The development of comedy in Canada, like much of all show business in this country, has been tied closely to changing trends in North American popular culture, with Canadians often playing the role of trendsetters.
The development of comedy in Canada, like much of all show business in this country, has been tied closely to changing trends in North American popular culture, with Canadians often playing the role of trendsetters. First in radio, then in television and the movies, Canadians have managed to mould a national comedic outlook, often in spite of an overwhelming American cultural presence and just as often because of it, which speaks not just to a Canadian constituency but to an audience that is worldwide.
The Early Days
In its earliest form in the latter half of the 19th century and at the start of the 20th, comedy consisted of live performances by groups of entertainers and occasionally individuals in vaudeville and the legitimate theatre. These were either plays or variety shows in which music and dance also played a significant part. At the same time, the lecture circuit was plied by individual speakers who often specialized in giving humorous talks. However, comedy, outside of clowning, did not truly develop as an art form unto itself until the arrival of moving pictures in 1895.
Mack Sennett (b at Danville, Qué 1880; d at Los Angeles, Ca 1960) was a veteran of burlesque and travelling shows who became a pioneer of slapstick film comedy in the earliest days of cinema. Joining the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in New York in 1908, he worked his way up quickly from film extra to director, finally leaving to found his own Keystone Studios in California in 1912. Sennett's comedy was fast-paced, violent and vulgar but his eye for talent and his sense of what the public wanted were unerring. He introduced film audiences to newcomers Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Harry Langdon and Mabel Normand while giving all his stars, particularly Chaplin, the opportunity to direct as well as star in their own comic two-reelers. His Keystone Kops, a band of baton-waving, pie-throwing police clowns, entered the culture and the language as the epitome of clumsy incompetence. After Keystone closed, Sennett produced several shorts for Paramount starring W.C. Fields, but he failed to change his formalistic style and his films eventually lost favour with audiences. He made his last in 1935 and received an Honorary Academy Award in 1938.
Sennett was not the only Canadian comic in the early days of Hollywood. Toronto-born Mary PICKFORD, known as "America's Sweetheart," rose to become the first Hollywood superstar, the most popular and financially successful actress in silent cinema. Although primarily known as a dramatic actress, she could play parts that combined humour, pluck and a subtle suggestion of the nymphet. Marie Dressler was the grande dame of early sound films who was blessed with perfect comic timing. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer declared her one of his greatest stars. Other Canadian actors who joined Sennett at Keystone included Del Lord, who ran away to join the circus at an early age and landed in Los Angeles in 1912. He joined Keystone and was one of the original Kops. He gained a reputation for perfect comic timing and for being the most accurate actor with the custard-pie-in-the-face routine. He graduated to producing and directing at Keystone and later directed many of the Three Stooges shorts for Columbia Pictures.
Wallace MacDonald, who was a mainstay in Hollywood for almost 45 years, first as an actor and then as a director of hundreds of B-movies, began his career in 1914 as one of the Kops and made several shorts with Chaplin. Harry Edwards entered films in 1912 as a prop boy and gradually worked his way up the ladder at Keystone. He developed into one of the best comedy directors of the silent period, working with Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, Carole Lombard and many others. Marie Prevost was educated in a convent school in Montréal and later at a Los Angeles high school. By the time she was 18 years old she had become one of Keystone's bathing beauties. She stayed with Sennett until 1921 when she went to Universal, where she was promoted to leading-lady status and starred in three films by Ernst Lubitsch: The Marriage Circle and Three Women in 1924 and Kiss Me Again in 1925.
Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster
WAYNE AND SHUSTER were the first comedy performers to gain a national radio and television audience in Canada, creating among Canadians a taste for sketch comedy that persists to this day. Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster got their start in radio as a writing and performing comedy team in 1941 on the CBC big band show Blending Rhythm. In 1942 they joined the armed forces, touring Canada and eventually Europe with The Army Show during the Second World War. After the war they returned to radio and, inspired by the success of American entertainers such as Jack Benny and Fred Allen, eventually succeeded in getting their own show. The Wayne and Shuster Show started on CBC Radio in 1946, moving to television in 1954. Backed by a seasoned group of character actors, the pair presented a program consisting entirely of sketches, mainly parodies of well-known plays, movies and TV shows.
While often obvious, derivative (they were heavily influenced by Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows), or sophomoric, enough of the sketches were inspired and original to assure the comedy duo a loyal audience for well over 30 years. Some of these, including "Frontier Psychiatrist" and "Rinse the Blood Off My Toga," a parody of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar presented as a contemporary murder mystery, are still considered classics of the genre. The pair was so popular they became regular guests on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s and 1960s, appearing more often than any other single act. However, as times changed so did the demographics of their audience, and by the 1980s they were no longer able to appeal to young viewers weaned on the more daring and outrageous comedy that was gradually taking over the airwaves. Their last comedy special aired in October 1988 and their longstanding reign as the deans of Canadian comedy ended for good with the death of Johnny Wayne in July 1990.
Radio ComedyIn 1937, The Happy Gang, a light-entertainment 30-minute show, became a staple on CBC Radio. In the show's heyday, its combination of popular songs, frothy banter and corny jokes attracted 2 million listeners. It remained on air until 1959.
Wayne and Shuster's pioneering work in radio established a precedent that opened doors for a number of other performers in the years that followed. The first among these was Max Ferguson, whose After Breakfast Breakdown debuted on CBC Radio Halifax in the late 1940s. Through the 1950s his Rawhide show, broadcast coast-to-coast, was a daily serving of social and political satire featuring sketches starring a wide assortment of characters, all voiced by Ferguson himself.
Topical sketch comedy was also the stock-in-trade of the comedic troupe known originally as The Jest Society, which became The Royal Canadian Air Farce when the show first aired on CBC Radio in 1973. It went on to become a half-hour television series in 1994. Using parody and broad caricature to comment on current political and social issues, it was one of the network's most popular programs for 14 seasons, coming to an end in 2008. In a totally different vein, the 1980s produced CBC's "The Frantics," a Toronto-based comedy quartet that specialized in absurdist humour typified by the fictional superhero "Mr Canoehead." By avoiding topical comedy, The Frantics captured a younger audience more entertained by the weird and unusual. Frantic Times aired from 1981 to 1988 on the radio, then moved to television as Four on the Floor for one season in 1986.
Double Exposure, offering spot-on political satire from the comedy duo of Linda Cullen and Bob Robertson, aired on CBC Radio (now CBC Radio One) from 1986 to 1997, on Saturday mornings. Later the duo moved on to CBC-TV and CTV. The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour was a 15-minute comedy interlude that ran as a segment on CBC Radio's This Morning from 1997 to 2000. It featured First Nations characters and was based in part on Tom KING's novel Green Grass, Running Water. Madly Off in All Directions, featuring host Lorne Elliott, ran on CBC Radio One on Sunday afternoons from 1995 to 2006. The show, which travelled across Canada and was recorded in live venues, featured an opening monologue by Elliott and several local guest comedians. In 2006, it was replaced by The Debaters, a 30-minute show featuring two standup comedians trying to top each other with wit and humour while debating various topics of the day in front of a live audience. It also travels across the country and is recorded live in small venues. Launched in 1998, Stuart MCLEAN's The Vinyl Café on CBC Radio One is the closest Canadian show to Garrison Keillor's famous Prairie Home Companion. With storytelling mixed with light entertainment, the one-hour shows are nostalgic and full of gentle humour, and are also toured and recorded live across Canada and into the US.
Rich LITTLE (b at Ottawa 1938) was one of Canada's first successful solo comedy stars. A versatile impressionist with the uncanny ability to capture the voices, facial expressions and mannerisms of celebrities, primarily politicians and movie stars, Little caused a near-riot when his on-air impression of Elvis Presley was mistaken for the real thing by thousands of fans who surrounded the radio station waiting to catch a glimpse of the rock star. In 1963 Little released his first comedy LP, My Fellow Canadians, which poked fun at the nation's political leaders, particularly the prime minister of the day, John Diefenbaker. The following year he appeared on The Judy Garland Show, launching his career in the United States. This led to tours and frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Little became best known for his portrayal of former US president Richard Nixon but has well over 150 different characters in his repertoire.
As the 1960s progressed, comedy in general took on more satirical overtones, typified among Canadians by the career of David Steinberg (b 1942). Steinberg grew up in Winnipeg, the son of a Romanian rabbi, and briefly attended rabbinical school himself before pursuing studies at the University of Chicago. He was propelled into comedy in the mid-1960s after seeing a performance by Second City, the Chicago-based improvisation troupe, which served as a launching pad for the careers of dozens of acclaimed American actors and comedians in the 1950s and 1960s. Steinberg spent 2 years with Second City, honing some of the material that would later show up in his solo nightclub act. As a standup comedian, Steinberg released 2 comedy LPs and made several controversial appearances on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. His most memorable routine involved a rabbi giving twisted "sermonettes" that poked fun at biblical stories from the Old Testament. His final appearance, an irreverent religious sketch that Tommy Smothers encouraged him to perform, contributed to the cancellation of the groundbreaking show. Although a frequent guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in the 1970s, Steinberg gave up his career as a performer in favour of a hugely successful career as a director and producer of American episodic television.
The modern era of English-Canadian comedy began in 1973 with the founding of the Toronto branch of Chicago's Second City. The Toronto troupe presented comedy in a theatre setting with shows split into 2 sections, the first consisting of set sketches written and developed by the performers, the second of improvised scenes based on suggestions from the audience. The Toronto troupe's first cast included Dan AYKROYD, Jayne EASTWOOD, Joe FLAHERTY and Gilda Radner. Later additions were John CANDY, Eugene LEVY, Catherine O'HARA and Martin SHORT. Shows at Toronto's Old Firehall Theatre were frequently attended by writer-producer Lorne MICHAELS, a former writer on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and former co-star, along with his partner Hart Pomerantz, of CBC TV's The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour. In 1975 Michaels was hired by NBC television to produce a live sketch comedy show out of New York that would become known as Saturday Night Live. He picked Aykroyd and Radner from Second City to join his cast.
Second City began producing its own TV show, initially just for Canadian consumption, in 1976. SCTV was broadcast on the Global Network out of Toronto from 1976 to 1979. It went off the air for a year, then was picked up by ITV, renamed SCTV Network, produced in Edmonton and broadcast on the CBC. A year later it was sold to the NBC Network in a 90-minute version for 2 seasons, the first for a Canadian primetime series, and renamed again as SCTV Network 90. The Edmonton cast members were Candy, Flaherty, Levy, O'Hara, Andrea MARTIN, and Dave THOMAS, who were joined by Rick MORANIS, Martin Short and many others over the 8 years it was on air. SCTV was a parody of North American television, supposedly emanating from a small, down-at-the-heels TV station in the mythical town of Melonville. By the time it went off the air in 1984, SCTV had become an international phenomenon, propelling many of its alumni into successful careers in television and film.
John Candy and Catherine O'Hara were the first to leave the show for careers in American movies, although both returned for the first season on NBC (1981-82), which made them stars in the US. Eugene Levy's film career was slower to build, but his star rose when he appeared as the un-hip father in the popular teenage sex romp American Pie (1999) and its sequels. Martin Short has had a spotty career on both television and film since SCTV, but won the prestigious Tony Award for his central role in the revival of Little Me on Broadway in 1999.
Rick Moranis successfully transposed his comic nerd character from SCTV to the big time in 1984 in Ivan REITMAN's Ghostbusters and in the Disney hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), and appeared as Barney Rubble in The Flintstones (1994). Like Candy and O'Hara, Dave Thomas left SCTV in 1982 after only one year on NBC and since then he has occasionally directed and taken small parts in films, and has written for and appeared in a number of American television shows. Of all the SCTV alumni, Joe Flaherty chose to give Hollywood stardom a pass, preferring to appear in bit parts and make cameo appearances in numerous film and television shows. Andrea Martin has voiced numerous series and films, and appeared in the hugely successful My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), a role that landed her a regular appearance in the short-lived television series.
Standup Comedy in the 1980s
Long a popular art form in the United States, standup comedy did not take off in Canada until the "comedy boom" of the 1980s, a period that saw comedy clubs spring up in virtually every major city in North America. After 2 years of producing shows in a community centre basement, comedy impresario Mark Breslin and comic Joel Axler opened Yuk Yuk's Komedy Kabaret in Toronto's Yorkville district in 1978. Within a few years the Yuk Yuk's chain had grown to 16 clubs across Canada and spawned numerous imitators. This newly formed comedy circuit allowed Canadian comedians to tour the country, honing their craft and earning a living without initially having to travel to the United States. The clubs also served as a testing ground for many talents who later found their way into TV and films, including Jim CARREY, Mike MacDonald and Howie MANDEL.
Traditionally, English-Canadian television comedy has taken 2 forms: the sketch and the situation comedy. Sketch comedy was assured a place on Canadian television with the success early on of The Wayne and Shuster Show and later SCTV. The revival of TV sketch comedy in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the introduction of more shows in a similar vein, including THE KIDS IN THE HALL (1988-94), starring Bruce MCCULLOCH, Scott THOMPSON, Kevin MCDONALD, Dave FOLEY and Mark MCKINNEY, CODCO (1987-92) with CATHY and Andy JONES, Tommy Sexton, Greg Malone and Mary WALSH, and The Red Green Show (1991-2006) with Steve SMITH and Patrick MCKENNA.
The situation comedy, a weekly series with a storyline and recurring characters, has traditionally not fared nearly so well in English Canada, although the situation is markedly different in Québec, where homegrown shows are very popular. The hit shows from the US, where the sitcom has held sway since the early 1950s, dominated English-Canadian prime time broadcasting ever since private broadcasters were licensed in 1960. It is much less expensive for the privately owned Canadian networks to buy proven, popular shows from the US than to produce their own. This undeniable fact (in addition to the advent of cable, digital and satellite TV) contributed to the lack of original Canadian shows. Despite a number of efforts to produce popular sitcoms, only a few, such as The Beachcombers (1972-91), King of Kensington (1975-80), Seeing Things (1981-87), Degrassi Junior High (and its many sequels, 1987- ), Trailer Park Boys (2000-07) and Corner Gas (2004-09), have achieved a level of success and longevity in English Canada.
A move toward a more politically/media-driven comedy has emerged in Canada. Combining the news/public-affairs format of CBC's seminal This Hour Has Seven Days with the sketch humour of The Royal Canadian Air Farce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes (1993- ) and its offspring, The Rick Mercer Report (2004- ), have proven tremendously popular with the Canadian viewing public. This Hour was built on the core of the Codco troupe, Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones, and added comedians Rick MERCER and Greg Thomey to its fake-news format. Mercer conducted his articulate "rants" about the current state of affairs directly into a tracking camera, a segment he was able to build on for his very popular The Rick Mercer Report on CBC-TV.
Between 22 Minutes and his Report, Mercer co-wrote and starred in one of the sharpest and funniest satires ever broadcast on CBC, Made in Canada (1998-2003). With an excellent supporting cast of Leah PINSENT, Peter KELEGHAN and Dan Lett, Mercer over 65 episodes ruthlessly made fun of the Canadian film and television industry. Ken Finkleman's The Newsroom (1996-97, 2003-04 and 2005) was a biting satire that mined the darkly humorous world of broadcast news. Finkleman wrote, directed and starred in the limited series, which ran a total of 29 episodes plus a movie of the week, Escape from the Newsroom, broadcast in 2002. In another trend, the CBC has run local comedy festivals in primetime, among them Montréal's Just for Laughs, the Winnipeg CBC Comedy Festival and the Halifax Comedy Fest, and comedian/monologuist Ron James has appeared in several primetime specials.
During the first decade of the millennium, 3 series emerged on Canadian TV that brought an end to any false notion that English Canadians were somehow incapable of producing audience-pleasing sitcoms - Trailer Park Boys, Corner Gas, and Little Mosque on the Prairie (2007- ). The antics of the foul-mouthed boys from Sunnyvale Trailer Park proved to be the most popular comedy on Canadian cable, and spun off 2 movies; Brent BUTT's crew of misfits in CTV's Corner Gas drew the highest ratings of any comedy in Canadian network history; and the CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie broke cultural barriers and secured international sales.
Due to Québec's unique position as the centre of francophone culture in North America, French-language comedy has developed on a parallel but distinctly different track from comedy in the rest of the country. Without the competition from the American entertainment industry, Québec's comedy scene was earlier to mature and grow, particularly in the arena of television. The primary difference between French- and English-Canadian comedy is that Québec has a large homegrown audience and, unlike drama, comedy does not translate well, relying as it does so strongly on language and cultural references. This led in the 1960s to the production of locally created programs, including variety shows, sketch comedy and situation comedies that allowed a whole generation of performers to launch their careers while reaching a mass audience. Typical of this was Moi et l'autre, a Radio-Canada sitcom starring Dominique MICHEL and Denise FILIATRAULT (who also wrote the scripts), which was broadcast from 1966 to 1971. Michel, who built a successful career in Québec films, was the longtime host (1971-97) of Bye Bye (1968-98, 2006- ), an annual comedy revue broadcast on Radio-Canada on New Year's Eve. Filiatrault, known as the "grand dame" of Québec comedy, was not only a regular guest on Bye Bye; she starred in numerous Québec films and developed into an award-winning director of comedies such as C't'à ton tour, Laura Cadieux, its sequel, and L'Odyssée d'Alice Tremblay.
In the 1980s Québec went through a comedy boom similar to that which took place in the rest of North America, albeit with completely homegrown talent. This period saw the advent of Québec comics Ding et Dong, Rock et Belles Oreilles, Daniel Lemire, André-Philippe Gagnon, Michel Courtemanche, Patrick Huard and others, and was fuelled in part in 1983 by the founding of the annual FESTIVAL JUSTE POUR RIRE by Montréal impresario Gilbert Rozon. The festival, an international event featuring monologuists, clowns, novelty acts and others, was an immediate critical and commercial success. In 2007 Rozon expanded the festival, creating an English-language version, "Just for Laughs," for Toronto. The festival is now the largest of its kind in the world, a multi-millon-dollar international entertainment industry event, attracting bookers, producers and talent scouts from all over North America and Europe and resulting in a series of "Just for Laughs/Juste pour rire" TV specials on CBC and Radio-Canada.
Samedi de rire (1985-89) was a satirical sketch comedy show in the same vein as Saturday Night Live. Rock et Belles Oreilles was a popular radio and television comedy troupe during the 1980s. Members included Yves Pelletier, Guy A. Lepage, Chantal Francke, André Ducharme and Bruno Landry. The group disbanded in 1995 and Guy A. Lepage is now the producer and host of the hit TV talk-fest Tout le monde en parle (2004- ), adapted from the original French show; he was also the producer of the sitcom Un gars, une fille (1997-2003). Yves Pelletier has acted in several Québec films and directed the critically acclaimed romantic comedy Les Aimants in 2004. Taxi 0-22 (2007- ), a sitcom about a Montréal cabby, starring Patrick Huard and Yvon Deschamps, was picked up for an American version starring James Gandolfini. Huard co-wrote and starred in the most successful Canadian film at the domestic box office, BON COP, BAD COP (2006), and directed and starred in the GOLDEN REEL AWARD-winner Les 3 p'tits cochons in 2007. Les Boys (2007- ) is a series spinoff from the movies of the same name with the same cast, including Huard, Rémy GIRARD and Marc Messier.
Québec film comedies have by and large been limited to success within their own province, but this has not stopped them from becoming some of the highest-grossing Canadian films ever made. Ding et Dong, le film (1990), the misadventures of 2 bumbling wannabe comedians; La Florida (1993), a satirical comedy about a retired bus driver who moves his family to Hollywood Beach, Florida; Louis 19, le roi des ondes (1994), about a television addict who wins a competition to find a viewer whose life will be broadcast 24 hours a day for 3 months; Les Boys I (1997), II (1998), III (2002) and IV (2005), the tetralogy about fellows who get together every Monday night for an amateur game of hockey; Bon Cop, Bad Cop, in which 2 diametrically opposed officers, one slovenly and French Canadian and the other uptight and English Canadian, combine to solve a crime that occurred on the Québec/Ontario border; Les 3 p'tits cochons, about 3 brothers confronting the reality that maturity brings; and De père en flic (2009), a father-and-son cop buddy movie all won the Golden Reel Award for the highest-grossing film at the domestic box office in the year of their release.
If what seems to characterize many French-Canadian films is the essential low-brow nature of their provincial comedy about "la famille québécoise," there have been others pitched more towards social commentary, such as C'T'À TON TOUR, LAURA CADIEUX (1998), an adaptation of a Michel TREMBLAY novel about overweight friends who gather in a doctor's waiting room for a weekly visit. With a mixture of desperation, determination and humour that defines their lives, the ensemble cast, led by an impressive performance by Québec chanteuse Ginette RENO, is given lots of room for pithy wordplay by director Denise Filiatrault. In La Grande seduction (2003) or SEDUCING DOCTOR LEWIS, the titular Dr Lewis is a blasé, cocaine-snorting Montréal plastic surgeon coerced into a month-long hitch in a floundering rural backwater. It is a funny, engaging, sweet-natured film, and one of the few genuine domestic box-office successes in and outside of Québec. The bilingual 2006 buddy-cop movie, Bon Cop, Bad Cop, also broke the mould and performed very well in English Canada.
On the English-speaking side of the equation, there have been one or two blockbusters, and although it was filmed in Florida, Porky's (1981) is officially Canadian and still the top-grossing Canadian feature film of all time - our most popular funny film. It has been dismissed as a bad joke, but given the subsequent comic extremes of American Pie and the like, the film's juvenile, foul-mouthed humour seems more like a harbinger of things to come. Ivan Reitman's summer-camp comedy, Meatballs (1979) with Bill Murray, was a huge success, as was Strange Brew (1983), based on SCTV's most endearing characters, the tuque-wearing, beer-swilling "Canucks" from the Great White North, Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas). All 3 films were Golden Reel Award winners. Other popular TV comedies have made it to the big screen, but with varying box-office appeal: Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996), Red Green's Duct Tape Forever (2002), Trailer Park Boys: The Movie (2006) and Trailer Park Boys: Countdown to Liquor Day (2009).
Perhaps the "classic" English-Canadian comedy is Yves Simoneau's Perfectly Normal (1990), which combines 2 staples of Canadiana - beer and hockey - with opera. In the film's finale, a classy opening night of opera and linguine turns into a hilarious hockey brawl. Men with Brooms (2002) was director/actor Paul GROSS's calculated shot at making an audience-friendly, popular English-Canadian comedy. The curling film with Leslie Nielsen turned out to be a hit at the domestic box office, but less so with the critics.
Comedy is not one of the genres to garner respect in the Canadian film canon. Although the films mentioned above found an audience, none appears on any Top 10 list of Canada's best films. In a film culture that celebrates the art-house cerebral, comedy is an aberration, a pandering to popular tastes.
Consequently, our very best comedians, certainly in English-speaking Canada, have found their comfort zone on television. From Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster to the recent crop of funny men and women - Brent Butt, Rick Mercer, Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones, Peter Keleghan, Ron James, Jessica Holmes and others - they have found a level of success on television unavailable to them on the larger screen. And those with larger ambitions in terms of monetary success, such as John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, Jim Carrey, Mike MYERS, Michael J FOX and Seth ROGEN, end up moving south and working in Hollywood.