Documentarian: What Makes Canadians So Funny? (Guest Column)

Courtesy of NBC; AP Images
William Shatner as Captain Kirk, Catherine O'Hara, Mike Myers and Lorne Michaels

'Being Canadian' documentarian Rob Cohen explains Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Lorne Michaels and our northern neighbor's propensity for comic greatness. Yes, you too, Rob Ford.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

There are funny people all over the world, and I don't think Canadians are necessarily extra-hilarious. But the fact that our professional football league once had only nine teams, and two of those teams shared the same name, Roughriders, does indicate something unique.

A lot of it has to do with the weather. You're stuck inside the house and also your own multiple-toqued head most of the year because it's so freaking cold. (A toque is what you Earth people call a knit winter hat.) Throw in the heavy flow of British and American influences on our culture and our desperate need to be polite about said cultural flows, or pretty much anything else, and the result will become comedy, or a stress-related heart condition.

But that's what I love about Canadian humor. British comedy is dry and subtle and loves to poke fun at authority (i.e., the reaction to crack-smoking former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford). American humor is much ballsier and appeals to us because we wish we were louder and more effusive (like former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, after his "medicine"). It's a weird emotional conflict that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world but results in iconic, timeless stuff from people like Dan Aykroyd or Mike Myers or John Candy.

The first time I knew that Canadians had a special way with comedy was when I was a little kid and watched Second City Television. It blew my mind, which was fortunately contained inside the earlier-mentioned toques. Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis — the people on that show were literally as great as it gets. My appreciation for my homeland's humor deepened watching fellow countryman Lorne Michaels shape modern comedy with Saturday Night Live. The fact that so many of the titans on those two shows were from Canada made a great impression on me. It also began my instinctive Canadian desire to point out what celebrities are Canadian. Did you know Captain Kirk was Canadian?! Case in point.

So if I had to sum up what makes Canadians so funny, there is the theoretical answer and the practical answer. The theoretical answer is that, in the greatest way, Canada is similar to a small town. We wish the big-city folks took us seriously but love that we're not them and freely mock them, knowing we'll never be viewed as a threat.

The practical answer is something best summed up by my own mom. "Robert, any place that tells you how nice they are but has a national sport where they beat the crap out of everyone clearly has their own unique form of madness."

I am so proud to be from that place.

Born in Calgary, Robert Cohen is a writer-director whose credits include The Big Bang Theory, The Ben Stiller Show and The Simpsons. He wrote and directed the documentary Being Canadian, set for release Sept. 18.

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