?” the bouncer scoffs. “I didn’t know you were that old!”

Because the sketches vary in focus, comedic approach, and punchline speed, episodes of Baroness von Sketch Show often feel like you’re watching a boxing card. The pugilists change, sometimes after a quick knockout, other times after an intricate twelve-round feast of technical brilliance. Some bouts will instantly draw you in, while others may prompt you to check your phone occasionally. That unpredictability keeps you prepared for the start of each sketch though, where the diversity of topics and approaches means the next one may very well be right up your alley.

And that scattershot approach is also partly what makes Baroness von Sketch Show fit within the context of a larger Canadian comedy shakeup. It can be cruder than most of what I’ve grown up expecting from the CBC, while retaining the knowing winks towards some of the country’s social preoccupations. It’s youthful in its approach, even as it leverages age for jokes. It’s a feminist show that lives its feminism with subtlety. Like Kim’s Convenience, it uses a well-known model (nothing is more Canadian than the SCTV format after all) to introduce disruptive, distinctly un-Massey elements into the landscape.

Yet those same elements still conform to the more modern Canadian stereotype. Self-aware and self-deprecating, liberal, openly feminist (but not too in your face about it), and thoroughly urban. It’s most certainly not the Canada of The Massey Report, and yet it’s a show that could only really be made in Canada. Given the continuing push to empower female creators in the USA, a similar show may one day come out (or even exist already), but Baroness von Sketch Show simply feels Canadian. There is a vein of that politeness still runs underneath everything, mixing and mingling with the new, modern stereotypes, establishing a boundary of what’s identifiable as Canadian, even as it builds off what we already know and accept as Canadian.

The best comparison might be to look to the British. Just like the way That Mitchell and Webb Look updated the long-standing British comedy duo format for the early 2000s, Baroness von Sketch Show seems to be picking up where SCTV and Kids in the Hall left off for Canada: a sketch comedy show with an updated set of values and criticisms for the modern age. In so doing, they are reflecting a reality that’s far more familiar to Canadians than the tired, conservative, Butt-inspired comedy we were raised to expect.

But if you’re looking for anti-conservative comedy, our third example is the one you’ll want to check out.

Letterkenny – How’re ya now?

The fictional Letterkenny, Ontario, is more than a small town in the Letterkenny TV show: it’s an alternate universe. Introduced at the start of each episode with a kind of Law and Order spoof (“There are 5000 people in Letterkenny. These are their problems. Dun-dun.”[5]), to drive in to Letterkenny is to park inside the very heart of a bizarre maze of fast-talking puns, impenetrable slang, and old-school traditions meeting new-school moralities. Letterkenny is, to try and summarize, a unique television show.

If you just looked at the outline of the show though, you might think you’re in store for another Corner Gas. Yes, there’s another white man in a small town at the centre of the show, and his family and the zany townspeople around him form the cast of lovable oddballs. But the premise is extremely misleading. Whereas Corner Gas drew upon a small-town that probably only existed in the 1950s to 80s, Letterkenny the town is a vibrant, diverse, often disastrous combination of forces, much like the real small towns that most Canadians know.

Each of the characters and groups shown in Letterkenny are presented as stereotypes. Starting in that central core, the main character of Wayne would appear to be a typical small-town farmer. Burly, hyper-masculine, drinking or fighting most of the show, he’s not unlike the traditional imagining of a small-town roughneck. Similarly his extended family – sister Katie, and best friends Daryl and Squirrely Dan – are initially presented as stereotypical “hicks”, a nomenclature the show adopts as its own to describe their lifestyle.

The other groups also start off matching the stereotypes of their chosen group: the hockey players are jocks who are interested only in winning on the ice and scoring off it; the “skids” are drug-addled street-ravers whose only other joy comes from late-night video game marathons; the “natives” are rough, cigarette-selling First Nations people living on a reservation and occasionally getting in trouble with the townies; and the preacher appears to be the same close-minded, nosy, intrusive pastor, who, for Canadians, is a type made famous through almost every Quebec novel written about small-town life in the early 20th century.

Those stereotypes represent a marked departure from the Boomer understanding of small towns as conservative, white, uniform and unchanging farming communities. For example, while passed off for jokes, the skid characters represent a very real phenomenon of youth (and non-youth) drug abuse within smaller communities. The reason they can be used for jokes so easily is that anyone from a small town already knows the “skids” in their communities. So also with the hockey players, and all the rest. The comedy then arrives not from a meditation on these stereotypes, as might be expected, but on subverting the expectations of those stereotypes.

The skids turn out to be hyper-literate, sentimentalist do-gooders, whose one major crime spree (destroying mailboxes) is ineffective and quickly ended. The preacher is eventually turned out of his church for being too liberal-minded, even if the character never quite confronts his long-simmering homosexual feelings for main-character Wayne. The natives turn out to be key allies of the hicks in their continuing fight with “the degens from up-country” (a group of bizzarro-hicks, evil in every way[6]). The hockey players talk constantly about sleeping with women, but they never really seem to move past their fixation on Wayne’s sister Katie. The hicks transform the most: from simple rural country folk to progressive, feminist, cultured, and witty individuals.

That’s the structure of the show: updating then betraying the stereotypes of small-town life in rural Canada. But what about the content of the show? Well that’s almost as difficult to describe.

Jokes in Letterkenny are delivered via machine-gun. The show started by delivering those jokes mainly as insults, but as seasons have progressed and the tensions between character groups have waxed and waned, the focus has shifted towards an increasingly intricate series of Seinfeld-esque conversations-about-nothing, descriptions of events unseen (such as an alleged ostrich-fucking), and ruminations on a single point (ie. dad sounds). The speed of delivery, recurrence of jokes, and numerous callbacks mean the audience is constantly buffeted by a recursive flood of puns, curses, and observations. All of which are doused in what makes Letterkenny perhaps most unique: its use of language.

Almost every line of immaculately planned and deadpan-delivered dialogue involves at least some form of slang. Letterkenny the town has almost as many dialects as there are groups, yet everyone understands one another (for the most part), making the show as a whole operate with a kind of pidgin language that only the people living in the town are truly fluent in. The audience is left to their wits to decipher the particulars of a given vernacular. That constant intermingling of small-town and group-specific language into the exaggerated, prarie-farm accent makes the show memorable and instantly identifiable.

“Instantly identifiable” is not something you can usually attribute to much of anything from Canada. Our national icons and symbols are few, and many of them (the beaver, the moose, the loon) are, well, kind of funny. Letterkenny plays with these symbols (see the episode devoted to the protection of “Canada Gooses”), inverts other ones (Francophone-Anglophone relations in another episode), and upholds others (the show’s use of fighting as an honourable way of settling a disagreement, after which both parties can become friends, is part of why it remains a part of hockey). The result is a show that’s both uniquely Canadian, yet – and this is the important part – accessible to external audiences. Letterkenny the town is so bizarre, and builds such impassable walls with its unique sense of humor and impenetrable dialogue, that no one can ever really become a citizen. But once you’re inside, you’re going to be part of a club whose only requirement is having made it through the gate.

What’s Going On

Each of these three shows then, does something remarkable. They are both good, and Canadian. And identifiably Canadian at that.

So why this rather sudden and abrupt change in the direction and tenor of Canadian comedy? Well, there are two major points I think are occurring. Keep in mind I have zero evidence or support for either, but they do make some sense.

The first is that the reins of our television production are being handed to a newer generation, and being entrusted to creatives who don’t rely on the boomer understanding of comedy, Canada, or really much of anything.

The women who created the Baroness von Sketch Show have obviously developed their own take on the sketch as a comedy form, something they’ve honed playing to the audiences of Second City. Jared Keeso, the creator of Letterkenny, started the show as a YouTube short that drew millions of views. And Ins Choi, as previously mentioned, started Kim’s Convenience as a fringe festival play.

Each of the three travelled certain well-worn paths to arrive at their success story: independent film, improvisation, and the fringe circuit. It’s worth taking a look at each to consider how these younger voices are honing their skills, and what that can tell us about the evolution of the Canadian comedy industry.

I know next to nothing about independent film, so I’ll leave that alone except to say that YouTube has democratized the distribution of content like the early Letterkenny Problems web-series. While the fiscal challenges of producing a decent-quality short film still render it out of the reach of most individuals or even small groups, the breakdown of barriers with the audience mean even an imperfectly-executed idea can still find an audience who didn’t even know they were waiting for it. In the case of Letterkenny, the money followed soon after.

The improv system in Canada is something I’m more familiar with, and it’s a bit better defined as well. Most major cities have an improv company, or two, or five, depending on the market and the local theatre culture. While Second City in Toronto may serve as the “big leagues” for improvised actors and actresses, even smaller markets have nurtured talent that have gone on to do big things. Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Improv, for example, has alumni including Mark Meer (the male voice of Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, among other roles), Ron Pederson (of MadTV fame), and Nathan Fillion (who should need no introduction).

Improv by its nature is disruptive and less encumbered by adherence to stereotype, and dedicated improvisers often travel to take their performances across the country, so it’s no surprise that the Baroness von Sketch Show features a dynamism that’s less pinned down to a place than the sitcoms I’ve discussed. Combining the strong, mostly non-profit infrastructure built up across the country with Canada’s sketch and improv comedy history seems to yield a market in which the surprise isn’t that such a high quality sketch show exists, but that it’s taken so long for one to rise above and make a distinct name for itself. I fully expect a few more to arise in the coming years and decades.

Finally there is the fringe theatre circuit, which is a tightly knit combination of festival organizers, performers, and theatregoers across the country. If you’ve never attended a fringe performance, the details are in the name: it’s supposed to be theatre on the fringe of normal society. Performances run the gamut from traditional stage plays to one-person storytelling to faux-noir-magic shows to stand-up meta-comedy about Scottish deities. During each Canadian summer a group of these mostly young fringe artists take their shows on the road across the country, playing in cities for a week or so at a time, trying to make audiences laugh, cry, cringe, and pay money for the privilege.

To survive on the Fringe circuit means you’re successful. If you’re not, you can’t afford to move on to the next town, and/or you go bankrupt. To thrive on the fringe circuit is to have a hand on the pulse of what’s working for audiences across a country that’s geographically and demographically diverse, even if most of your audiences are similar, in that they live in medium-sized cities (by American standards) and they’re willing to come to a fringe show. But it’s a system built for the quick honing of comedic and storytelling skills, for understanding what works in your head versus on the stage, and for providing a proving stage that can actually pay a few bills and allow the performers to live off their craft (just not in Toronto or Vancouver – the other city with sky-high housing costs).

It’s no surprise that a number of successful fringe performers have since moved into the traditionally staid writers rooms and pitch offices of the CBC and other traditional media outlets. Choi’s experience with Kim’s Convenience is indicative of a system that can work to take, if not wholly formed ideas, the talents and performative capabilities of a generation of new artists, and broadcast them to a larger audience that’s likely been waiting for them for years. As this shift in ages continues, I think we’ll continue to produce shows that audiences in Canada and around the world will enjoy.

The second reason for this growth in Canadian comedy television is the elephant in the room for anyone who’s actually watched the stuff for longer than a few minutes. And that elephant is Trailer Park Boys.

That series’ explosion into a true international flagship is something that looms over everything else in Canadian comedy. For over a decade, Trailer Park Boys broke ground that proved Canadian comedy wasn’t polite and needn’t reflect every national stereotype. Similar to Letterkenny it mostly broke those stereotypes or toyed with them to create a place that felt alien, even to Canadians. It was also a place that people around the world loved to go.

If you’ve ever claimed that “something’s fucky” or feared the elusive Samsquanch, you’ve partaken in a show that created its own rules around law and order, the magic ability of a rum and coke to avoid spilling, and more importantly, about what kind of comedy counts as Canadian.

To be fair, I’ve only watched maybe a dozen episodes of Trailer Park Boys – not because I didn’t enjoy it, but just because life is cruel and doesn’t leave enough time for good marathons – so my own awareness of the show is minimal. But the far-reaching appeal of the show ensured that Canadian culture producers couldn’t help but take notice. While each of the shows I’ve highlighted play by their own rules, as does Trailer Park Boys, there’s at least one element they all share: an ability to say “fuck.”

You may almost miss it on Kim’s Convenience, as the plots are so wholesome, but each of these shows deploys the f bomb at some point or another. “Fuck” has been a rarely-used weapon in Canadian television, which has traditionally felt like its gone through a wholesome censor appointed by the Brady Bunch. But opening up the language taps – to full throttle on a show like Letterkenny – has been a small but important step in moving Canadian shows closer to where its audience has long been sitting, waiting, and swearing. Trailer Park Boys may have had something to do with that.

And Where To?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t come out and say that these three examples were chosen because I personally enjoy them, and because they’ve started to receive the kind of international press coverage that Canadians rely on to tell us when we’ve made something of note. There are other funny shows I’ve heard tell of – my wife is a fan of Schitt’s Creek [7] and Mr. D – and when I disparage a wasteland of thoroughly unfunny shows, it’s not to put down the hard work of the hundreds of writers, actors, producers, and showrunners who have tried to harvest some of Canada’s comedic talent over the years. It’s simply a reflection of the reality that for many years, Canada’s ability to compete with the slicker, more innovative, and better financed diversity of American programming, was extremely limited.

Which, naturally, takes us back to The Massey Report and the question that preoccupied mid-century Canadian thought-leaders: does Canada have a culture? And is it at risk of falling victim to American hegemony?

The answer to both was, is, and probably always will be: yes.

The truth is that Canada is an open book, constantly crushed under the weight of the much heavier open book of America. While we do continue to have cultural and political differences, it’s unlikely that we will ever diverge enough to the point that Canadians will simply stop consuming American cultural products, or outright reject the social influences that Americans exert. One need look no further than Canadian conservative politics’ recent and ongoing transformation to mimic Trumpism, to realize that when America sneezes, Canada gets typhoid.

Yet Canadians do have unique stories to weave, unique songs to sing, and even unique jokes to tell. For decades now, those stories, songs, and jokes have been shepherded down a very specific path. Yet as a new generation of artists are coming into their own, we are beginning to challenge the old narratives Canadians have been yoked to. Those challenges are numerous and ongoing, in almost every domain of Canadian culture. Some, like Canadian literature, even appear to be disintegrating under the tensions between the old school and the new – so much momentum does the old carry, and so forceful is the push for a new voice from the younger generation.

But the future of comedy in Canada, at least, is fairly bright. That brightness was dealt a possible blow last year, when Canada’s regulatory body for television and streaming services declared that services like Netflix would not have to meet the Canadian content guidelines that have applied to traditional TV services. Caught in the complex web of nation-less internet networks, corporate demands for less regulation, and consumer demands for cheaper, universal programming, this political choice removes the financial backstop that could ensure a level of support for Canadian comedy in the future – the same backstop that’s accounted for several of our country’s success stories. Whether this will have a large impact on future television remains to be seen.

But outside of this hiccup, we’ve retained, and in some cases are strengthening, the feeder networks we’ve established for decades to capture, nurture, and exploit talent. Our state-supported cultural production networks have been loosening up the reins to ensure that creative visions can be realized. And most importantly, we have some strong examples of television shows that have worked. None of which have been tied down or limited to a singular vision of what our country, or our culture, can be.

And that’s a big fucking deal.

[1] Corner Gas did feature an indigenous RCMP officer as a main character, although his race was explicitly never mentioned by any other characters or the show at large.

[2] Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who plays Mr. Kim, GAVE a great summary of his use of an accent on the show, which is well worth a read: https://www.macleans.ca/culture/arts/how-to-do-an-on-screen-accent-and-why-it-can-be-okay/

[3] Apparently this story of the CBC rejecting Corner Gas is a fable. However it fits everyone’s understanding of the CBC to a tee.

[4] Kids in the Hall had only minor connections to Second City, and actually owed more to the input and direction of Lorne Michaels, of SNL fame.

[5] Dun-dun added for dramatic effect.

[6] Maybe. After five seasons I still don’t quite understand what a degen from up country is, exactly.

[7] Schitt’s Creek is another notable example of subverting and playing with Canadian stereotypes, as it’s a show about a big city family forced into small town seclusion. Its sense of humor is also a blend of old-timey-Canadian, and new-sensibility concerns about topics like pansexuality, for example. It also features Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, two SCTV alumni, to bring everything full circle.


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One Reply to “The Surprising Quality of Canadian Comedy: A Primer for Americans”

  1. Thanks for the great article. I really loved SCTV and Kids in the Hall. Trailer Park Boys did not resonate with me, but I have friends who have seen all the episodes and gone to live shows they do. But it is fun to read about new comedy shows I can check out and not rely solely on Guy Maddin to tell me about Canadian culture anymore.

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