‘We Will Always Default to Superiority’
President Trump’s election has been a boon to Canadian comedians, and not just for the quirks and the missteps that have made him a focus of American comedy. Here, Trump jokes often come with the punch line that his election proves Canada’s superiority.
“It gave Canadians a great excuse to do our favorite fallback, which is, ‘Well, it’s better than America,’” said Susan Kent, a cast member on “22 Minutes.”
In one popular segment, a Canadian border guard catches a “runner” who is revealed to be Melania Trump, played by Ms. Kent.
“Mrs. Trump, this is the third time this week,” the officer tells her. After next catching Hillary Clinton, he tells the camera, “I feel bad sending them back there.”
“The Beaverton,” a satirical news show, had its first episode on Nov. 10.
“Sad news as the United States was found dead last night in its North American home,” a newscaster deadpanned. “Investigators have ruled the death a suicide, the result of 300 million gunshot wounds to the foot.”
Luke Gordon Field, a producer, said pleasing Canadian audiences with jokes about the United States could feel too easy — sometimes for uncomfortable reasons.
“In Canada, we will always default to superiority.” he said. “That’s our go-to move. But it’s an interesting form of superiority, where it’s coupled with a desire for recognition from Americans. The only thing audiences love more than a comic who mocks the United States is one who finds success there.”
Taking the Americans Down a Peg
Much as American comedy often wrestles with issues of race, Canada’s focuses on a different question of coexistence: life next to the larger, louder United States.
Ann Pornel, a cast member at Second City Toronto, a sketch and improvisational comedy theater, offered the metaphor of something “that everybody can smell and nobody likes it, but we’re all too polite to say, ‘What is that?’”
“That’s the Canadian identity: We’re the ones in a room full of farts who don’t say anything,” Ms. Pornel continued. “I’m O.K. with that. Because we’re the ones who smelt it, not the ones who dealt it.”
The current main stage show, “Everything Is Great Again,” repeatedly lampoons Mr. Trump and his supporters but never mentions him by name.
Meant as a jab, it underscores the omnipresence of American politics and culture that so rankles Canadians. Even when mocked and supposedly ignored, the United States is the center of attention.
In the opening joke, a family welcomes refugees whose “country has been torn apart.” They are revealed to be from Michigan. Subsequent skits turn on an Ohio autoworker whose politics are challenged by schoolchildren and a man who frets that “Canada’s going to end up like the States.”
The show’s full-cast song name-checks Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.
Try to imagine an American audience laughing at a passing reference to, say, Canada’s finance minister. (It’s Bill Morneau, by the way, and he manages the world’s 10th-largest economy.) That Canadians go for this is a sign of just how overwhelmed they are by all things American — a source of endless irritation, alleviated by taking the culprits down a peg.
Several comedians said that they tried to push Canadians to see problems in their own country, but that American portrayals of Canada as a paradise made this more difficult.
“Our identity is smug complacency,” Brandon Hackett, another cast member, said. “That’s the Ontario license plate slogan: ‘Smugly Complacent.’”
An Identity Beyond ‘Not American’
The Canadian satirist Bruce McCall, in a 2013 essay for Vanity Fair, explained his nation’s comedy as a response to feeling smothered by the Americans, robbing Canadians of a fully distinct identity.
The pinnacle of this resistance came with the 2001 TV special “Talking to Americans,” in which the comedian Rick Mercer asked Americans ever more ridiculous questions about Canada to expose their ignorance.
A Columbia professor eagerly signs a petition to discourage Canadians from putting their elders on ice floes. Mike Huckabee, then the governor of Arkansas, congratulates Canada on its national igloo.
Asked whether “America should be bombing Saskatchewan,” New Yorkers respond, “Absolutely” and “If that’s what they’re going to have to do, that’s what they’re going to have to do.”
The show attracted 2.7 million viewers, a record. Mr. Mercer, in an interview, attributed its success to something subtler than a love of teasing the national older brother.
“I think Canadians have always been a little envious of the Americans, that they have ‘Mom, the flag and apple pie,’” he said. But whenever Canadians try to define themselves, he added, they “immediately start talking about how we’re different from the United States.”
That is part of why Mr. Mercer now focuses his humor on Canada.
He is sometimes called Canada’s Jon Stewart for his sharp-edged political commentary. Another comparison might be Garrison Keillor, the road-touring radio host and purveyor of Americana.
Mr. Mercer’s current show, “Mercer Report,” visits an out-of-the-way hamlet or unsung hero each episode, holding them up as prides of Canada. Still, Mr. Mercer is the first to admit that a stand-alone identity remains beyond easy identification.
“The question of what it means to be Canadian, what the Canadian identity is, has confused Canadians for about 150 years,” he said. “The population is so spread out. The maple leaf doesn’t even grow all over Canada.”
Embracing Second-Class Status
Some comedians, rather than breaking free of their nation’s junior status, embrace it.
Danielle Deveau, a lecturer at the University of Waterloo, noticed something curious in her work studying Canada’s popular culture.
Canadian comedians, she wrote in a research paper, were adopting “camp,” a form of humor often used by gay performers to ironically reappropriate homophobic slurs and stereotypes as points of pride. But instead, or sometimes simultaneously, they were applying that to Canadian national identity.
She highlighted a series of skits from the early-1990s sketch comedy show “The Kids in the Hall,” in which Scott Thompson plays Buddy Cole, a gay Canadian actor who delivers wry monologues, often about his identity.
“Americans know as much about Canada as straight people do about gays,” the character said in one of the skits. “When I’m overseas and people mistake me for an American, I’m as outraged as when they mistake me for straight.”
But Buddy is undeterred: “On my résumé, my agent replaced the word ‘gay’ with ‘blond’ and ‘Canadian’ with ‘outdoorsy.’ So I replaced ‘outdoorsy’ with ‘blousy,’ which makes me a blousy blond.”
Such portrayals of Canadianness, Ms. Deveau wrote, were “both critical and optimistic, a paradox that works its way through much of Canadian popular culture.”
The Rise of ‘Canadiana’
Many comic portrayals of Canadian identity revel in some form of second-class status. Main characters are typically lovable outsiders, often rural and working-class.
The TV mockumentary “Trailer Park Boys,” for instance, follows the down-on-their-luck residents of a Nova Scotia trailer park. Since the show’s 2001 premiere, its troublemaking characters have become something like national mascots. And “Letterkenny,” a new show based in small-town Ontario, is drawing critical praise.
Mr. Gibson of “22 Minutes” called this “Canadiana,” a form of heartland-cherishing, proudly weird humor that has had a resurgence in recent years.
As Canada becomes an increasingly urban and immigrant nation, that identity is being explored through a new strain of Canadiana outsider comedy. “Kim’s Convenience,” based on a play of the same name by the South Korean-born Ins Choi, follows immigrant families in Toronto’s diverse suburbs.
“What I love about the last few years of working in Canadian comedy is that there’s more interest in our country, and not defining ourselves by what Americans think about us,” said Mr. Field, producer of “The Beaverton.” As a nation, he added, “there’s a little more self-confidence in what we do.”
Asked when Canadians found their pride, Ms. Kent joked, “When Trudeau made it into Vogue.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the job title of Cory Gibson on the satirical news show “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.” He is the field producer, not the show runner.
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