CanLit’s comedy problem

Pardon My Parka, and other Humorous Canadian Initiatives

Derek McCormack did not win the 2016 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and its accompanying $15,000 cash prize. Susan Juby did, for Republic of Dirt, a sequel to The Woefield Poultry Collective, which introduced readers to Prudence, a Brooklynite fish-out-of-water who chances into running a derelict farm in interior British Columbia. The novel’s cast of characters includes a septuagenarian named Earl who plays the banjo and cracks wise (refusing Prudence’s hot sauce: “I just got over my heartburn from our trip to Ron’s Pizza Parlor”), and its scenes rollick along with the joke-per-minute efficiency of a network sitcom.

While the comedy in Republic of Dirt may be a matter of taste, the Leacock medal, as Canada’s only major award for literary humour, canonizes its victors alongside Important Writers such as Mordecai Richler (the 1998 winner), Farley Mowat (1970), and Robertson Davies (1955). But before we accept the Leacock medallists as a comprehensive representation of our comic elite, consider this: Since 1947 the prize that claims to acknowledge “the best in Canadian literary humour” has never been awarded to a person of colour. By contrast, eight writers of Asian and Afro-Caribbean origin have been awarded the Giller Prize since 1994; M.G. Vassanji has taken it twice, and whether Joseph Boyden’s 2008 win jukes those stats depends on how generous you feel about his Indigeneity.

This is not an attempt to instigate a hashtag campaign or lambaste the jurors at Stephen Leacock Associates. The National Magazine Awards didn’t fare much better in their humour category before it was suspended in 2016: the last decade of finalists included only two non-white writers, Scaachi Koul (honourable mention in 2015), and yours truly (a bunch of times—toot-toot!). The Leacock medal simply provides an entry point for a larger conversation about what constitutes comedic writing in this country, what role it serves and how it’s celebrated. And while the apparent racial bias of the award is, let’s say, curious, I’m more interested in it as a symptom of exclusivity, insularity, and a poor understanding of how humour operates in certain overlooked corners of our national literature.

Despite its pretence of scope, the Leacock medal has traditionally been awarded for humour written in the mode of Stephen Leacock. Perhaps this is to be expected. After all, the prize’s host organization is expressly mandated to “preserve the literary ­legacy” and “to honour and perpetuate the name and memory of Stephen Leacock” by continuing “to initiate and support activities which widen interest in Leacock and his writings [and] in the Leacock legend.” So it seems predictable that, as a corollary to those activities, the medal honours books that emulate the qualities of its namesake—or at least his fiction.

Assuming that Leacock’s various chauvinisms—his contempt for women and Indigenous people, in particular, has been well documented—are not the legacy conscientiously perpetuated by Stephen Leacock Associates, one might take his most famous book, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, as the medal’s exemplary title. The tone is breezy, anecdotal, and archly ironic. The struggle between success and failure (financial, political, romantic) is a consistent theme, and its characterizations traffic in idiosyncrasies and quirky irreverence.
If there’s satire or parody at work, it’s a particularly gentle and forgiving breed; Leacock’s characters are parochial, sure, but that’s the source of their charm—and their integrity!

This is not to say that Sketches isn’t enjoyable or elegantly written. While the citizens of Mariposa tend to be caricatures, they’re vividly crafted: the inscrutable hotelier Mr. Smith “makes the Mona Lisa seem an open book and the ordinary human countenance as superficial as a puddle in the sunlight;” more generally, the men of the town are judged per their equanimity: “ ‘Level-headed’ I think was the term; indeed in the speech of Mariposa, the highest form of endowment was to have the head set on horizontally as with a theodolite.” Zena Pepperleigh, the book’s token, summarily humanized woman, sits on her porch imagining rescue by knights in shining armour before capitulating to a more humble, local romance in an artful conflation of fantasy and reality: “Already, you see, there was a sort of dim parallel between the passing of [Mr. Pupkin’s] bicycle and the last ride of Tancred the Inconsolable along the banks of the Danube.”

Tellingly, Leacock addresses a generic second person with a baseline of familiarity that affords innate access to any reference. “I don’t know whether you know Mariposa,” the book begins. “If not, it is of no consequence, for if you know Canada at all, you are probably well acquainted with a dozen towns just like it.” Ingratiating phrases such as “you will easily understand” punctuate the book, implicating the reader as a presumptive ally of similar experience and social station. (Touchstones include the caprices of the Liberal party, the sinking of RMS Lusitania, and the inadequacy of Greek translation.) The first-person narrator also proxies as an observational “I” slightly peripheral to the action on the page, rendering the reader both “you” and “I” simultaneously—unless “we” don’t intrinsically identify with either, of course.

To be fair, most authors of Leacock’s era and pedigree might well assume a kindred readership; it’s not a project of exclusion so much as obliviousness. And while it can be futile to condemn the past with updated morality, it’s worth examining how we deal with history that is politicized in retrospect. As such, the Leacock medal feels a bit like a Confederate statue that sits, dutifully tended, in the town square of Canadian literature. But rather than tearing it down, we’d do well to heed Guy Vanderhaeghe’s advice in the 1986 anthology, Stephen Leacock: A Reappraisal: “We might learn something by taking a walk around the monument which Stephen Leacock has become and taking a look at him from a slightly different angle too.”

Perhaps the most Leacockian of medalists in the past couple decades is Stuart McLean, a winner for three separate Vinyl Cafe collections (2007, 2001, 1999). As with Leacock’s Sketches, McLean’s stories boast a folksy, family-friendly appeal and feature “ordinary” people engaged in commensurate affairs. This is comedy for audiences who recognize themselves in the members of a middle-class, nuclear family doing their best to get by, with all the hijinks and teachable moments that come with, say, toilet training a cat or celebrating Christmas with Muslims. As a standard-bearer for the Leacock legacy, McLean might be outdone only by Trevor Cole’s Practical Jean, which won the prize in 2011 and takes place in the small, fictional town of Kotemee, or perhaps Dan Needles, who won in 2003 for With Axe and Flask: A History of Persephone Township, which centres around the small, fictional town of Larkspur. Also operating soundly in the Leacock mode is Terry Fallis, who has seen five of his six books shortlisted for the prize; three have won. His first novel, The Best Laid Plans, a mild-mannered send-up of federal politics, was declared by the Winnipeg Free Press upon its publication in 2008 to be “the most irreverent, sophisticated, and engaging [satire] CanLit has seen since Stephen Leacock,” and was also deemed “the essential Canadian novel of the decade” upon winning the CBC’s Canada Reads competition in 2011.

The titles of some other winning books include: Pardon My Parka, Mice in the Beer, Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory, Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw, Gophers Don’t Pay Taxes, Never Shoot a Stampede Queen, and The Night We Stole the Mountie’s Car. There are regional books, such as The Promised Land: A Novel of Cape Breton, and Ian Ferguson’s Village of the Small Houses (i.e., Fort Vermilion, Alberta), and a few through the 1970s and 1980s that, alongside legions of wide-lapelled nightclub comics, mined hilarity from the battle of the sexes, e.g. Take My Family… Please! and No Sex Please… We’re Married, as well as the less ­imploring, ­curiously zoological Wives, Children & Other Wild Life. There is wordplay, of course (Fear of Frying and Other Fax of Life; also True Confections), and eponymous memoirs (Richard J. Needham’s Needham’s Inferno and Max Ferguson’s And now… Here’s Max); Arthur Black conflates these techniques with his trifecta of winners, Black Tie and Tales, Black in the Saddle Again and Pitch Black (his Fifty Shades of Black was a finalist in 2014, but lost to Bill Conall).

There have been a few aesthetic anomalies among Leacock winners, most recently Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates (2017), and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2012). These two novels stray from the Leacock formula in some respects—Barwin’s postmodern adventure story is narrated by a Jewish parrot; deWitt’s postmodern Western suggests a Coen brothers/Cormac McCarthy collaboration—but, like Sunshine Sketches, both are situated in worlds so predominantly male that the homosociality borders on parodic. The novels do, in fact, muck with genre and gender conventions, but they still exemplify Leacock’s tendency to centralize masculine nostalgia, here for the swashbuckling and gun-slinging of boyhood fantasies. (Of seventy-one Leacock medalists, only seven, including Susan Juby, have been women.)

As Northrop Frye once noted, “[Whenever] some people get to the point of emotional confusion at which the feeling ‘things are not as good as they ought to be’ turns into ‘things are not as good as they used to be,’ back comes this fictional image of…the real values of democracy that we have lost and must recapture.” The Leacock medal participates yearly in this brand of wistful revisionism, resurrecting the mythos of ostensible “traditional values” embodied by Sunshine Sketches and emulated by subsequent winners. These books are notable, too, for not only their dramatic content but their comedic sensibility—more Horatian than Juvenalian, certainly, and perhaps best described as safe.

This may be one reason for the unanimous whiteness of the medalists. Voices from the margins tend to deploy humour to question, provoke, and disrupt rather than to uphold the status quo. In Sunshine Sketches Leacock claims that, when it comes to comedy, “what the public wanted was not anything instructive but something light and amusing,” that “people loved to laugh [and] if you get a lot of people all together and get them laughing you can do anything you like with them,” and, finally, “Once they start to laugh they are lost.” But the intended reader of Stephen Leacock’s stories isn’t led afield so much as innocuously distracted; that the prize perpetuates this mode of humour blinds it to any comedic work invested in challenging the modes of power that Leacock and his acolytes tend to reify.

As Margaret Atwood pointed out forty-four years ago, Leacock’s stories are based in “the laughter of recognition and identity,” such that “the reader, being Canadian, is invited to recognize part of himself and his background in the sketches.” Forgiving Atwood some assumptions (and realities) that have shifted in the past half-century—what “being Canadian” entails, exactly, as well as how many of us might recognize exactly nothing of ourselves in Sunshine Sketches—the diagnosis is still useful: A Leacock-championed book inspires self-recognition in readers whose heritage and experiences qualify as Quintessentially Canadian—should one, that is, consider the quintessence of our nationhood to be most acutely expressed in the eccentricities of small-town mayoral elections and “whirligigs.”

The Stephen Leacock medal has succeeded less at celebrating the breadth of our nation’s comedic writing than in substantiating a set of culturally exclusive tropes by lionizing books mostly written by a subset of our population to mollify people just like them. That said, rather than calling for Stephen Leacock Associates to apologetically garland some random writer of colour, which would only achieve a condescending, concessional diversity, let’s steer away from Mariposa entirely. This country is home to some very funny writers working outside the artistic and ideological scope of what’s traditionally celebrated as “Canadian literary humour,” writers whose books challenge readers’ comfort and resist dominant narratives in both form and content.

In the interest of scholarship I asked a few dozen literary folks for recommendations of funny Indigenous and Canadian writers of colour. The response was effusive. The names that recurred most frequently included André Alexis, Dany Laferrière, Thomas King, Maria Qamar, Eden Robinson, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and Drew Hayden Taylor. Suzette Mayr also got a couple of mentions for her terrific novel Monoceros, and by far the most common reply to my survey was Scaachi Koul, whose first book was in fact a finalist, perversely enough, for this year’s Stephen Leacock medal. However, even if she had claimed the $15,000 jackpot, a single win for a woman of South Asian heritage doesn’t solve the larger problem, and risks being just as tokenistic as cataloguing authors’ names in a defiant roll call of BIPOC hilarity.

But let’s not abandon that list entirely. Of the above-mentioned writers, many have enjoyed mainstream success far beyond a Leacock commendation—Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs was a multiple-award winner and runaway bestseller; Robinson won the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award in 2016 for her body of work—but few, if they’re taken seriously as literary authors, are also lauded for their comedic sensibilities. Contrast this with Will Ferguson, for example, who post-419 is still recognized, and often defined, as a three-time Leacock medal-winning humourist alongside his Giller Prize accreditation. Some people get to be both; others do not.

A final note about my email query: The most instructive response wasn’t reading suggestions, but a thoughtful missive from the Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott: “To be honest, I feel like ‘literary humour’ and its attendant whiteness have to do with the ways that white people seem to think there needs to be a separation between being serious and being funny. Indigenous people (and I think black people and other people of colour, as well) have to constantly undergo trauma in a way that makes it impossible for them to have that separation. So to get through really serious, awful shit, we rely on humour almost constantly.” This resonates with any community that opposes hegemonic power; consider the absurdism and bold satire practiced by the literary avant-garde who challenged Soviet totalitarianism in the 1920s and 1930s—many of whom were jailed for their efforts.

This false distinction between literary and humour, or that separate, faintly patronizing category of “literary humour,” creates a dynamic in which acclaim is only afforded to writers—and here I mostly mean writers of colour—who forgo their propensity for play in order to be taken seriously. This is especially true when we look at a few Canadian authors who have achieved global recognition. Of our writers with a major foothold on the world stage, perhaps none is more gravely, beardedly serious than Michael Ondaatje. Yet he used to be pretty funny—or at least playful. Ondaatje’s “Application for a Driving License,” from his 1979 collection There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do, reads not just like a parody of lyric poetry, but a parody of the self-aggrandizing, egregiously sombre poet as well. It’s also structured like a classic joke, culminating with a deadpan punch-line:

Two birds loved
in a flurry of red feathers
like a burst cottonball,
continuing while I drove over them.
I am a good driver, nothing shocks me.

Rohinton Mistry is known for his doorstop social realist novels, but his first collection of stories, Tales From Firozsha Baag, exhibits a wit and whimsy that the author has abandoned in his more recent work. “Swimming Lessons,” the book’s final story, is about an Indian immigrant to Toronto who decides to learn to swim at the local Y, where he becomes obsessed with the pubic hair sprouting luxuriantly from a classmate’s bathing suit; “Squatter” features a similar character whose assimilation is foiled by an inability to sit on a Western-style toilet. The book offers one of Canadian literature’s most hilarious and honest depictions of the so-called “immigrant experience” (always singular; apparently there’s only one), yet one finds little humour in Mistry’s mega-selling downer, A Fine Balance, and certainly Oprah never championed him as a comedian.

What used to be encouraging about Ondaatje and Mistry, too, was that their humour challenged notions of how New Canadians were meant to depict their engagement with the dominant culture. Should the powers-that-be at Stephen Leacock Associates suddenly about-face and start rewarding more culturally or aesthetically diverse work, little will be achieved if the books merely adhere to and replicate certain tropes of acceptability. Television offers a fine illustration of how this sort of inclusion tends to operate: diverse voices are welcome, provided they either speak the same way as everyone else or operate with the ridiculousness of caricature. We may applaud the cosmetic inclusivity of Kim’s Convenience and Little Mosque on the Prairie, but the formula of the typical network ­sitcom bulldozes any real idiosyncrasy or difference: the characterizations are simplistic, the storytelling rote, and each episode relies on the same arcs and narrative beats of most mainstream entertainment. Kim’s Convenience, in particular, operates under the benevolent but ultimately flimsy banner of tolerance, as if merely showcasing the interactions of people of colour, no matter how banal, is somehow innately progressive.

The best counterexample to this brand of well-behaved comedy is the Kids in the Hall, which, over its six seasons on CBC, might have failed to include much racial diversity, but certainly broke the mold for what was allowed on TV. From sketches like “Running Faggot” to the creepy surrealism of Bruce McCulloch’s short films, The Kids in the Hall refused to placate the average CBC viewer with the broad, facile humour of contemporaries like the Royal Canadian Air Farce, Smith and Smith’s Comedy Mill and CODCO. Even now, the “Gay Discount” episode that opens the inaugural series of Kim’s Convenience, a mostly superficial survey of stereotypes and assumptions, pales when compared to the scathing satire of Scott Thompson’s monologues as Buddy Cole. As John Semley wrote in This is a Book about The Kids in the Hall, Buddy was “a challenge to any narrow-minded viewer who flipped past the CBC to see a glittering gay caricature waving his rubbery wrists around,” and the character embodied the show at its best: confrontational, grotesque, discomfiting, weird—and still the funniest thing on Canadian TV by a considerable margin. (While the perils of dry shampoo are amusing enough, I’m hoping that Baroness Von Sketch pushes more boundaries in its third season.)

Which brings me, somewhat contrivedly, back to Derek McCormack. Despite being one of the most hilarious, original, brilliant writers in this country—as well as a white man!—McCormack has never been nominated for the Stephen Leacock medal. (In fact I’m not sure that any of his seven works of fiction has been listed for a major Canadian book prize.) His most recent novel, The Well-Dressed Wound—“weird, inventive [and] wonderful,” according to the Village Voice, “fantastically demented” (Globe and Mail), and “radically alive” (Art Forum)—is part theatrical performance, part fashion show and part séance. The novel’s plot, such as it is, details Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s attempts to summon the spirit of their dead son. (If that sounds familiar, The Well-Dressed Wound came out a year before George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.) As with all of McCormack’s work, things go spectacularly off the rails in a raucous, raunchy pageantry of Beckettian farce, haute couture, and scatological obscenity—often at the same time.

Writing for Vice, Blake Butler described his response to the book: “You’re laughing and then the laughing hurts and then you aren’t laughing anymore, which as an experience delivered on paper couldn’t feel more immediate.” Of course any novel that simultaneously evokes and troubles laughter fails, per Margaret Atwood’s analysis of Canadian humour, to comfort readers with familiarity. So perhaps it’s understandable that Derek McCormack’s work hasn’t earned mainstream renown—or a Leacock medal. (Well, that and The Well-Dressed Wound features, among other things, a cloven-hoofed, horny devil who declares, “Ladies and gentlemen…I give you the future of fashion—AIDS!” and the word “faggot” appears more than three hundred times over the novel’s seventy-two pages.) But it’s a shame that work this smart, this unconventional, this thought-provoking—and, mainly, this funny—isn’t widely celebrated. Beyond the cosmetics of racial representation, we need more writers like Derek McCormack, whose bizarre, wild novel achieves the same effect as any good joke: it disrupts and surprises us, and colours our worlds a little differently.