A nation afraid to laugh

Charles Gordon April 29 1985

A nation afraid to laugh

Charles Gordon April 29 1985

A nation afraid to laugh


Charles Gordon

Canadians are not congenitally comic.

—Mack Sennett, 195U

It is still an article of faith among social commentators that Canadians have no sense of humor. There are no funny Canadian writers, no sense of humor on the CBC. Where contradictions to the theory exist—such as CBC Radio’s Royal Canadian Air Farce and the Frantics—many commentators ignore them or undervalue them. This ignores SCTV and all the comedians and comedy writers we have exported to help the Americans keep their television alive, just as many years earlier we exported Mack Sennett of Richmond, Que., to help the Americans develop the Keystone Kops. The idea of Canadians being a dull, humorless people is too precious to give up.

There are, it is true, people who make a not-bad living being funny in this country. But even among them there is a nagging fear that they are not being funny enough—or, if they are being funny enough, that they are not being funny in the right way. Specifically, they worry that Canadian satire is not mean enough, not tough enough.

They look enviously at the British, who publish Private Eye, which regularly trashes politicians, financial barons, dukes and earls. They gaze wistfully at the Americans, who publish National Lampoon, which gleefully insults celebrities from all walks of American life. “Why can’t we do something like that?” they ask. Obviously, because we are dull and afraid to laugh.

The case of ZED will be held up as further evidence. ZED is, or was to be, a magazine created by Terry Mosher, the Montreal Gazette cartoonist who draws under the name of Aislin. When he announced the birth of the magazine —tellingly subtitled In lieu of Canadian humor—Mosher put out a press release saying that “Canadians have had very little practice at writing good, tough humor.” To guarantee the kind of toughness needed, ZED’s contributors were going to be guaranteed anonymity.

The fact that ZED was not published April 1, as originally planned, is being held up as typically Canadian. ZED fell victim to a dispute between Mosher and his publisher, at least part of which concerned matters of taste. At last, someone had put together some humor that had a mean streak, and what happened? Uh huh. Here was a country so

dull, so timid that its first national humor magazine could not be published. Suspicion confirmed.

The theme of a nation afraid to laugh was taken up earlier this month in something called “A Colloquium on Satire in Canada” organized by the National Gallery of Canada. The colloquium featured a panel of Canadian cartoonists and writers, as well as a British art historian. To some people the fact that Canadians would organize a panel discussion on the subject is proof in itself that a problem exists, but the afternoon was relaxed and full of laughs.

Still, it was not without self-doubt. Both members of the panel and members of the audience asked the question, “Are we tough enough?” This may have had something to do with the circumstances in which the colloquium was held. It coincided with a gallery exhibition of British caricature from 1620 until the present. Three floors up from the

Despite Leacock, Air Farce, Macpherson and Aislinthe idea of Canadians being dull is too precious to give up

auditorium in which the colloquium took place, the walls were covered with savage drawings holding up to ridicule the members of Britain’s better


The contrast was striking. Here were 17thand 18th-century drawings depicting members of the royal family whoring, boozing, vomiting, stuffing food in their overample bellies, and here were Canadian satirists, standing behind a podium and several pots of tulips, informing their audience that even the mildest attempts at satirizing the present-day royal family draw tons of angry mail, floods of irate telephone calls. Where did we go wrong?

We didn’t. Unless it is our own fault that we are living in the wrong century. The England in which the great caricaturists Hogarth and Gillray flourished was a society afflicted by severe class distinction. The aim of satire, in the words of British art historian Richard Godfrey, was “the discomfiture of dandies,” of whom there was no shortage. While class distinction has not been eliminated in Canada, it does not persist with enough strength to inspire the an-

ger that makes satirists mean.

Satire turns mean in a climate of oppression. Our satirists, when they look around, see much to ridicule, much to make fun of. But they don’t see oppression. When they look at their rulers they see imperfect but well-meaning men and women. Even when a cartoonist has done a devastating job of savaging a politican he finds, often to his dismay, that the politician calls for the original drawing, rather than for the palace guard.

Even Canadian women, many of whom see themselves as members of an oppressed group, have difficulty being vicious in print. “We want, above all, to be perceived as nice people first,” the humorist Erika Ritter told the colloquium. If wanting to be perceived as nice people is a fault, women are not the only Canadians who have it.

As shown by the ZED experience, Canadian satirists might have a tough time not being nice people, even if they felt like it. Part of this is a question of history. Private Eye thrives in the tradition established by Hogarth and Gillray. Those who would take it to court know that Private Eye will not back down. They also know that Private Eye regards a lawyer’s letter as cause for a redoubled attack on the lawyer’s client. There is no such tradition in Canada.

Nor is there the legal context in Canada that allows National Lampoon to prosper in the United States. American libel law allows a magazine or newspaper to call a public figure a crook and a horse thief even if he isn’t, as long as the publication can show that it didn’t lie deliberately. Canadian law is not nearly so permissive.

Being viciously funny is not a trait that can be turned on and off like a tap. And a climate that both allows and inspires people to be viciously funny is not found everywhere. Canadians are not a vicious people, apparently, and they don’t find a lot to be vicious about. That could be something to celebrate rather than bemoan if we were a less insecure people. Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that satire can exist without a bloodbath. We have a satirical tradition extending from Leacock through George Bain and Norman Ward. We have Aislin and Duncan Macpherson. The Canadian sense of humor is not a serious problem.

Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and a contributor to the first edition of ZED.