COLUMN

An ambassador of laughter

‘The only way to get a decent high school education in Canada these days is to go to university’

STEWART MacLEOD March 30 1992
COLUMN

An ambassador of laughter

‘The only way to get a decent high school education in Canada these days is to go to university’

STEWART MacLEOD March 30 1992

An ambassador of laughter

COLUMN

STEWART MacLEOD

‘The only way to get a decent high school education in Canada these days is to go to university’

It is without apology that the name of Charlie McKenzie is being planted on this page for the second time. What the heck, the Prime Minister has made it more than once. Come to think of it, so has the Queen.

And, laugh as you might, the aforementioned Charlie yet might have a greater influence in shaping the world than either of them. Lord knows, he’s going to try.

Does his name ring a bell? You might remember him as leader of the Rhinoceros party, the one that entered the 1984 election campaign with promises of a Guaranteed Annual Orgasm and won 163,000 votes. Charlie (Feel Free to Misquote Me) McKenzie was a relatively big name in those heady days “before those ridiculous senators bought kazoos and whistles and pretended they were us.”

Well, a politically neutered Charlie is back on the scene, his zany sense of humor still bubbling merrily below the surface, but now seriously dedicated to bringing the world’s—and Canada’s—people together “through the greatest weapon in our arsenal.” That, of course, is laughter. His specialty.

And anyone doubting Charlie’s ability need only go from a tortuous meeting of constitutional comma crunchers in Ottawa to an after-dinner shindig in Montreal where, thanks to our man, anglophones and francophones are happily united in laughing at themselves. You decide what’s more unifying, another dreary dirge on distinctiveness, or a rousing reminder that laughter is indeed the shortest distance between people.

(“Where I come from there’s a name for people who quit: we call them quitters.”)

No, we’re not talking mere entertainment here. When it comes to the role of laughter, another Charlie emerges—the one which knows all about corporations hiring humorologists to boost morale and, probably, productivity. Or about the positive effect of laughter on hospital patients. Or on internatipnalrelatioife. Or on education. ... 18 * ” w ^

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.

(“Until I saw Victor Borge I hated classical music.”)

Dr. Laurence Peter, author of The Peter Principle, always contended that only two things can reduce prejudice: “Education and laughter.” Charlie is, of course, a believer.

Perhaps the most influential individual in Charlie’s new life is Dr. James H. Boren— “when in doubt, mumble”—who gave up a 30year career with the U.S. state department to put humor to work. We may never have scientific proof of his achievements, but it was Dr. Boren who, in the spring of 1989, organized the first U.S.-Soviet humor exchange, with five funny people from each country laughing with, and about, each other. They went home feeling the Cold War would soon thaw.

Coincidentally or otherwise, it did. (“Talk can always follow laughter, but laughter can’t always follow talk.”)

Charlie looks serious. “You know how the CIA got all its initial information on the upheavals in Eastern Europe? From a satirical underground pamphlet in Budapest, that’s how. Laughter beat the best brains of the CIA.”

(“They call me Charlie, but let me be frank about that.”)

Another little-known fact. The widest-read

magazine in world history was Krokidil, a satirical publication first introduced by Vladimir Lenin. With a circulation of five million, each copy was read by an astonishing 20 people. He knew something about communicating, that old Lenin.

Anyway, the more Charlie delved into the subject, the more enthusiastic—or obsessive— he became. So, in 1990, with support from former UN ambassador Stephen Lewis, the past president of the American Medical Association and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, among others, he took a proposal to the United Nations. And it was the birth of WATCH—the World Assembly of Technical and Creative Humorists, mandated by UNESCO to “explore and develop applications of constructive humor in medicine, education, socioeconomic development and intercultural relations.”

(“Five weeks later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. In comedy, timing is everything.”)

As part of Canada’s 125th birthday party, McKenzie had a plan to have Canada’s 1,177 elected and non-elected legislators provide their favorite jokes and humorous anecdotes for a book—“to provide cranky Canadians with recyclable humor stimuli to deflect the ubiquitous acrimony from the constitutional debate.” All proceeds would go to UNICEF.

The organizers of Canada 125 perhaps didn’t see the humor of it: his request for support was rejected.

(“It sometimes seems the country’s going nowhere and we’ve already arrived.”)

So, to hell with financing. Charlie struck out on his own, and with his “chargée d’affaires,” Dominique Langevin, canvassed schools in French-speaking countries of the United Nations. From places like Belgium, Haiti, Zaire and Guadeloupe, the children’s jokes came in. Now, they are going into booklet forms, to be distributed to young hospital patients. If there’s enough for a book, proceeds will go to UNICEF.

(“Kids are like big people. Those who laugh together, stay together.”)

In September, if things turn out as planned, there will be a version from English-language countries, educating people about what makes people laugh around the world.

(“The only way to get a decent high-school education in Canada these days is to go to university.”)

The way the 48-year-old Charlie sees it, promoters of virtually every other discipline— religious, political, whatever—have had their turn at trying to bring people together. Now, it’s his turn. “I believe in the unity of laughter,” says the onetime soldier turned social worker from Amherstburg, Ont., who came to Montreal in 1978 as a unilingual anglophone “and never felt unwelcome. I love this province and this country.”

(“But no matter where you turn, there are prophets of doom and gloom, all furthering their careers off the fret of the land. We must learn to laugh at them.

“We owe it to our children.”)

Stewart MacLeod is Ottawa columnist for Thomson News Service.