The Not-So-Kind Canadian Sense of Humour

If you want to learn something about yourself and laugh a bit, spend a year studying humour.

If you want to learn more about Canada in the process, read the books recognized by the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, and if you don’t have time to experiment with your life in this way, consider this book a passable surrogate.

          I’ve changed the way I look at things since the fall of 2012[1] when I set out to collect and read all of the Leacock Medal books. I wanted to steal techniques, study different writing styles, and laugh. But when you spend hours asking yourself, “What’s so funny?” or why one thing strikes you as funny and something else falls flat, you find the answers not in writing tricks and topics but in the memories, biases, and cares that induce reaction and define who you are.

          Robert Thomas Allen, a two-time Leacock medallist who gave this issue a lot of thought,[2] concluded, after watching children, that “the humour in a joke doesn’t come from the joke itself, but from a lot of mental pictures, ideas, feelings, and associations that the joke suggests.” This explains why we get headaches trying to describe funny--an exercise that triple medal winner Arthur Black compares to “braiding smoke”--and why we usually throw up our hands and brand it a personal thing beyond understanding.[3]

          Thinking about these things as I read the Leacock Medal books, I learned that old memories haunt me more than I had realized, and I learned that I have a different hometown than I had thought. I now see sad thoughts as the seeds of funny ones, and I get up every morning looking differently at the place where I live.

          I also learned that kindness does not always govern my thinking. This rattled me as someone who started the project believing that a unifying theory of Canadian humour might rest in Stephen Leacock’s renowned definition: “the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and the artistic expression thereof.”

           We Canadians like to think of ourselves as kind, nice people, and Canadian humour has to function within this perception. But many critics bristle at Leacock’s inference that our humour always has to be kind and often call the suggestion “nonsense.” In the crusty introduction to Feast of Stephen, Robertson Davies said firmly that Leacock “knew better than that.”[4] The Leacock Medal books, in fact, reflect both kind and unkind purpose, and I admit that the ignoble, not-nice, and un-Canadian parts made me laugh most.[5] For this reason, I now defend Leacock’s statement not as a perfect truth, but as a tool that, like quantum physics and relativity, can provide you with the basis for analysis and new understanding.

          With enough education and conceit, you can, of course, pronounce on the “artistic expression thereof” merits of written humour. But even artistry and quality depend on your perspective. The humour writing I admired most last year came as a single made-up word: #Ottawapiskat.[6] The Twitter hashtag unleashed a torrent of jokes about the Canadian government’s relationship with aboriginal people. This word draws on another element of the Leacock equation, the relevant “incongruities of life.” The Twitter word worked because it touched a raw, moment-in-time Canadian incongruity that overpowered the need for elaborate artistic expression. On the other hand, craftsmen like Davies, Mordecai Richler, and Morley Torgov invoke artistry and lots of words to introduce us to unfamiliar incongruities and make them feel like our own.

          Despite my deviation from Canadian niceness, I still see a role for kindly contemplation or, at least, the absence of bile that comes with a separation in distance and time. It beams out of Harry J. Boyle’s reminiscing about the Depression years and some of Gregory Clark’s war stories.

          Leacock’s statement thus makes more sense to me when viewed as a three-part formula: Is this written with artistic skill or not? What are the incongruities at work here? And was it motivated by kind or unkind intent? These questions in combination can illuminate that seemingly unknowable entity--your personal sense of humour--and arm you to confront anyone who tries to tell you what is or is not funny. With a collection like the Leacock Medal books, the exercise can also point toward a Canadian sense of humour at the confluence of our incongruities, our varied artistic skills, and our conflictions with kindness.

          I commend the Leacock Medal books for this purpose not because others have deemed them humorous or because I happen to find them funny, but because they tell us a lot about Canada.

          This includes many things I’m sure you do not know--yet.

          So, I invite you to explore this blog, read my book, and learn more about our country’s sense of humour, too much about me, and maybe a bit about yourself.


May 2014

[1] The centennial of the first publication of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

[2] In A Treasury of Canadian Humour (Toronto: Canadian Illustrated Library, McClelland and Stewart, 1967), Robert Thomas Allen looks at pioneer days and early twentieth-century humour in a book that complements the modern-era Leacock Medal winners.

[3] Alan Walker, Editor, The Treasury of Great Canadian Humour (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd 1974) says in his introduction that “humour is either funny or it isn’t. No explanations are necessary or even forgivable.” (Yet I am sure he would have agreed that things can be made less funny with poor writing.)

[4] Stephen Leacock (author), Robertson Davies (Editor), Feast of Stephen (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970). More recently, historian Don Nerbas said of Leacock’s Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (January– February 2014 Literary Review of Canada) that “Instead of the kindly--what we have here is earnest, old-fashioned satire.”

[5] Evidently, I am not alone. Humour researchers have long established that people laugh privately at sexism, sick jokes, and other things they deplore in public; see Harvey Mindess, et al., The Antioch Humor Test (New York: Avon, 1985).

[6] Attributed to Edmonton First Nations artist and author Aaron Paquette commenting on the Idle No More movement and the Northern Ontario reserve Attawapiskat.