What Former SNL Writer Joe Bodolai's Death Reveals About Canadian Comedy
An American who got Canuck stand-up and sketch comics the 1990s recognition they deserved on Canadian TV was found dead in Hollywood of an apparent suicide on Boxing Day.
TORONTO - The death on Boxing Day of Canadian TV producer Joe Bodolai in a Los Angeles hotel room illustrates how everything isn’t all ha-ha in Canadian comedy.
The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office is treating Bodolai’s death as an apparent suicide before a final investigation is concluded.
But in a departing blog, the former Saturday Night Live writer listed among his many regrets leaving Canada for Hollywood after being passed over in 1996 by then CTV topper Ivan Fecan to run the broadcaster’s Comedy Network, a cable channel he helped launch.
“My handshake disappeared. I got offered a deal my lawyer described as 'they want you to walk away. This is an insult.' I objected. The next day they hired Ed Robinson. I like Ed, but…,” Bodolai wrote in the final blog post entitled “If this were your last day alive, what would you do?”
The veteran writer, who died at 63 years of age after apparently drinking a concoction of Gatorade and antifreeze, came up against the harsh reality of Canadian comedy: you get to be creative north of the border, but you need to go to Los Angeles to get down to real business.
And that didn’t sit well with Bodolai.
”I had offers in LA, but didn’t want to do that. I love Canada. I love Canadian comedy, the POV, the sweet pomegranate seal meat mixture of it, the lack of mean with the Robin Hood arrows, and now I created the opportunity I dreamed about… gone?” his December 23 blog continued, apparently completed three days before the cleaning staff at the Re-Tan Hotel discovered his lifeless body.
Bodolai, who originally made it to Canada as a “draft resister,” worked here with top Canadian comedy producers like John Brunton on the 1987 TV series It’s Only Rock and Roll, with Lorne Michaels on The Kids in the Hall sketch comedy series, and on Comics!, which he produced along with Sandra Faire for CTV “to unleash Canadian comedy on TV.”
But it was losing the assignment to run The Comedy Network that led a defeated Bodolai back to Los Angeles.
He lists on the blog minor credits that followed like being a “show doctor” on pilots and sales tapes, and working with Ryan Seacrest and Ray Romano.
“I kept an NBC strip daytime reality series on the air by just basically taking over and taking their material and re-visioning it,” he recounted at one point.
But Bodolai, with despair by now welling in his veins, insisted that he returned to Los Angeles “totally fucked by Canadian television.”
After all, Canada is not known for its homegrown TV comedy.
There are exceptions like CTV’s Corner Gas and the CBC’s King of Kensington and Little Mosque on the Prairie.
But otherwise few homegrown sitcoms or sketch comedies manage to connect with Canadian critics and audiences.
But for the CBC, which gave early career boosts to Leslie Nielsen, Rich Little and Michael J. Fox, Canadian comedic talent might never have been able to labor in the wings before heading south to find American sitcom and celluloid success.
If anything, it was the ability of homegrown talent like Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Howie Mandel and Martin Short to parlay their on-stage Canadian comedy roots into starring Hollywood movie and TV roles that got them eventual international stardom.
Canadians like to think there's something funny about their country, and often cite a unique comic sensbility.
But it's really the need for Canadians to climb a mountain in Hollywood to make it to the top at home that has earned Canada international renown for its homegrown talent.
When Lorne Michaels launched SNL in 1975, he generously plucked talent like Dan Aykroyd and Mike Myers from the Chicago-based Second City theater group’s Toronto troupe.
And a host of Canadian talent like Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, John Candy and Catherine O’Hara found careers in Hollywood movies after cutting their teeth on the Second City TV show SCTV, from Second City producer Andrew Alexander.
What Bodolai managed as another American working in Canadian TV was making local stand-up talent and comedy writers like Mark Farrell and Brent Butt successful TV show-runners, rather than skilled applicants for taxpayer subsidies.
His parting words to Canadian comics included urging them to be ever-vigilant as TV show-runners, and not to hand the creative reins over to politically-savvy TV producers.
“You need to keep the fight against form-fillers as 'producers.' Canadian TV? It’s still fucked up with no promos, no other industry support that can compete with the money assault of US media,” Bodolai wrote.
“I think I am so proud of helping liberate comedy talent. Russell (Peters), you hearing me?” he added.
In the end, Bodolai appeared to accept Canadian comics likely saw him as just another TV executive, rather than someone who fought shoulder to shoulder in the writer’s room.
“It’s okay. I did all right. I may not do standup or like one of you, but my mission was a lot bigger than jokes then. I hope I served you well,” he wrote.