For a country that so loudly and proudly claims being funny as one of its national pillars, Canada has never exactly had a gift for political satire. That isn’t quite the same as saying we haven’t tried. Like any fine democracy, we enjoy the sight and spectacle of our leaders and their grand national narratives being taken down a peg or two. We just can’t really do it with any teeth.
Consider, for instance, what might be one of the defining moments of Canadian satire of the last decade, if not since the first round of Trudeaumania. Early in his mayoralty, Rob Ford — who even before the crack scandal was as soft and sizeable a satirical target as this country has ever produced, a one-man parade of ignorance and circuitous logic — was confronted in his driveway by Marg Delahunty, Mary Walsh’s venerable 22 Minutes Warrior Princess. He, of course, scurried back inside and called the police on her.
This was patently ridiculous, as everyone was quick to pounce upon — Ford seemed genuinely frightened by this absolute puffball in plastic armour, as if she would do anything to him other than ask a few sarcastic questions. But there was an even more ridiculous undercurrent, particularly to anyone aware of Marg’s long history: whatever physical threat she presented to Ford, the political threat was vastly lower.
Did Ford not know how these things worked? In return for a few good-natured ribbings about the most obvious failings of his career, he would receive a chance to seem like a good sport, just another of those political flacks who we might disagree with from time to time but who deep down was a good egg in a funny place. Ford was scared of a plastic sword, but the political darts Walsh and her 22 Minutes colleagues poke at their establishment targets are rarely any sharper.
More often than not, a 22 Minutes sketch or Rick Mercer trip ends with everyone laughing together, which is a fine example of that other Canadian chestnut: cordiality, the satirical equivalent of holding someone’s feet to the fire to warm them (because they must be cold after walking through all that snow).
There is an undercurrent to this kind of satire — by no means limited to the 22 gang though somewhat indicative of its generational heyday in the ‘90s and early 2000s — that is mutually reassuring. It’s tied to the great Canadian project of self-definition, that endless hand-wringing about who we are and what we are worth. These satirical comedians are trying both to define Canada and pull the rug out from under that definition, to convey both pride and shame in the same screwy idea.
Mercer, Canada’s premiere satirist, broke through with his Talking to Americans bit, where the underlying joke is always that we know a lot about the U.S., while they are so incredibly ignorant about us they think our parliament is an igloo. It’s such a weird mix of anxious smugness, light self-mockery in the service of self-superiority, that it could come from no place other than Canada, a nation obsessed with proving that it’s something to be obsessed about.
With that at its core, it’s easy to see why our self-critiques – of our leaders, of their narratives, of our grand narrative – can feel so flat: they’re simultaneously trying to prove and puncture themselves, to build up a facade worth tearing down. It’s awfully hard to throw a brick through a window when you need it to frame the window first.
As this tendency has begun to run its course, though, we have started to see some attempts to shake it down. You can point a lot of places, but as much as anything, it appears to be generational: a group of people raised on these narratives can see their tensions and weak points much better than the people who have built them. And we are starting to get some bite.
Among the most prominent in that group has been The Beaverton, one of a few websites and Twitter accounts in recent years to position itself as something like Canada’s Onion, and the first to transition beyond its online home: The Beaverton, the fake news show, debuts on Comedy this Wednesday.
Especially in the early going, The Beaverton did not always find this balance so well: just look at its name, another notch in the proud tradition of making sure Canada is Canada enough. (See also its contemporary, The Syrup Trap.) And yet, stepping onto a televised stage, there is a feeling that it is ready to move on past that. In among the more standard headline-twist jokes and generically funny premises that any self-described satire will try, there is a clear aim at that older style of Canadian satirical smugness, too.
You can see it in some of the early clips that were released. One about the Indian Act makes specific (if still relatively light) sport of the Indian Act, poking at one of the more obvious oversights of a supposedly progressive nation. In an episode I had a chance to watch at a recent set visit, it got even darker: a sharp piece ploughs through the reality of sexual harassment and assault statistics in Canada, contrasting it with the supposedly much more dangerous Sweden, which saw a spike in its numbers when it made such things much more easy to report. An extended interview with a bureaucrat proudly bragging about keeping things safe by making it almost impossible to get a conviction is basically political advocacy with jokes, which is about as close to a definition of skin-in-the-game political satire as you can get.
How much laughter this actually produces is of course up to the individual viewer, but at the least, The Beaverton seems patently uninterested in sneaking in self-justifications for existing, and at its best it has successfully diagnosed the smugness and laziness that makes up that older Canadian character, that idea that we gotta be okay because we’re all Canadians.
Whatever the purpose of satire, it’s certainly not to help build a healthy sense of self: if The Beaverton can help crack the pillars of the smirkingly satisfied Canadian, it will be a worthy entry into our satirical ranks regardless of how many people are actually laughing.