(How I Failed At) Seeking Canadian Comedy

Let me start by admitting that I am a born overanalyzer. I can totally find symbolism that doesn’t actually exist. I’m so good at reading subtext, I end up creating subtext.

Sometimes this leads to insight. Mostly, though, it leads to my mother saying “Pffffft yeah, okay then, kid.”

This weekend, I was at it again. I was at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, desperately seeking a thoughtful, patriotic story I could tie in with my cross-Canada trip (or, as my Eastern European grandfather called it in an email last week, “the BACK-PK TRAVEL GO WEST YOUNG WOMAN “).  I had been watching Canadian comedians like Jay Barachul and Mark Little (who you should all check out because he is hilarious) at the Festival for days, and had a notebook full of words ready for me to twist outside of their actual meaning.

My “Media” badge was staring me down. Canada. Comedy. There has to be a story here.

I considered digging into the CRTC, or geoblocking, or something else technical/policy related.  I collected evidence against the infuriating Vanity Fair article “Of Moose and Men,” which claims Canadians aren’t funny.  Maybe, I could approach bilingualism and language in comedy.  Or maybe, I could pick out enough Canada-specific humour; lay on the superficial psuedo-identity.

Basically, I had it in my head that there is such a thing as “Canadian Comedy.”  There has to be. I just needed to figure it out. Maybe sit and eat timbits watch reruns of Kids in the Hall and This Hour Has 22 Minutes for a week straight. You know, research.

Despite this enthusiasm, I struggled to find a real story at the Festival.  I figured my opportunity would come on Friday night’s Homegrown Comic Competition, an annual showcase of young Canadian standup. This was going to be a goldmine of Canadianisms! The advertisement had a maple leaf and everything!

homegrown

The good news is that there was a commonality between several of the performers, something beyond just Citizenship. There was something that stuck out, something unique that that really resonated with the audience.

The bad news is, that thing was jokes about menstruation.

I’m good at finding meaning in just about everything. But I’m not that good.

I had to accept it. Maybe Mark Little is funny because he is funny, not because he is from Halifax.  Maybe jokes about a national chain store make Canadians laugh because local references rock, not because of an unwritten “Tim Horton’s Brotherhood.”

In a free country, chances are someone will be using that freedom to make people laugh.  In a capitalist country, this “someone” will probably go wherever that skill is most marketable. And in a massive country (say, around 9,984,670 km²), different people in different places will probably find different ways to make people laugh. So yeah, Canada has entertainers. And those entertainers are a big cultural export, especially in the American biz.

I felt deflated. Unless I wanted to sound off about Canadian broadcasting policy, or confirm that Just For Laughs is an amazing festival, it seemed that my nationalistic meaning-finding was just about over.

But then I remembered an earlier conversation, some small talk with an Australian guy in my hostel room.  We were talking about our plans for the night, and I mentioned the Homegrown Competition.

“Oh! That sounds cool. Canadians are funny.”

“Yeah? Really?  I mean, yes, but…yeah?”

(Note: I’m very articulate when talking to strangers. That morning, I spent a full minute trying to pronounce my own name as I fumbled through awkwardly introducing myself to Dan O’Brien from cracked.com. So much charm, so little time.)

He nodded. “Yeah, well, that’s what they’re known for. Funnier than Americans, that’s for sure.”

The guy had hit my Canadian comedy fan g-spot.  I melted, shooting an appreciative grin his way.

I couldn’t prove what he said to be true.  I didn’t know what it meant or where he got it, really. I agreed because I am patriotic, and because Canadians have a pretty good track record of making me laugh–not because I could prove he was actually right.  There is no defensible argument for borders and geography affecting hilarity, unless you make some long-winded historical argument or factor in the education system to an extreme.

I’m not willing to do that here.

I didn’t find my story about “Canada. Comedy.” on stage at the Just For Laughs Festival. It wasn’t a certain brand of funny, something I could understand by over-analyzing comedians and collecting quotes. Instead, my story was in that hostel room.  It was the fact that the Festival exists at all, and that people from around the world have heard of it.  The fact that the Homegrown Competition is a thing.  The fact that people from other countries believe Canadians to be funny (how great of a reputation is that?!).

Mostly, it’s the fact that fans like me get excited by even the idea that Canada has an identity, and that the identity involves funny people.

And so, with very little proof or reasoning, I will keep considering Canadians funny. Or maybe, I will keep considering funny people funny, and get weirdly excited when they are Canadian.

Also, this foreign stranger saying “Canadians are funnier than Americans,” is the best pick-up line I’ve heard in months.

You want Canadian identity? That’s a good start.

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Taking “Canada Class” (or, how my sense of humour runs my schedule)

I am thoroughly convinced of two things: Life is a joke. And life is sacred.

Because of this, I love-love-love my education. But also because of this, I have a habit of taking courses because they sound funny.

Just funny. Not relevant to my interests (though, usually, they also fall into that category).  Certainly not relevant to my degree.  While sifting through possible electives, I eagerly dropkick away any chance at learning “something important” in favour of being able to chuckle inside my head.

Life is sacred; Life is a joke.

Last year, I took a class called “Jesus of Nazareth.” I could have taken something in my program. Or, if I felt so inclined, checked out comparative religion, the history of Christianity as a whole, or really anything with a more convenient time slot.

Nah.

Instead, I chose instead to sit in a windowless lecture hall from 4-7 pm every Wednesday, tracking the historical Jesus and wishing I could read Coptic.

Why? Because I wanted to be able to yell “I’m going to Jesus class!” to my roommate as I sprinted out the door at 3:30.

She laughed. I laughed.

Tuition well spent.

This summer, I decided to take a class called “Canadian Society” for this same reason. It’s not as funny-sounding as Jesus class, I know, but between “Canada class” and “Cold War class,” I am getting a few of the raised eyebrows and “*snort* what?!” that I so crave.

Of course, my incessant need to bring out the sacred/funny in everything isn’t the only motivator. Canada Class is also supposed to prepare me for my trip across the country in August. Not because I expect travel advice from a jeans-‘n-teeshirt wielding sociology prof, but because it relates to the whole point of my trip:  to crack the code of the “Canadian experience.”  I want to understand what it means wear my Maple Leaf with so much pride. I want to come home with a nuanced, complicated, amusing, and (hopefully) optimistic view of the country. Somewhere in there, I hope my jokes about Canadian-isms will improve.

A little bit of funny. A little bit of sacred. A whole lot of time on the train.

I pulled out the term Canadian identity while discussing my plans with Michelle last week.  “Our Grade 12 English teachers would be so proud,” she grinned, tossing me a friendly eyeroll.

This is the price I pay for hanging out with people I knew as a teenager. Michelle can pinpoint the exact childhood influence which planted the words in my mouth.  In this case, my summer plans are the victim of too much Rick Mercer, a Grade 12 English unit, and hundreds of hours spent standing for the national anthem in public school.

I’m sure studying Canadian history for several years helped, too.

So did living in the United States, answering questions on behalf of “Canada” and “Canadians.”  I leapt eagerly to represent my country, but I often fell flat. I filled my friends in on Ontario 101, disguising it as Canada 101. Sure, I had studied other areas using geography textbooks and google searches, but who am I kidding? I haven’t seen this country. I love it, it’s a part of me, I talk about it all-the-freakin-time, but…I haven’t seen it. My insights are incomplete.

I want to get it right next time.

So here I am. Taking Canada class. Taking a train across the country. Sociology is new to me, and I find it frustrating at times–I like patterns, but my brain tends to reject most large-scale generalizations.  I’m much better at finding the exception to the rule.  So I sit in fifth row, silently Wikipedia-ing counter-arguments to what the professor says (I don’t bring them up, not in a 100 person classroom, but I like to know that they exist). I wince every time someone makes a massive blanket statement or misconstrues a historical event.

But I’m learning about Canada.  I think I am, anyways.  At the very least, I’m learning how to think about Canada.  I’m learning that approaching the collective identity of a MASSIVE nation won’t be easy. Especially not in a single month.

canada
This will be interesting.

This is all to say that, yes, there is a reason behind my crazy plan to take a month off and backpack across the country.  Yes, I am doing the prep work to make it happen–and that prep work includes “Canada class.”  I guess we will see how that goes.

The prep work also includes booking train rides. This I have been able to (finally, finally) figure out.

Currently, my August looks like this:

Halifax –> PEI –> Moncton –> Quebec –> Montreal –> Toronto –> Winnepeg –> Saskatoon –> Edmonton –> Vancouver/Victoria –> Calgary

…And home in time for dinner.

Whew. Ready, set, go.

People are Trees, Not Timelines

It was 2011.  I suppose that wasn’t so long ago, really, but it feels like forever now.

I was sitting in the basement of a local Unitarian Universalist Church, surrounded by regular attendees. I hadn’t been to any kind of worship in at least a decade, and felt like a fetus surrounded by middle aged church goers. I watched as the Minister passed around markers, telling us to “draw our spiritual journey.”

(I realize this may seem strange, but trust me–it’s business as usual at the UU.)

I drew and labeled tentatively across the page. When we finished, I partnered up with the woman across from me to go over the designs.  She showed off her intricate, curving  pathway–marriage, born again Christianity, yoga, Wicca, kids.  It was a beautiful timeline, and I smiled back at her story as she scanned my drawing curiously.

I hadn’t drawn a timeline.

I had drawn a tree.

I don't actually have original tree drawing, so I ran outside and took this blurry picture. Just for you. You're welcome.
I don’t actually have original tree drawing, so I ran outside and took this blurry picture. Just for you. You’re welcome.

A group show-and-tell circled around the room.  One by one, everyone began revealing their timeline. Curves, corners, arrows, paths, this-thus-that. Even the Minister illustrated his journey with thick, chronological lines.

And there I was, with my frizzy short hair and limited life experience, clutching an image of twisted branches while everyone poured out their major life events.

On some level, it probably had to do with my age.  When the Minister said “spiritual journey,” all my young mind could think of were moments and relationships, good meals and great ideas, quiet places and loud families. These were the things that made God seem just a liiiittle closer than usual.  So I drew roots. Branches to represent friendships, leaves to represent moments.  Some of the leaves were falling off of their perch; others were growing flowers. Text and little hearts explained (or refused to explain) what it all meant.

Basically, it was hyper-symbolic. It was not so simple –> as –> this.

And maybe it was a little strange, maybe it wasn’t quite what the Minister was looking for, but…I was proud of my tree. I liked the openness.   There were “big life” events on the tree, of course, markers of birth/death/love/war.  But there were other things, too.  The tree represented my life as a work-in-progress, with multiple facets. One big, bright leaf reflected a long, peaceful silence I shared with a close friend. Another represented the first time I got absolutely engrossed watching a play.

The tree let those things matter.

Looking back, my favourite thing about the tree is that it was strong, but not rigid.  It was alive. Parts could grow, or break and fall right off, and it would all be natural. As a young person, that was important. I think it might stay important as I get older.

(It’s also possible that I’m just kind of a hippie. Feel free to raise an eyebrow.)

By nature, timelines present our memory and our identity as rigid. They present our lives as one big story, instead of millions of imperfect experiences. I don’t know if that’s fair.  I don’t think we should restrict our identity to the things that “count” as milestones.  We aren’t necessarily tragic heroes with a beginning-middle-end. Nor are we self-aware folks on a direct journey through life.  “That was a really hard time in my life,” or “That was the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Too simple. That’s just too simple. We aren’t timelines. We can’t stop at chronology. I don’t want to compartmentalize your life, or my life, not like that.

Yes, yes, I realize all this might sound odd coming from a History student.

Let me be clear: Timelining is a great way to establish context.  It’s not a crime to treat events as “things that took place,” or even to consider people as empty, reactive vessels that “things happened to” at first.  I absolutely devour the nothing-but-chronological unfolding of the world through the lens of time.

But I also don’t, and can’t, stop there.

Even in History, reality often comes in trees. Family trees, for example. Essay outlines. Complex international relations maps.

Family tree with fingerprints from the extended fam. Can't get much more meaningful than that!
A family tree from our last reunion, with fingerprints from the extended fam. See? Trees are awesome.

We have to branch out. Timelines are great at telling base, simple stories…but they’re not so great at telling the whole truth.

And when it comes to our own identity, our own History, we deserve the Truth.  We deserve to represent ourselves as more than a timeline–more than what happens to us, and certainly more than a few life events that people have decided are “important.”

Maybe, just maybe, we could use the wisdom of trees to start looking at that.

(I know, I know. Hippie alert, part two. You can raise your other eyebrow.)

I Hurt an Entire Culture, and All I Got Was This Stupid T-shirt

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This cloud was constructed using the most popular terms from all tweets with #RacistSportsLogo sent out between 10:15 am and 12:15 pm on Feb 7th (first part of the symposium)

I was a little offended at first.

Not on the behalf of Amerindians, either. I have four years of Aboriginal Studies and most of a History degree under my belt, so you’d think I’d be a major supporter of getting rid of racist logos. But, walking into the “Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports” symposium (whew!) , I wasn’t totally convinced.  All I could think to do was play devil’s advocate.

You see, I’m a sports fan.

I was preoccupied with other issues, too.  I was wondering what and where the “other side” was.  I remembered the time my own high school removed its offensive Indian Head mascot (I was a 10th grader, a history student, but also a cheerleader. There were mixed feelings.). An audience member even suggested that “these guys” (ie. sports fans) were “ignorant” and just sat around watching sports with their “beer bellies.” Are-you-kidding-me?

To my defensive mind, the dialogue felt like this: Sports fans support racism. Sports fans spit on and yell at protesters. Sports fans send death threats to well-meaning decision makers who fight for Native peoples. College-aged sports fans get drunk and disrespect a culture to an unforgivable level.  Sports fans just don’t get it, do they?

Awkward.

As I live-tweeted some of the great points made by the presenters (none of which I disagreed with), I also drafted a tweet to express my discomfort: “As a young, white, sports fan, I feel awk. Want to be considered a possible part of the solution, not just the problem. #RacistSportsLogos”

Then I remembered first year Native Studies. I remembered a First Nations presenter who discussed patience, listening, giving yourself time to think, letting others speak first.

I deleted the tweet. I just listened.

Racist sports logos 2
This cloud was constructed using the most popular terms from all tweets with #RacistSportsLogo sent out between 1:30 pm and 3:30 pm on Feb 7th (second part of the symposium)

And when I listened, this is what I started to notice:

I noticed how people were so sensitive about depictions of “Indians.” And, I realized, they should be. These people are rebuilding. We are looking at cultural genocide victims, after all. We have an obligation to listen to them and portray them respectfully because it’s the right thing to do.

I heard pain in peoples’ voices as they recounted personal experiences.  The father, whose confused little boy asked “Isn’t that what we do at Pow Wow? Are they making fun of us?” in response to people “cheering” at a sports game.  Those who were harassed relentlessly when they raised the fact that they were personally offended.  People should be allowed to ask for mutual respect from powerful institutions like schools, leagues, and sponsors without fear or risk of cultural deprecation.

I heard the word “Ownership.” That one really made me think.

I noticed that how much intense and brave work people are doing every day to work towards a better understanding, of not only Aboriginal history but contemporary identity. No doubt, we need to support that.

Mostly, though, I noticed that there are  people hurting.  I noticed Natives who are trying really hard to express themselves honestly and to have a legitimate contemporary presence.  People who have gone through so much, people who are trying to pass something meaningful on to the next generation–and people who feel demeaned by a stadium full of people yelling “REDSKINS!” as they try to do this.  There are people hurting.  As Rev. Graylan Hagler said: “When someone saying ‘ouch,’ we don’t ask them to justify why they’re hurting. Regard their truth as truth.”

“Ouch,” he said. “Means ‘Ouch.'”

Racist sports logos 3
This cloud was constructed using the most popular terms from all tweets with #RacistSportsLogo sent out between 3:45 pm and 5:45 pm on Feb 7th (third part of the symposium)

And so, I asked myself, what do DC Football Fans have to lose? Their identity. Their collective memory of the team. Their traditional clothing (see also: hats and jerseys). Their symbolism. Their rituals.

Well, gee, doesn’t that sound familiar?

I’d think sports fans, of all people, should be able relate to how deeply symbols can manifest in our lives.  How important a team is to a community.  How important it is to let that team be inclusive and, you know, not racist.

Personally, my teams are a part of my identity. I really, really don’t want my identity to be rooted in something that hurts people. I don’t want to be cheering with something that isolates or demeans someone else. Sports are fun, and I want  them to be fun for everyone. We all should be open to listening and to changing a name, or a symbol.

Teams in and of  themselves aren’t about their names. Oh, fans, you must feel that.  If the DC Football team had a new name, all that would really change is the t-shirt you have in your closet, or the hat that you wear, or the specific word you yell out. If you define your team spirit or identity by those things, then you need to reassess your fandom. Surely, there’s more to your loyalty than that. And surely, you want your Native brothers and sisters to be able to cheer alongside you without feeling uncomfortable or disrespected.

I’ve always been of the opinion that if something means a LOT to someone else, and your concerns are trivial, you should give at least an inch. Your concerns may not feel trivial, because you’re attached to a team.  You have something to lose, sorta.

But think of how much Natives have to lose. And had to lose. And did lose.

I think we owe them respect. And that respect starts here.

Consider this your official invitation to be part of the solution.