Top Ten Canadian Comedy Series (You May Never Get To See)

A column article, Top Ten by: Chris Wunderlich

If you’ve never been north of the border, you’re missing out. In case we at CB haven’t made that clear, what with all the goodies coming out at TIFF, the geeky splendor that is Fan Expo and unparalleled experience that is TCAF, I’ve taken it upon myself to make things clearer.

When it comes to music, video games and comic folk, we Canucks roll with the best of them. In the area of film you’re a lot less likely to see a success. In television? Well, let’s just say our output is often lacking. 

A soap opera based on a commuter train? Yeah, somebody thought that would be gold.

Sure, we Canadians have plenty to call our own and be proud of (and trust me, we’ll bring it up at every given opportunity), but when it comes to decent television entertainment, American content is conqueror. Try as we might, original Canadian television content often resembles low-budget, attempted recreations of American hits. That, or series that aim straight for the Canadian heart—series that I couldn’t ever hope to sell to geeky fandom at large. 

Look! We somehow convinced Russell Crowe and that singer from Great Big Sea to appear on our Newfoundland cop show! This is literally the biggest thing to happen to Canadian drama (ever?).

Yes, if you’ve ever taken a look at our fancier “HBO style” television shows, you’d be similarly disappointed. Some people like Durham County, Zone of Separation and Sanctuary, but I wouldn’t be able to convince you.

Hope is not lost, however, and that’s exactly why I’m writing this. Canadian TV cannot be represented by Degrassi alone. While some tune into Flashpoint or Corner Gas and claim to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I like to concentrate on the real gems. However few and far between, there are some truly great Canadian comedies, and they’re listed below in chronological order.

Note: If this were a Top 11, Trailer Park Boys would have a fighting chance.


SCTV

Take a look at Saturday Night Live and all the great comedians that started their acting careers there. To name even 10 would be a disservice to all the others. I can, however, name the greats that started at SCTV. Running from 1976-1984, this relatively low-budget sketch comedy series gave us John Candy, Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty, Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Martin Short, Robin Duke, Tony Rosato, Dave Thomas and Harold Ramis. If you’re not sold yet, here’s a taste:

Truthfully, many sketches haven’t aged well. I know many folks who watched this show as it aired for the first time and hold dear to each and every character, but I personally think it’s about 50% brilliance, 50% stuff I just don’t get. That being said, with its now all-star cast, it’s worth watching just to see what the young, creative energies of these comedic geniuses amounted to in their early years. The show follows the basic premise of a down-on-its-luck TV station airing its usually wacky programming, complete with parodies of commercials and every variety of show you can imagine. Unfortunately, unlike SNL, SCTV couldn’t carry on the tradition, but Second City as a comedy troupe is still alive and well. We did, however, inherit this:

Pick up SCTV on DVD if you can find it. Unfortunately, much of the show has yet to be collected.


Bizarre

Super Dave Osborne. If that name means anything to you, you might already know about Bizarre. From 1980-1985, host John Byner and a colourful cast including Bob Einstein (the super one himself) and Billy Van wreaked havoc with the sketch comedy genre. 

The appeal of Bizarre may not be evident to modern viewers at first glance. Many sketches devolve into Byner oogling women or making an audience member uncomfortable, but keep watching and you’ll see the magic in the mix. Bob Einstein’s Super Dave Osborne character (the monotone, deadpan Evel Knievel parody) requires patience to appreciate, but when his stunt goes awry and he finds himself with cartoon-like injuries, it’s all worthwhile.

The best moments in the series have Einstein (as the producer of the show) breaking the fourth wall. Seeing a Byner sketch suddenly interrupted by Einstein’s arrival always leads to a hilarious ending. Add in the great special guest stars (I’m a sucker for Henny Youngman), Byner’s side-splitting delivery (if you’ve seen Soap you already know this guy is funny) and you’ve got a classic on your hands.

Bizarre is available on Best of Bizarre DVD collections, which (as I discovered firsthand) are pretty hard to find. On DVD the show is uncensored, with all the Benny Hill style sketches containing partial nudity. It doesn’t ruin the show, but it certainly doesn’t make it any funnier.


The Kids in the Hall

Despite a 5 season run from 1988-1994, it feels like the world wasn’t ready for The Kids in the Hall. Produced by Lorne Michaels (of SNL fame) and starring Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Kevin Macdonald, Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson, this sketch comedy classic is unlike any other television show I’ve ever seen. It’s a mixture of weird, sometimes hard to comprehend humour and accessible, perfectly tuned characters. The British may have cornered the market on cross-dressing humour, but the Kids give’em a run for their money.

Watching an episode of KitH is always, at the very least, interesting. Recurring characters include a scumbag “ladies man” with cabbage for hair, a man who spends most of his time pretending to crush heads between his fingers, a chicken-lady with an overactive sex drive and a 90s slacker who battles Satan with rock n’ roll. There’s some deep, dark, weird experimental stuff, like this extended sketch/ short film about sausages:

And perhaps my favourite monologues of all time:

Honestly, I could post clips all day. With this show, you have to see it to believe it. Do yourself a favour and pick it up on DVD. All 5 seasons are available (at least in Canada)!


The Red Green Show

When I think typical Canadian comedy, this is the show that comes to mind. Of course, you don’t have to be Canadian to enjoy it. Slapstick is dead they say? The Red Green Show I say! Today’s comedy is too edgy? Red Green is your cure! I need my comedy dry—as dry as it comes. Well, good sir, look no further. From 1991-2006 this show was the definition of “guy’s TV”, without all the sleaze usually associated with the phrase. 

The Adventures with Bill segments proved silent black and white slapstick is alive and well.

Most episodes of The Red Green Show followed the same formula. Red and his nephew Harold would host the show from their men’s lodge, taking cheap shots at each other and delivering some of the most consistently hilarious one-liners and TV. Over the years they’d experiment with different segments like the above black and white sketches, a Possum Lodge word game, the famous Handyman’s Corner and others involving their rich cast of characters. Graham Greene played an explosives enthusiast, Peter Keleghan gave us his classic Ranger Gord, Wayne Robson was the wily yet lovable crook and even Gordon Pinsent got in on the fun—to name a few. These names might not mean anything to an American audience, but for Canadians these guys were top-tier.

Jokes almost always revolved around married life, being middle-aged or fixing things with duct tape. Consistency and reliability were the name of the game. You knew the way the joke would pan out, but you never knew what the punch-line would be. It was hard to appreciate this show in my younger years, but recently it’s proven itself to be one of the funniest shows in the Canadian canon.

If you’re a guy and you like it dry, try finding this one on DVD. It’s hard enough to find in Canada (especially for a good price) and not much was ever collected, so you might be better off just coming north of the border and turning on the tube. Reruns are often. I’m thankful for that.


This Hour Has 22 Minutes

I spoke earlier about shows that aim straight for the Canadian heart—shows that may not appeal to an audience outside our borders. 22 Minutes is one such show-- the final word in Canadian political punditry. Now that’s not to say Americans won’t understand the humour in 22 Minutes,  but if you don’t know Jean Chretien, Stockwell Day or Brian Mulroney, you’ll be missing out.

22 Minutes plays out in a pretty simple manner with four “news anchors” playing up the week’s headlines. Think The Daily Show but made almost entirely of one-liners. Between cheap shots at political figures we get some hit-and-miss sketch comedy parodying the shows, commercials and events of the time. Even as someone with a basic understanding of the Canadian political scene, watching reruns can be quite difficult. This show started in 1993 and continues to this day. I simply don’t remember the obscure political scandal that rocked the House of Commons in June of 95. That being said, there’s something to be said for watching this show on time. The writing is brilliant and the team knows how to deliver it.

Over the years, the 22 Minutes cast has gone through some changes, from the criminally underrated Greg Thomey and Mark Critch to Canadian comedy all-stars Rick Mercer and Mary Walsh. Personally, I think the show reached a particular high in 2007 with cast members Gavin Crawford, Shaun Majumder and field correspondent Nathan Fielder. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, while Americans are only now discovering the comedic brilliance of Fielder (with his series Nathan for You), we’ve known he was amazing since 2007. His Nathan on Your Side segments easily take the cake as the best parts of the show. 

On an interesting note, 22 Minutes has always maintained something of a decent relationship with our politicians and leaders. Rick Mercer once successfully convinced George W. Bush that he had the endorsement of Canada’s Prime Minister, “Jean Poutine”. Earlier this year former host Mary Walsh tried to interview infamous Toronto mayor Rob Ford at his home wearing a Xena costume. Ford called the police and claimed he’d never heard of the show. Of course, 22 Minutes has aired on CBC (Canada’s publicly funded network) for 20 years now. Our mayor is fun!

The first 2 seasons are available on DVD in Canada, but I’m not sure I’d bother. Catch whatever bits you can online, though!


The Newsroom

When I first heard about the American version of The Office, I got excited. My first thought was “It’s about time people started appreciating that show”. Of course, I thought they were talking about The Newsroom. To further complicate things, we have a new American hit with the same name and Jeff Daniels. This one is very different. 

That clip is all you need to know about The Newsroom. With sharp wit, deadpan delivery and a Larry Sanders feel, The Newsroom gave Canadians a high-brow comedy to be proud of in 1996. The original series was meant to be a 13 episode mini-series, but the show was later revived for two seasons in 2003 and a TV movie. With a cast including the great Jeremy Hotz, Red Green regular Peter Keleghan (again, he’s the original Lloyd Braun to you) and show creator Ken Finkleman, this series became a huge critical success. It proved a Canadian comedy could compete with the American giants and although it never had the chance to grow into a massive success like The Office, I still think of it fondly as a kind of predecessor.

This series is easily found on DVD throughout Canada. If you can’t find it in the states, it’s well worth your dollar to order it online!


Buzz

Though I was never fortunate enough to see its original public access airing sometime in the mid 90s, I was lucky enough to catch Buzz when it got a network deal and aired from 2000-2005. Daryn Jones (once a host on the kid’s station I grew up with, YTV) and his friend Mista Mo took the guerilla-style approach to comedy and created the best Canadian “man on the street” comedy to date.

This was the pre-Youtube era and these guys were slacker heroes. Comedy aside, they gave an entire generation hope. If these two clowns could make their own silly TV show, why couldn’t we? Of course, Youtube did come along, and everyone got the same idea.

Recurring characters included the caricature psychic Shaboobala, Fluff E. the Hip Hop Bunny and the German Dinner Theatre duo (who casually insulted the fashion of passersby). Often offensive, sometimes experimental and always funny, Buzz paved the way for the internet jokers of today.

Not available on DVD, you can still try to catch as much Buzz as possible on the net. Here’s a start:


Hotbox

Oh Hotbox, how I miss you. Airing for 1 season in 2009, this brilliant collection of sketches had an all-too-short life. The brainchild of comedian Pat Thornton, Hotbox didn’t just try to be different; it tried to be everything. 

Where Buzz paved the way for the immaturity of internet humour, Hotbox embraced its short attention-span audience and gave us every conceivable style of skit. Black and white? Animated? Musical? VHS quality? Parody? All that and more! Talk show, infomercial, contest, game show, superhero, commercial, audition tape, stop motion, PSA, news, medical drama—you name it and Hotbox did it.

Recurring skits include Lobsterman, the superhero who constantly gives away his secret identity, a bear giving a press conference, a contract killer who’s always on his phone and Brad Piss, the salesman via home-video who tries to sell anything and everything. It’s hard to believe it all started with Thornton’s short concept The Owl and the Man, which would become a Hotbox mainstay.

With a cast of hilarious Canadian unknowns (though many recognizable from local commercials) Hotbox put other comedies to shame. It was frantic, bizarre and unpredictable in every way. I wish I could list every sketch, review every episode and tell you all to watch it every night; however, this show never made it to DVD. There are no reruns and the Comedy Network has removed the show from their website. The only way to watch Hotbox, at least as far as I know, is to hunt down clips on Youtube. Do it. I can recommend at least 20 skits you need to see, just off the top of my head.

Oh Hotbox, how I miss you.


Picnicface

Speaking of shows criminally unavailable on DVD that only lasted 1 season—Picnicface! Chances are you know the comedy troupe that created this show, they’re also responsible for the strangely popular Powerthirst Youtube video. In 2011 they got their own show. Man, was it brilliant!

While Hotbox took pacing cues from the Youtube generation, Picnicface took everything. The editing was lightning-quick with animation and music seamlessly flowing throughout. Even when you were watching this on TV, it was like a constant stream of out-there internet skits. Even the intro (with a fresh Rich Aucoin track) screamed energy. If you weren’t weirded out, you were laughing (sometimes both). If neither, you had but a brief wait until the next bombardment of creativity. Clearly, not enough people got it.

I’m happy that these skits are being enjoyed in healthy numbers online (go watch more!), but I really, really want a DVD release.  Really. This show rocked.


Satisfaction

Even though this show is brand new (the first season hasn’t even finished yet), I’m confident it belongs here. With a mix of big-name Canadians (22 Minutes’ Mark Critch; Jason Priestly) and relative newcomers (Pat Thornton returns!) Satisfaction seems to have everything going for it. The writing is great, keeping the pace steady and never wasting a line without a joke. Especially notable is the editing, in fact. Never missing a beat, jokes land as quickly as they come and scenes never overstay their welcome.

The show follows a classic sitcom premise—a best friend living with a dating couple. It’s not exactly original and there are many sitcom staples to be found—the wacky neighbours, the local bar and the crazy boss. Originality isn’t the key here, the humour is.

I’m weary to show this, because it really doesn’t do the show justice (and actually makes it look sort of lame), but as far as clips go this might be all we have so far: 

Gordon Pinsent! Shaun Majumder! Tommy Chong! Jerry O’Connell…

It’s hard to sell a show before it’s even had a chance to make a name for itself, but you’ll have to take my word for it and try it out. If you’re in Canada, you can watch Satisfaction on CTV on Mondays or online. If you’re in the states, you can cross your fingers that this one actually makes it to DVD. It looks to be something of a summative of this list, with Canadian comedy alumni coming together to make something that might actually be commercially successful. Here’s hoping.

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