humourist in chief

Tucked away in the folds of glossy magazine pages, below the fold in newspapers’ lifestyle sections, you will find them. They have the wit, the sarcasm and the good sense to make you laugh about war, politics and celebrity – if and when they ever get the chance to crack wise. With few venues, and fewer editors willing to take a risk on humour, these ghettoized Canadians are often treated as inconsequential space-fillers who are supposed to point out the lighter side when they’d rather be baring their teeth.

They can’t seem to get a break, which leaves the file open for a smart guy like Jon Stewart to pick up the mantle as the era’s dominant satirist. North America’s “it” boy of satire and all things irreverent, Stewart has become the particular elephant our Canadian humour writers have been trapped in the room with – not that they mind.

Neither do Canadians – at least the 158,000 of them who watch The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report every Monday to Thursday night on the Comedy Network.

Our funniest Canadians speak to Diana Cina about how they sneak onto the few pages that’ll have them, why that can be a good thing, how they manage to make a living despite it all – and why Stewart hasn’t jumped the shark.

ON JON “MR. ELEPHANT-IN-THE-ROOM” STEWART

That famous survey came out that said more young people get their news from The Daily Showthan from the news, which some people saw as cause for concern. The thing is, there is more truth in an episode of The Daily Showthan there is on the network news. The news is this sort of ridiculous television show, with the haircuts and the serious anchorman and the wacky weather guy. You turn on the news and it’s terrifying stuff and then “here’s a kitten in a tree” or “now here’s our funny weatherman.” Or here’s the story about a deer that peed on town hall – they love their fucking animals, you know. Stewart is doing an incredible service – what he does is put the news to shame.

– Jesse Brown

I don’t see him over my shoulder when I’m doing something, but I do see him four nights a week on the Comedy Network.

– Craig Silverman

In Canada our traditional media tend to work on a traditional model and the traditional model is like 60 Minutes. You’ve got 58 minutes of serious things and then you have Andy Rooney at the end. That’s how a lot of newspapers and magazines have been set up over time.

– Scott Feschuk

Lately, the burden of bearing the mantle of Chief of Humour is beginning to show on Stewart. Everybody’s onside against Bush, it’s a bit safe. The interesting thing would be to be anti-Jon Stewart.

– Marni Jackson

MY CONSERVATIVE DAD CAN BEAT UP YOUR LIBERAL DAD

I’ve been watching Stewart for a long time, long before it became trendy. He’s always been quite adamant about attacking both sides. A lot of his stuff that makes fun of Democrats is in some ways funnier and more memorable than some of the stuff he’s done on Bush.

– Scott Feschuk

I don’t agree that humour is more on the left of the political spectrum. South Park has done a wonderful job of pointing out the hypocrisies of lefty political correctness. To me, it’s not really about left and right – satire should be aimed at whoever is telling us how to think or what to do (including satirists). Traditionally that may have come from liberals, but these days you get it from both sides, and the best comedy is fiercely independent.

– Jesse Brown

NOW YOU’VE GONE TOO FAR

You certainly can get away with saying a lot more in the confines of a so-called humour column than you could in a normal column. Probably because, in all honesty, the things you’re trying to say with humour, if you tried to say without humour, they would sound really mean.

– Scott Feschuk

Humour allows the writer to push the envelope the way editorial cartoonists can be super-irreverent and insulting, characterizing someone as a donkey, for example, but it’s somehow more palatable than just calling someone an ugly jackass.

– Ellen Vanstone

Humour is a dangerous thing. It can be a wonderfully effective tool to use, but the unfortunate thing is that a lot of tools tend to use it. In the wrong hands, it becomes Michael Jackson jokes and, in Canada, insights about Tim Hortons and the peculiar effect that extreme cold has on the genitals. You will discover people who claim to be humour journalists, but who really aren’t funny. They are what I call Air Farce Journalists, and they’re just as dangerously unfunny as the television version.

– Craig Silverman

The very unfunny Air Farce is still on the air.

– Marni Jackson

GHETTO LIFE

First of all, it’s the most awesome ghetto in the world to be in because you don’t have to talk to anybody, you don’t have to phone anybody, you don’t have to do any legitimate actual work. In all honesty, it’s the best job there is.

– Scott Feschuk

Humour journalism in newspapers is often the province of older gentlemen who plumb the depths of their inability to program a VCR. “DVD? That sounds like something I caught during the war!” It’s put on such a pedestal or ghettoized so much in how the media treats it that people are scared or unwilling to engage in it. My concern is how do you find ways to put humour in the rest of the paper, instead of ghettoizing it in one person’s column like, “Here’s our funny guy, if you want a chuckle check out his column.” Part of that is the risk in trying to write something funny. The truth is that there are always a few who do it well, and thousands who pretend to.

– Craig Silverman

Playboy magazine used to label its funny pieces “Humour,” so when you read it you would know that you’d laugh. If not, you wouldn’t know and you’d feel awkward. So unless it’s labeled, people don’t get it.

– Joey Slinger

WHAT DO YOU CALL YOURSELF AGAIN?

I’m a sit-down comedian.

– Joey Slinger

I’m a commentator, not unlike an editorial cartoon.

– Rick Mercer

I hate the term humourist. I’m not a satirist because that’s pretentious… how about irritant?

– Jesse Brown

I would never presume to call myself a humour writer. That’s asking for trouble.

– Ellen Vanstone

Geez, it’s not like you’re calling us pedophiles or Leafs fans. We should lighten up.

– Craig Silverman

HOW I GOT INTO THIS RACKET

When I worked at The Globe and MailI was just a straight reporter, so I never had a forum to write anything funny. But there was a first minister’s meeting in Ottawa and I got assigned to write a lighthearted piece about it. I did and I thought it went pretty well. Then about two months later I went in with an idea for another piece of that sort and the bureau chief at the time just stared at me and went, “Uh, too soon. It’s only been a couple of months – we can’t put another funny piece in the paper.”

– Scott Feschuk

I don’t have the luxury of getting into a knock-down drag-out with an editor about whether Topeka, Kansas or Tuktoyaktuk is funnier.

– Craig Silverman

I get my jokes fact-checked. Like, “How ugly was his mother? Can I get a source on that?”

– Jesse Brown

I love writing humour, it’s always easier than doing research or footnotes or a bibliography or getting quotes right. I went into humour because of laziness.

– Linwood Barclay

HUMOUR HERE, HUMOUR NOW

Wit is more of a lingua francathese days than previously. You can’t even find a kid’s movie that isn’t riddled with adult irony.

– Marni Jackson

Impersonating used to be really great, but how can you impersonate Bush better than he can impersonate himself? You don’t get Dana Carvey to do it because it has no resonance anymore, you have to get Ali G to approach these guys and then you have these political figures with these comedians doing political sketches right there in front of them. And they are unwittingly in a comedy sketch.

– Jesse Brown

It has got a lot tougher and a lot meaner, which is all healthy. It’s a lot less trying to be cute about things – when you take a shot at somebody you take a shot.

– Joey Slinger

THE ATTEMPT TO LAUNCH A HUMOUR MAGAZINE IN CANADA

Some people at two of the main magazine companies were initially very excited about Moustache, the humour mag concept I came up with and developed with Craig Silverman. We have a huge appetite for comedy in Canada, a healthy detachment from and skepticism towards America’s passions, and people here are generally pretty smart. Yet there’s nothing too funny coming out of here right now. That’s because of a general wussiness at the top levels of our cultural institutions. You have to be willing to offend, and most aren’t. I’ve been pretty lucky so far with what I’ve gotten away with. If there are any doubtful millionaires reading this, feel free to get in touch with me and finance Moustache, and if it tanks I’ll buy you a Coke.

– Jesse Brown

That was sort of the core of our pitch, the impact that Jon Stewart has had and looking at how humour has become the preferred language of the younger generation. When you print things in a humourous or biting way, it just seems to have that much more impact. Our magazine was focused at a certain demographic and they decided they didn’t want that demographic. There was a resistance to a magazine with a strong humour component. Because it’s high-risk, it’s like drug use, as if you’re going to get AIDS from telling a joke.

– Craig Silverman