April 6, 2010
By Stephen Ludlow
For Troy Media
TORONTO, ON, April 6, 2010/Troy Media/ — If you can’t laugh with them, you might as well laugh at them.
It’s a mutual sentiment shared between Canada and her neighbours to the south, as we often find ways to tease each other on several fronts.
Canadians routinely poke fun at American politics. And Americans find Canadian characteristics and accents to be “eh” jovial novelty.
Canada has produced a unique foreign export that has become a thriving, moneymaking commodity: a slew of Canadian comedians adored in America.
Acceptance of Canadian comedians by American audiences from coast to coast has been evolving for some time, as new crops of comedic talent are harvested in Canada, then processed into American fame.
Places like The Second City comedy club in Toronto have been the training grounds of many distinguished alumni, including Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Dan Aykroyd and Mike Myers.
What makes them so appealing to American audiences?
Nothing to lose
Reid Janisse and Cailtin Howden are currently performing in the sketch comedy show “Second City for Mayor” at The Second City Toronto. They acknowledge the growing popularity of Canadian comedy in the United States, with Howden attributing its success to the fact that Canadian comedians have “nothing to lose.”
The sense of freedom offered to Canada’s humourists fires Janisse’s creative juices; “I’ve always felt a real sense of relaxation. That moment when everyone is looking at you, you just have this incredible freedom to take your time and express yourself – the spotlight is yours.”
On stage, both Janisse and Howden play into this sentiment. As they release their inhibitions and reserve, audiences immediately respond with laughter. They smoothly transform themselves into a variety of characters: a former inmate of Guantanamo Bay, a bratty teenager, a seemingly reserved priest and a high-strung teacher frustrated with a student. Canadian comics don’t hold back – they push forward, Howden says.
The outsider’s perspective
Daily, Canadians are exposed to American politics and culture, which accounts for endless comedic material.
The jabbing and potshots between the bordering nations goes both ways. Canada acts as the self-depreciating outsider looking in, while America is the behemoth that occasionally mocks the little guy up North.
Americans enjoy the satirical wit of Stephen Colbert as he routinely takes jabs at Canada: While filming The Colbert Report in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, his on-screen persona would lampoon Canadian culture, simply for not being American. Conversely, Canadians are often laughing along with Rick Mercer, renowned for his Talking to Americans special that played up America’s perceived ignorance of Canada.
Although Canadian comedians thrive on being boisterous and outgoing, Canada as a whole remains content with being a demure nation, as seen through the eyes of the world.
Reflecting on the closing ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games, Howden mentions how she was “mortified” by the emphasis on Canadian stereotypes, but remained optimistic on the outcome. “I was thinking, ‘Well, good, keep us humble!’ I think people like us that way.”
Fame, success and ‘Who are you?’
The opportunities offered in the US are appealing to Canadian comedians, but they also trigger frustration. The permeability of the cultural barrier is just another step to overcome; Canada is often exposed to what’s big in America, but the opposite can’t be said with a straight face.
“We were down in Chicago with a pretty big Canadian celebrity,” Janisse says. “We were just sitting at a bar, and person after person would come to us and say, ‘Hey! So, who are you?’ To these people, he was just another guy, but in Canada, he probably has a hard time walking down the street.”
The aspect of being famous in Canada and yet unknown in other countries is a common Catch-22. On one hand, comedians command respect because they’re well known in Canada, and yet a variety of factors (especially limited funding for the arts) prevent Canadian talent from achieving greater fame.
The last laugh
Although they may not yet be recognizable in the US, both Janisse and Howden are happy to be working with a recognized and respected institution of comedy in The Second City.
With all of Canada’s quirks and America’s eccentricities, the two countries seem to be irreconcilably different. We regard each other as strangers, but when we share a laugh, we form a bond that unites us.
Formerly a section editor at the Calgary Journal, Stephen Ludlow is a graduate of Mount Royal University’s journalism program.