Home » Comedians » Anglo-Franco cultural nuances in the use of humour and comedy (#58)

Anglo-Franco cultural nuances in the use of humour and comedy (#58)

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If you haven’t noticed by now, one of the particularities of Montréwood pop-culture is that many of Montréwood’s personalities and platforms find their roots in comedy and humour.  Comedians in Québec generally transform into other media roles over time.   They ultimately become the interviewing hosts of television talk shows (think Guy A. Lepage and Éric Salvail).  They become the actors of sitcoms (think Martin Matte).  They become (or start out as) comedic radio hosts and DJs (think Jean-René Dufort).  They become the hosts of events, festivals, and award ceremonies (think Louis-José Houde).  They become directors, writers, producers .  They infiltrate sports culture (think Daniel Savoie).  They become huge business enterprises (think of Gilbert Rozon and his international Juste pour rire / “Just for Laughs” empire).  They become singers (think of Grégory Charles).  And they even become politicians (think of Maka Kotto).

Laughing, humour and comedy go hand-in-hand with the Latin joie de vivre of the Francophone side of Canada’s personality.  So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s also at the core of Québec and Montréwood’s culture.

But that’s not to say that Anglophone Canada doesn’t have a very strong comedic tradition or culture either.  Anglophone Canada’s biggest celebrities are also comedians, and our pop-culture incorporates humour as one its core elements.  The list of comedians goes on and on:  John Candy, Leslie Nielsen, Mike Ward, Dan Aykryod, Howie Mandel, Mike Bullard, Brent Butt, Jim Carey, Dave Foley, Michael J. Fox, Rick Mercer, Norm Macdonald, Mike Myers, Rick Moranis, William Shatner, Mark Rowsewell (the most famous foreigner in China, and thus the most famous “foreigner” to ¼ of the world’s population), Martin Short, Sugar Sammy, Scott Thompson, Mary Walsh… and so on…

It’s typically Canadian that such a large part of our country’s pop-culture foundations are built on humour (Anglophone and Francophone alike).   Simply said, comedy is “us”.  It’s makes “us” unique (truly, very few other country’s pop-culture revolve so much around humour and comedy).

But where we do see differences between Francophone and Anglophone humour is when it comes down to its application.  Unfortunately, there seems to be little understanding of those differences and nuances between Anglophones and Francophones.  If there were to be more understanding, I think we’d give each other a bit more slack on a number of fronts — especially on the political front.   I‘ll explain what I mean.

Prior to post 1960’s mass-immigration (and apart from First Nations cultures), Canada’s Anglophone culture could be broken down into three different spheres, which today continue to influence cultural differences between regions (even in light of mass global immigration to all regions of Canada):

They are:

  • The combined Atlantic cultural sphere which arose from the mixing of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish cultures and approaches to life.
  • The Central Canada culture (predominantly Ontario), which took root predominantly from English settlement, much of which came from loyalists.
  • In Western Canada, the Anglophone culture and approach to life predominantly was a mix of Imperial German / Prussian roots (from what Germany looked like on a map at the time of Western Canadian settlement: what today would be Germany proper, Poland/Baltic Coast cultures, Galacia/Western Ukrainian cultures, and Catherine the Great’s Russo-German settlers) in addition to a mix of settlement patterns similar to those of the Atlantic provinces.

As an aside, this is why many Anglophones in Western Canada can trace their roots to 4, 5 or more countries.  Using myself as an example, I’m a mix of 9 nationalities – something which is not at all uncommon in Western Canada, but which comes as a big surprise to people in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces.

[Also as an aside, I tend to strongly disagree with many of Diane Francis’ published views of what culturally constitutes “Anglophone Canada” (and what she thus advocates as possible future directions the country should take).   I feel her views tend to label Anglophone Canada as one giant monolithic cultural bloc, sharing the same socio-cultural attitudes and lifestyles as Anglophones in Central Canada.  Perhaps it stems from the fact that she has lived most of her life in Ontario after immigrating from the US?]

Anyway, back to the subject at hand …

Regardless of the fact that Anglophone Canada has three distinct cultural spheres which affect how we speak, view life, and interact with our peers (and government), we do nonetheless seem to share the same approach to humour and comedy.   We love humour, it’s all around us, but we do reserve it for an “appropriate time-and-place”… ie: there’s a time for work, for business, there’s a time for eating, for commuting on public transport, there’s a time for school, for this, for that…. AND Anglophones consider there to be an appropriate time and place for comedy, humour and jokes (just as there is an inappropriate time for humour and comedy).

However, in Francophone Canada, clear-cut lines between appropriate and inappropriate times for humour and jokes can be much more blurred and nuanced.   Subsequently, you’ll find that Francophone Canada takes a more informal approach to matters.  Francophone culture will tend to joke more at work (between colleagues, as well as between superiors and subordinates), will joke more at school (in class between students, and between students and teachers), more in public (even between strangers on the subway for example, whereas it’s total “silence” on Toronto’s subway, Vancouver’s Sky train, or Edmonton’s LRT system), and we find more humour in Francophone television talk shows — and YES… even in politics.

We saw a perfect example of this just last week with Justin Trudeau.  He was being asked to defend his position regarding his stance towards ISIS intervention.  His now infamous sound-bite response to the issue was that Canada should not “whip out our CF-18s, just to show how big they are” (while simultaneously making a waist-level whipping hand-gesture).   Speaking objectively, for many in Anglophone Canada this was a complete scandal.  Regardless of whether or not people agreed with the Liberal’s stance towards ISIS military intervention, Trudeau was chewed up and spit out by Anglophone media for cracking a joke and “not taking the issue seriously”.  He was called “flippent”, “immature”, “inappropriate”, and a host of other things.   He was also criticized for a number of other recent jokes he made during televised political discussions.   Basically, Anglophone media took the approach that it was a thoroughly inappropriate time to add any comedy or humour to the discussion.   Yet, Trudeau was raised in Québec, in Francophone schools, in a largely Francophone home environment, and he continues to raise his own family largely in French.  In Québec, this really wasn’t (nor would it be) as large a scandal (yes, it caught some attention, but it wasn’t as big a deal).  This was one of those times where we actually saw, with our own eyes, the different approaches to humour and comedy between Francophone and Anglophone cultures.   I found it completely disconcerting, and ignorant of so-called “experts” on Anglophone evening news political panels (the CBC National At-Issue panel, Sun News TV, and CTV commentaries for examples), trying to figure out how Trudeau could have made such a joke, but yet never cluing in to the fact that there may have been a somewhat “forgiveable” cultural aspect to it.  Yes, Trudeau is a politician and his arguments should perhaps sing to the audience, but at the same time we also hear the media complain relentlessly when politicians become chameleons, in the sense that they change their tune depending on who they are speaking to.  It’s a lose-lose, isn’t it?  Here, Trudeau was probably being true to the culture in which he was raised… and the Anglophone media experts should have clued in (at least to some extent), and explained it to the audience.   I was a bit surprised (and a little disappointed) that specific panelists didn’t address this, because some panelists could have been in a very good position to have done so.

On the flip side (as well as to emphasize that I’m NOT taking political sides), Stephen Harper also takes a terrible rap in Francophone media for almost the exact reverse situation.   In Anglophone Canada, Harper’s non-use of humour in serious situations gives many Anglophones (particularly in the Western Canadian cultural sphere) the impression that he’s rolling up his sleeves, taking things seriously, putting his nose to the grind, and getting down to work for his country in a practical no nonsense kind of manner.  However, in the Francophone media, he’s repeatedly lambasted and characterized for not having a personality which enables him to relate to (and thus govern) his Francophone electorate, or the country as a whole.  He’s constantly accused of being stoic, cold, stone faced, never smiling, never joking, unempathetic, lacking a light approach to serious issues, and can’t take a joke.  Seriously… these are the references being associated with him in Francophone media… and not just in editorials, but in nightly newscasts and talk radio.  As surprising as it may be to many Anglophones, these are among some of the reasons many Québec Francophones invoke for not supporting the Conservatives.   There’s a sense of cultural disconnect from Harper, and thus of the Conservatives.  But this cultural disconnect didn’t exist when Québec’s Mulroney was at the helm of the party.  I truly believe, in no small part, Harper’s perceived lack of humour and charm which Québec is used to hearing from Francophone politicians (both Federally and Provincially) is one of the (several) reasons his party has not found footing in Québec.

People vote for who they like – for who they believe best reflects them.  Perfect example: if the Federal Anglophone NDP leader jokes in French like a Francophone, he/she will get the votes.  Jack Layton made huge strives to do so, and his party won over Québec.   Layton sometimes seemed like a completely different person when he spoke to audiences in French, and it worked!  Gilles Duceppe of the BQ took Québec for many years because people liked his on-camera humorous personality, as did Lucien Bouchard, and even Jean Chrétien!.   Stephen Harper hasn’t made that connection with Francophones – and I think it has more to do with a perceived lack of appropriate use of Francophone humour when addressing serious issues, than it is with Conservative party policy (there are Québec provincial parties such as the CAQ and former ADQ whose policies overlap quite a bit with the Federal Conservatives, and they haven’t had a difficult time reining in Québec’s votes).

So you have to ask yourself, why is this?

It’s not that Stephen Harper can’t or doesn’t use humour… but what he considers, as an Anglophone, to be an appropriate time and place for jokes and comedy is quite different than a Francophone’s perception.  I’ve seen Stephen Harper say and do some of the most hilarious things, but he tends to do it off-camera, or between speeches… whereas a Francophone politician tends to take those same type of jokes and humour on to the stage with them, in front of the cameras (remember how much Anglophone Canada criticized and mocked Jean Chrétien for his constant “flippant” use of inappropriate jokes and humour on camera?  But he never received the same degree of criticism in French — it was almost expected that he should interact with the camera in this typical style when speaking in French).

Unfortuantely, this is one area where the Two Solitudes are alive and well.  We need to work on this.

We need to work on our understanding and empathy.   Because of these quirky cultural dynamics, we also need to stop focusing so much on the degree to which humour is (or is not) incorporated into serious discussions.   But at the same time, I’m very much a realist — and I know this likely won’t change unless all of Canada becomes fully bilingual (and that won’t happen in my lifetime).   So with that being said, unfortunately, politicians with poor French skills will likely continue to lack the cultural savvy of Jack Layton; meaning they won’t be able to adjust their personality along linguist lines.  That also means that the “national” aspirations of politicians with poor French skills will continue to remain limited (as they should be — and I’ve just summed up why).

I suppose the only advice I can give to our politicians of all stripes (French and English) is to work your butt off to learn both languages inside and out (truly, Harper’s French isn’t so great — he sounds uncomfortable, awkward, and constantly at a loss for words in French… so my advice to Anglophone politicians is to get your French up to a level at least comparable what Jack Layton’s was.  And for Francophone politicians, get it to a level which is at least as good as Lucien Bouchard’s English).   Otherwise we needlessly get into a “Sarkozy-Merkel” style of cultural awkwardness (Remember those awkward days?  There’s a “bang-on” Latin-Saxon example if I’ve ever seen one).

Despite the above portrait, as a united Francophone-Anglophone country, comedy and humour is where we still have so so much in common (more aspects in common than differences).   At our core, our country’s pop-culture revolves around humour – much more than most countries in the world.   It’s part of our collective values.   The only difference is “when” and “how” we decide to use it.

If I have any advice to the media, both Anglophone and Francophone, get a bit more in touch with the cultural context before you judge a politician by their choice of words.

Ironically, I’m having a difficult time figuring out if this whole thing is funny or not.  It touches and involves some pretty serious stuff.  But hey, I’ll be the first to set the example, and I’ve decided I’ll just take it in stride and laugh at the rediculous nature of it.  After all, I get the context!  And it’s not my problem if politicians can’t learn French or cultural nuances to an extent that it would keep them out of hot water – so I suppose I don’t have an excuse not to laugh 😉

Anyway, enough with the political aspect of comedy and humour…

The next three posts will concentrate on a different aspect of Montréwood humour (in which computer graphics and voice alterations have made for some of the most watched, most successful and most iconic comedy hits).

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