ANOTHER VIEW

A nasty lack of a sense of humor

Only in Canada, perhaps, could a tasteless joke in a small-circulation magazine be converted into a gun-control issue

CHARLES GORDON April 13 1992
ANOTHER VIEW

A nasty lack of a sense of humor

Only in Canada, perhaps, could a tasteless joke in a small-circulation magazine be converted into a gun-control issue

CHARLES GORDON April 13 1992

A nasty lack of a sense of humor

ANOTHER VIEW

Only in Canada, perhaps, could a tasteless joke in a small-circulation magazine be converted into a gun-control issue

CHARLES GORDON

People are starting to ask “whither Canadian humor?” again and it’s not funny. The issue arises from Frank magazine, its satirical exploitation of the Prime Minister’s daughter, the Prime Minister’s response and the response to that.

Confronted with humor that goes too far, Canadian opinion-makers cast wildly about for someone to blame, thus converting a tasteless joke into a question of public policy, something that could only happen here.

When Fra «¿published its infamous Caroline Mulroney item last September, it was greeted with a curious mixture of outrage and silence. Some commentators went immediately on the attack. Some news organizations ignored the item, believing that they were under no obligation to make it famous.

If that sensibility seems delicate, it follows on a long tradition. Typically, Canada’s mainstream media steer clear of scandal, unless it is about money, until it surfaces in the United States or Britain. Then we cluck-cluck over the excesses of the foreign press, while at the same time making sure none of those excesses go unreported.

In fact, the Caroline business began that way. Largely unnoticed in Canada, the Prime Minister’s daughter became a sensation in the British press during the London economic summit last summer, and that, in turn, brought her to the attention of the Canadian media.

Whether the original Frank item merited national media attention can be debated. But there is no question that when the Prime Minister, six months later, raised the matter on national television, the mass media did not know how to deal with it. It was an issue, to be sure, because the Prime Minister was involved, but what kind of an issue was it?

It is the kind of thing that makes you wish we had a royal family to carry the responsibility for being scandalous. The British media never ask what kind of an issue it is when something

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.

happens to a royal. It’s a FERGIE SHOCK or a PALACE HORROR; the British pollsters immediately begin asking people whose fault they think it is, and the people who have to run the country are left alone.

Here the media had to decide what the story was about before twirling the old Rolodex and locating the appropriate spokesperson to make the appropriate comment. Who should comment on a Prime Minister saying that he “wanted to take a gun and go down there and do serious damage” to the editors of Frank magazine?

Reporters were dispatched to talk to the person-in-the-street. They consulted the mother of the Frank staffer the Prime Minister had “threatened.” They went to gun-control advocates. Only in Canada, perhaps, could a tasteless joke in a small-circulation magazine be converted into a gun-control issue.

When humor becomes a matter of public policy, the whither question arises. Since the automatic response is the creation of another royal commission, it is well not to ask it too loudly. Still, one of the most interesting responses to the Frank controversy comes from the former leader of the Rhinoceros party. Writing last week in The Ottawa Citizen,

Charlie McKenzie declined to defend Frank. Instead, he called the magazine’s staff “a small band of semiliterate misogynists and homophobic malcontents.”

Inventor of an election platform that once called for a phased-in conversion to left-hand drive, trucks and buses first, McKenzie seemed a natural ally of biting satire. So why, he was asked, wasn’t he on Frank’s side? “I would have liked to have been on their side,” McKenzie answered from his home in Montreal, “but I just can’t.” He objects to the magazine’s tone. “They’re mean,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being mean, if you can be funny and mean.”

Funny is the key. “It just doesn’t make me laugh,” McKenzie said. Terry Mosher, probably Canada’s best satirist, didn’t laugh either, but he is more inclined to be sympathetic to the magazine. Seven years ago, the cartoonist, better known as Aislin, founded a magazine called Zed that was to produce hard-hitting satire. For various reasons, among them the publishing climate, Zed never got off the press. Perhaps because of that, Mosher has tried to help Frank out. The cover of the April 2 issue, for example, features an Aislin drawing of the Prime Minister as a crying baby, one of a series of quite funny responses by the magazine to the controversial circumstances in which it finds itself.

“I feel because I have an interest in satire that they should be encouraged,” Mosher said when asked how he was feeling about Frank these days. He dislikes gossip “unless it’s related somehow to public performance,” and he says, with relation to the Caroline item, that the magazine “went over the edge this time.” Nonetheless, the magazine’s existence “proves that we’re growing up.”

Canadians have been criticized in the past, in humor as in other fields of endeavor, for not being willing to go to the edge. Now, we see one example of what happens when someone does. The edge looks scarier the closer we get to it. Humor is supposed to make life more bearable for us, and Charlie McKenzie helps by looking at the edge in another way. “When we get to the edge,” he said, “we go to the States.”

We have indeed lost a lot of comic talent to the United States. Does that mean that satire is doomed in this country or simply that we have to stop taking humor so seriously?

As another leading Canadian satirist, Mordecai Richler, is finding out, some Canadians seem unwilling to let writers be dealt with by their readers and other forces of the marketplace. Instead, they want the state to become involved, to reward or, more likely, punish. But most Canadians are more fair-minded than that. On the letters pages of the nation, both Frank and the Prime Minister are attacked for venturing too close to the edge. Many have criticized Richler; many others have attacked those who talk of banning his words.

Perhaps all of this will help us to arrive at a working definition of freedom of expression and a better sense of where the edge is. Meanwhile, evidence of the need for satire is all around us.