Canadian comedy has a strange obsession with geography. Everywhere else in the world, comedy is either about family (The Simpsons, Family Guy, Modern Family) or small groups of attractive young people (Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, Friends) or workplaces (The Office, The IT Crowd, Ted Lasso, Parks and Recreation). Not in Canada. In Canada, comedies are about places. You can see it in the titles: Kim’s Convenience, Letterkenny, Schitt’s Creek.
The geographic obsession shouldn’t come as a surprise. So much Canadian art ultimately boils down to landscape. Painting is the most obvious case. Canadian art is the rich, raw Algonquin images of the Group of Seven, the sublime immense near-abstractions of Lawren Harris’s Rocky Mountain canvasses, the intimate enclosed forests of Emily Carr. Peter Doig, one of the greatest contemporary painters, was born in Scotland and lives in Trinidad. But he’s a Canadian painter. How do you know? Because he paints landscapes. Nature dominates culture here, and it always has. The ultimate icon of Canadian art is Tom Thomson, who drowned on Canoe Lake — the artist literally swallowed by the nature he was there to portray.
Canadian literature is equally obsessed with landscape. Montreal poet A.M. Klein’s “The Portrait of the Poet as Landscape” epitomizes how writers here tend to think of themselves and their characters: as products of settings. Nature presses in on all sides in CanLit, in Atwood’s Survival, in Munro’s entire body of stories, in Northrop Frye’s notion of the “garrison mentality.” As Mordechai Richler puts it in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: “A man without land is nothing.” That line could well serve as the motto for our entire culture.
In Canada, the land comes first; the people after. But landscape is a harder fit for comedy than it is for literature or the visual arts, which is why the strange preponderance of landscape in Canadian comedy is such a testament to the dominance of our national trait. There’s nothing inherently funny about a lake or a mountain or a town. But we’ve somehow found the comedy in them.
The dominant source of comedy for recent Canadian shows is how places change their inhabitants. Megahit Schitt’s Creek basically has one joke: the difference between how people speak and think and are in Los Angeles, and how people speak and think and are in rural Canada. That single joke has surprising legs; it only grows over six seasons. The show’s LA lady Moira Rose — “Can no one find nude photos of me on the internet?” — is a kind of perfect embodiment of the Hollywood Hills. Local boy Roland Schitt — “How are your bowels, good and tight?” — is an idealized hick. Both are equally grotesque and loveable.
The visitors and the locals are constantly in each other’s space: the Roses take over the motel and own the town as a joke. The locals simply do not respect doors. They walk right in when they want to talk to their new friends; they lie down on somebody else’s bed when they want to watch television. The entire town is contested. Who gets to laugh at whom is a part of the struggle.
One of the keys to the success of Schitt’s Creek is that the mockery is a two-way street. Sometimes LA is ridiculous. Sometimes rural Ontario is ridiculous. In the best moments, both are. In one episode from the first season, David Rose joins the locals on a turkey hunt in defiance of their stereotypes: “I could not be more at one with nature. I do Coachella every year.” In the end, he lives up to their stereotypes: “Does this come in a slimmer cut?” he asks when they outfit him with camouflage. He also confirms his own stereotypes of them: Shooting a turkey is every bit as gross as he imagined it. “Was it the lying in the mud part, or was it wearing clothes that smell like menthol cigarettes and body odour?” he asks, trying to understand their enjoyment.
Unlike Schitt’s Creek, no one really visits Letterkenny. Occasionally somebody from town who moved away comes home, usually after having become annoying in the process. Letterkenny doesn’t compare itself to other places (although it has a funny running joke about LA). Before Letterkenny was a show it was a series of YouTube clips called “Letterkenny Problems.” And that’s what it remains 10 seasons later. It is an enclosed world. Because of its total focus on one small town, the show doesn’t shy away from the rougher aspects of small-town life. It shows meth heads. Its main characters include idiotic hockey players and the women who sleep with them out of boredom. It even goes so far as to make crude sexual jokes about the Amish. Letterkenny is the first time I’ve seen, on television, a representation of what small-town life is actually like. It’s not all hay rides and cute coffeeshops and antique markets.
Letterkenny is a small world, but dense. I honestly wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that there would someday be a show where the accent was so Canadian, the vocabulary so local, that I would have to turn on the subtitles. The slang is amazing: I had heard the expression “ten-ply” for a weakling before, and I’d heard “darts” for cigarettes, and I’d even heard “hundy p” for “one hundred per cent,” but I’d never heard them all at the same time or in the same place or from the same person. The local, geographically-defined language is the key to Letterkenny’s appeal; it’s almost like the place itself speaks: “Pitter-patter, let’s get at ’er.”
Then there’s Shoresy. He is my favourite comic character in the history of Canadian television. I’m not sure I can print his best lines, but they are pure CanCon. At one point a series of unrepeatable jokes make elaborate connections between the sexual proclivities of somebody’s mother and Trudeau deploying infantry units to sandbag flooded areas, Heritage Minutes and Don McKellar. Shoresy doesn’t have any references outside of his little world. All he knows is hockey, slices, dill pickle chips and the CBC. He doesn’t even have a face. He is a place purified into a person.
Kim of Kim’s Convenience, on the other hand, is a person purified into a place. Mr. Kim is, in effect, his store. The corner that provides the focus of the show is a business, a family meeting place and an urban crossroads all at once. Kim, as owner, is both lord over his small demesne and a comedic frame of reference for the world as it filters through one particular location. His opinions are store policy, and store policy reflects his persona. He wants to prove that he’s not homophobic so he gives a Pride Week discount of 15 per cent. Who he is is what’s in his store.
Unlike Letterkenny, or Schitt’s Creek, Kim’s Convenience isn’t about people from one or two places, but about people from all over the place. The store, which happens to be right down the street from me in Toronto, provides a lens to register the interactions of one of the most diverse places on earth. The pleasure of living in Toronto is that you regularly hear languages you don’t recognize. You meet people from nations you’ve never heard of. The comedy of Kim’s Convenience is about the connections and disconnections that all that difference generates. But it is still about place, about where you’ve come from and where you end up. The plot of the show, at least the family drama, is mostly who lives where, who is moving out, who is staying put, who is moving to Korea, who is taking a job on another continent.
These Canadian comedies are different, not just from American or British comedies, but from earlier Canadian examples. For one thing, they lack sentimentality. A show like King of Kensington was little more than a celebration of a neighbourhood. Corner Gas’s comedy was gently mocking of the members of the town, but it all took place under the comforting reassurance of a basic pride in what was local. Schitt’s Creek, Letterkenny and Kim’s Convenience have their pride too, but they’re not afraid to look at the ugliness or stupidity of their settings. This spares them a great deal of cliché. It also makes them much funnier and more accurate about people’s relationship to places.
For Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, the source of all comedy is the same: when human beings are suddenly turned into machines, “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” That’s why something as simple as a man slipping on a banana peel is funny. In these newer Canadian comedies, it is geography that fixes people into the patterns that determine their lives. What is funny is that coming from LA or from a small town in rural Ontario turns you into something, something that is beyond your control. These are not shows about the love of place, but about what places do to you: how they make you talk, how they make you dress, how they make you act, how they make you love.
Canada is a few scattered people over an immense and often terrifying landscape, so it’s natural, inevitable even, that geography would matter more to us than it would for others. The new breed of Canadian comedies reveals just how dominating the landscape here is. Even when we’re joking, the country overwhelms us.