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The first time I ran into the Canadian comedy Letterkenny, which will make its U.S. debut Friday on Hulu (the first two seasons, of five so far), it was hearing both of my teenagers laughing about something on YouTube. Like, for a long time. It was the cold open from Letterkenny‘s first season.
I investigated. We replayed it about eight times.
Soon they were reciting lines from different episodes that they had “found” — ahem. Since Letterkenny wasn’t available in this country, we had a talk. Cut to Banff, Canada, at the World Media Festival, where I was representing The Hollywood Reporter, doing some moderating and interviewing. I professed my love of Letterkenny to some Canadians (boy, they are nice people, you might have heard) and pretty soon the kind folks at Bell Media, which aired the series on Crave TV up there, had hooked me up with all three seasons.
It was a little like running into some crack. Which, come to think of it, sounds like something they might say on Letterkenny. Back at home — never mind the Game of Thrones swag and such — someone just became a hero. Letterkenny episodes were finally available. Legally.
Now, knowing a few things about Letterkenny, I’m pretty sure the last thing anyone connected with the series would be comfortable with is an American trying to explain it. Figure it out, they would say, dismissively, like in this rapid-fire exchange (the dialogue is almost always and impressively rapid-fire) from Season 2:
“Malt vinegar is not a traditional way to dress your French fries in the United States.”
“What the fuck is wrong with them?”
“Malt vinegar is not a staple condiment on table tops in restaurants in the United States.”
“Fuck, figure it out.”
“That’s what I say. Figure it out.”
“Yep, no vinegar on the tables. No Kraft peanut butter…”
“Figure it out.”
“Fucking figure it out.”
“Better not forget those all dressed chips.”
“No ketchup chips neither.”
“Figure it out.”
“Somebody really ought to write a letter…They have running water down there?”
The series is very, very Canadian. That is, there are elements about it that are odd, even to Canadians, whose capacity for calmly accepting unconventional things on the intake is pretty well established.
So I’ll start with the obvious — I love this show. Secondly, it’s a highly stylized bit of brilliance that, on first watch, might bring you to a few conclusions that will then be completely erased upon further viewings. The seasons will then stack up. Or they won’t — Letterkenny is hilariously odd, foul-mouthed, juvenile, eccentric, smart, deceptively heartwarming, absurd, niche and, yes, relentlessly creative and likely not for everyone. I’m loath to compare it to comedy series in the States because there’s no direct correlation, but it’s probably safe to say It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a not-too-distant cousin, and that’s damned high praise.
Created as a web series by Jared Keeso and then developed for television by Keeso and Jacob Tierney (who co-writes with Keeso; both act as well as executive produce, with Tierney directing all the episodes), the series is set in the remote fictional town of Letterkenny in Ontario, and opens with a simple onscreen declaration: “There are 5,000 people in Letterkenny. These are their problems.”
Those problems are mostly contained within the “hicks” (farmers), “skids” (drug addicts), hockey players, church people and the neighboring reservation. Confrontation of all kinds is a key comedic element of Letterkenny, and not just because Canadians like a good donnybrook and have the capacity, male and female, to beat your ass solid while looking like the friendliest folks around.
Keeso, the driving force of the series, plays Wayne, the toughest (but also, weirdly, the nicest) guy in Letterkenny, who is a hick and runs a produce stand outside of the family farm, which is basically just a setup for sitting around and talking. He does that with best friend Daryl (Nathan Dales), often shortened to “Dary” in that hockey (well, most sports) way of adding a “y” or “ie” sound to everybody’s name. (It should be noted that some elements of Letterkenny will take you longer to figure out, and not just because it’s full of colloquialisms and weird slang, but also because the series loves to take three words and smash them into one. As you untangle this concept, it gets ever funnier.) Wayne and Daryl often riff with Squirrely Dan (K. Trevor Wilson), who adds an “s” to just about every word that comes out of his mouth. In addition to the Canadian and Ontario accent, this will complicate things. It will also become exponentially more funny as you listen.
Wayne’s sister, Katy (Michelle Mylett), is not to be messed with. She’s also, much to the chagrin of Wayne, in a relationship with Reilly (Dylan Playfair) and Jonesy (Andrew Herr), two members of the Letterkenny Irish hockey team who are, generously, dull butter knives, who live to work out and flirt with hot girls (aka “snipers”). There’s also a clutch of addicts and drug dealers who are part goth, boy band, spastic dancers and mostly frightened and displaced nice guys; a clearly gay pastor who might or might not be confused about it; the world’s filthiest female bartender; and, well, the most eclectic and mostly angry and sometimes perverted batch of locals you’ll ever see.
Each season grows this group while making the core group more relatable, likable and funny in their distinctness.
There is an unvarnished rural Canadian-ness to all of it, from the “nutsack” references to far, far worse; but as coarse as Wayne and friends can get, there’s both a code of a honor among everyone and a sweetness underneath that often catches you by surprise. Letterkenny can be philosophical while being juvenile, intelligent while ridiculous, and though some grasp of Canada or hockey or a hard life in the snow might help the initial viewing, it’s not essential to understanding the comedy.
What Letterkenny is, most impressively, is verbally adroit. Few series riff this fast, and the verbal gymnastics are not shortcut with pauses that clutter. The series keeps the storyline to a minimum and is dominated by conversations between characters. That means Keeso and Tierney’s writing all but demands allegiance to rhythm, which moves at an insane pace (in turn, you learn to really appreciate the disparate actors here).
Canadian series, particularly the comedies, have rarely got their due south of their border, but Americans have a chance to discover one of the better exports now that Hulu has signed on (though, if I’m being honest, I want to see the next three seasons follow pretty quickly, so get on that deal, Hulu).
Letterkenny is different but, listen, figure it out.
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