The April Fools
By Jim Slotek
(April 5, 2019 – Toronto, ON) Another April Fool’s Day has come and gone, and no one – not even the Beaverton – came up with any “fake news” to rival my favourite, now-defunct CBC Radio show, This is That.
For eight years, the show, starring Peter Oldring and Pat Kelly, would present what sounded like As It Happens pieces about fake stuff like an Ontario youth soccer league that decided to boost players’ self-esteem by playing without a ball, or a bylaw in Quebec requiring dogs to be bilingual, or the man who took a DNA test and was shocked to discover he was actually born in Edmonton.
Listeners would phone up, all worked up, and actual mainstream news outlets fell for it too (Fox News, in particular, feasted on the ball-less soccer story as the latest liberal snowflake lunacy).
This is That aired its last episode in December. It followed on the heels of the end of the Rick Mercer Report a year ago, and was followed recently by the announcement that the next season of Schitt’s Creek will be its last (I’m still trying to process this).
I decided to wait a few days, just in case you missed the memo and thought I was making up any of this bad news for Canadian (and coincidentally CBC) comedy.
So whadda we got? I still love Letterkenny. And Baroness von Sketch Show is probably the funniest thing on CBC these days, acted and written by female sketch comics I’ve been watching onstage for years (many of them graduates of Second City). It’s been airing on IFC in the U.S., where it’s grabbed a whole new audience of Americans with a sense of humour.
Nathan Fielder’s Nathan For You is technically an American show, though he’s Canadian (and it runs on Much). And the premise, a guy with a business degree comes up with surreal advice for actual small businesses (a ranch for overweight riders, a “poo flavoured” frozen yogurt), works way better than it should.
Canadian comedy is resilient, and I’m confident it’ll constantly reboot. My friend, the TV critic Bill Brioux curates a seasonal TV on Film series at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox (old TV preserved on 16mm film), and the quality of the comedy has always been there. It was at one of these that I finally saw This Hour Has Seven Days (the ‘60s series whose titled is riffed by This Hour Has 22 Minutes), an astonishing combination of The Daily Show and 60 Minutes, that I was too young in the ‘60s to appreciate.
Apart from mind-boggling actual interviews (like a black Southern minister debating a KKK leader), there’d be audacious segments like Patrick Watson on set with Orson Welles demanding to know why he couldn’t make a good film anymore, or the late broadcast curmudgeon Jack Webster wandering the streets of Vancouver at night, interviewing homeless people about who they planned to vote for in the next election.
I saw Nightcap, a sketch comedy series fronted by the late, great Billy Van, watched, I’m told, by mainly stoned people after the hockey game. The episode I saw had Van playing a gay Batman, which was pretty out there for ‘60s network TV, though the bit didn’t age well.
There was the impressive Hart & Lorne Terrific Hour, with Hart Pomerantz and Lorne Michaels (yes, THAT Lorne Michaels, the one who hasn’t cast a Canadian on Saturday Night Live in 20 years. Can we revoke his citizenship?). I did watch that show regularly back in the day, and loved Michaels’ interviews with “the Canadian beaver” (Pomerantz), who’d complain about the American Eagle always promising, “I’m gonna make you rich, Beav!” (The episode I saw at TV on Film featured Lighthouse as the house band and a young James Taylor as the musical guest).
SCTV still shines brightly. My most vivid memories were a Sammy Maudlin show episode where Bobby Bittman (Eugene
Levy) and his brother Skip (Rick Moranis) began shouting at each other in Yiddish, and Sammy (Joe Flaherty) exclaimed, “I love this showbiz talk!” and the Melonville election during which Mayor Tommy Shanks was confined to a psychiatric hospital, and his slogan was, “Get me out of here.”
I followed The Kids in the Hall from their days at the Rivoli, and there’s an endless list of favourite sketches. But the recent death of rockabilly legend Dick Dale has me thinking of Dave Foley’s surreal and hilarious The True Meaning of Christmas Specials, a terrific Yuletide broadcast that, I believe, only aired once and featured Dale as the musical guest. It’s viewable on YouTube and highly recommended.
The talent pool is endless so long as there are open mikes and stages. The recent decision by Just For Laughs to walk back its decision to Americanize Sirius XM’s all-Canadian satellite radio station bodes well for our comedy talent continuing to make a living. And my advice is that a comedy club is still a good night out.
And as time goes by, we’re going to need a laugh more than ever.
Jim Slotek is a longtime Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter who has interviewed thousands of celebrities. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special. His writing also appears in Cineplex, Movie Entertainment magazines and in the blog Original-Cin.