Playing for laughs, seriously

Nov 28, 2002, vol. 25, no. 7
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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What's so funny about end-of-term exams? Not much, unless you're one of the students enrolled in Irwin Shubert's Canadian studies 391 course in Canadian humour.

The course, Mining Canada's Humerus, started last spring, and casts a serious eye on “the Canadian penchant for laughing while looking in the mirror,” says Shubert.

“As citizens of a colonized country, Canadians quickly became good at turning what amounted to a collective inferiority complex into the foundation of its national sense of humour.”

Shubert (above) says the hallmarks of Canadian humour are “a strong sense of irony and/or satire, a tendency toward self-deprecation, and a merciless mocking of politicians.”

He cites a recent British study that demonstrated the different humour personalities of different nations: while the British, Irish and Australians favoured jokes involving word play, continental Europeans liked jokes with a surreal flavour. Canadians tended to favor jokes whose main subject was foolish, or made to look foolish by someone else.

Says Shubert: “Northrop Frye once observed that Canada is a cool climate for heros. We don't like it when people take themselves too seriously. We have a deeply entrenched ability to laugh at ourselves, but not in a mean-spirited way.”

He says often it is the icons “that most distinguish our Canadian-ness” that become the butt of our favorite jokes: think of the “I am Canadian” rant, recently popularized in a Molson beer ad.

The course readings range from early examples of Canadian humour, such as Paul Hiebert's skewering of academe, Sarah Binks, to Stephen Leacock's Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, to Calgary comedian Will Ferguson's recent lampooning of the publishing industry, Generica.

Shubert says there's no shortage of funny Canadian material, and reams off a list of well-known comics and humourists that includes John Candy, Rich Little, Jim Carey, Rick Moranis, Dave Broadfoot, and Eric Nichol.

“There's also some very funny writing to be found in the broader literary categories. Roch Carrier, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence - they've all written some extremely humorous stuff.”

Shubert says the course draws students from across the academic spectrum who “want to better understand the characteristics of this country in which they live, work and study.”

And even the most serious scholars enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate a sense of humour: among the most memorable end-of-term student projects was something called Hudson's Baywatch - a parody of the hugely popular TV show Baywatch - filmed last winter on the beach in Port Moody.

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