If you’re inclined to lump Canadian comedy in with the American brand of gag-making, there’s plenty of evidence to support your stance – just look at all the Canucks that Lorne Michaels has smuggled across the border to take up roles on Saturday Night Live over the years. But at root – a word neither Americans nor Canadians find inherently funny – there’s a thread of absurdism and low-key satire that defines Canadian comedy. They push things further and get results, damn it.
The prehistoric era
Back in the days before colour TV, homegrown Canadian comedy basically consisted of reading Stephen Leacock stories around the campfire. Then Wayne & Shuster turned up in the 60s (after getting their start with a weekly show in the 50s) with the kind of classic sketch material your parents would quote endlessly and you wouldn’t realise came from TV until years later when you read a comedy history article like this one.
“Julie, don’t go!”
Fodder for American sketch shows
It’s an open secret that much of US comedy has been built on the backs of Canadian entertainers. And in the late-'70s/early-'80s, the crucible in which those laugh-generating geniuses were forged was Second City Television. We’re talking babyfaces like Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara... and the totally mental Ed Grimley, I must say.
Around the same time, Canada was also revolutionising children’s comedy with an all-time classic that introduced us to the perils of saying “I don’t know”, Barth’s Burgers and Alanis Morrisette. You Can’t Do That on Television tragically survives only in the form of Nickelodeon’s trademark green slime and decades-later lingering crushes on Moose.
And here, of course, we have to mention the Just For Laughs comedy festival, which began in 1983 (as a French-language event!) and continues to bring international stand-up joy to TV screens around the world each year.
The Kids in the Hall is the most Canadian TV series of all time (Degrassi Junior High notwithstanding). Inspired by the short-lived Four on the Floor (featuring Mr Canoehead), this 1989-95 sketch show made mountains of laughs from recurring characters that liked to crush people’s heads, complain about their unpopularity and monologue about being gay and Canadian (PS - Buddy Cole seriously holds up)...
The Red Green Show was more of a local hit than an international success, but that doesn’t detract from its hilarity. On a marathon 1991 to 2006 run, Steve Smith played a duct tape-toting handyman on a fictionalised cable TV show. He also gave advice on the benefits of getting old:
In this era, we also have to mention Royal Canadian Air Farce, a long-running comedy series birthed from radio that proved it still had teeth in a (relatively) recent sketch; CODCO’s no-holds-barred social commentary; and, in Quebec, Rock et Belles Oreilles.
The internet spreads word
It’s weird to conflate Tom Green and Jon Lajoie here, but they’re two Canadian TV comedians who first came to Antipodean attention with online film clips, and we’re making it all about us for a moment. Check out Green’s “The Bum Bum Song” (1999) and Lajoie’s “Everyday Normal Guy” (2007)...
Kenny vs Spenny was underappreciated down under, but the saga of two idiot friends constantly competing in ridiculous competitions is a prime example of what Canadian comedy does best – push the limits while America cowers in fear. It was hilarious to watch a third-hand ripped DVD-ROM on one's ageing PC, so it must have been even funnier to see Kenny and Spencer trying to make each other laugh first in broadcast quality (NSFL).
There’s a whole new generation of Canadian comedy on our small screens, and leading the charge is FUBAR: Age of Computer. This frankly ridiculous show is a mockumentary about two headbangers who’ve just discovered the internet and have some sweet ideas for e-businesses. If you’ve seen the 2002 film, it’s like that but moreso. Give ‘er! (That’s Canadian for “Carrrrrn!”)
And, to play us off, here’s Nirvanna the Band the Show (seasons 1 and 2 are available at SBS On Demand):
Watch the entire first season of FUBAR: Age of Computer at SBS On Demand: