Canadian Butts to American Sitcom Jokes

December 22, 2009
By | 8 Comments

tMapleLeafJewishStarAmoliteRGYGRecently, 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.


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8 Responses to “ Canadian Butts to American Sitcom Jokes ”

  1. Erin Copple Smith on December 23, 2009 at 11:23 AM

    Great post on a topic I’ve thought about often. I certainly don’t think you’re just a Canadian guy who’s cranky about Canadian jokes on US TV.

    Your point about HIMYM is especially interesting, since I’ve long thought they do a great job of making Canadian jokes seem like something dumb Americans make because they don’t know better. You’re right that the jokes are framed & coded as unreliable–great point.

  2. Matt Sienkiewicz on December 23, 2009 at 2:52 PM

    In part, this underscores what ‘Jew’ means in the context of popular American television. For the most part the tv Jew is a white, ashkenazi, mostly secular East or West Coast American. Or, as Family Guy pointed out a few seasons back “call them New Yorkers.” Occasionally you’ll see an Israeli or Crown Heights Hasid, but for the most part it’s Seinfeld, Larry David, Richard Lewis etc..

    So, for example, Montreal’s large Sephardic population wouldn’t count at all.

    But, probably more relevantly, nowhere on earth or than Tel Aviv or maybe Haifa has ‘many Jews’ when compared to New York City. About 1 in 6 of the Jews on Earth live in NYC. There are 6 or 7 New York Jews for every Canadian Jew.

    So is Canada the very best example of a place with not many Jews? Not really, no, although other the US and Israel, it’s hard to find a country in which Jewish culture makes a real dent on a national level. There’s a reason all those Canadian Jewish comedians do so well in NYC and LA.

    If you go to Toronto, Montreal or even Winnipeg you’ll actually find vibrant, sizable Jewish communities that on the whole are far more traditional than those found in American cities. But they also tend to be a little more isolated and not nearly as present on TV.

    As for Canadians as comedic Others, you’re absolutely right. I imagine the defense would probably be that if the Other isn’t a underprivileged minority and has no history of facing discrimination, it’s fair game. Not sure what I think about that, but I’m pretty sure that’s while you’ll never here any real outcry.

    • Jonathan Gray on December 25, 2009 at 12:57 AM

      Matt, I think you’re spot on. As for the final par., you’re likely right there too, though the other way to look at it is that if it’s that easy to make fun of so similar a group as Cdns, that doesn’t suggest great things for the capacity to get or give a crap about any group with more notable, profound differences

  3. Nick Marx on December 24, 2009 at 12:05 PM

    Oh Canadian guy, get a grip. Canadian guy on 30 Rock is the latest in a litany of Others (admittedly, not on the same level as Jews, African-Americans, et al.) used to underscore the farcical and outrageous behavior of Jenna and Tracy. This doesn’t make the jokes themselves any less lame or offensive, sure, but I read them in the same way I read Cartman–as being more about how we talk about/misunderstand Canadians than about Canadians themselves.

    And what makes Robin’s joke better than those on 30 Rock, the indication that some HIMYM writer seemingly knows hockey (or had access to the Canucks wikipedia page)? Isn’t it just as lame that Robin is predictably harping on about hockey and not something that doesn’t explicitly mark her as Canadian? Vancouver used to have a semi-relevant NBA team too, you know.

    • Jonathan Gray on December 24, 2009 at 2:58 PM

      The Grizzlies semi-relevant? whah? 🙂

      What makes Robin’s jokes better is that they open themselves up to Canadians, and allow us in on the joke, rather than definitively situating us on the outside. They’re culturally literate in a way that the 30 Rock jokes are culturally illiterate.

      I might accept the response about Jenna and Tracy if that was the case, but the show confirms that he doesn’t know sarcasm. And it would be just as easy to make a few jokes with Canadian content that showed some remote form of knowledge of the country, or more clearly situated the knowledge as incorrect or likely to be incorrect. It’s not pedagogic, didactic humor that I want, let me be clear, but it’s hard to make the comic point that someone is ignorant when the writer isn’t showing much more than that him or herself. (and personally, I’m really tired of the peddling of notions of Canada as not multicultural, in cases that seemingly celebrate the wonderful diversity of the US in contrast).

      I see quite a clear difference from Cartman, who is so clearly contextualized as vile and odious and wrong, and where carnivalesque inversions are more clearly signaled. Liz and 30 Rock are less obviously so.

      • Nick Marx on December 24, 2009 at 3:54 PM

        How are the jokes on 30 Rock closed off to Canadians? Can’t their “cultural literacy” be found in reading them as parodying stereotypes of Canadians (a context signaled by the program’s often overbearing tongue-in-cheekiness). They may annoy and frustrate Canadians, but that doesn’t preclude them from laughing at the idea that such jokes are still in circulation, does it?

        I just don’t buy the idea that HIMYM is somehow doing something more right than 30 Rock because it name-drops a hockey team. Thinking about offensive humor in terms of whether or not any given group “gets it” misses the broader discursive frames we use to make sense of such humor.

        Ok, it’s xmas eve and I’ve used the “d” word. Better set this aside for a bit. Do they have xmas in Canada? (smiley face)

        • Jonathan Gray on December 25, 2009 at 12:54 AM

          Part of it’s just about laziness — HIMYM doesn’t just namedrop the Canucks, it has some nice little nods to Canadians and to Canucks fans that only we’d get (beyond Googled knowledge too), without excluding Americans. 30 Rock’s Canadian jokes may not be more offensive per se — they’re just really, really lazy. Maybe 30 Rock *is* just making fun of the pervasiveness of stereotypes of Cdns, but find an interesting way to do it. Laughing at how Cdns say “about” differently is hardly great comic material. And then if you want to make a crack about Cdns not knowing sarcasm due to a lack of Jewish population, as a way of suggesting it’s a silly stereotype, where’s the follow-up playful tip to a deeper knowledge of sarcasm, or tip to a Jewish population?

          Let’s put it this way, Nick — you asking if Cdns have Xmas is funnier than anything 30 Rock came up with (similar to HIMYM’s suggestion that butterscotch is to Cdn women as chocolate is to American women), and I doubt you spent time thinking it up, whereas in theory their writers are thinking these things up with time and assistance, for significant profit. I love the show in many other ways, but their Cdn jokes are about as lazy as taking the car to one’s next door neighbor

  4. Nathan Wood on April 5, 2010 at 10:31 AM

    I think you’re just missing the joke in 30 Rock. When I watched it I thought the point wasn’t that Canadians don’t get sarcasm, or that Canada doesn’t have Jews, but rather that Jews created sarcasm. That’s the joke. That such a fundamental element of comedy necessarily and exclusively came from Jews.

    And in regards to HIMYM. If their Canada jokes are really on topic so often, is it really true then that Canadians are afraid of the dark? Haha. Just a thought.