Recently, 30 Rock added a Canadian character, and with it lots of Canadian jokes. While I wasn’t previously party to the general grumbling about the supposed decline of the show, I might be now. Let’s be clear that I don’t resent the jokes, nor am I offended per se: they’re just lame. See, they’re almost all based on completely silly notions of Canadians.
Case in point, the last episode I saw included a line about Canadians not getting sarcasm since they (we) don’t have a sizeable Jewish population.
First, then, there’s the idea that we don’t get sarcasm, which plays into the tired notion of Canadians as simple beings, and forgets that a disproportionately large number of “American” comedians (who, it’s suggested, do get sarcasm) are Canadian (Seth Rogen, Mort Sahl, Eric McCormack, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Will Arnett, Samantha Bee, Eugene Levy, and others come to mind). But this suggestion is so outlandish that I don’t think it’s fair to assume it was meant in any seriousness.
I do think it’s fair, though, to criticize the part of the joke that seemed to be the set-up: that Canada doesn’t have a large Jewish population. Not only does this suggest the writers’ ignorance of Canada (Leonard Cohen, Erving Goffman, Frank Gehry, Moshe Safdie, Naomi Klein, William Shatner, Jason and Ivan Reitman, and, again, Eugene Levy, Seth Rogen, and Rick Moranis come to mind. Indeed, Canada has the world’s fourth largest Jewish population), but it also jars uncomfortably with the joke’s attempt to share an insider moment with Jews.
Now, I’m aware in writing this that another famous Canadian Jewish comedian who could be added to either of the above lists is 30 Rock’s Executive Producer, Lorne Michaels. So perhaps I’m just another Canadian who doesn’t get the joke, but if it’s an insider joke, it’s not all that funny. Can’t we make insider jokes that don’t just perpetuate silly notions of Canadians (or of any other group, for that matter) in their base (“no Jews in Canada”), even if not in an outlandish punchline (“Canadians don’t get sarcasm”)?
That isn’t a rhetorical question. The answer is yes. And the evidence plays itself out on How I Met Your Mother, which is also fond of making Canadian jokes, but with wonderful inside knowledge. The writers clearly know their Vancouver Canucks, for instance. And when a stupid suggestion is made, it’s not from the value neutral position – it’s from the chauvinist Barney Stinson, and hence automatically framed and coded as unreliable, and more often a joke at the expense of American lack of knowledge of Canadians than a rehearsal of that ignorance.
Oh Canadian guy, get a grip, you might be thinking. But it points to a more general concern one might have for comedy about Others, since surely it doesn’t have to be based on ignorance.