What does the world think about us? This question is pondered by many Canadians, and often leads to us exaggerating how much anyone actually cares about our great nation. To be successful, comedians need to be on the pulse of public opinion: they represent a perfect example of what populations know and care about. Sp, I took to the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal to watch the funniest non-Canadian comedians and to make a record of what the world thinks about Canada.
It should come as no surprise that the general understanding of British comedians far surpassed that of American comics. Perhaps a greater travel distance meant that a higher standard of British comic was represented at the festival, or perhaps the greater cultural difference between the United Kingdom and the so-often-described “New World” allowed for a more insightful perspective. Although often in a tongue in cheek condescending fashion, the quick-witted Brits all had something interesting to say about Canada, whereas Americans had only little more than a lazy acknowledgement of our unique nation’s differences from our southern neighbour.
The festival was blessed by the presence of a Knight of the Realm, with Sir Patrick Stewart hosting a gala—something he made abundantly clear by coming onto the stage in a cardboard suit of armour. Sir Patrick boasted that he was tasked with overlooking Canada, Britain’s “glorified guesthouse”, in the name of the Queen. After poking fun at us in his opening bit, Stewart would go on to make the sharpest of political jokes among the non-Canuck comics. Stewart began the political section of his act by stating that he had been a long-time supporter and volunteer for Britain’s Labour Party, which he explained to his audience “is a lot like you Liberal Party without the dim-witted pretty boy”. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was roasted for being an example of what Stewart saw as a Canadian inferiority complex asking “what the shit is that Canada… Are you trying to prove that you have the biggest dicks by electing the biggest dick?”
Russell Howard, host of the BBC’s Russel Howard’s Good News, was perhaps the most Canadian-loving performer and the funniest comedian in the Sir Patrick Stewart Gala, ultimately receiving a standing ovation. Howard was struck by Canadians positivity about everything. Beyond simply being a kinder audience, apparently Canadians he had encountered whilst visiting could not contain their excitement when they heard his accent. This was the introduction to a story about a man who asked Howard to “tell [his] people” how great English women’s breasts were, as if every Englishmen in Canada was a messenger sent to the New World to gather information.
The Brit(ish) show was one of the highlights of the festival. Hosted by comedian extraordinaire Jimmy Carr, it featured a line-up of British stars that, according to Carr, “would have filled an arena in the UK.” On top of Russell Howard, the show included Ed Gamble, Stuart Goldsmith, Sarah Millican, and Pippa Evans. The star-studded line-up graced a packed crowd of maybe a few hundred at L’Astral theatre, with perhaps the best ticket of the festival.
Comedians from across the pond loved to contrast Canada to the United States, which always plays well with Canadian crowds.
Gamble compared the reactions of various audiences to his recent weight loss: Americans loudly cheered him as a hero and inspiration for losing 80 pounds; Canadians reacted quietly, which was apparently similar to, although slightly more polite than, the Brits who responded coldly telling him that he should get back to telling jokes and that he was “funnier when he was fat.”
At the festival was also Omid Djalili, the British-Iranian stand-up comedian who hosted the third night of Brit(ish), and wowed crowds with a hilarious and high-energy full hour solo-show. Djalili, whose work often pokes fun at race, culture, and ethnicity, loved that Canadians, unlike anywhere else in the world, apparently did not see him as being of a different race or people due to skin colour or accent… They only saw him as “not American.” Djalili, a healthily round-man, also joked that he was considered dangerously underweight in the United States.
Djalili, who does a great deal of work for anti-racism organizations, praised Canada as a symbol of unity and cooperation that he greatly admired, something Canadians should be very proud of. He also amused a diverse Montreal crowd with a lovely verse of Quebecois slang and a beautiful French Canadian accent. Djalili loved Quebecois French curse words, noting how ridiculous it would be if religious objects were used as insulting words in any other language as “tabernac” or tabernacle and “câlisse” or chalice are in Quebec.
Jimmy Carr had one of the most thought provoking comments for our purpose when he praised how superior the BBC was to “that CBC garbage [we] have here.” Britain’s best, brightest, and funniest comedians and actors are able to stay in the UK and earn what they deserve by working on public-service television. Canada produces an amazing amount of home-grown talent, yet to succeed to the fullest of their potential Canadian artists must almost always leave Canada. It is hard to say what it would take for Canada to produce similar domestic success to British public television, however the pay off on the British investment in programming is certainly to be admired. From Jimmy Carr’s “8 Out of 10 Cats” to the beloved “Sherlock” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, public television in the United Kingdom produces successful programming of exceptional quality unmatched by Canadian TV.
This is something Canadians should ponder. There is a possibility that there is simply more demand for non-American content in the UK, as evidenced by the success of British commercial broadcaster ITV, who produce Downton Abbey. There is also no shortage of quality television being produced in the US and the UK, which is easily accessible to Canadians, not to mention often filmed here. Nonetheless, the quality churned out by public service television in the United Kingdom is proof that investment in home-grown programming can be successful if done right, although it is currently facing serious cutbacks. The question for Canadians is whether this is something we want, and if it is worth it.