Geoff Pevere: A History of Canuckleheads

“I don’t know. There’s definitely something off about her.”

“Maybe she’s Canadian.”

— dialogue from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

After seeing the Farrelly brothers’ The Three Stooges the other night, I was sufficiently impressed by the largely unknown cast’s uncanny impersonation of the classic Larry Moe and Curly lineup to check out who they were. That’s when I learned that two of them — Chris Diamantopoulos, who is Curly, and Will Sasso who plays Moe – are Canadian.

So the question once again looms: just what is it with Canadians and comedy? Specifically, sketch comedy, and even more specifically, the comedy of impersonation? Because this goes way back. When Wayne and Shuster were the act most frequently called back by Ed Sullivan (they turned up a record-breaking sixty-seven times), they traded in a form of sketch comedy that mixed high and lowbrow into such crowd-pleasing staples as “Shakespearean Baseball” and “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga.” Even more interesting is the fact that the Wayne and Shuster schtick so often involved pop cultural parody. Even before Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs got into the act, the two Canucks would take off movies and TV shows, and blend them in a precociously postmodern manner that would anticipate the sublime achievements of their direct descendants – the awe-inspiringly brilliant SCTV bunch – by a full generation.

Rich Little, an impersonator from Ottawa, was another Sullivan staple, and although he was never terribly funny he was eerily adept at mimicking famous movie stars. It was a talent that would prove weirdly pronounced in Canadian performers, and it would reach its first epochal manifestation a few years after Sullivan packed it in and Lorne Michaels (another Canadian) would bring Saturday Night Liveto TV in 1975. That show would introduce Dan Aykroyd in its first lineup, and later Mike Myers. It would also pave the way for the eventual formation ofSCTV, a show which took the primal pop cultural mashup approach pioneered by Wayne and Shuster to delirious heights of comic surrealism.

From there it cascades: John Candy, Jim Carrey, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Kids in the Hall, Phil Hartman, Seth Rogan, even Tom Green (not funny, but Canadian nevertheless). And if there’s a single comedic thread holding just about all of these guys together, and attaching itself to two of the new Stooges, it’s a conspicuous ability to mimic. They – or we, it seems — do other people with surgical precision.

I can’t account for this with scientific accuracy, but I’m inclined to suspect TV has something to do with it. Statistically, Canadians have always demonstrated an overdeveloped capacity for tubular diversion (today, Canadians over 18 watch an average of over 28 hours per week), and most of what we watch isn’t made by us. It’s beamed in from the great pop cultural superpower from the south, and thus has it pretty much ever been.

(A pertinent digression: back in 1974, I directed a variety show at my high school. The theme of the production was a parody of The Tonight Show, and every single sketch included in it was a take-off of an American TV show. None of it was funny, but all of it was Canadian.)

True, Americans watch a lot of TV too, but Canadians generally watch more. This I can account for scientifically, or at least meteorologically: since Canadians face such shitty weather so much of the time, they’re far more inclined to stay inside and watch TV. We may pretend that we’re avid winter sports fans, but the truth is far more of us watch hockey than play it, and most of us who ski do so because it makes us feel more virtuous about drinking afterwards. As for snowboarding, everybody knows the best place for that is B.C., and that’s also where the best pot can be had. This is not coincidental.

I think the final and most overwhelmingly inarguable reason for the national tendency toward laser precise pop cultural mimicry is boredom. If you have grown up anywhere in Canada over the past sixty years, and especially if your experience stretches back to the 1960s or earlier, you know that Canadian culture had a formidable capacity for boring the absolute shit out of just about anyone exposed to it. This is why so much of it was forced upon us in the classroom, because we couldn’t escape. All those NFB documentaries on logging, elk calving season and the folk art of Cape Breton instilled in their victims an acute appreciation and insatiable appetite for junk culture, and so we’d rush home at the end of the day and watch anything but the CBC. In this sense, the country owes a lot to its long tradition of soporific public broadcasting. It is what made so many of us so powerfully addicted to anything on TV that wasn’t Canadian, and therefore what caused the great flowering of Canadian sketch comedy from the mid-1970s forward.

By the way, the Farrelly brothers’ Three Stooges movie is very funny. Not so funny that you’ll ever convince a single female in the world that it’s funny, but funny as hell if you’re a Stooges fan. The Stooges have been brought successfully into the twenty-first century (including a hilarious assault on Jersey Shore, which makes the original Stooges play like George Bernard Shaw), but their essential Stoogeiness has been respectfully preserved. Which is to say they remain knuckle-heads who have no idea that they’re knuckle-heads, so they’re free to carry on being them. But the important thing here is the new Stooges are two thirds Canadians. That means four of every six eyes poked are Canadian, two thirds of all skulls hammered are Canadian, and the bulk of the asinine behaviour so extravagantly on display comes courtesy the Dominion of Canada. I’m not customarily prone to displays of patriotic sentiment, but who couldn’t be proud of that?

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Geoff Pevere’s column appears every Friday.

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

One Response to “Geoff Pevere: A History of Canuckleheads”

  1. To bring your topic back full-circle to your opening quote, the final season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer featured former soap opera bit player Nathan Fillion who was a psychotic demon assassin posing as a fire and brimstone Pentecostal preacher. Fillion, you see, was from Alberta and had a recurring role in fellow Canadian Ryan Reynolds sitcom ‘2 Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Shop’. Fillion’s comedic and dramatic chops were such that following his stint on Buffy, show creator Joss Whedon cast him in his next TV venture: “Firefly” – the short lived cowboys in space dramedy that not even cancellation could kill. Whedon resurrected the show as a theatrical full length movie called ‘Serenity’. Then Whedon took Fillion, dressed him up in superhero garb and pitted him against an evil scientist played by Neil Patrick Harris in webisodes of “Dr. Horrible” – which was a MUSICAL comedy. Fillion has since gone on to star in the highly rated procedural cop dramedy “Castle” alongside Stana Katic – a Hamilton, Ontario homegirl. Whedon is promising a second “Dr. Horrible” feature and Fillion continues doing voice actor work for DC Comics’ animated ‘Green Lantern’. Fillion has found himself a mimic of all things Americana it seems!

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