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From “Real Canada” to “Not Even a Real Country”: Canadian Identities as Produced through Comedy

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From "Real Canada" to "Not Even a Real Country":
Canadian Identities as Produced through Comedy
A Thesis Submitted to the Committee on Graduate Studies in
Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Arts in the Faculty Graduate Studies
TRENT UNIVERSITY
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
(c) Copyright by Patrick Scott 2010
Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies M.A. Program
May 2010
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Canada
Abstract
From "Real Canada" to "Not Even a Real Country": Canadian Identities as
Produced Through Comedy
Patrick Scott
This thesis demonstrates that Canadianness and comedy mutually
complicate each other. Rather than being seen as a site where values and
identities are revealed, comedy should be considered a site where values and
identities are produced and contested. I carry this point forward into three
chapters that discuss how Canadian identities are articulated in four popular
cultural texts. Chapter Two on Little Mosque on the Prairie and Corner Gas looks
at the way that region is represented in the two sitcoms. Chapter Three on standup comedian Russell Peters looks at the way his performances negotiate a fine
line between insider and outsider in commenting on diversity and immigration.
Chapter Four on the American animated series South Park looks at how the
show gazes at Canada through the eyes of outsiders. Each chapter presents a
unique social standpoint in relation to Canada as well as a distinct comedic
genre.
Keywords: Comedy, Canada—Humour, Difference, Identities, Corner Gas, Little
Mosque on the Prairie, Russell Peters, South Park.
ii
Acknowledgements
Trent University and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship program provided
generous financial support for this project.
Sally Chivers thoroughly read, re-read and corrected several different drafts of
the entire thesis. In her efforts to allow my arguments and my few particularly
pithy sentences to shine through, she suggested some clarifying phrasings that
made it into the final draft. She also struck a perfect balance between allowing
me to do my own thing and keeping me on track. This is a most admirable quality
in a supervisor.
Michael Epp provided me with a whirlwind introduction to scholarly approaches to
national humours. Insights gleaned from our conversations inform the entire
thesis and in particular Chapter 4 where his suggestion that I approach South
Parkas an Americanist was very helpful.
Keith Walden read an earlier version of Chapter 3 and some of his comments
have been incorporated into the final edition.
Corrie Scott's contributions to this thesis cannot be understated. She read
numerous drafts and has made many suggestions for wording that are scattered
iii
throughout the final version. She provided endless intellectual support through
enriching conversation, emotional support through encouragement, and logistical
support through her exemplary childcare. She also tolerantly attends the
occasional live comedy performance and watches comedy programming on
television far more than can be reasonably expected of anybody.
Finally, I would like to thank Jack Scott who regularly reminded me to take a fiveminute break to watch the Wiggles rendition of "The Farmer in the Dell" on
YouTube with him. This was always the best part of the days I spent writing.
iv
Table of Contents
Abstract / ii
Acknowledgements / iii
Table of Contents / v
Chapter 1
An Introduction to Comedic Discourse and National Humours /1
Chapter 2
Imagining Home on the Canadian Prairie / 30
Chapter 3
The Many voices of Russell Peters / 54
Chapter 4
South Park and Real Canadians / 73
Chapter 5
Conclusion: Future Directions / 97
Works Cited/106
V
Chapter One: An Introduction to Comedic Discourse and National Humours
Popular definitions of Canadian comedy are generally based on the
observations of commentators who express the patriotic sentiment that because
something is Canadian-made and funny, it can be said to represent and reveal
any number of Canadian values and cultural distinctions. In many respects, this
thesis is framed as a response to this sentiment, since I demonstrate throughout
that Canadianness and comedy mutually complicate each other. Rather than
being seen as a site where values and identities are revealed, comedy should be
considered a site where values and identities are produced, negotiated, and
contested. This is the central point that I carry forward into three chapters that
discuss how Canadian identities and values are negotiated through four popular
cultural texts. While I introduce these texts more thoroughly at the end of this
introduction, a brief explanation of each will help to set the tone with which I
approach my topic. Chapter Two on Little Mosque on the Prairie and Corner Gas
looks at the way that region is represented in two sitcoms. Chapter Three on
stand-up comedian Russell Peters looks at the way his performances negotiate a
fine line between insider and outsider in commenting on diversity and
immigration. Chapter Four on the American animated series South Park looks at
how the show gazes at Canada through the eyes of outsiders in order to make
jokes. Thus each chapter presents a unique standpoint in relation to Canada as
well as a distinct comedic genre. This dual focus emphasizes in equal parts the
comedic practices and cultural mediations that are often inseparable, a point
1
further articulated through reference to popular reception to these texts.
Throughout the thesis I demonstrate that many Canadians falsely suggest
comedy represents idealized national values.
Developing a theoretical framework from which to discuss Canadian
comedy is not without its pitfalls, because each of the constitutive terms,
Canadian and comedy, have remained somewhat enigmatic despite significant
research attention. Nonetheless, the notion of a particularly Canadian comedy
carries significant cultural weight within Canada. For example, a 2008
promotional advertisement for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC)
"Test the Nation" special claimed that Canada is a nation of "hockey players and
comedians." While this gratuitous affirmation is perhaps intended with some
irony, that comedy is mentioned with hockey as a marker of Canadian identity
suggests the extent to which it is implicated in popular discussions of Canadian
culture. Curiously, despite such commonsense declarations of comedy's
importance to Canadian national identity, only Beverly Rasporich (1996, 2006)
has attempted to articulate what distinguishes popular Canadian humour (as
opposed to humour in forms traditionally associated with high culture, namely
literature) from that of other nations. She suggests humour relies on the social
context in which it is produced ("Canadian Humour in the Media" 84). Indeed one
of my central arguments is that comedic discourse is fundamentally tied to
particular communicative communities. Furthermore, I will demonstrate in this
introduction and throughout the thesis that the boundaries between comedic
2
discourse and other social spheres are so porous as to be non-existent. Bearing
this in mind, I build on Rasporich's work by discussing how the two terms,
comedy and Canadian, mutually complicate each other. In this introduction I
argue that developing a working model for discussing Canadian comedy requires
a critical engagement with both of these terms that rejects the implicit assumption
that they can necessarily be used to organize a body of popular-cultural texts.
While I will return to a thorough discussion of Rasporich and others who
have made related claims about Canadians and comedy, I would like to do so
having established some qualifications regarding comedy as a communicative
genre and how identities, especially national identities, can be articulated in this
discourse. In particular, I will focus on group formation as a process that is not
external to comedic discourse. The concluding paragraphs will return to a
discussion of Rasporich and demonstrate that her discussion of Canadian
comedy falls into an international tradition of linking the shared communicative
context that nation-states provide with a pre-discursive idealized national identity
that is somehow revealed through comedy. I will demonstrate that Rasporich and
others produce a Canadian identity linked to comedy. I conclude by suggesting a
method for discussing Canadian comedy that views comedy as a site where
Canadian identity is produced and negotiated, rather than revealed.
That comedy is an enigmatic cultural form requires clarification because
the relationship between comedy and humour in popular culture is ill defined. In
fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably. There is a significant tradition
3
of studying the literary genre of comedy and work dealing with humour, or what
makes people laugh. However, studies of comic forms in popular visual culture
are less common and tend to be approached from so many different intellectual
traditions that presenting a coherent view of the field is difficult. While I do not
share the extreme view of Paul Lewis, who opines that humour research often
seems based on "intuitive abandon," I do sympathize with this sentiment (2).
Often scholarly literature on humour and comedy is approached and written
about from within strict disciplinary boundaries, when an interdisciplinary
approach that captures the dialogic principles of comedy would be more
insightful. Tori Johnson-Woods' Blame Canada, for instance, provides some
excellent insights into the rise of internet fandom and also includes an interesting
analysis of South Park in relation to Rabelaisian imagery (a theme I build on in
Chapter 3). However, her work does not always demonstrate how the cultural
phenomenon and the textual strategies of South Park are related to each other.
Fandom and Rabelais remain separate in her analysis.
Adherence to disciplinary boundaries is most prevalent and deleterious to
the thorough analysis of the workings of comedy in the psychoanalytic tradition,
since works within that tradition are at times more interested in proving esoteric
points about the field than revealing the communicative and textual strategies
employed in comedy. For example, perhaps the most well known book on
humour, Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, speaks more to
the nuances of Freudian psychoanalysis than to / of humour. The book tells us
4
more about Freud's particular theoretical intervention in the field of
psychoanalysis than about comedy. Similarly, Alenka Zupancic's discussion of
comedy is often more interested in the work of Lacanian philosopher, Slavoj
Zizek, than in the communicative aspects of comedy. Claims made by Freud,
Zupancic or John Limon, in attempting to explain humour as a result of prediscursive psychological structures, create hermetic systems for understanding
humour that elide the importance of social and communicative context to both the
production and reception of comedic texts and detract from some important
observations these authors make with regards to specific comedic traditions. For
example, I draw heavily on Zupancic's excellent discussion of the importance of
stereotypes to comedy, but reject the argument that stereotypes represent
anything "universal" (37). As I will demonstrate below, far from being the
manifestation of pathology or universal psychic structures, comedy is integrated
into the social world.
Thus while I dislike Lewis' disparaging characterization of comedy
research as intuitive because it devalues the significant efforts and conclusions of
many comedy researchers, I agree with his suggestion that writing about comedy
and humour ought to be approached with a recognition of the interdisciplinary
research that is being done on the topic. As such, I draw heavily on the
arguments of the authors mentioned above throughout this thesis. However, I
cannot underscore enough that I do not support claims that comedy can be
reduced to pathology either in individuals or for nations. Thus where Lewis
5
argues for an engagement with the positivist approaches of the life-sciences, I
suggest this research, similar to research from the psychoanalytic tradition,
problematically reduces humour to pathology and likewise denies the importance
of a social context to the production of comedy. For example, Lewis cites a 1981
study that he claims demonstrates that stand-up comics had childhood
experiences that necessitated an early maturity (22-23). Such studies tell us only
about some standup comics working in 1981 rather than about the social process
that comedy is involved in. I also reject Limon's suggestion that humour is
"unfalsifiable and incorrigible" based on my understanding that comedy is a form
that is deeply integrated into disparate social milieus (2). This understanding
hints at the distinction that I draw between comedy and humour.
I define humour, similarly to Freud, Lewis, and Limon, as a state of being
amused. However, humour is not a prediscursive state that is revealed through
comedy and laughter. Agreeing with Allison Ross, I suggest that the emphasis in
humour research should be placed on comedy qua comedy and the
communicative strategies that define the genre. I define comedy as a set of
discursive and textual practices that attempt to affect a response of amusement
or humour. Emphasizing that comedy does not reveal anything universal will
elucidate the inter-social practices that shape how comedy, and specifically
Canadian comedy, ought to be understood. My approach, based on
communications and cultural theory, allows for some of the interdisciplinarity that
Lewis advocates. Thus, while I at times take issue with the larger project of some
6
of the authors referred to above, through an examination of their work and that of
others, I will demonstrate how many of the communicative strategies they
articulate are important to a discussion of comedy.
In "On the Problem of Speech Genres," Russian literary critic and
philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin outlines the communicative process that is most
important to comedy. While Bakhtin is generally associated with humour studies
through his discussion of Rabelais and the carnivalesque, which I will return to
below, the speech genres essay highlights the way that utterances are integrated
into multiple and overlapping social systems—speech genres—through a
process which Bakhtin calls "speech communion" (Rabelais and his World;
"Speech Genres" 67). For Bakhtin, the speech genre is a loose container for all
utterances on a given theme or topic. Furthermore, the speech genre also
governs how these topics can be addressed stylistically. Since it is a repository of
information, the speech genre provides a framework for how future utterances
can be structured. For Bakhtin, a chain is the appropriate metaphor to discuss
speech genres, arguing that each new link that is forged responds not only to the
preceding link, but also to all utterances that preceded it. To this end, each
utterance is not a singular manifestation of an individual's views, but in effect an
evaluative response, both thematically and stylistically, to all utterances that
preceded it. Finally, Bakhtin emphasizes that not all speech genres are of equal
size and influence and that there is often significant overlap between genres.
7
In a postmodern discussion of irony, Linda Hutcheon clarifies the
importance of interconnectedness among utterances. She emphasizes the
unsaid (opposed to the non-verbal) as a potent site of communication and, in
doing so, provokes new thinking about the study of comedy. Building on the work
of Bakhtin outlined above, she argues that what makes unsaid communication
possible is membership in what she calls 'discursive communities,' a term that
her citations indicate is more or less synonymous with the less prosaic term
speech genre, though I note an important distinction towards the end of this
chapter. Since the discursive community serves as a repository of knowledge, it
also provides a rich source of reference for new utterances. For Hutcheon, ironic
discourse, more than other textual practices, places a decided emphasis on the
relation of present utterances to previous ones and even to other speech genres.
Rather than seeing irony as a reversal of what is said or anti-phrasis, she argues
irony is double voiced, using inference and reference to create other multiple
unsaid meanings to a given utterance. In ironic communication, there is a
juxtaposition of the semantic meaning of what is uttered with an unsaid meaning
provided by the context of the communication.
Furthermore, while Bakhtin's discussion of the speech genre suggests all
communication is to some extent evaluative of past utterances, Hutcheon argues
irony is particularly emphatic in its evaluations. She defines irony as a
"semantically complex process of relating, differentiating, and combining said and
unsaid meanings - and doing so with an evaluative edge" (89). Comedic
8
discourse, similar to irony in Hutcheon's reckoning, is a communicative strategy
that involves an over-emphasis on unsaid, edgy, evaluative meaning through
suggested reference to past utterances and other speech genres.
Hutcheon's approach to irony is quite similar to what humour theorists call
incongruity theory. Incongruity theorists suggest that jokes rely on the
development of expectations through a context heavy 'set-up'. These
expectations are then surprisingly recontextualized in the punchline (Lewis 14;
Ross 27-28). Take, for example, the standard joke in which three characters (A
Rabbi, a Priest, and a Minister) enter a context (fishing on a lake) and have some
sort of problem that two solve correctly (get thirsty, walk on water back to shore)
while the third fails to follow the pattern, resulting in a humourous response
(Rabbi fails to realize that there were some stones just below the surface
allowing the minister and Priest to cross safely, drowns). In the example given
above, there are two recontextualizations. In the first instance, the setup provides
a number of unrealistic expectations about how men in a fishing boat behave and
then gives a more sensible context in the punch line that realigns the setup with
conventional expectations. There is also a second extra-textual reference
happening in the joke that evaluates the claims of Christianity, suggesting there
is an unsaid understanding among Christians that Jesus' actions ought not be
understood literally. Revealingly, Ross characterizes this moment as a smashing
of expectations, suggesting that for comedy to have the desired affective jolt, an
element of surprise is necessary (27-28). I also suggest that the importance of
9
speech genres is revealed in the comic moment. For a joke to be effective, the
audience (one person or many) must clearly understand both the context of the
setup and the surprising recontextualization that happens at an instant. This is
the 'get' of a joke. While an explanation of the comparisons and evaluations
might help one to 'get' a joke after the fact and see the humour in it, it does not
become funny—the intended comedy of the joke is lost (though someone's
failure to get an obvious joke might itself become a source of amusement).
The importance of the 'get' highlights a distinction between irony and
comedy. A central difference between the edge of irony and the edge of comedy
is that irony, though sometimes amusing, is not intended to amuse. Spanning the
entire final chapter of Irony's Edge, Hutcheon discusses the controversy that
surrounded the 1989 Heart of Africa exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in
Toronto. Much of the controversy surrounded the use of quotation marks around
words such as 'savages' to describe Africans, meant, according to the museum,
to emphasize the language of colonial encounter. Obviously, the museum was
not trying to be comic in this instance, but was trying to provide an ironic
evaluation of colonial language, however misdirected. Regardless of the position
one takes on the issue, the ironic intent of the curators can come to be
appreciated after the fact, but does not amuse in the same way as an intended
joke. This is not to say that comic discourse never offends, obviously, but to point
out that for comedy to work, amusement must happen at a moment. The
10
reference points—the discursive communities—must be made obvious to an
intended audience at a moment.
The above examples also demonstrate that while comedy incorporates
knowledge from multiple social spheres into the comic moment, it is also
important to recognize that comedy itself has many generic conventions that help
the comic moment happen and to determine how these extra-generic forms are
understood in comedy. Joking is a fluid communicative mode that takes any
number of forms, from mundane interpersonal relationships to major comedic
texts in popular culture. All of these interactions benefit from the shared
understanding between communicative actors about the nature of the comic
genre. Jason Rutter has shown that in stand-up comedy, one of the most
important components of a show is the warm-up act or host. This portion of a
comic program not only introduces the comedian, but also introduces the
audience to the atmosphere of the evening. The laugh track, or live audience
laughter, often serves a similar purpose in television comedies. In effect, these
processes cue the audience that comedy is happening. This example also
highlights that in comic discourse, at least one person is attempting to humour an
audience (of one or many).
Another fine example of the importance of how audiences relate comedy
to communicative forms not usually associated with the genre is demonstrated in
the rise of comedy filmed in what Zoe Druick calls a mock-documentary style.
With direct camera address and no laugh track, some such films have caused
11
controversy when aired on television because some audience members believed
they were watching actual documentaries ("Laughing at Authority" 139). It is
interesting to consider how much the comedy of films such as Borat, or
documentary-style sitcoms including the various international iterations of The
Office, or Summer Heights High from Australia, rely on the extra-textual
introduction provided by marketing materials and word-of-mouth to generate the
cues needed for their jokes to be understood as jokes.
The recognition of generic convention is also important to how comedy
incorporates other speech genres into its service. While comic discourse could
conceivably make comparisons between any two genres, certain themes are
often over-represented in comic discourse. This is why, as Zupancic observes,
the comic so often operates on easily recognizable stereotypes put into motion
(37). The more general the comic reference point, the easier it is for the comic
moment to succeed with a broad audience. Moreover, specific speech genres are
often overrepresented in comedy. For example, comedy will often include lengthy
discussions of various bodily functions. While psychoanalytic theorists such as
Limon and Freud have posited that this tendency is the result of drives rising to
the surface, that these themes seem to recur is more conclusively attributable to
generic traditions. Bakhtin argues the medieval carnival, as represented in the
works of Rabelais, was rife with celebrations of what Bakhtin euphemistically
refers to as the material-body lower stratum (Rabelais and his World). Generally
considered taboo in most speech genres, the lower body rises to the surface in
12
comic discourse and has done so for hundreds of years. Taking this sense of the
naughty into consideration, Limon's example of the ultimate joke, Lenny Bruce
getting up on stage in the 1950s telling the audience, "Stop me if you've seen this
bit before
I am going to piss on you" cannot be considered as literally as
Limon suggests (16). The joke juxtaposes filth onto the normally gentle
relationship between audience and the performer on stage. A jolting surprise
results from an entertainer making such an assertion.
Similarly, Bakhtin's discussion of how carnivalesque comedy was related
to the ecclesiastic order of the Middle Ages demonstrates that comic discourse
has a long tradition of involving society's most visibly powerful people in its
mediations. In particular, serious speech genres imbued with significant social
authority make for excellent comic subjects, because when topics are generally
treated with reverence, the possibility of making surprising associations and
evaluations is all the easier, as is evident in Bruce's threat to urinate on his
paying customers. Druick's discussion of both mock-documentary and news
parody demonstrates that these are two such serious genres, making parodic
and joking play all the easier ("Making a Mockery"; "Laughing at Authority").
These examples show, and certainly this is a significant argument Bakhtin makes
in his discussion of Rabelais, that comedy is fundamentally related to the social
milieu in which it exists.
Similar to the material-body lower stratum and serious discourses,
questions of identity have often served as fodder both for comedians as well as
13
for those studying comedy. Humour scholars often argue that humour is a
manifestation of both national identities and the identities of groups characterized
by their socially marginal status (see Medhurst; Rasporich "Canadian Humour in
the Media"; Rasporich "Canadian Humour and National Culture"; Rourke for
discussions of humour and nations and Brayton; Gilbert for discussions of
humour and social margins). Intriguingly, Limon's book, Stand-up Comedy in
Theory, or, Abjection in America, could even be considered a combination of the
two themes, arguing that the location of many stand-up comics on the social
periphery is central to how American stand-up operates, though the marginal is
far more important to his study than discussions of the national. Moving forward, I
will highlight some discrepancies in how discourses on humour and nation and
humour and marginalized difference are mobilized before demonstrating how
they can be discussed together as identities.
First off, claims of a national humour are hardly new. Constance Rourke's
work, originally published in the 1930s, on American humour as a formative
aspect of national identity has spawned a minor academic and cultural industry.
Rourke's analysis was based both on literary work, as well as, and importantly,
on stage performance. Though the politics of identity are not named as such
within her work, Rourke nonetheless suggests that certain aspects of the nation
were foregrounded in comic discourse. She identifies "The Gamecock"
(ostensibly a woodsy frontiersman), "That Long Tail'd Blue" (a "negro") and "The
Stroller" (the smart-mouthed Yankee), as three predominant comic identities
14
(114). In Canada, similar claims have been made about the Canadian nation with
regards to the works of Stephen Leacock, in spite of his contemporaneous
popularity in the United States as "American" (Rasporich "Stephen Leacock" 69).
In particular, claims made about Leacock bear mention for their striking similarity
to those made by Rourke. Gerald Lynch has argued that the characters in
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town represent stereotypes that would have been
easily identifiable to Leacock's contemporaries and that these characters are
mobilized in the face of an American other in the form of Mr. Smith (62-66). While
he does not go into the specifics that Rourke does, Lynch notes that characters
such as the aptonymic high Anglican minister Reverend Mr. Drone are
"compilations of types" (63).
Recalling Zupancic's comments about stereotypes brought to life in
comedy, it is striking that the idea of easily recognizable sub-national groups is
brought forth by both Lynch and Rourke. These stereotypes do not reveal an
essential national identity in any sort of concrete sense, but rather demonstrate a
textual economy described by Toni Morrison, who writes that the stereotype
allows "the writer a quick and easy image without specificity [or] accuracy" (67).
Benedict Anderson's famous work on the rise of the nation as an onto-political
form argues people come to understand (or imagine) themselves as belonging to
nations through textual relationships. For example, Eric Lott has argued, the
circulation of blackface minstrelsy, "That Long Tail's Blue" in Rourke's parlance,
was fundamental to early American mass culture. Nova Scotian Thomas
15
Chandler Halliburton's immensely popular Sam Slick character helped to circulate
the image of what Rourke calls "The Stroller," or the fast-talking Yankee, as an
emblem of Americanness on both sides of the border (Rasporich "Canadian
Humour in the Media" 86). A more contemporary Canadian example of comedic
stereotypes in motion would be the famous "Great White North" skit from SCTV
that first popularized the toque-wearing, stubby-drinking 'hoser' that was further
immortalized in the Wayne's World Saturday Night Live sketches and films and
persists in texts including Corner Gas. These images, as Morrison suggests,
provide a quick and easy way to give characters a particular comic nationality.
Following Anderson's logic, these stereotypes may even come to be a part of
how some people imagine their connection to a nationality, both internally and
internationally, as the example of Halliburton and the Yankee demonstrates.
Thus thoroughly distributed comic stereotypes can come to serve as common
understandings of what comprises the nation.
While often cited along side Anderson as though the two theorists make
the same argument, Eric Hobsbawm's introduction to the edited volume The
Invention of Tradition is more interested in power relations than Anderson's
Imagined Communities is. Anderson articulates a vision of the rise of nationalism
that involves many people in disparate places coming to understand themselves
as related. Contrarily, Hobsbawm argues that invented traditions seek to link
specific practices and values in such a way as to "establish continuity with a
suitable historic past" (1). In other words, particular images and stereotypes that
16
may be du jour can be linked to an essential and eternal (invented) past.
Following his intervention, I argue that Rourke, Lynch, and Rasporich are
imposing an order onto characters and values that do not necessarily reflect a
national identity; there is no inherent Americanness or Canadianness to such
stereotypes until they are identified as such, thus inventing a tradition. Both of
these theoretical discussions highlight that national identity, while rife with
material consequence, is not based on material substance and cannot be
understood as national without the intervention of cultural critics trying to
establish continuity. As with psychoanalytic approaches to comedy, such
discussions of national humours pathologize comedy production along national
lines.
I suggest that a similar naturalizing process is at play in discussions of
comedy based on sub-national identities. I am most interested here in the
categories of identity that have continued to fascinate the academy in the
debates about identity since the late 1980s and through the 1990s, most
commonly race, gender, and class. Critical works that examine how these identity
markers have been taken up in comic discourse are often remarkable for their
nuanced discussions of how contemporary comic performers involve themselves
in complex social relations when enacting race or gender for larger audiences.
Unlike the theorists who posit that humour can be reflective of a national culture,
authors such as Sean Brayton or Joanne Gilbert do not claim that, say, black or
female performers can be said to be broadly representative of a larger group
17
identity. However, these texts often ascribe a transgressive value to comics who
employ discourses about identity in their acts, obfuscating the complex
relationship between comedy and social context.
In my discussion of Bakhtin and the carnivalesque, I commented that the
powerful, represented in Rabelaisian comedy by the clergy and ecclesiastic
discourse, are still often subject to comic treatment today. Discussions of identity
and comedy often ascribe a value to marginal subject positions and in some
cases suggest that this is actually a case of Bakhtinian carnivalesque
transgression, despite the fact that Bakhtin exclusively discusses carnivalesque
in the past tense and repeats throughout his text that he is speaking specifically
about the middle ages (see Hughes-Fuller; Johnson-Woods; Bakhtin Rabelais
and His World18). Such discussions occlude the reality that comedy oftentimes
does not serve a transgressive function, but indeed gives new strength to
particular discursive currents, even when performed from the margins.
For example, in what is certainly one of the best known instances of
Canadian political satire, the cast of This Hour has 22 Minutes circulated an online petition during the 2000 federal election campaign formally requesting that
the government of Canada force Prime Ministerial candidate Stockwell Day to
change his first name to Doris (Day's platform promised national referenda on
issues where three percent of the population signed a petition asking for one).
While a brilliant comic juxtaposition of one of Day's more controversial
policies onto a social sphere that seemed unrelated, the joke also relied on very
18
traditional notions of who is and is not fit to be Prime Minister—not someone in a
dress and certainly not a man in a dress. In subverting a policy that was widely
seen as a backdoor attempt to review abortion laws, and thus decried by many in
the women's movement, the 22 Minutes cast also reinforced traditional notions of
gendered leadership. This example suggests that the politics of group identities,
as negotiated through comedy, require discussion of how group identities are
articulated in comic discourse.
As discussed above, commentators on the importance of community to
comedy often place a significant cultural value on the way comedy deals with
group identity, either as transgressive, in the case of some sub-national
communities, or as representative of a national community. The next section of
this introduction will demonstrate how and why processes of group formation lead
to valuations of comedy for these purposes, with particular reference to Canada.
Engin Isin argues it is impossible to conceive of people's interactions with
each other as manifesting either the absolutely interpersonal (between
individuals) or the absolutely inter-social (between groups), since "the former
generates an image of an individual without affiliations and the later an image of
automatons" (23). Isin further suggests that individuals are caught up in multiple
group identities, with different aspects of these identities coming to the fore at
different times and in different sites. Building on Pierre Bourdieu's work on
Distinction as a form of social organization, Isin distinguishes between
technologies such as membership structures and group formation strategies. He
19
goes on to argue that there are three central strategies employed in creating
group affiliations: strategies of solidarism work to bring groups and individuals
together for a cause; strategies of agonism are employed when the wants of one
group or individual come into direct conflict with those of others; and strategies of
alienation are employed by groups to mark people and values as distinct and
alien to the group. Since Isin's argument is ultimately about how groups attempt
to accrue cultural power through capital in both the material and symbolic sense,
the process he outlines offers some intriguing possibilities for a discussion of
comedy and identity.
If group identity is defined as a process of affiliated individuals continually
and relationally reassessing their identity as a group through the discursive
strategies of solidarism, agonism, and alienation, then comedy is not a site where
a group identity is revealed, but rather a site where group identities are, in part,
formed and negotiated. With such an understanding in mind, there is an
important distinction to be made between comic discourse and discourse about
comedy and humour, since the two relate very differently to group identity.
Perhaps more obvious is the way in which texts about comedy attempt to
organize a particular set of comic texts and attribute a social significance to them.
While discussed above in regards to national humour, I return to this topic to
clarify its importance to discussions of popular humour in contemporary Canada
and how these discourses are implicated in relations of power.
20
In "Canadian Humour in the Media," Rasporich correctly identifies the
importance of a shared context to comedy, but makes some unconvincing
arguments about what Canadian comedy means, suggesting that Leacock's
humour represented a "thoughtful, pastoral - and Canadian way of life," which
carried into future Canadian popular comedic texts (88). For Rasporich, Leacock
was but the first of many Canadian humourists who exported this comic
sensibility, which she describes as "feminine," to the United States (94).
Rasporich goes on to discuss the various Canadian comics whose unique, and
expert, position within the North American mediasphere allows them to comment
on the machinations of American culture from this special Canadian perspective.
Rasporich is hardly alone in making such claims. It is almost cliche to note that
what most often counts for success in Canada is financial success in the United
States while never forgetting one's Canadian roots. Agreeing with Rasporich, the
producers of the 2004 CBC documentary Comedy Gold measure proof of popular
comedic success through success on the American stage, citing the significant
financial success of performers and producers such as Lome Michaels, Mike
Myers, Jim Carrey and others as proof that Canadians are very funny people and
that this ability has an economic value. Jody Berland has also commented on
how Canadians use their subject position on top of the United States to produce
humour (29-31). Such discussions act both as solidaristic and agonistic
strategies in articulating the importance of the Canadian community. Arguing that
21
there is something unique about being near the United States, without actually
being American, places a cultural and economic value on being Canadian.
There are other significant Canadian cultural tropes that are similarly
reified through discussions of Canadian comedy, namely multiculturalism.
Rasporich has written two somewhat contradictory papers on what makes
Canadian humour unique, dated about ten years apart. Though it makes sense
for ideas to develop and change over time, the discrepancies between her first
entry, "Canadian Humour in the Media," and the more recent chapter are too
striking not to discuss. In 2006, Rasporich wrote an article called "Canadian
Humour and National Culture: Move over Mr. Leacock" dealing with the history of
political cartooning in Canada. While "Mr. Leacock" remains important for his
contributions to a long tradition of ironic play with Canadian identity ("Canadian
Humour in the Media" 59), in this more recent chapter Rasporich has also
discovered a new comic hero in the trickster figure found in many indigenous
Canadian cultures ("Canadian Humour and National Culture"). While Eva Mackey
has commented that the Canadian state has often culturally appropriated a
notion of a mystical Indigenous connection to the land to legitimate the
inseparable nature of non-indigenous people and the Canadian landscape,
Rasporich comments that it is the "ironic puncturing of a Canadian metanarrative
of homogeneity" that makes the trickster such a valuable comic hero for the
future (Mackey 71-90; Rasporich "Canadian Humour and National Culture" 64).
22
While Brayton has demonstrated that comedy can critique the way
discourses of multiculturalism often proscribe identities, Comedy Gold, echoing
Rasporich, offers a centrist, self-congratulatory liberal approach to how Canadian
comedy embraces the multicultural essence of the nation. In the film, Allan
Thicke opines that the reason he, and other Canadians, were hired to write for
shows that featured Black Americans is because "Canadians have never had
that race thing," reaffirming a peaceful and pastoral Canadian setting. This image
articulates Canadian group identity through the processes described by Isin.
Statements such as Thicke's or Rasporich's claim a solidaristic inclusiveness that
seeks to unify multiple, competing communities under the banner of Canadian,
despite a tremendous body of work that argues that ethnic, cultural, linguistic,
and racial minorities in Canada have long been subject to policies and practices
of agonism and alienation (see Bannerji; Galabuzzi; Mackey).
Claims made about Canadian humour have less to do with humour than
with a negotiation of Canadian identity, where humorous texts are offered as
examples. Above, Canada is defined by its relationship to the United States. For
Rasporich and Comedy Gold, the Canadian comedian is made a representative
of a presumed Canadian superiority, using insider knowledge of Americans for
material gain, while not forgetting the communitarian values that exemplify
Canada. Similarly, claims of a harmonious multicultural community manifest in
Canadian comedy are equally questionable and elide the racialized tensions that
23
inform contemporary Canada. This discussion perhaps begs the question of how
nation can serve as a basis for a discussion of comedy at all.
I suggest that the problem with claims that comedy reflects Canadian
values is that they do not account for how comedic discourse itself can operate
as a site where identities are negotiated, rather than simply exemplified. Making
a brief return to an earlier discussion, it is telling that Hutcheon renames the
speech genre the discursive community in her argument about ironic meaning
making. This renaming accentuates that, like humour, for irony to work, a shared
communicative context is necessary. Rasporich is quite correct when she argues
that Canada provides a sufficient community for comedy to take place
("Canadian Humour in the Media" 84-85). For example, Talking to Americans,
one of the most popular comedy specials in the history of Canadian television,
features Rick Mercer, then of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, interviewing Americans
about made-up Canadian realities (Berland 30-31). In one example, Mercer
interviews then Texas Governor George W. Bush, asking him if he had any
words for Canadian Prime Minister Jean Poutine. Bush, of course, says hello to
Prime Minister Poutine. Getting this joke relies on a knowledge that most
Canadians would have and many Americans would not: Poutine is a slightly
tacky meal popular in Quebec, and then Prime Minister Jean Chretien is a slightly
tacky politician, also (then) popular in Quebec.
Beyond demonstrating that shared context is vital to jokes making sense,
and that to some extent all jokes are inside jokes based on specific cultural
24
knowledges, this example also indicates that identities can be negotiated within
comedic discourse. In this instance, and indeed in the premise of the Talking to
Americans special, the unsaid evaluation of the joke is that Americans are at best
ignorant of Canada, and at worst patently stupid—a stance not dissimilar to
Rasporich and Comedy Golds alienation of the American above. While this
example is perhaps a little extreme in its clear delineations between national
communities, there are numerous comedic sites where these negotiations of
Canadian identity take place more subtly.
For example, I note above that comics who perform their alterity are often
proscriptively coded as transgressive. David Theo Goldberg has advocated a
language for discussing race that acknowledges that race has historically had
multiple definitions, being ascribed differently in different times and contexts and
to different groups. According to his work, acts that are called racist in traditional
nomenclature are often acts of racialization, emphasizing that such acts
empower a discourse that attributes certain values to certain sets of physical
characteristics. Thus, race, according to Goldberg, is in a state of permanent flux.
In such a definition of race, comic acts such as those by Richard Pryor or Russell
Peters engage in the work of race-making, drawing limits around a group, and
imbuing those limits with significance. This process can be seen at play in many
comedic texts, and this ubiquity demonstrates that articulations of group
identities, including national identities, complicate identity politics in comedy.
25
Discussions of comedy that deal with a performed Other involve
comedians, themselves members of different and overlapping groups, who will
often affiliate themselves more and less strongly with different groups at different
moments. For example, Russell Peters, to whose cultural negotiations I return to
in Chapter 3, talks about returning to his parent's country of birth, India.
According to Peters, the unpleasant smell that met him when he got off the plane
made him realize how Canadian he was, and yet many of his jokes rely on
claiming an insider status as Indian. The unsaid inference of the joke, that
Canadians don't stink and Indians do, also acts as a declaration about those two
groups. At other times, Peters will talk about white Canadian men who sound like
donkeys when they speak. Peters' comedy thus both claims a Canadian subject
position and critiques it—there are exclusions and affiliations at play here too.
Such overlapping identifications are, of course, not the sole purview of
comics whose central topic of discussion is race. Corner Gas, the recently ended
and extremely popular CTV sitcom, often jokes about the tension between a
Toronto ex-patriot and her inability to understand the small town where she now
lives. Curiously, Dog River, the fictional setting of Corner Gas, is inhabited by
many identity stereotypes. Corner Gas'joking about these identities (hoser;
Torontonian; Don Cherry-esque indignant old man; hapless cop who also seems
to be, but is seldom acknowledged as, Indigenous) makes comparison to
Leacock's Mariposa, and the related bucolic assertions of Rasporich seem
inevitable. A companion piece to Corner Gas is CBC's Little Mosque on the
26
Prairie, which attempts a similar style, but complicates the situation by focusing
on the challenges posed by being a good Muslim in the fictional small town of
Mercy. These examples suggest, and I elaborate on them in the chapters to
come, that studies of Canadian comedy should not look for evidence of Canadian
identity, but rather look at comedy as a site where the definition of Canadian is
shaped and reshaped through comedic discourse. Following the principles of
Bakhtinian dialogism, these comedic notions of Canadian identities become a
part of how Canada is seen in other social spheres. Focusing on the evaluative
and inter-social aspects of comedy, I speculate on what sorts of evaluations are
being made about Canada and Canadians through the unsaid. The remaining
chapters will look at these articulations of Canadianness with a steady eye on
processes of group formation that take into account how claims about Canada
include, confront, and exclude others.
This introduction has argued that Canadian comedy cannot be understood
as a manifestation of vague notions of Canadian identity. I have demonstrated
that comedy is a communicative form that generates its meaning through explicit
and inferred reference to multiple discursive communities. I have argued that
attempts to ascribe value to these mediations produce problematic assertions
about the significance of comedy, be it as a site of national pride or as the site of
transgressive power. Comedy is, rather, a site where claims are made, both
transgressive and affirmative, about communities and groups.
27
The rest of the thesis will explore how national community is articulated in
a number of recent popular texts. Chapter 2 elaborates on the relationship
between Comer Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie as complementary texts
that renegotiate the ideological space of the prairie, offering a reimagining of
regional lines. Chapter 3 looks at the many voices of Russell Peters, arguing that
through these voices Peters makes claims about the limits of being Canadian.
The fourth and final chapter will look at Canada through an external lens. Over
the years, South Park has treated Canada as comic fodder and yet has shown
very little interest in Canada as an actual place. Instead, South Park chooses to
represent Canadians as the embodiment of difference from an American norm,
calling into question how difference works in comedy.
These texts, while certainly not a comprehensive study (the omission of
French-Canadian texts, which I lack the linguistic competencies to fully
appreciate the nuance of, is notable), the selected works offer three distinct
geographic approaches to Canada in addition to three unique comic forms in the
sitcom, stand-up, and animated series. In many respects, Chapter Two
embraces a traditional Innisian notion of Canadian regionalism defined by the
relationship between the hinterland and the metropole, and demonstrates the
importance of this relationship to comedy, instead of the more contemporarily
common approach that seeks to include mention of each region. Chapter Three
deals with Canadian multiculturalism and diasporic nationalities and investigates
the comic effects of immigration. Chapter Four looks at Canada in a continental
28
perspective. Cumulatively, these texts reveal the notion of a particularly
Canadian comedy that reveals desirable values to be based on patriotic
sentiment rather than fact.
29
Chapter 2: Imagining Home on the Canadian Prairie
In my introduction, I briefly hinted at some of the themes that this chapter's
comparison of Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie (often abbreviated
Little Mosque throughout) would elaborate on. I likened Dog River, the fictional
setting of Corner Gas to Mariposa, the setting of Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of
a Little Town (Sunshine Sketches) and suggested the show would certainly
provide fodder for critics eager to draw connections to a non-threatening, gentle
Canadian comedy exemplified in Leacock's work. For example, Sunshine
Sketches ends with an epilogue entitled "L'Envoi. The Train to Mariposa." In
"L'Envoi," Leacock directly addresses the reader, suggesting that Mariposa is the
town that "you," an imagined naratee, come from (181). Leacock admonishes the
reader to return to his roots and find Mariposa once again. This chapter
examines the ways that the idea of a small-town heartland, now located on the
Saskatchewan prairie, persists and deeply informs the critical response to Corner
Gas. Highlighting the dialogic aspects of comedy that I discuss in the
introduction, I further argue that Little Mosque ought be read as a critical
response not just to Corner Gas, but also to the notion of a whitewashed smalltown Canada that Corner Gas is complicit in creating.
For some, my discussion here may recall aspects of Margaret Atwood's
writing on Canadian literary humour from the early 1970s. In "On Canadian
Humour," Atwood argues that Leacock intends Mariposa as an emblematic
Canadian small town. Similarly, she suggests that Saskatchewan in Paul
30
Hiebert's Sarah Binks is representative of rural Canada. In both cases, these
communities are defined by their provincialism. Citing the same example of
"L 'Envoi" discussed above, Atwood argues that Leacock's notion of the return
adds a temporal dimension to the provincialism jokes in these works. These texts
articulate a bourgeoning Canadian sense of cosmopolitanism that invites an
urban reader to laugh at an unrefined past that is represented in Mariposa or
Saskatchewan. Atwood paints an accurate portrait of how Canadian humour
writers once conceived of the country.
I suggest, however, that the years that have passed since the article's
writing have seen Canada, through the official policy of multiculturalism, come to
define itself at times as cosmopolitan and globally-minded. Indeed, if Talking to
Americans speaks to anything, it is the provincialism of Americans, not an
imagined Canadian yokel. This said, and here my argument parallels Atwood's in
some respects, I demonstrate in this chapter that the distinction between the
cosmopolitan city and the hinterland persists in Corner Gas as well as the
popular response to the show. However, the hinterland, Saskatchewan in this
case, is not devalued as a provincial backwater, but is held up as an example of
an authentic Canada which is at odds with a conflictual cosmopolitanism
represented by Canadian cities. The first few lines from the Corner Gas theme
song suggest that in many respects the show responds to the disparaging
Saskatchewan jokes Atwood discusses. It begins:
You can tell me that your dog ran away
And tell me that it takes three days
31
I've heard every joke
I've heard every one you say
You think there's not a lot going on
Look closer baby, you're so wrong.
This celebration of prairie life is a current that runs throughout the glowing
popular response to Corner Gas.
I will proceed with a discussion of the first season of Corner Gas before
moving into analysis of its reception by mainstream press. Popular reception to
Corner Gas plays up a vision of small-town Canada that endorses a nonconflictual white homogeneity, often contrasted with the cosmopolitan Canadian
city. For many, the town Dog River represents an ideal Canadian community. I
will then go on to show that the first season of Little Mosque is often formulated
as a response to this ideal sparked by Corner Gas and developed in the popular
press, in order to demonstrate some important differences in the popular
response to the two shows.
During its six-season (2004-2009) run, Corner Gas regularly drew
audiences that are usually reserved for imported American network sitcoms
including Friends or The Office, with weekly ratings of around 1.5 million people
(Atherton C6). To put this figure in perspective, Hockey Night in Canada was
often the only other Canadian TV show that would join Corner Gas near the top
of the ratings during these years. These numbers are even more unusual
because, unlike most Canadian television projects, Corner Gas was developed
almost exclusively with money from CTV. Its creators eschewed support from the
various funding agencies that are vital to most domestic film and television
32
production. This funding choice led to the most popular Canadian television show
of the decade, and a ratings darling, losing money (Atherton C6).
Corner Gas is set in the fictional town of Dog River, Saskatchewan and
follows the day-to-day lives of eight townsfolk. Sarcastic Brent Leroy, played by
series creator Brent Butt, owns the gas station that shares the show's title, which
he inherited from his retired, inept, dim-witted, cantankerous father Oscar. Much
of the action focuses on the gas station and The Ruby, a diner run by Lacey, who
has just moved to the town from Toronto. Regular customers include Hank,
Brent's childhood friend and inept, dim-witted 'hoser' in the tradition of Bob and
Doug McKenzie; the two town cops, the ambitious Karen who is hampered by the
lack of crime in the community and the senior officer Davis, again inept and dimwitted. Rounding out the cast are Wanda, the quirky clerk at the gas station who
seems to possess genius level intelligence, and Emma, Brent's tough-as-nails
mother.
The show offers a number of (for the time of its premiere) cutting edge
comedic textual strategies alongside elements that Steve Neale and Frank
Krutnik identify as generic traits, including persistent characterizations, plot lines
that return everything to the status quo at the end of each episode, and a lack of
narrative development over time (231-233). For example, following in the
footsteps of shows such as The Simpsons, Family Guy, or Malcolm in the Middle,
Corner Gas employs very short scenes that cut away quickly from the setting to
illustrate a point about something that a character is saying through a quick visual
33
gag in a fantasy sequence, before quickly cutting back to the original scene. A
cut-away in the premier episode shows eggs being thrown at a house, then
watermelons being thrown at a house, all to illustrate to Lacey, the newcomer
from Toronto, what happens when people try to change things in Dog River
("Ruby Reborn"). Similarly, and again following American animated series, or,
say, Seinfeld, Corner Gas makes many jokes through intertextual references. For
example, in "Comedy Night," Brent is talking about how "that bald guy" from the
show Whose Line is it Anyways? needs to make a cameo in everything, when
Colin Mochrie walks onto the set, making a cameo (humorous for this paper is
that Mochrie makes a cameo in the first season of Little Mosque as well).
Corner Gas is also remarkable for using neither canned laughter nor a
studio audience as part of its soundtrack, a relatively new choice when it
debuted. Like its Canadian contemporary The Newsroom, which similarly did not
have a laugh track, Corner Gas maintains a very quick pace, since jokes are
delivered within the dialogue, without hesitation or pause to act as a cue. Such an
approach requires much of the actors, as they must deliver the jokes in such a
way as to cue the audience that jokes are happening in subtle ways, and, to its
credit, the show is often very well acted, making this approach effective.
Combined with the intertextuality and cut-aways, the show demands the
audience pay close attention to the dialogue and film techniques in a way that
more traditional sitcoms often do not.
34
For all the show's creativity in its comedic delivery, Comer Gas is
decidedly tame in the topics that it discusses. For the most part, the jokes stick to
the sort of observational style that was popularized by Seinfeld, though there is
very little discussion of romantic relationships in Comer Gas. This stylistic choice
means that the plotlines of the show, the structure onto which individual jokes are
hung, are relatively mundane. Outside the pointed remarks that the characters
make about each other, which I return to below, the edgy evaluations of the jokes
are generally limited to gentle intertextual teases. The show rarely mentions
religion, formal politics (despite the fact that both Paul Martin and Stephen
Harper made appearances on the show as sitting Prime Ministers), and
especially avoids overt references to identity politics. In fact, in the entire first
season there is only one joke (in the final episode) that makes light of raced or
gendered identities. The joke, wherein Davis takes offence to Karen suggesting
he purchase football tickets from a 'scalper' because of his Cree ancestry, is
arguably one of the funniest of the season mostly because it was the first time
Davis's identity as a Cree man is discussed in any capacity in the show; its edge
was all the more surprising given the usual lack of such jokes ("I Love Lacey").
According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen, the show's writers made a
concerted effort to keep discussions about Davis' identity out of the scripts
(Rankin E7).
While the topics covered by the show's jokes are patently inoffensive,
there is a decided punch in the interpersonal relationships among the show's
35
characters. The above descriptions of the characters are extremely important
here. Because the inefficacious men of the show are decidedly dimwitted, a
significant number of the show's jokes come at the expense of Oscar, Davis, and
Hank. Their ridiculous schemes, such as when Oscar decides to build his own
coffin, are often jokes themselves and further provide fodder for insults at the
hands of other characters. For example, Emma and Brent joke that they hope
Oscar, who in most episodes calls someone a jackass, will need his coffin soon
("Pilates Twist"). In another episode, Hank's stupidity is pointed to as the central
reason for his undesirability ("Hook, Line, and Sinker"). In "All My Ex's Live in
Toronto," Davis mistakenly installs the one-way glass, the intercom, and the door
lock in the interrogation room backwards, leading to a number of exasperated
groans from the characters that end up locked in the room with him. In all these
cases, the ineptitude of certain characters is the evaluation that the jokes make.
I belabour this point about the object of these jokes because, just as
Rasporich makes claims about a kinder gentler Canadian humour vis a vis The
Simpsons, many attribute the same qualities to Corner Gas. Eric Peterson, who
plays Oscar, was quoted in the Regina Leader Post saying the show's humour is
"inclusive, gentle, and generous" (Pacholik G1). In the Ottawa Citizen, executive
producer David Storey likened Corner Gas to carefully nuanced British comedy, a
remark that is pointed in the country that he does not mention. "Screenwriter and
TV guru Denis McGrath" is more forthcoming in telling the Toronto Star that
"People put each other down on Corner Gas, but it's not mean or cruel... like
36
some of those American sitcoms" (Atherton C6; Szklarski A29). While one could
likely find many examples of American sitcoms that are harsher in their insults
than Corner Gas, claims that the jokes on the show are kind and gentle are not
justified. While all the characters on the show are portrayed as liking each other
at the end of the every episode, this pattern is no different from many American
sitcoms, where, in keeping with generic convention, order is restored at the end
of every episode.
While distinguishing the show as not American is, of course, the most
important way that Corner Gas is discursively constituted as the quintessential
Canadian sitcom, its setting in rural Saskatchewan also serves an important role
in the show and its reception. From a comedic standpoint, the setting provides
fresh topics for the observational comedy; the minutiae of daily life in rural
Saskatchewan are very different from the quotadien of Seinfeld's New York. For
example, Lacey's attempt to save the local grain elevator from demolition in "Cell
Phone" alienates her from the rest of the townsfolk. Similarly, what counts for
news in the fictional Dog River Howler is a regular source of laughs, particularly
after we learn in "Grad "68" that most townsfolk have been writers for the
publication at some time. In other words, the jokes often articulate the
particularities of life in small-towns, and particularly small towns in
Saskatchewan.
One of the more popular news stories told about Corner Gas has to do
with where the show is shot, since all outside shots are filmed on location in
37
Rouleau, Saskatchewan. The main external set, Corner Gas, and that of the
neighbouring Ruby diner were built across the highway from the aforementioned
grain elevator. Given the unyieldingly flat landscape surrounding the set, the
elevator cannot help but attract the eye, lending the whole scene the air of a
picture postcard from the prairies. Butt reportedly rejected multiple other locations
because they were not flat enough (Sponagle J1). An accompanying soundtrack
to many of the external scenes further accentuates an already exaggerated
prairie setting by emitting insect noise. While many of the show's jokes are
generically small town, the Saskatchewan in the visual and audio make up of the
show is un-mistakable.
The combination of small-town theme and Saskatchewan setting proved
an irresistible angle for many journalists writing about the show, since many
commentators suggest there are documentary aspects to the portrayal Corner
Gas offers of prairie living. Much of this attention focused on Rouleau and how
the town has become a Mecca for the show's fans. Written almost as travelogues
of the town, popular articles talk about how during shooting the main street of
Rouleau is transformed, through a few changes in signage, into Dog River.
These articles also often recount how mayor the of Rouleau, Kenneth Hoff,
owned a liquor store cum insurance agency, which was so funny to the producers
that Dog River also has a mayor who runs a business that plies the same wares
(Anonymous, The Sudbury Star C2; Atherton C6; Sponagle.JI).
38
A number of the articles about the show demonstrate an adamant interest
in the origins of the various cast members. While Butt's youth in the small-town of
Tisdale, Saskatchewan is very well known, interviews with other cast members
also talk about their roots in small communities (eg Rankin E7). The most telling
among these is a 2005 feature article from the Regina Leader Post that goes
through the entire cast of the show and lists the small town origin of each
member. Gabrielle Miller, who plays Lacey on the show, grew up in suburban
Vancouver, but nonetheless gets grouped in with the others because her mom
retired to the Slocan Valley in the B.C. interior (Pacholik G1).
These trends ascribe a quasi-documentary value to Comer Gas that David
Hogarth (2002: 5-6) has stated is fundamental to how broadcasting has been
critically judged in Canada. In other words, much of the critics' love of the show is
based on what they see as an accurate reflection of small town Canadian life.
There is little question that Corner Gas at times captures some of the nuances of
living in a smaller community and presents a setting unique among contemporary
television locations. This said, using the hometowns of the various cast members
as evidence of the show's small-town spirit raises some questions about what the
qualities of this spirit are. The hometowns on the Leader-Post's list are regionally
diverse, if a little Saskatchewan heavy. The inference to be drawn is that smalltown Canada is home to a homogenous set of experiences that are experienced
in all small towns across the country. Many of the episodes in the first season
feature gags about Lacey's failure to fit into the small town after her move from
39
Toronto. While the anti-Torontonian sentiment is light-hearted in the confines of
the show, the way anti-Torontonianism is taken up by journalists make it a little
more troubling.
In a Vancouver Sun article, "Real Canada is beyond the big cities,"
Daphne Bramham asserts that the "true heart of the country is forged by harsh
climate, vast, empty landscape, and the human need to socialize" adding, that
Saskatchewan is "nothing like Toronto" (C5). Similarly, Denis McGrath writes,
seemingly without irony in The Toronto Star, that Corner Gas was never the hot
topic of "the ivory towers in Toronto" as the show's "understated" humour is "an
exemplar of Canadian values" (E5). As with the claims about the show's kind,
gentle and inoffensive humour, there seem to be any number of gratuitous
affirmations about what kind of values can be attributed to Corner Gas, and by
extension, small town life. Similar to Leacock's Mariposa, Dog River seems to be
an idyllic pastoral home that is no more than a plane away from Toronto. There
is, of course, the small problem that Dog River, like Mariposa, is a figment of the
authorial imagination.
Eva Mackey has argued that there is often a slippage between the smalltown community and popular conceptions of the Canadian nation. In her study of
the "Canada 125" celebrations that marked the 125th anniversary of
confederation, Mackey traveled to a number of small communities that had
organized festivals marking the occasion. Local celebrations, she found, often
focused on established narratives of nation building that downplayed any
40
potential sites of conflict, such as how French-Canadians or indigenous peoples
were portrayed in these celebrations. Mackey further argues these celebrations
acted more as projections of a white homogeneity onto the national whole (91106). A significant aspect of this fictive identity involves staking a territorial claim
to a landscape that, echoing Bramham above, is noted for its inhospitable
vastness (30-31).
Similar to Corner Gas' insistence on keeping anything that might be
construed as controversial out of the show's jokes, popular criticism of the show
willfully ignores some realities of small town life, past and present in favour of a
"non-political and populist patriotism" (Mackey 106). In the introduction to Race,
Space, and the Law, Sherene Razack writes that "symbolic and material
processes work together to produce [...] respectable and abjected bodies" in
relation to particular spaces ("Introduction" 11). Later in the same volume, she
provides an example of this process, the case of Pamela George, an Ojibwa
woman who was sexually assaulted and murdered by two young white men. By
virtue of her location in the red light district populated by indigenous women
working as prostitutes, George was rendered abject to the white, suburban
community of Regina. Because of the boys' attachment to Regina's white
community, the young men were treated by the courts as adventuresome lads
who had found trouble on the wrong side of the tracks ("Gendered Racialized
Violence"). Corner Gas is not, of course, responsible for any sort of violence, but
the show, and especially the reactions to the show, contribute to a broader
41
imagining of the small town as a conflict-free place that is inhabited by
unproblematic white bodies. Such an imagining is portrayed as a contrast to the
conflictual multiculturalism of Canadian cities, characterized by highly publicized
incidents in urban Canada such as Toronto's so-called "summer of the gun" in
2005, a phenomenon that saw dozens of black youth murdered, Montreal's 2008
race riots that followed a police shooting of a young man of Honduran ancestry,
or the gross overrepresentation of indigenous women among the missing from
Vancouver's lower east side.
While there are certainly numerous well-publicized examples of racial
tensions in Canadian cities, historical as well as contemporary examples of
racism inform the material realities of Canada's small towns as well. These
conflicts contrast with the above commonsense portrayal of cities as violent and
small towns as conflict free. Constance Backhouse has demonstrated that in
turn-of-the-20th-century small town Saskatchewan, numerous laws prevented
white women from working for Chinese men, demonstrating not only that
Chinese-Canadians have a long history in the province, but that xenophobia does
too. Mona Oikawa has shown that the sugar beet farms of Saskatchewan must
be remembered concurrently with interior BC as sites of the racist displacement
of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. More recently, Herald
Bauder has found that a result of the migrant agricultural worker program, which
brings foreign nationals into rural communities as labour, has been a portrayal of
these workers as a social problem in many towns' local media. Finally, in the
42
area surrounding Peterborough, Ontario, recent years have seen numerous
reports of Asian fishermen attacked by "locals," suggesting that there are limits to
who supposedly mainstream Canadians think should have access to the vast,
empty landscape that forges Canadianness (Offman A8). While some of the
tension in this incident is based on an urban-rural division, it is telling that
racialized individuals rather than, say, white Toronto cottagers have been
attacked. These examples do not suggest that there is a latent, violent racism
waiting to explode in small communities all across Canada, since, obviously, this
is seldom the case. However, these examples do suggest the symbolic space of
the small town is less white, and more subject to conflict than the bucolic notToronto vision of small town Canada that the commentators above, and by its
silences Corner Gas, portray.
Little Mosque on the Prairie presents a direct challenge to this vision. The
show debuted on the CBC to an absolutely massive audience of over 2 million on
January 9, 2007. With its clever title and Muslim theme, the show was famously
the subject a number of reports both across Canada and internationally
(DeDekkar B3). Though ratings more than halved after the initial episode, the
show still managed to attract an average of about one million weekly viewers, five
hundred thousand fewer than Corner Gas (whose ratings remained relatively
stable during its run) during the 2007 season (ibid; Goodman D9). Like Corner
Gas, Little Mosque is set in small town Saskatchewan, in fictional Mercy. The first
season of the show focuses on the opening of Mercy's first mosque in the parish
43
hall of the town's Anglican Church. The plotlines of most episodes focus on the
difficulties of negotiating a relationship between membership in the Muslim and
Mercy communities.
Little Mosque, and especially the first season which is being discussed
here, is arguably not very funny. Many of the comic strategies that make Corner
Gas unique are absent from Little Mosque. The newer show uses neither the
intertextual humour nor the cut-away scenes. Rather than plot lines based on
day-to-day minutiae, the show often just adds a Muslim twist to tired generic
sitcom plots such as "mother-in-law comes for a visit," or "dad gets over
protective when daughter goes on a date" ("Mother in Law"; "Playing with Fire").
In other words, rather than focus on jokes, the show often offers a less than
compelling narrative. Like Corner Gas, Little Mosque has no laugh track, but in
the three years that passed between the premieres of the two shows this
absence became commonplace, with laugh-track-free shows such as My Name
is Earl, Thirty Rock, and The Office having debuted to critical acclaim in the
interim. In direct contrast to the exceptional cast of Corner Gas, Little Mosque
features several inadequate acting performances. Where Corner Gas maintains a
quick pace, the first season of Little Mosque is often characterized by horribly
awkward pauses after jokes, as if the actors are awaiting a drum roll, or a laugh
track, suggesting that the direction is not very good either.
In part Little Mosque's problems are born of the show's Islam themed
material. In my introduction, I discuss how discursive communities are integral to
44
comedic discourse. For audiences to understand the edgy evaluations of jokes at
a moment, members need a clear understanding of what a comic is referring to.
Unfortunately, Little Mosque is aimed at a national (Canadian) audience, many
members of which are not Muslim (according to Statistics Canada, there were
just less than 600,000 Muslims as of the 2001 Census, compared with the
average of one million viewers during the first season; specific data on how many
Muslims watch Little Mosque is unavailable), and whose understanding of the
religion comes in part out of the deeply stereotypical Western fantasies Edward
Said describes in Orientalism and the related hysteria that has characterized
media coverage of Islam after events of September 11th, 2001. The targeting of
this audience means that the show must often attempt to provide viewers who
might not have a working knowledge of Islam's most basic tenets with this
information before making jokes. For example in "Mother-in-Law," the tradition of
having multiple wives is explained through pained dialogue before the jokes on
the subject begin. While such explanations might be interesting, they are not
funny, and at times fill too much air that could be filled with jokes.
Little Mosque's character roster similarly might need explanation for some
audiences. Like most sitcoms, including Corner Gas, the show attempts to
employ easily recognizable one-dimensional character types. However, because
so many of the stock stereotypes of Muslims available in the North American
mediascape are racist and over-emphasize oppressed women or the potential for
violence, Little Mosque is left with the difficult task of making the traits of its
45
various characters, who do not fit this racializing model, quickly accessible to the
audience. The show must introduce characters the likes of whom, as some
commentators pointed out, have never been featured on North American
television (Hussain A13; Pellerin A10). These Muslim characters are portrayed as
doctors, contractors, secretaries and cafe owners, whose faith informs their dayto-day lives. There are several characters that are immigrants and whose lives
are often meant to be the subject of the show's jokes. These complex characters
present a direct contrast to the comedy of, say, Russell Peters, who objectifies
the immigrant experience. As Neale and Krutnik note, such multifaceted
characters are purposefully rare in the sitcom (236). In more recent seasons, the
problem of laboured characterizations has abated as the characters have had a
few seasons to develop histories and patterns of behaviour that allow for a faster
pace to the jokes about their unique traits.
That said, there are some funny moments from the first season of Little
Mosque. The show is at its best not when focusing on the overly nuanced
interactions of the various characters, but when it manages to directly engage
some of the stereotypes it seeks to undermine through intertextuality. For
example, in the first episode, Amar, the mosque's new imam, mentions the word
suicide in relation to his career while on a cell phone at the airport, leading to a
funny line about how he will not get to choose where Canadian officials deport
him to, a reference to the deportation and torture of Mahar Arar ("Little Mosque").
Though the joke relies on extra-textual knowledge, this well publicized case
46
would be familiar to many Canadians, and the edgy evaluations the joke makes
would be accessible without in-text explanation.
Intriguingly, the best character on the show bears a marked resemblance
to Oscar from Corner Gas in his curmudgeonly conservatism. In many respects
Baber, played by Manoj Sood, manifests many of the nasty stereotypes that are
so commonplace in fearmongering about terrorists. He wears a beard and a
skullcap and is distinguished by his conservative interpretation of Islam. He
engages in regular rants about how the evils of western society are attempting to
beguile Muslim youth, and especially his daughter. One of the funnier moments
in the season occurs when Baber and the town's white, right-wing, anti-Muslim
conservatives end up uncomfortable bedfellows when the Anglican minister
decides to marry a same-sex couple in the Church ("Mother-in-law"). This joke
provides some interesting, subtle, and decidedly edgy evaluations about
conservatism on both sides of the cultural divide. However, in spite of such funny
moments, most of the show's ruminations remain more interesting than funny.
Little Mosque's narrative approach to space is perhaps its most redeeming
quality. Sandra Cafias (2008) has written that, in many respects, Little Mosque
ought to be interpreted in terms of the way that it negotiates cultural spaces. She
suggests that Little Mosque calls into question how numerous institutions are
used by different groups of people (197-198). The very site of Mercy Mosque
within a church hall and the barriers to access that two women characters face
when they try to take aquafit classes at the town pool are two good examples that
47
she cites of how Muslim characters present an incongruity to ways that stories
about such places are told (196; 198-200). Her analysis could be extended to the
central space that Little Mosque calls into question—the symbolic space that the
mosque occupies on the prairie.
There is a very important intertextual reference that is made in the opening
shot of Little Mosque that acknowledges that the series is not just a response to
general media discourse about Muslims but also a specific response to the
homogeneity of Corner Gas and its whitewashed vision of the prairies. While
Canas describes the same scene in her paper, she misses a key musical hint
that links the show to Corner Gas. Anyone who has watched Corner Gas is likely
familiar with the way music often establishes changes between scenes. There
are a couple of blues riffs that are played on a slide guitar in these instances.
Little Mosque opens with a long shot of a steeple and a vast open sky. In the
background plays a familiar, but not too familiar, bluesy riff on a slide guitar.
Once the shot tracks downward to the parish hall entrance to the church, the
music abruptly changes from the guitar to a driving tabla-style beat, with an
Arabic spiritual song sung over top of it. The shot refocuses on a few dozen
people dressed in headscarves or skullcaps hurriedly entering the building. The
scene cuts to the interior of the mosque where Baber is leading prayers. Into this
situation walks a guy wearing a costume that might easily have been stolen from
Hank's wardrobe over at Corner Gas. Confronted with the sight of Muslims
48
bowing before god, he calls the terrorist attack hotline. The scene then cuts to the
opening credits.
The first shot of the opening credits presents a similar juxtaposition to the
opening shot of the show. Onto a shot of a vast Saskatchewan grain field is
juxtaposed the series title, written in the same script as the title of Little House on
the Prairie appeared in that show's opening credits except that many of the
letters have their tops decorated with minarets. This visual imposition works in
much the same way as the musical reference to Corner Gas does. Little House
on the Prairie still stands for a vision of an American wholesomeness that Corner
Gas came to stand for in relation to contemporary Canada. That the first scene
ends with a phone call to a terrorist hotline suggests that Muslims are anathema
to this bucolic vision. Rather than simply illustrating the difficulties that Muslims
might face in dealing with specific institutions, this series of shots highlights that
for many, the very idea of Muslims on the prairie is a narrative incongruity.
Through its unique characterizations, narrative arcs and its subtle confrontation
of the whiteness of Dog River, Little Mosque fundamentally challenges the
ideological space of the prairie, through its narratives, even when its attempts at
doing this through jokes fall flat. The dialogic aspects of this response were often
lost on the popular press.
It would be unfair to criticize the popular response to the show for focusing
too much on the Muslim angle in its discussion of the show—this angle clearly is
the most unique aspect of the program—but there are a few aspects of the
49
popular response that bear mention. First off, as with Corner Gas, there seems to
be a desire to find documentary value to the series. The concept for the show is
based on creator Zarqa Nawaz's experiences of moving to Regina (MacFarquhar
C1). However, critics focus on the fact that the cast has only one bona fide
Muslim among them {ibid; Pellerin A10,). The tone that these articles take
suggests that the lack of Muslim actors is not good somehow, and so the show is
destined to fail as inauthentic. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Brigitte Pellerin
openly questions the possibility the show will succeed because of "how
desperately seriously most Muslims take themselves" (A10). In the Globe and
Mail, Margaret Wente caustically states that in a more accurate portrayal of
reality, the character Sarah "would be dressed in black from head to foot" rather
than only wearing a headscarf in the mosque (A15). In other words, despite its
basis in real experience, the premise of the show seems far-fetched to some
commentators.
This said, a couple of prairie writers argue that the concept behind Little
Mosque, Muslims on the prairie, is not as far fetched as some might suggest.
Paula Simmons points out in the Edmonton Journal that the first mosque in
Canada was built in Edmonton in 1938 (B1). After arguing that it would do many
immigrants good to test their mettle in the prairie winter, Bramham goes on to
state that a mosque has been a great neighbour to her family's Regina church.
She further adds that unlike indigenous populations with whom "there is too much
history and residual tension," immigrants to the prairies will be "judged on their
50
merit. If they want to pitch in, they're welcome" (C5). While these articles are
quite right to point out that there is a significant tradition of Islam on the prairie, it
is hardly surprising that this point only comes up in relation to discussions of Little
Mosque. Presumably, the same history was available to the writers of Corner
Gas and the many pundits who lined up to proclaim the show as a paragon of
Canadianness. For these writers, Canadian and Muslim must be two separate
ontological categories. The exclusion of Muslims and other immigrants from the
landscape of Dog River's Saskatchewan must then be read in a similar way to
Little Mosque's inclusion; it makes claims about who really belongs on the space
of the prairies. It appears that the symbolic Canadian heartland has many suitors.
There is one more small point that bears mention in closing. Amar, the
new imam at Mercy Mosque, moves to Mercy from Toronto. He has quit his job
as a lawyer to act as a spiritual guide to the residents of the small town. In the
first couple of episodes, as with Lacey in Corner Gas, the new imam has trouble
understanding the nuances of the small community he has arrived in, and at one
point he threatens to leave, in part because he cannot buy a cappuccino. I
suggest that this parallel articulates a final curious point about the way that Little
Mosque conceives of its Canadianness, and of its imposition of cosmopolitanism
onto the Canadian prairie. The central narrative tension in the show has to do
with claiming affiliation with the literal spaces of a fictional community, as Cafias
states, and also claiming the symbolic space of the Canadian prairie. Through
these affiliative statements, and through narratives centered on being good, Little
51
Mosque is, like Corner Gas' supporters, making claims about the types of values
that are supposedly integral to the Canadian heartland and curiously mirroring
the valuation of small town life in the face of a litigious, latte-drinking Torontonian
other.
Broader in its international view of the world than Corner Gas, Little
Mosque nonetheless rejects the imagined self-satisfaction and sophistication of
Torontonians and asserts that the heartland is indeed on the prairie. That many
popular critics suggested Little Mosque is not as authentic as Corner Gas
because of an imagined incompatibility between Islam and the prairie makes the
shows claims to this space all the more intriguing. Little Mosque represents
prairie cosmopolitanism in the most literal sense by having its polity made up of
people from around the world, and by rejecting the hoity-toity pretensions of
Toronto in similar ways to Corner Gas. Atwood, on the other hand, intended the
connotations of sophistication that are attached to the word cosmopolitan.
Popular critics of both shows, through their ruminations on authenticity, reveal
that the anti-cosmopolitanism they embrace is much more closely related to the
former globally-minded definition of the term. Were it simply a case of rejecting
Toronto and the sophistication and wealth it represents, then perhaps Mercy's
residents and popular critics would be more welcoming of the Muslim claims to
the prairie.
The next chapter presents an interesting counterpoint to Little Mosque.
Little Mosque claims that that the limits of community are based on values rather
52
than origins; place of birth should be no obstacle to full participation in the social
spaces of Canadian community and the symbolic space of "Real Canada."
Russell Peters articulates a very different notion of community. Himself the son of
immigrant parents, Peters draws clear lines between insiders and outsiders to
the country through the use of impersonated voices. While at times he uses
these voices to critique the normative assumptions of race often made in
Canada, at other times he reinforces these same racist notions of community.
Unlike the Muslims on the Prairie who make their claims to Canada through
statements of affiliation to Canada, Peters makes alienating statements about
immigrants to Canada.
53
Chapter 3: The Many Voices of Russell Peters
In this chapter, I examine the importance of context to comedy through a
close examination of the work of Brampton-born Anglo-lndo-Canadian stand-up
comedian Russell Peters, who currently lives in Los Angeles. This chapter relies
heavily on the definition of comedic discourse that I arrived at in my introduction.
There are two central reasons for this reliance: The first is tied to the judicious
use of hyphens in the first sentence of this paragraph. Far from an expression of
political correctness—the above description would certainly solicit a wisecrack
about that from Peters—I hope to demonstrate that Peters belongs to multiple
communities and by extension is embedded in multiple, overlapping, and
sometimes competing cultural contexts. Furthermore, it is the tension amongst
these community memberships, these multiple contexts, which Peters relies on in
creating his act. Stand-up as a performance art offers a clear portrait of how
these discursive communities enter into the comic moment and the 'get' of the
joke. There are a number of important generic conventions to stand-up that
emphasize this relationship in ways not seen in sitcoms or animated comedy,
and primary amongst these is the immediacy of the audience. Together with his
audience, Peters walks a fine line between the foreign and the Canadian and, as
Peters becomes an international superstar, the North American. Through his
many voices, he often makes claims of belonging, but also simultaneously seeks
to exclude and mark certain identities as abject.
54
In my introduction, I distinguish comedy from other humourous modes in
that, to be comedic, the inferences and references embedded within a statement
must be both surprising and quickly recognizable to the audience. For a joke to
be effective, the audience must clearly understand both the context of the setup
and the surprising recontextualization that happens at an instant in order for the
comic to cause a humourous response. The importance of this moment, while
vital to all comedy, is particularly emphasized in stand-up.
Stand-up is markedly different from the other comedic forms discussed
here primarily because of the location of the audience in relation to the textual
material. Unlike the contemporary sitcom, without laugh track, there is immediacy
to the relationship between audience and performer that documents a joke's
efficacy at moment. In a stand-up performance either the audience laughs at a
joke or it does not. Especially when a particular performance is recorded and
then aired on television, or distributed via the internet or DVD, the audience's
reaction, their laughter or lack thereof, is recorded and in effect becomes a part
of the recorded performance itself. The audience is thus integral to the stand-up
performance in ways not evident in most art forms. To this end, Jerry Seinfeld
has noted, "Comedy is a dialogue, not a monologue" (quoted in Gilbert 55). John
Limon further elaborates that jokes do not happen in the absence of the audience
but only happen at the instant that the entire audience erupts in laughter (12).
While I disagree with Limon's suggestion that the audience is a single-minded
monolith, because the exceptional audience members who do not laugh at a joke
55
are surely as important for the study of comedy, his insight is extremely useful; a
joke, loaded as it is with unsaid evaluations, occurs at a moment of connection
between audience and performer.
Unlike the failed irony of the Royal Ontario Museum exhibit discussed in
the first chapter, fewer cues are needed to alert an audience to the fact that jokes
are happening in stand-up as the very nature of the genre provides an
abundance of cues that humourous meaning making is taking place. Audience
members, by the very nature of the situation, have been informed that they ought
to be looking for the unsaid meaning in a comedian's joke. While the comedian
almost certainly will employ different inflection or tone—playing with vocal tones
is certainly a key component of Peters' work—this is done in such an
exaggerated way as to be almost completely dissimilar from everyday speech,
further establishing the comedian within the generic tradition. Jason Rutter
argues that exaggerated inflection is often used in the opening to a stand-up
routine to establish an atmosphere for the appreciation of humour. Thus
audience members will clearly understand that they are being hailed to make
unsaid meaning.
To summarize, a joke offers a radical re-evaluation of a verbalized
utterance with an obvious discursive context by juxtaposition onto it of an unstated, but inferred, evaluation of the more obvious initial statement. In order for
these comparisons to work, a shared understanding of theme is important
between comedian and audience. This process is facilitated by the generic
56
conventions of stand-up that cue the audience to look for jokes. In the following
section, I will demonstrate that Russell Peters, through his ironic impersonated
voices, relies on these conventions to comment on the limits of community.
My multi-hyphenated introduction to Russell Peters in the opening
sentences of this chapter and my argument about the production of humour in
relation to discursive communities explain why I have selected Peters' work to
demonstrate my case. Peters is the most successful stand-up comic to ever
come out of Canada. Certainly other Canadian comic actors have enjoyed
immense international success; however, there are no Canadian comics, and few
from anywhere else for that matter, who can draw as many people out to see live
comedy. Peters has managed to sell out arenas in London and New York, and in
a feat usually reserved for top-flight musical acts such as Madonna or U2, sold
out the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on back-to-back nights in June 2007
(Mudhar "Peters an Equal Opportunity"; Red, White, and Brown DVD packaging
materials; Mudhar "Peters Rocks the Juno"). In addition, Peters has toured widely
throughout the English-speaking world (The 'Official' Russell Peters Website).
Peters also has a significant media presence. His website lists a number of radio
and television appearances including work as a host on a BBC talk show, a
series called Comics Without Borders that aired on the Showtime cable channel
in the United States, and the two most recent Canadian music awards shows, the
Junos.
57
Amongst Peters' media appearances, four are of particular interest to this
thesis. The first two are television specials that originally aired on two Canadian
networks. "Show Me the Funny" (1997) originally aired as part of the CBC series
Comics! and "Comedy Now featuring Russell Peters" (2003) as part of the long
running Comedy Now series on both CTV and the Comedy Network in Canada.
These two shows have been packaged and released together as the DVD Two
Concerts One Ticket, apparently with some controversy. While it is difficult to
discern what actually happened, there is a three-year-old note on Peters' website
admonishing fans not to buy the DVD because it is not an officially endorsed
product, and Peters has "only been paid according to the ACTRA [Alliance of
Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists; the union for Canadian actors]
scale, versus the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were made by the
producers on this product" {The 'Official' Russell Peters Website). Perhaps
because many jokes from "Show Me the Funny" also appear in Peters' later
work, the website instead suggests that fans purchase one of the two full length
concert DVDs that have also aired on Showtime in the United States,
Outsourced, from 2006, and 2008's Red, White, and Brown1. The latter also
recently aired on CTV in Canada. These four performances comprise the texts
studied in this chapter. Considered cumulatively, they demonstrate the multiple
discursive communities Peters negotiates through his act.
A brief note on how I format the titles of these specials. As the two
earlier performances were episodes of television series, I have not
italicized them. Outsourced and Red, White, and Brown are both standalone specials, and thus major works.
58
By way of introduction to the thematic content of Peters' act I will discuss a
joke that he performs in all four specials. In each, Peters asks if there are any
Chinese people in the audience and then, when someone in the audience
cheers, he cheers along with them saying, "Woo, Woo." The punch line to this set
up is always delivered slightly differently, but akin to, "I'm just saying, that could
be his last name." The joke, obviously cheesy and certainly not Peters' most
complex, illustrates his central interest across his work: the incongruity of the
immigrant experience with the English language. This dissonance is
demonstrable through a discussion of names alone. In two of the specials, Peters
asks an audience member if they are Chinese and when they respond
affirmatively, follows this up by asking for their Chinese names. Peters then
comes up with an English pun to demonstrate how ridiculous the name sounds in
English. For example, the name Tap Sum Bong lends itself to a host of marijuana
jokes in "Comedy Now featuring Russell Peters." Not restricting himself to making
fun of the Chinese, Peters elsewhere notes that Indians—a slippery term in his
work that describes both people from India and occasionally people whose recent
ancestors are from the country—also give their children names that do not work
well in English, recalling an encounter with a Punjabi man named Sukhdeep
(Red, White and Brown). While punning is one of the tools in Peters' repertoire,
he more often relies on stylized accents and impersonations in order to
demonstrate community belonging.
59
Given the lack of scholarship on Canadian comedy, it is a little surprising
that there is critical literature that exists on Peters' work, even if it is an as yet
unpublished chapter from a PhD dissertation. It is, however, unsurprising that the
focus of this manuscript is on the vocal inflections and racialized accents in
Peters' humour. Connecting Peters to other comedians who joke about similar
themes, if in different contexts, Sean Brayton argues that a subject position he
calls "the misembodied voice" is at play in the work of Peters, as well as of Dave
Chapelle and Margaret Cho (24). Noting that Franz Fanon argued that no matter
the quality of the indigenous man's French, French colonists would address him
in a mock pidgin, Brayton goes on to add that there is "an unmistakable tension
between seeing and hearing race" (23). Brayton argues that these performers are
each, in different ways, playing with their physical features and the ways in which
their appearances do not match the expectations some people might have about
how they ought to sound.
Brayton's insights about the incongruities of Peters' face and voice are
valuable since the subject of Peters' accent comes up regularly in his
performances. In Peters' first television special, "Show Me the Funny," the way
he speaks is the subject of one of the first jokes he tells. Peters suggests that the
accent that North Americans often ascribe to Indians is an act. He suggests that
Indians did not know about the accent until they arrived in North America and,
echoing Fanon, had white people come up to them and say "do-do do-do do."
Asking his audience to conjure images of Apu, the convenience store clerk from
60
The Simpsons, he puts on an over-the-top pseudo-Indian accent, and, in
mimicking a store clerk, misspeaks a number of words, all for the benefit of an
imagined white shopper. When the imaginary shopper leaves, the accent
disappears, and Peters, still pretending to be a shopkeeper, says to his friend in
North American English, "Do you believe that guy? He just paid 5.95 for a pack of
gum." Peters certainly seems to suggest that the white customer in this racialized
encounter has expectations about voice and race. Brayton argues that such
jokes bring to the fore the performative nature of ethnicity and that the
stereotyping Peters engages in is employed "against the white culture in which
they circulate" (35). I suggest, however, that a bit more nuance is important to a
discussion of Peters' racializing jokes, particularly with regards to the accents
Peters employs.
While an advanced degree in linguistics would likely be necessary to
determine the precise influences that go into Peters' accent in his regular
speaking voice, for my purposes here I will simply suggest that Peters, who
describes himself as brown (Comedy Now featuring Russell Peters), and by all
obvious appearances is of South Asian descent, speaks with a Bramptonian
accent. He does not sound remarkably different from anyone who grew up in the
Toronto suburbs. In fact, Peters does not speak Hindi ("Show me the funny"). As
for appearance, in most of the performances discussed here, Peters is wearing
jeans and a stylish collared shirt (the exception being "Show Me the Funny" in
which he wears a flashy black suit with an unbuttoned red collared shirt). In short,
61
other than the appearance of his skin colour, there is little to distinguish him as
South Asian or Indian. As Peters says, "I was born and raised in Canada; I'm not
Indian at all. The only thing that's Indian about me is my parents and my skin
tone" (Outsourced). The possibilities for misidentifications are not only skin-deep.
Because his parents are of Anglo-Indian ancestry, Russell Dominic Peters does
not even have an "ethnic" name, unlike the subjects of his jokes, Tap Sum Bong
and Sukhdeep. Peters says that other Indians are the most disbelieving when it
comes to his name ("Show me the funny"; Outsourced). In Outsourced, an
audience member audibly challenges Peters on the claim that Russell Dominic
Peters is his real Indian name. While I do not wish to diminish Peters' Indianness,
it is the elements of Peters' identity that he describes as "Canadian" that are
more significant in how he positions himself in relation to the accented voices in
his head.
Peters often sets up his bits as a dialogue, as demonstrated above in the
imagined interaction between the Indo-accented shopkeeper and white customer.
Notably, Peters qua Peters almost always plays the straight man to his
impersonated voices. In that role, he is not the bumbling Apu, but rather a sort of
audience surrogate. He observes wacky characters and then gives them voice in
a dialogue with his unaccented self. While difference is at times demonstrated
through facial expression, accents are certainly, as Brayton suggests, the focal
element that denotes cultural difference in Peters' act.
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Perhaps the most famous example of Peters joking through accents is the
"Somebody..." joke that closes "Comedy Now Featuring Russell Peters." The
story of this joke and YouTube has become a part of the legend that surrounds
Russell Peters. While Peters had certainly achieved a certain degree of success
leading up to the anonymous posting of his Comedy Now special on YouTube,
Peters credits the internet appearance with his growth from successful comic to
superstar (The National), since 20 million individual viewers have watched the
videos on the site (Russell Peters Official Website). There is also no way to track
the countless others who downloaded the performance through other file-sharing
means. The joke came to be Peters' signature joke that he would often perform at
the end of a set. Following his father's death, Peters claimed the last time he
would tell the joke was as the encore to Outsourced.
The joke, stated academically, explores the differing cultural norms that
exist among white North Americans and some other cultures with respect to
"beating your kids." In the set up to the joke, Peters quotes his father as
threatening him with a spanking by using the phrase "Somebody gonna get a hurt
real bad." Peters then goes through a story from his childhood about a white
friend, Ryan, who would swear at his mom and not get beaten, fascinating a
young Russell. Ryan tells Russell to threaten his parents with a call to Children's
Aid so as to not get hit (demonstrating the importance of shared context to
humour, the agency is called Child Services in the version told to an American
audience in Outsourced). The punch line to the joke turns out to be the same as
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the set up: When Russell threatens to call Children's Aid, his father says, again in
a heavy accent, "Go ahead. But I know that it will take them twenty-two minutes
to get here, and in the meantime, somebody gonna get a hurt real bad."
In telling the joke, Peters exaggerates both facial expression and voice to
demonstrate the differences between the characters he is playing in this
imagined skit. When he is impersonating his father, he contorts his face and
opens his eyes extremely wide, while affecting a strong Indian accent. Young
Russell is performed with a slightly higher and more naive tone to his voice.
Ryan, by way of contrast, has a nasal, whining tone, and various facial
contortions demonstrate his whiny nature, or seething rage at his mother. Ryan's
mom is impersonated with a high-pitched, lost-sounding tone. When narrating,
Peters does not perform any accent and does not exaggerate his facial
expressions in relating the story. In other words, Peters acts as a sort of cultural
tour guide, demonstrating the difference between his father's old world
sensibilities and the coddling of rotten white children in a bureaucratized Canada.
Adopting various accents as clues, Peters provides a non-verbal evaluation of
Canadian parenting, thus demonstrating that Peters does at times use his
accents "against white culture" as Brayton argues.
While there are many other examples of Peters using his vocal stylings to
'talk back' to dominant North American society (his discussion of the Canadian
accent sounding like a donkey in "Comedy Now Featuring Russell Peters"
stands-out), reading Peters as a post-colonial voice of the oppressed is
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inadequate: Peters does more in his act than adopt a misembodied voice,
offering a nuanced commentary on belonging and community. Pierre Bourdieu
reminds us that language is not simply a communicative tool, but can also
demonstrate our relative status within a society, and the access we have to
economic and cultural capital. As he writes, "The value of the utterance depends
on the relation of power that is concretely established between the speakers'
linguistic competences" (Language and Symbolic Power 67). Similarly for Peters,
the accent, or lack thereof, denotes status and the relative position of the
newcomer within North American society. This denotation is best demonstrated
through who is characterized with the Indian accent in Peters' act. Accent marks
cultural otherness that is foreign to the Brampton-born Peters.
In Peters' act, he often distinguishes between those born in Canada and
immigrants. In "Show Me the Funny," Peters discusses his father's misuse of
hand gestures when he confuses the thumbs-up and the middle finger. What's
more, his uncle, who like Peters' father is a representative of first generation
immigrants, cannot pronounce certain English words such as the name of his
new car, an old-SMO-be-lay (Oldsmobile). At another point in the show, Peters
suggests that even Indians with the most North American of accents will still
sound "like they just got off a boat" when they start saying South Asian place
names. In Red, White, and Brown. Peters jokes that when he was performing in
India for the first time he worried because the punch line to many of his jokes is
the Indian accent. However, he found that they laughed even harder when he did
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the accent than a North American audience would. He speculates that the reason
for this laughter is that "they don't think that they have that accent." While in
"Show Me the Funny" the convenience store clerk's Indian accent was put-on to
humour a white customer, eleven years later Peters describes the same accent
not as fake, but as native to India. These examples demonstrate that the accent
is not something that one would want to have, since this acoustic foreignness is
the butt of jokes. Furthermore, he does not only impersonate other Indians, but
people from around the world, giving them too a racialized voice in relation to the
cultural context of Canada and North America.
While Peters certainly makes jokes using other accents that could be
described as direct challenges to white culture, there are many examples where
Peters seems to suggest that what is funny about his accented characters is their
failure to respond appropriately to commonplace North American situations; they
fail to recognize the rules of a particular discursive context. For example, Peters
jokes that upon seeing a microphone and a stage, the reaction of Filipino
audience members will be "I hope der will pe karaoke apter de show"
{Outsourced: My transcription). Elsewhere, Peters jokes about a Chinese
salesman at Pacific Mall in Toronto who challenged him to "be a man" when
Peters seemed disinterested in his wares (Comedy Now featuring Russell
Peters). These jokes demonstrate not a challenge to white society but
misidentifications of context made by people whom Peters imagines as outsiders
to the North American community. The unsaid evaluative statement is about
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belonging and, clearly, the impersonated subjects of the joke do not belong. This
apparent racism raises the question: How does Peters get away with telling the
jokes that he does?
As discussed earlier, the introduction to the comedy act serves as a cue
for what to expect in the routine and establishes an atmosphere for comedic
discourse. In the case of Peters' act, part of this process involves desensitizing
the audience to humour that might be seen as racist. There is a common theme
to the way that Peters opens each of the shows discussed here. Within the first
few sentences of the show, Peters makes some sort of comment on what the
audience looks like. For example, in "Comedy Now Featuring Russell Peters" he
jokes that the audience looks "like a Benetton ad," and he begins Outsourced
with the comment that he knew many Asians would be in attendance because he
saw all the Honda Civics in the parking lot. In other words, before telling his
racially charged jokes, Peters establishes that the audience, his interlocutor in
the comedy performance, is multicultural. This introduction gives audience
members license to laugh along with the racialized targets of the jokes. This
sense of permissiveness is further emphasized by the shots of the audience in
these specials.
Televised stand-up offers some unique possibilities in the way it
represents its audience. The recording documents how the performer and
audience interacted on a particular night, through the recording of the sounds of
the performance. While the two Peters specials that originally aired on Canadian
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TV are filmed with the cameras situated behind the audience, many stand-up
telecasts include shots of audience members laughing after the punch-line of a
joke. This technique is employed with deliberate effect in the two Peters' specials
filmed in the United States. First off, the camera will often pan across the
obviously diverse audience as if to establish the multiculturalism of the audience
that Peters verbalizes in his opening remarks. Secondly, after a particularly edgy
joke about a certain ethnic group is told, the scene will often cut to a close-up
shot of a particular audience member, laughing hysterically, who appears to be of
the same ethnic background as the joke's subject. The audience at home is given
a visual cue that it is okay to laugh by the very fact of the Indian, Chinese, or
Filipino person laughing along with them. As one reviewer of Peters' live show
described the audience reaction, "the amazing thing is that it was as if each race
in his extremely diverse audience was waiting for their turn to get skewered in
Peters' lighthearted manner" (Mudhar "Peters an equal opportunity offender").
Given what I have demonstrated about the dialogic nature of stand-up, it seems
appropriate that the audience acts as collaborator in Peters' ethnically-charged
humour. It also begs the question as to why Peters would be so popular with
'diverse' audiences.
To begin answering this question, I turn to John Limon's Stand-up
Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America. Limon suggests that when
questions of identity and comedy intersect, and Limon argues they almost always
do, identity markers are rendered abject. For Limon, it is no coincidence that
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comics often deal with faeces and phalluses in the same act as race and religion.
The common thread, he argues, is that both subject areas are reminders of a
physical reality that is a barrier to the attainment of full subjecthood in American
life, which he defines as the transcendence of body into a realm of pure thought.
There are certain aspects of racialized identities that are inexorable. Thus,
according to Limon, the audience and performer, tied as they are through their
dialogic relationship, together revel in the foregrounding of abject inalienable
markers of identity.
Peters' performance of accents to some extent reflects this process,
though there is a key difference. One's voice might certainly be considered with
something such as skin colour to be wholly inalienable. How else could one
speak except with one's own voice? This tension between racialized voice and
sense of self is an underlying theme in Peters' many vocal jokes. I demonstrate
above that these particular jokes often rely on an incongruity between the words
said, the situation, and the impersonated voice of Peters' characters. The
characters attempt to demonstrate their mastery of the English language, but are
hindered by their accents, which hold them back from expressing their thoughts,
and thus prevent them from taking on full subjecthood, as Limon suggests.
Peters, though, has a North American accent in his normal speaking voice, not
an unalienable abject foreign voice. He thus demonstrates that voice, the aspect
of identity that his jokes' suggest mark difference, is not fixed.
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Thus, to some extent there is a hopefulness that is embedded within
Peters' performances. While he perhaps reduces others to stereotypes, in his
personal transcendence of those same stereotypes, he undermines their
existence. This is not to say that Peters' act is always revolutionary, since there
are many moments that at best are racializing and at worst downright racist. But
in his act, in which he and his audience allow to be the insider in North American
culture, racism is, for a moment, transcended. As Grace-Edward Galabuzzi
(2006) has demonstrated, in contemporary Canada, race and skin colour
continue to be determining factors in economic success and other key measures
of social integration. Peters and his audience share the knowledge that theirs is a
marginal position oftentimes.
This chapter has argued that the firmament that humour is built on is
context. Based on the work of Linda Hutcheon, I have argued that jokes rely on
the jolting juxtaposition of one speech form onto another. In this juxtaposition,
there is an unsaid evaluation that takes place, facilitated by joke teller and
audience sharing a cultural context. This process is further enabled by the
generic conventions of stand-up that rely on a pact between the audience and
comedian. There is an implicit understanding that the comic will be making
unsaid judgments and that the audience will be attempting to recognize them. I
then demonstrated that in the work of Russell Peters, many of the jokes rely on
unsaid judgments about belonging in North American society.
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The processes of differentiation in Peters' comedy most often work
through the performance of accents. I have demonstrated that in Peters' jokes,
one of the dominant themes is the ineffability of English through a foreign accent.
While Peters speaks as a Canadian, many of the characters he gives voice to
serve as reminders of the limits of the North American community. The unsaid
evaluation that Peters makes with many of his jokes is that immigrants get it
wrong and therefore do not fit in. Such an evaluation is shocking in that, in many
contexts, it would come across as inexcusably racist. However, Peters is able to
make such jokes because of his own position as the child of immigrants and
because of the stand-up context that he performs them in. He does not speak
with an accent marked by its foreignness, so he demonstrates that the accent is
not, similar to other identity markers that Limon considers abject, inalienable.
Since Peters often performs to an audience that, like him, differs from white North
Americans, his performances thus become an opportunity for everyone involved,
because humour is the synthesis of audience and performer, to momentarily
assert their status as unaccented insiders in North America vis a vis Peters'
accented characters. This process indicates that Peters is, in effect,
demonstrating the linguistic limits of community. This complicates Brayton's
reading of Peters' act as transgressing the racist vocal expectations of white
North America.
Peters approaches the question of Canadian comedy quite differently from
Little Mosque, as discussed in the last chapter. In some respects the claims that
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Peters makes about belonging are claims of affiliation, as he says of his
Indianness above, "I was born and raised in Canada, I'm not Indian at all. The
only thing that's Indian about me is my parents and my skin tone" (Outsourced).
Here his claims to Canadianness are based on birthright and acculturation. Little
Mosque similarly made its claims to Canadianness through statements of
affiliation, demonstrating that Mercy's Muslims have the same right to the
ideological space of the prairie as any other citizen. Differing from Peters though,
Little Mosque does not seem concerned with the ways people with varying
religions, or countries of origin make these claims. Furthermore, Peters' claims to
Canadianness are less often expressed through statements of affiliation, than
through statements of alienation. Through his voices he makes abject and alien
those who are not acculturated and who have failed to master Canadian speech.
Peters also negotiates Canadianness in the ways his act stays almost
exactly the same in front of American audiences. While there are some mentions
of minor differences between the two countries, the jokes seem more aimed at a
general migrant experience in North America than a reflection of Canada's
multicultural diversity. Thus, in some respects, it seems that Canada might not
matter in the comedy of Russell Peters. His act is based on the alienation of
difference from western society and less interested in the Canadian. This
alienation is a theme we will see dealt with more elaborately in the next chapter
on South Park.
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Chapter 4: South Park and Real Canadians
"They're not even a real country anyway"
- Unidentified member of the chorus in the song, "Blame Canada" from South
Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut
At the 2000 Academy Awards, "Blame Canada" was nominated for Best
Original Song, giving South Park its brightest moment in the cultural spotlight,
and Canada one of its most noted Oscar moments. Though a Phil Collin's song
was the eventual winner, Robin Williams' performance of "Blame Canada" was
the highlight of the show, according to a New York Times review (James E9).
The performance was well received in the United States, but in Canada the
response was even more enthusiastic. Indeed, nearly ten years after Williams'
performance the song's title has become a cliched phrase used by Canadian
journalists writing about perceived negative treatment of Canada in the American
media. For example, Darrell Bricker wrote recently that "a new version of Blame
Canada is hitting the U.S. airwaves this summer" in relation to the United States'
debates about healthcare (A6; see also Scilley 4). Far from a one-off joke about
Canada, the song represents the most well known instance of South Park's longstanding engagement with this country as topical and topographic material for
jokes. Over the show's first 13 seasons, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who
created the show and continue write and direct almost every episode (Parker
directs most episodes and receives a few more writing credits in the episodes
73
discussed in this essay), have focused on Canada or Canadians in five different
episodes in addition to the feature film South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut
(SP:BLU). By way of comparison, visits to other countries have been decidedly
rare in South Park. As I shall demonstrate below, there are also some unique
thematic and stylistic aspects to the Canada episodes. However, the Canada that
appears in South Park often seems as though it has less to do with the real place
and the real people that live there than with the show's stance on difference.
Canada, as represented in South Park, is "not even a real country" (my
emphasis), but difference for the sake of difference embodied in blocky
construction paper figures with floppy heads and beady eyes. This visual
representation of Canadians in the show invites analysis. Primarily, I am
interested in how Parker and Stone employ an idea of Canadians to create verbal
and visual jokes. Canada and Canadians in South Park illustrate the show's take
on difference in relation to comedy. Identities in South Park are represented with
grotesque exaggeration, and, as my analysis will show, this representation is
most obvious in the episodes featuring Canadians. This exaggeration is so
obtuse that real Canada is irrelevant to the program. I will conclude this chapter
with a brief discussion of how this grotesque imagined Canadianness relates to
Canadian audiences and to the study of Canadian comedy.
For those unfamiliar with the show, South Park follows the adventures of
four young friends (approximately 8-10 years old) named Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and
Eric Cartman, the latter almost always addressed by his surname. They live in
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the mostly fictional town of South Park, Colorado, named after a Rocky
Mountains drainage basin near Denver, near the hometowns of Parker and
Stone. At the time of its television debut, South Park was the beneficiary of
exhaustive media coverage that called attention to the thematic and linguistic
naughtiness the show has become notorious for, virtually guaranteeing it a strong
initial audience of people curious to hear foul-language on television. Television
critics often responded to the show positively, with the Vancouver Sun's reviewer
calling the experience of watching the show the first time "serendipitous" and a
Los Angeles Daily News reviewer claiming that the show is "far more clever than
it would seem at first take" (Strachan C5; Anonymous L5). Nonetheless, the
extreme language and surreal plot-lines of the show's early episodes, such as
the premiere, tellingly titled "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe," piqued the
sensibilities of many reviewers. As Larry Bonko wrote in the Virginian Pilot, "If
only South Park were as clever as it is crude" ("South Parkls Tasteless Trash"
E1). To the seeming delight of Parker and Stone, who make reference to such
incidents in SP:BLU, the minor scandal set into motion by commentators such as
Bonko led to incidents of schools banning the show's then ubiquitous
merchandise (Harris D5). I wish to carry forward this key point because many of
the episodes featuring Canada react to this point: initially, popular commentators
all remarked on abundance of foul language in the show, whether they found the
show clever or not.
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While the scholarly response has been more gradual than the burst of
attention the show received from mainstream press, the body of academic work
dealing with South Park continues to grow. Like other cultural products often
noted for their cleverness, such as Seinfeld, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Star
Trek, South Park has been the subject of two different volumes called South Park
and Philosophy, which argue that there are a number of themes in South Park
that can be tied to Philosophy's canon (Arp; Hanley). As Pierre Bourdieu argues
in Distinction, taste is often produced relationally. Rather than tastes necessarily
reflecting the quality of cultural products, affiliation with these products is
employed to demonstrate superiority of one social group over another. I posit that
these collections of essays fill a market niche by giving certain fans of the show a
venue to assert that South Park is a cultural product that dovetails with the great
works of Philosophy, providing a means of distinguishing it from other cartoons
beyond its generous reliance on foul language. In her study of how two families
integrated The Simpsons into their home life, Diane F. Alters found that some
audiences place considerable stock in identifying literary elements in texts such
as South Park or The Simpsons in order to differentiate themselves from the
show's low-brow characters; literary elements make a show satirical as opposed
to crude (178-179).
In addition to some of the texts more obviously aimed at South Park's fan
base, some other scholarly work suggests ways in which the aesthetics of South
Park ought to be interpreted. The only monograph on the subject is Tori Johnson-
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Woods' Blame Canada: South Park and Popular Culture. Johnson-Woods' take
on the show is that Trey Parker, who has received the majority of the show's
writing credits since the second season, is attempting to recreate the Rabelaisian
carnivalesque in South Park. Certainly, there is some merit to the claim; a show
that dedicates an entire episode to a world-record-setting-sized piece of
excrement can only encourage such comparisons. This said, Johnson-Woods'
argument is based on an interpretation of Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and his
World that suffers for its literal-minded approach. Where Bakhtin points out
particular images that recur in Rabelais' work, Johnson-Woods seems to have
gone through the library of South Park episodes to find instances where the
material-body lower stratum, Bakhtin's euphemistic term for things related to
bodily functions, is similarly represented, with a contemporary twist. For example,
Johnson-Woods, following Bakhtin's discussion of banquet imagery in Rabelais,
dedicates an entire chapter to how food is represented in South Park and argues
that this representation is tied to notions of gluttony and capitalistic excess in the
United States (136-150). While she is quite right to point out that there are
occasional examples of food being consumed in extremes in South Park, these
examples do not constitute a regular theme for the show. Also missing from her
analysis are links from such examples to a broader social order.
As I discuss in the introduction, Bakhtin was adamant that the Rabelaisian
carnivalesque and the transgressions that he describes were specific to a
particular time and place, noting that in the romantic period the grotesque came
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to be more common in satire, temporally removed from its medieval carnival
roots (Rabelais and his World 26-46). When Bakhtin speaks about banquet
imagery, he argues that its portrayal in Rabelais is fundamentally tied to the
medieval social order in which Rabelais lived and wrote (ibid 278 - 302).
Bakhtin's argument about the banquet and excesses of eating is directly tied to
the ecclesiastic cosmology of medieval Europe, where God and the heavens
exist above, with hell and the devil below. He further asserts that Rabelaisian
carnival can only be understood within this cosmology. Medieval carnival
celebrated a lowering of people from high in the ecclesiastic social order, such as
clergy and kings, by representing them in the grotesque (19). Gluttony in
medieval carnivalesque thus represented pre-Lenten diabolical excess, as well
as a physical descent of the food from the mouth downwards, into excrement,
and towards hell. Context is fundamental to banquet imagery and to the way that
the body is represented in Rabelais. In other words, while South Park may, like
Rabelais, indulge in grotesque images of the body, banquet imagery, and
discussions of excrement, because they take place in an entirely different artistic
culture, with different power structures and different influences, it is not simply the
same shit in a different pile. Thus, Johnson-Woods' discussion of grotesque
displays of eating in South Park is more akin to the post-renaissance satire that
Bakhtin discusses than it is to Rabelaisian carnivalesque.
Bakhtin's portrait of a society with a hermetic discursive scheme,
controlled by the church, is the most important point in distinguishing between
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medieval France and contemporary culture. Today, communications technologies
create a space where multiple discourses compete to shape complex social
orders where no institution can hold the same symbolic power the Church once
did. Nonetheless, following the scholarship of Foucault and others, discourse
remains an important site of power in contemporary North American culture.
Thus, a reading of South Park that wishes to take into consideration Rabelaisian
imagery would have to consider contemporary discourses as the organizing
structure on which this imagery is hung, rather than the work of Rabelais or
Bakhtin. If the grotesque realism in Rabelais was reactive to the discursive
regime of the medieval Catholic Church, then the grotesque realism in South
Park must be read as a reaction to contemporary discourses. The literature on
South Park also supports this notion. Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx write that
there is a significant difference between
'discursively integrated media1 [and] the merely intertextual. South
Park not only asks the viewer to make connections to other media,
but it also asks its audience to critically engage with the modes of
discussion in which these secondary texts are participating (6).
While South Park often relies on intertextual reference in the service of its
humour, it does so in such a way as to also comment upon the discursive
contexts in which the show operates. South Park does not merely talk about
particular topics in isolation but how these topics can be spoken of. The
grotesque images in the show must be read with discursive integration in mind.
For example, celebrity culture (and the way that particular celebrities are
understood within that culture) is a frequent target for the show's jokes. In the
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episode "Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset," Paris Hilton becomes an ironic
role model for South Park's young girls by entering a biggest slut contest in which
she performs any number of bizarre sexual acts, enveloping ever-larger objects
with her vagina. "Douche and Turd" comments on two distinct political discourses
in animal rights activism and the American political process. PETA members,
who protest South Park Elementary's 'Cow' mascot, are shown to love animals in
the most literal sense by performing bestial acts. Meanwhile, the school's
students are forced to vote on one of two replacements, a douche and a turd,
commenting on the way that young Americans are encouraged to participate in
their electoral system through initiatives such as Rock the Vote. Unquestionably
crude and graphic, the way that these grotesque themes are employed in South
Park is specifically related to a particular discourse. In the case of both Paris
Hilton's vagina and the election race between Douche and Turd, the images are
uniquely appropriate to the discourses on which they comment. For example, in
the bipartisan American electoral system, many complain that the two choices
available for president are both terrible; hence the douche and the turd are
appropriate metaphors. In each case there is a logical extension of the discourse
surrounding these subjects behind the perverted extremes that are represented
in the images.
Joining celebrity culture and politics among the regular themes for South
Park are discussions of identity. As with the themes discussed above, Parker and
Stone have never been shy about including portrayals of identity that in many
80
circles might be considered beyond the realm of good taste. However, there are
some important differences in the way that identity is represented in the show.
While celebrities or politicians are often reduced to, or covered in, bodily
excretions and/or bodily functions, national and racialized identities are subjected
to grotesque treatment in ways that are not easily recognizable as Rabelaisian.
Wherein the examples above the material-body lower-stratum is exaggerated,
when South Park deals with racialized and national identities, Parker and Stone
still embellish, but do not deal with faeces or genitalia. Instead, these materialbodies are represented through grotesque exaggerations of what separates them
from an imagined normative American identity; aspects of identity that vary from
this norm are hyperbolized.
Like the grotesque in episodes dealing with politics or celebrity,
exaggerated representations of racialized and national identity in South Park are
strangely appropriate because they pick up themes from the popular discourses
that mark these identities as different. For example, when singer Jennifer Lopez
is satirized in "Fat Butt and Pancake Head," Cartman's hand, with help from a
marker and a little wig (an homage to Spanish ventriloquist and Ed Sullivan
regular Senor Wences), becomes a distorted version of the real singer. The hand
is distinguished from the real Jennifer Lopez by a grotesque reduction and then
exaggeration of Latinaness. The hand pronounces its name with a silent J (e.g.
Hennifer), sings love songs in which the main similes and metaphors all involve
tacos and burritos, and claims to be Mexican (the real Lopez is Puerto Rican).
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The particularities of Jennifer Lopez's actual experiences are reduced to a sort of
lumpen-Latina identity. The show is commenting on the way that Latin culture,
and Jennifer Lopez as the ironic prime example of this culture, is presented as
something for consumption in the United States where many people and media
outlets often fail the to comprehend the nuance of the country's Spanishspeaking community, reducing these identities to such monikers as 'Mexican' or
'illegal-immigrants'.
African-American identities receive a similar treatment in South Park. The
only black character in the show's early seasons is voiced by soul singer Isaac
Hayes (writer and performer of the theme song to the original Shaft). His overthe-top baritone and propensity to break into songs about sleeping with white
women are an obvious caricature of a blackness deeply steeped in the aesthetic
themes of 70s blaxploitation films. The show's only black youngster has his role
described by his name, Token Black. This is a grotesque literalization of the way
many popular television shows deal with the question of African-American
identity by including one token black character (such as Lisa in Saved by the
Bell). Finally, most Asian characters, and in particular Chinese restaurant
operator Tuong Lu Kim, are drawn with tiny eyes, in direct contrast to the doeeyes almost all the other characters have. This exaggeration demonstrates that
the show's animators often emphasize difference visually, enhancing the effects
of the thematic and verbal jokes above.
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Within South Park, many of these racist representations are set off against
themselves in other contexts. For example, in "The China Problem," resident
xenophobe Cartman decides, after seeing the opening ceremonies from the
Beijing Olympics, that Chinese people are going to take over America. In order to
discover the invasion plans he infiltrates a Chinese food chain restaurant called
PF Chang's, dressed in a Fu Manchu outfit, attempting to pass as Chinese. The
only Chinese-American family he finds eating at the restaurant speaks English
with no discernable Mandarin or Cantonese accent and their eyes are drawn
similarly to, if slightly smaller than, those of non-Asian characters in the show.
The Chineseness that is threatening in this episode is not based on the actual
Chinese people that Cartman finds in the restaurant. In fact, the ChineseAmericans depicted in the episode are as boring as everyone else. Rather, an
imagined, fetishized, and antiquated Hollywood vision of Chinese frightens
Cartman. I suggest that this whole episode is a comment on the immense media
attention focused on China's emergent economic power and the undercurrent of
anxiety that runs through this coverage based on a perceived threat to the global
economic hegemony of the United States. For example, articles in both the New
York Times and the Globe and Mail suggest recent discussions over monetary
policy are characterized by "tensions" and "long-simmering anger" (Wines; Milner
A1). Thus, South Park uses the racist image of Cartman in the Fu Manchu to
posit that the China that threatens to usurp this hegemony is a fictitious boogey
man, rather than composed of the real people Cartman meets at the restaurant.
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Like with Jennifer Lopez's Latinaness, South Park here undercuts the
grotesquely exaggerated stereotypical image it puts forward. All the same,
Sienkiewicz and Marx are quite right to point out that textual analyses such as
the one above cannot always demonstrate ways that South Park undercuts the
racism that its stereotypes propose (16).
For example, I mention the owner of South Park's City Wok (not to be
confused with PF Chang's), Tuong Lu Kim, and the way his features are depicted
in the show. Kim is also characterized by his outrageous and stereotypically
generic 'Asian' accent (Parker uses the same voice for the puppet version of Kim
Jong-ll in the film Team America: World Police), characterized by outrageous
intonation and the switching of letters L and R. Most notably, Kim pronounces the
letter C in city as SH, unfortunate for someone who owns a restaurant called City
Wok. Compounding the silliness of this joke, many of the dishes he sells in his
restaurant have names such as 'City Beef and 'City Pork.' Unlike Cartman as Fu
Manchu above, this racist representation is not undercut by the text. Exaggerated
difference here is an object held up as a joke, rather than the subject a joke
critiques. In short, Parker and Stone anticipate their audience finding difference
funny. This is not to say that they think that difference is bad. For example, in one
episode Kim is trusted with building a city wall to keep the town's children safe
from kidnappers. Nonetheless, in South Park, sometimes people who are
different are funny because they are different. Differences are exaggerated not
just as critique but also as objects for jokes. Thus, there are two different ways
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that South Park exaggerates a racialized grotesque. First, stereotypes at times
undermine racializing discourses that the stereotypes are drawn from. Second,
stereotypes are the objects of jokes, the unsaid evaluations of which are that
people who are different are funny. As I shall demonstrate below, the depiction of
Canada in South Park oscillates between these two frames.
My argument about the representation of Canadians in South Park is
based on the episodes which are set in Canada or which feature the fictional
famous Canadians Terrance and Philip, as well as SPBLU, though I will point to
ways in which the "Canada" episodes are unique compared with the rest of the
nearly two hundred South Park episodes that have aired since 1997. The
Canada episodes include:
•
"Terrance and Philip in Not Without My Anus" (Original air date:
April 1st 1998),
•
"Terrance and Philip: Behind the Blow" (Original air date: July 18,
2001),
•
"It's Christmas in Canada" (Original air date: December 17, 2003),
•
"Canada on Strike" (Original air date: April 2, 2008), and
•
"Eat, Pray, Queef" (Original air date: April 1 st 2009).
These episodes are particularly demonstrative of the way that South Park
conceives of difference in humour. The first appearance of Canadians in South
Park occurred on April 1st, 1998 in the premiere of the second season of the
show. The first season had ended with the promise that the identity of Cartman's
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father would be revealed in the second season premiere. In an April fools joke,
this episode was not shown, and instead the episode "Terrance and Philip: Not
Without My Anus? aired. This episode introduced Canada and the two most
important Canadians in the South Park universe, Terrance and Philip, who 'star'
in all of the 'Canada' episodes (except "Christmas in Canada") and play a
significant role in SPBLU.
For Parker and Stone, Terrance and Philip generally serve two related
purposes. First, they establish the iconic Canadians and the cultural products
they star in as mise en abyme, a mirrored fictional reflection of South Park within
the show. Particularly in the show's early years, Terrance and Philip were the
main venue through which Parker and Stone responded to some of the media
criticisms that were made about them and their show. Secondly, the characters
are a comment on the relationship between comedy and difference. Canadians
are represented as grotesquely different despite Parker and Stone seeing very
little difference between the two countries. As with representations of racialized
groups in the show, this representation sometimes comments on the way
difference is employed to articulate the limits of the American community and at
others, to make the point that difference is funny. These themes are initially
highlighted by the show's visual representation of Canada and Canadians.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of how Canada and Canadians are
represented in South Park has to do with visual style. The original character
models for South Park were cut out of construction paper, giving all the
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characters a blocky look: the show about fourth graders looked like fourth
graders made it. Even though the production soon switched to computergenerated animation, it has maintained this flat two-dimensional look, though the
colours have grown more vibrant in recent seasons and there are occasional
examples of a drawn three-dimensional perspective. In the episodes featuring
Canadians and Canada, this flat visual scheme is exaggerated even further. Most
residents of South Park have some contours to their faces and bodies.
Canadians, though, are conglomerations of primary shapes such as rectangles
and squares. Canadian heads are simple ovals cut in two where their mouths
ought to be. When they talk, rather than their mouths moving like other
characters in the show, the tops of Canadians' heads flap. Canadian eyes are
represented by black dots. Finally, the colour palate in the episodes featuring
Canada is often significantly reduced, favouring (and this is perhaps a joke) bland
earth tones. This juxtaposition of what Carman calls "crappy" (SP:BLU) animation
on top of crappy animation establishes a clear difference between Canadians
and the normal Americans of South Park, while at the same time drawing a
connection between South Park and the texts-within-texts that Terrance and
Philip star in within the show.
The content of the texts-within-texts that Terrance and Philip star in further
demonstrate that Terrance and Philip are a venue for South Park to discuss itself.
Recalling the number of times that crudity was mentioned in the reviews of the
show discussed in this chapter's opening paragraphs, it seems that Parker and
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Stone took many of these comments to heart. The punchline to every single joke
that Terrance and Philip tell, no matter how convoluted the set-up, is a fart, which
invariably causes the pair to break out in uproarious laughter. In Terrance and
Philip, Parker and Stone make literal and then exaggerate grotesquely the
criticisms of their show that claim it is exclusively a series of juvenile fart jokes
through this imagined text.
This self-discussion is clearest in the feature film. The movie opens with
the four young protagonists of South Park, singing a song echoing the opening
scene of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, heading off to see the new Terrance
and Philip movie, Asses of Fire, which like SPiBLU, is a musical. Because the
Motion Picture Association of America has rated the film 'R' (again mirroring the
real life counterpart, though, in Canada, anyone over the age of 14 was able to
see the film), the boys are briefly hindered in their efforts to enter the cinema until
they bribe a homeless man to buy the tickets for them. In the theatre, the boys
learn any number of blue phrases, such as "Uncle Fucker," the chorus of Asses
on Fire's big show tune. A number of shots show the boys repeating phrases that
they hear on the screen, which they in turn take with them to school and teach to
all of their little friends. The ensuing controversy leads to Kyle's mother having
Terrance and Philip arrested as well as a war starting between Canada and the
United States. Eventually, the parents of South Park learn that the carnage,
blood, and violence of war are far worse for their kids than the foul language of
Terrance and Philip. As the closing song, a reprise of the opening theme, lets
88
viewers know, "Americans and Canadians are friends again," and the bucolic
mountain town has returned to normal. Parker and Stone, through their film's
ruminations on the effects of swearing on kids, comment through Terence and
Philip on how they expect their film to be received, in part based on some of the
reactions they received to their own show.
By making the text-within-a-text fictitiously Canadian, Parker and Stone
are commenting on the ways in which those who reacted negatively to their work
attempt to make alien the show and its content. For example, Globe and Mail
television critic John Allemang questioned whether or not the show should be
banned in Canada because it violated community standards (C2). Similarly,
noting that the duo is from Colorado, Bonko argues that the blasphemy in the
show makes it inappropriate for Virginia youth ("South Park\s Tasteless Trash"
E1; "South Park Creator is Unapologetic" E1). These examples illustrate that
those who reacted negatively to the show often sought to demonstrate that the
program violated the values of a community. Once again, recalling Isin's
strategies of community affiliation discussed in the introduction, these critics are
making the same sorts of claims about the limits of community that Russell
Peters makes through his act. By making the claim that the racy topics depicted
in South Park are foreign to their communities, they are employing a strategy of
alienation by claiming that show belongs elsewhere. Through Terrance and
Philip, Parker and Stone articulate a response to this sentiment wherein they
make themselves and their show foreign. Parker and Stone are claiming that it is
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easier for critics to blame someone else, in this case Canada, than to engage the
show's cultural criticisms, including those of religion, at face value. This claim is
demonstrated most forcefully in SP:BLU where Kyle's mom founds the group
Mother's Against Canada, who blame all Canadians for the moral corruption of
South Park's youth. She shrieks to a gathered mob, "We must rid ourselves of
everything Canadian." Choosing 'Canadian' as the identity marker through which
to make these claims is all the more telling because of how similar Canada and
the US are. When discussing the visual representation of Canadians in the show,
Parker states that he and Stone "liked the irony of making the Canadians look
and talk different when obviously there's so little real difference between us and
them" (Portman E4). While above this "little real difference" was employed to
critique discourses that seek to alienate through difference, it also often
articulates that for South Park, difference itself is kind of funny.
In her discussion of Rick Mercer's CBC special Talking to Americans, Jody
Berland (29-38) writes about the invisible Canadian. She argues that the
communications apparata of North America are based on a one-way flow where
Canadians are inundated with minutiae of US history and culture, while the
opposite is not true. As she writes, "invisibility is a concise term for describing a
situation where Americans see igloos, Mounties, cold fronts or wilderness but
certainly not Canadians" (36). I suggest South Parks jokes about Canada plays
off of this invisibility. Berland states "Americans visiting the country like to say
that Canada is "just like home," congratulating their hosts for their apparent
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sameness based on a day of ethnographic experience of hotels and airports"
(32). Parker and Stone, rather than commenting on the sameness of the two
countries, take the differences that such a traveler might encounter to formulate
jokes about Canada based on these exaggerated and decidedly minor
differences.
This strategy is demonstrated in any number of examples. When the
setting shifts to Canada, almost every object has a maple leaf emblazoned on it
somewhere. For an American visiting Canada this would be one of the most
arresting signs of foreignness, an important signal that the traveler is no longer at
home. In South Park, Canadians speak with an accent that seems to be
something between British and Canadian, and, of course, pronounce about as 'aboot.' In "Terrance and Philip in Not Without My Anus," Terrance and Philip make
numerous references to how they enjoy eating Kroff (sic) Dinner, a reference to a
cultural phenomenon that would seem quite foreign to Americans, who would
know the product as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. There are repeated jokes about
the size of Canada. For example, in "Christmas in Canada" the boys are told that
to get to Ottawa and meet the Prime Minister, they have to follow the Canada
Road, the only road in Canada. The joking suggestion that Canada is behind the
times also makes covert reference to the Trans-Canada highway, which when
compared with the interstate system, might make it seem as though there is only
one road in Canada. Indeed the entire "Christmas in Canada" episode is a send
up of the plot line of The Wizard of Oz, again demonstrating the strangeness of
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Canada. This "American" experience of Canada shapes the jokes about
Canadians in South Park.
As I have defined it in this thesis, comedy, the process making amusing
unsaid jolting evaluations, is a communicative process that looks to differentiate.
Thus, when South Park talks about Canada, its evaluations of exaggerated
difference are based on comparison with another discursive community, in this
case an assumed normative Americanness. In many respects the treatment of
Canadians is not different than the way South Park jokes about Hispanics,
Blacks, or Asians, except that Parker and Stone see little real difference between
Canadians and Americans, thus providing an opportunity to comment on how
they conceive of difference more generally. When portraying themselves as
Canadian, Parker and Stone suggest that it is not good to exaggerate differences
in order to ostracize a particular group. However, when they write jokes that
exaggerate the difference between people from the United States and Canadians
that make fun of subjects as trivia' as Kraft Dinner, the point is entirely different.
Exaggerating minor differences between the two countries provides a way to joke
about difference for the sake of difference. While jokes, like those about the
pronunciation of City Wok, demonstrate that South Park does not always shy
away from objectifying jokes that may offend, Canada provides Parker and Stone
with a safe haven to offer ruminations on how difference works in their comedy.
My final example will show that Canada also serves as a site for discussing the
limits of how difference can be funny.
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The most recent episode of South Park thai deals with Canada once more
comments on the discursive limits of comedy and difference. Again
demonstrating the self-referential aspect of the Terrance and Philip episodes,
"Eat, Pray, Queef opens with, the boys waiting for the shocking conclusion to a
Terrance and Philip special, only to be appalled when instead of Terrance and
Philip, they get the Queef Sisters special— a reference to the April fools joke that
introduced Terrance and Philip. Katie and Katherine Queef are two sisters who,
inspired by Terrance and Philip, have developed a comedy act which is
distinguished by the use of queefs, flatulent excretions of air from the vagina, in
place of Terrance and Philip's ubiquitous farts. The men of South Park are
universally horrified, with Philip remarking in disgust, "that's where babies come
from." In other words, there are limits to what kinds of bodies and what kinds of
people can be represented grotesquely. While there are many examples of jokes
being made about vaginas and women in sexualized or reproductive functions,
including the Paris Hilton example discussed above, Parker and Stone here call
attention to how these functions are often the only ways that women's bodies are
brought into comedy, including their own, as the objects of male fantasy, rather
than funny in their own right.
This example also demonstrates that there are limits to how difference can
be represented in comedy. Canadians make an ideal object of comedy in South
Park because, from an American perspective, the differences between the two
countries are hardly substantive. Unlike the Chinese, whose eiegant opening
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ceremony is a harbinger of doom, or the spicy 'Hennifer' Lopez, representative of
the 'threat' that Spanish-speaking migrants pose to the American sense of
community, Canadians are not constituted in the American media as a threat of
any kind. Yet in SP.BLU, this is how they are represented by the alarmist parents
of South Park. Canadians are rendered as grotesque, beady-eyed monsters,
possessing any number of strange cultural traits, demonstrating how hollow
these other 'threats' really are. Additionally, this grotesque representation is held
up as an object for jokes. Canadians are also set up to be laughed at in a way
that shows South Par/cthinks that deviations from an imagined American norm
are funny. With this in mind, the epigraph that opens this chapter, "They're not
even a real country anyways," seems to suggest not only that Canadians are not
that different, but also suggests something about the way the country is portrayed
in the show, as an imagined community to the north. That the Canada in South
Park is not real provides Parker and Stone with a blank canvas on which to paint
all sorts of imagined differences to make fun of, just for the sake of making fun. A
couple of lines from the end of "Here Comes the Neighborhood" illustrate this
stance nicely. When Token worries that his young friends do not like him
because they tease him for being rich (a thinly veiled metaphor for black, in this
particular episode) Kyle responds, "We make fun of you for being rich just like we
make fun of Butters for being wimpy," and Stan adds, "Yeah, like we rip on Kyle
for being a Jew." In short, South Park makes fun of difference for the sake of
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difference, and there is no better forum to illustrate this with than a group from
whom you are not really different.
So far this chapter has argued that South Park does not actually deal with
Canada as a subject, but rather finds minor differences between the country and
the United States and exaggerates them in order to comment on critical reception
to the show, as well as discourses of difference and identity. However, my
interpretation differs from how the show's engagement has been read by
members of the Canadian press. Many critics cite South Park to make claims
about Canadian national identity based on the supposed ability to take a joke. A
Windsor Star article on how the ability to laugh at ourselves is a defining national
characteristic cites South Park, and in particular SP:BLU as a primary example of
this process (Pearson C1). Likewise, Williams' Oscar performance was
mentioned in a National Post article discussing the same phenomenon
(Gatehouse A1). This chapter has argued that Canada as a real place and
Canadians as real people are almost always a secondary concern for the
comedy of South Park. Given this argument, the claims about national
sensibilities these articles make seem rather spurious. They do not seem to have
gotten the joke, which is more about difference than actual Canadians. Given the
appalled horror with which some Canadian reviewers discussed South Park,
these claims seem even more bizzare: many Canadians did not even find the
jokes funny (Allemang C2; Spencer A15). Are these Canadians poor sports?
Poor Canadians? In conclusion, like many of the claims made about humour in
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relation to prairie wholesomeness, or multiculturalism, the attachment to the idea
that Canada is a nation of funny people (or just good sports) particularly falls
apart when we begin attributing this value to texts that have little interest in
Canada as a real place.
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Conclusion: Future Directions
This conclusion will proceed with two goals in mind. First, I reassert some
of the central arguments of the thesis. I then briefly summarize how my reading
of the texts discussed undermines the notion that Canadian comedy reveals
particular values of the country or its people, but rather is a site where Canadian
identities are netogisted. In closing I make suggestions for future studies of the
genre. Such studies should account for the claims made in this thesis and also
consider the role of cultural institutions, such as broadcasters or government
agencies, in upholding this notion of a particularly Canadian comedy as well as
suggest ways that these institutions affect the production of comedic cultural
products.
Throughout this thesis I demonstrate that comedy does not reveal
Canadianness, but rather comedy is a site of conflict where the notion of who is
Canadian—and why—is negotiated through strategies of agonism, alienation,
and affiliation. My introduction highlights a notion that resurfaces in comments
from many popular commentators throughout the thesis: Canadians are funny
people, and this humourous quality manifests itself in ways that distinguish them
from the people of other countries, particularly the United States. Amongst
academics, this view is championed by Beverly Rasporich who argues that
contemporary Canadian humour reveals a kinder, gentler comedic tradition that
can be traced back to the work of Stephen Leacock. Rejecting this view on both
fronts, I have demonstrated throughout that Canadian humour is often unkind,
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and decidedly not gentle, and that the claim that Canadian humour is a
distinguishing characteristic from the United States is based on a number of
unsupportable assumptions.
In the introduction, I argue that comedy is a communicative genre that
draws in its material from its surrounding cultural context, and that Canada is,
indeed, a cultural context. Following Hutcheon's work on irony, and her related
theorizing of Mikhail Bakhtin, I demonstrate that comedy relies heavily on the
unsaid, making shared cultural context all the more important in facilitating the
'get' of jokes. Furthermore, the unsaid meanings in comedy are edgy and
evaluative in their nature. These evaluations mean that comedy is a
communicative genre that articulates positive and negative views of the subjects
it discusses. This brings me to the second way in which comedy can be
Canadian; it can discuss Canada and Canadians in order to offer evaluations of
what those terms mean. In demonstrating how this negotiation of Canadianness
happens, I turn to Engin Isin, who suggests that groups are articulated through
processes of agonism, alienation, and affiliation. In the chapters that follow the
introduction, Isin's processes are brought to bear on Corner Gas and Little
Mosque on the Prairie, the stand-up comedy of Russell Peters, and the animated
American series, South Park.
The second chapter discusses how claims such as those made by
Rasporich have found a new home on the Canadian prairie. Corner Gas, in its
deliberate avoidance of themes that are tied to questions of race, gender, and
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class, facilitates a response to the show that mirrors many of Rasporich's claims
about a gentle Canadian humour, despite the decided interpersonal edge
characterizes much of the show's comedy. I further argue that Corner Gas'
prairie setting often leads to critics imagining the fictional Dog River as an
exemplar of Canadian values, and that this view is at odds with a conflicted
reality in many small communities. Noting that in many respect it is a weaker
sitcom than Corner Gas, I move on to demonstrate that Little Mosque offers a
vision that complicates this view of the prairie as folksy hometown to all, by
demonstrating that the face of contemporary small town Canada is neither lilywhite nor non-conflictual. Little Mosque makes affiliative statements aimed not
just at the fictional town of Mercy, but also at an imagined small-town centre of
Canadian national identity, and the perceived belonging of Muslims and
immigrants outside of major metropolitan areas.
Russell Peters takes a decidedly different view of who is and is not a
member of his community. Through exaggerated, accented, and foreign voices,
Peters demonstrates that insider status has less to do with skin tone or
citizenship than with an ability to produce English with a North American accent.
Those who are unable to speak as though they are only Canadian are marked
through his comedy as outsiders. While at times these voices demonstrate the
foibles of an occasionally racist, and occasionally stupid white Canada, his use of
racialized voices to make this point further demonstrates that the ability to speak
as a Canadian is the apex of cultural acceptance. Complicating Peters' notion of
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the national is the way that he freely moves across the American border
delivering a very similar act in Canada and the United States, suggesting that
Peters' act may not be an articulation of Canadian multiculturalism at all.
My final chapter examines the curious relationship between an imagined
Canada and the American animated series South Park. I demonstrate that at
times South Park satirizes discourses of difference that seek to employ agonistic
and alienating strategies against those who deviate from an imagined American
homogeneity. At other times, South Park finds these differences funny and
exaggerates them grotesquely in its jokes. Nowhere are these two themes more
obvious than in the episodes that deal with Canada and Canadians represented
as paragons of difference, the ultimate other in the show. This is despite the
reality that the creators, like many Americans, see very little difference between
Canada and the US. This similarity is the central joke that runs through the
Canada episodes, offering South Park a venue to comment on the way difference
works in its comedy. Many Canadian critics seemed to have missed this joke,
however, and take the show's representation of Canadians literally. Furthermore,
they hold up South Parks engagement with Canada as proof that Canadians can
take a joke. Once again, popular commentators affirm patriotic feelings about the
country's supposed humour despite textual evidence that undermines this notion.
Comedy is often held up as a marker of Canadian identity and Canadian
values and is mobilized in many different circumstances, but almost always to the
same end. This particularly Canadian comedic subject position is defined by its
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multicultural openness, kind gentleness, and being big enough to take a joke. I
critique these sentiments and demonstrate that they are not based on accurate
reflections of what is happening in the texts I discuss, but are mobilized in order
to reinforce the invented tradition that Canadians are a group of funny people,
who are in this respect better than their American neighbours to the south. While
I have shown that this sentiment has affiliative emotional appeal for many
Canadian critics, I will conclude the thesis by suggesting some ways in which the
sentiment is mobilized for economic gain and suggest a direction for future
studies of Canadian comedy.
In focusing on the way Canadianness is represented in the texts, I have
made a choice to ignore some of the institutional practices that contribute to what
kind of comedy is produced and broadcast under the banner Canadian. In
closing, I would like to point to some ways institutional bodies shape how comedy
is produced and received. For example, there may be more to South Park's many
returns to Canada than Trey Parker and Matt Stone simply thinking the country is
funny.
South Park is produced by the Comedy Central cable channel in the
United States and rebroadcast in Canada by The Comedy Network, which
primarily airs a mixture of new programming taken from Comedy Central's lineup, repeats of CBC and CTV shows, and a few original programs produced by
the network. As Marx and Sienkiewicz have noted, in order to fully appreciate the
role South Park plays for Comedy Central, its placement on the network's
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schedule must be considered (10). Thus, The Comedy Networks scheduling of
the show must be considered similarly important. The Network airs either a
syndicated repeat or a new episode of South Park every night at 9:30pm
immediately preceding broadcasts of new Comedy Central programming, or new
original programming, and this placement is telling. A sizable Canadian audience
tunes in to see South Park every night, and The Comedy Network attempts to
capitalize on this. Along similar lines, every time South Park returns to Canada,
they receive a write-up in some publication alerting potential viewers (e.g. Ryan
R1). In short, there may be an element of fan service in South Park's continued
returns to Canada.
South Park\s hardly unique in making references to Canada. Indeed,
many U.S. comedy shows regularly mention Canada. In a recent episode of 30
Rock, main character TV executive Liz Lemon is adding a new character to her
fictional show. In a rare moment of direct camera address, Lemon breaks the
third wall and says she will "go to TORONTO" to find the new cast member.
Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, regularly makes somewhat insulting
jokes at Canada's expense, virtually guaranteeing him some media coverage in
Canada. For example, he urged viewers to redefine 'Canada's History' on the
Urban Dictionary website as a depraved sex-act, leading to coverage in the
Toronto Star amongst other news outlets (Mudhar "Stephen Colbert"). More
recently Colbert, whose show also airs on Comedy Central and the Comedy
Network, filmed a number of episodes at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, gaining
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him even more press coverage in Canada. While I maintain that South Park (and
Colbert) often engages Canada as subject matter in ways that make sense to the
comedic purposes of the show, I suggest that some of these references in South
Park may be somewhat cynical attempts to maintain viewer loyalty, and attract
new viewers in Canada.
Cultural institutions often influence the comic aesthetic of domestically
produced shows. For example, an ever-increasing number of comedy festivals
are filmed for telecast on The Comedy Network and CBC. The biggest of these
festivals is, of course, the Just for Laughs festival which lists cultural funding
agencies as sponsors in the credits of its taped segments that air first on the
CBC and then in syndication on The Comedy Network. More elucidating is the
relationship between two more recent comers to the festival scene and the CBC.
The CBC heavily sponsors both The Winnipeg Comedy Festival and The
Halifax Comedy festival. The stage shows in Winnipeg often feature prominent
CBC personalities as hosts, even when they are not comedians, in an effort to
promote other CBC programming. In a similar vein, episodes of The Debaters, a
CBC radio program in which two comedians debate a current event, have been
taped at the Halifax festival. Recalling Marx and Sienkiewicz's remarks above
about the importance of scheduling in considering South Park, I suggest that
comedy programming like The Debaters reflects the CBC's general emphasis on
current affairs programming! That the news satires The Mercer Report and This
Hour has 22 Minutes are two highlights of CBC's comedy programming further
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demonstrate this point. The above examples show that institutions can affect
comic output and the programming choices of individual networks may in part be
a reflection of the impact of Canadian cultural policies that enforce quotas on the
amount of Canadian content that television channels must air.
As Beaty and Sullivan have argued, Canadian cultural policy documents
have largely ignored comedic programming and chosen to emphasize the
importance of drama to instilling Canadians with a sense of place. This ignorance
serves two central functions. The first point relates to my argument that, like
drama, comedy is an important site where ideas about being Canadian are
exchanged and produced. Secondly, this privileging of drama has impacted the
types of comedy that are produced for Canadian television. Faced with Canadian
content quotas, private broadcasters often turn to comedy to fill the dead spots in
their primetime line-ups. This programming is cheap and readily available, not in
the least because of the comedy festivals discussed above. Furthermore,
programs such as This Hour Has 22 Minutes or CTV's Comedy Now offer
significantly more return on the dollar than a high-cost showcase drama. Both the
comedy of Russell Peters and Corner Gas have been affected by this situation.
Chapter 3 discusses how Russell Peters' big break came when a copy of
his Comedy Now! special was posted online and seen around the world, as well
as Peters' criticisms of the producers of the show on his website. Intriguingly,
Peters' complaint about the distribution of the performance on DVD was that he
is only being paid on the ACTRA scale, suggesting that the drive for cheap
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programming has financial repercussions for comedy performers. One of the
facts I found most remarkable in my research for this thesis is, and I discuss this
in Chapter Two, that Corner Gas, the show that proved that Canadian content
could succeed with viewers in the 500-channel universe, actually lost money with
every show. Surely such a surprising fact must have serious implications for what
types of comedy programming will be produced in the future. These examples
suggest that beyond the ways that Canadianness is produced and contested in
comedy performances, there is another angle that is worth exploring in relation to
Canadian comedy. Finally, and most importantly, future work on the genre should
bear in mind that there is no inherently Canadian set of values revealed in
comedy and should carefully examine the many institutions that have a financial
stake in this notion.
105
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123
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