BY SARAH VOWELL | In a recent panel discussion at New York's 92nd Street Y called "Why Are Canadians So Funny?" moderator (and Vancouver native) Michael J. Fox mentioned a contest once sponsored by MacLean's magazine. MacLean's, which Fox identified as the "Canadian Time" (as is the Canadian comparative habit), once asked its readers to fill in the blank at the end of the phrase, "As Canadian as ..." to counterbalance the motto "As American as apple pie." According to Fox, the winning entry was "As Canadian as ... possible under the circumstances."
Which reminds me of a stand-up bit Jon Stewart used to do about a Canadian woman who asked him to come clean with what Americans really think of Canada. "We don't," he replied. Stewart is one American comedian who understands that a juicier question than "Why are Canadians so funny?" is its corollary, "Why is making fun of Canada so much fun?" As host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, Stewart recently introduced a segment on a Canadian who chews on a pig's spleen to predict the weather by noting that Canadian culture's gift to the world is "I don't know, Loverboy and ... stuff."
A high comedian birth rate, however, is Canada's one claim to cultural dominance here in "the South," and thus, the world. The panel at the 92nd Street Y convened to discuss the mystery of why such a kind, bland country (so modest it didn't even get around to having its own flag until 1965) would nurture so many funny men and women. Because what requires more cruel honesty, more self-absorption, more guts and glory than making a living by making other people laugh? Yet Canada is the homeland of panelists Martin Short, Eugene Levy and "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels. Not to mention oddball American favorites like Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Catherine O'Hara and all the Kids in the Hall (Dave Foley et al.).
(Confidential to Canadian readers: Please note that the word "American" will be employed herein as an adjective deriving from America, as in United States of. No offense, eh? Why, some of my best friends are Canadians ...)
The evening at the Y was giddy and spontaneous -- and glamorous, what with the presence of that hilarious former PBS newsman (and Canadian) Robert MacNeil in the audience. Though the panelists never quite directly answered the question of why Canadians are funny, one came away feeling that, yes, Canadians sure are funny. Over and over, their wisecracks poked at their homeland's wimpy rep. Short recalled his excitement as a child, running downstairs to tell his parents that ABC anchormen Huntley and Brinkley had mentioned Canada in one of their evening newscasts. When Short reflected on the humility of growing up saluting Britain's Union Jack, Eugene Levy retorted that he was just "so damn proud to be part of the Commonwealth." Michaels deadpanned, "Benedict Arnold was one of ours."
So what are these barbs telling us? That Canada is a New World weakling still sucking the monarchy's teat? That Canadianness is impossible to define precisely because it only exists in opposition to American flash, American ambition, American independence, American glitz?
Thus, the central concern of Canadian humor, I would argue, is self-deprecation. And not just exhibiting modesty, but playing with it, flaunting it, questioning its value, stomping it out. Think of the mantra of Mike Myers' thinly veiled Canadian routine "Wayne's World." Whenever Wayne and Garth would encounter their heroes, such as Aerosmith, they'd plunge to the floor slavelike, fan their arms and whimper, "We're not worthy!" Conversely, Carrey's essential schtick is an over-the-top play for attention -- his contortions, his drool, his constant facial freakouts all rely on the un-Canadian habit of invading others' space. And Scott Thompson (the most fabulous Canadian) has played both sides, as Hank's submissive, sycophantic assistant on "The Larry Sanders Show" as well as the gay Quebecois barfly narcissus with the perfect feet, Buddy Cole, on "The Kids in the Hall." But the master of twisting and turning modesty in on itself is Martin Short.
Is there a more charming man in North America than Martin Short? A man more huggable, more adorable, more undeniably cute? Who cares if he's always in lame movies? Martin Short isn't about acting. Martin Short is about life, about joy, about cheek-pinching glee.
When the four panelists entered the stage at the 92nd Street Y, Fox, Michaels and Levy calmly walked out and took their seats. Short, on the other hand, pranced out and spread his arms, unabashedly begging for love. Which he got, though he could have gotten more -- cash, kisses, the firstborn of every man and woman in the room. (The best place to love Short right now is on Broadway in Neil Simon's musical "Little Me." Playing eight characters, his virtuoso hamming is the play's only virtue.) At the Y, Short batted back and forth between extreme self-confidence and delightful self-defeat, often in the same breath. When Michaels, coveting Short's Order of Canada pin, asked him how he received their country's highest civilian honor, Short looked down his nose at his former "SNL" boss and snootily whiffed, "A little thing called 'Three Amigos.'"
While Short's American amigos such as Steve Martin betray a barely contained inner bitterness -- see Martin's wildly believable meanie in last year's "The Spanish Prisoner" -- Short makes self-loathing enchanting. He was, in the panel, constantly shocking. He would make some mild-mannered cute quip like the one about Huntley and Brinkley, only to switch gears with the occasional strong-willed reply: When Levy went on and on interminably about doughnuts, how doughnuts mean Canada and Canada means doughnuts, Short cut him down, scolding, "It would be a shame if the only thing we came up with was that."
Canadian comics carry within them the whiff of the exotic precisely because their very profession flies in the face of the national code. Like American communists and Jamaican bobsledders, Canadian comics seem caught between two worlds, both from their country and defiant of it. Lorne Michaels, who has had more influence on American television comedy than anyone in the last quarter-century, suavely summed up the northern condition. "In a country where civility and moderation are celebrated," he said, "show business seemed like showing off." He asserted, for example, that a Canadian would never have made a film called "It's a Wonderful Life" because "that would be bragging." He envisioned the Canadian version would have been titled "It's an All Right Life."