TORONTO — Did you hear the one about the funny Canadian?
It's a pretty long-running joke, actually.
It turns on the paradox that the polite, restrained people north of the 49th parallel - whose national ideal is "peace, order, and good government" - are significantly overrepresented in the world of comedy.
Over the past few years, the crop has included the likes of Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Mike Myers (a.k.a. Austin Powers), Dan Aykroyd, Rick Moranis, and Martin Short. All comedic exports from The Great White North.
Why does this country seem to turn out top jesters?
There's the "inside-outsider theory" - the idea that Canadians are part of a larger North American entertainment culture but not quite at the center of it. That off-centeredness gives them a certain perspective, a kind of depth perception.
"We're marginalized in North America," says Joe Kertes, a comic novelist and director of the just-concluded Humber Comedy Workshop in Toronto - described as the world's first, and so far only, comprehensive comedy workshop (see story below). "Humor comes from a dark place," Mr. Kertes adds, lest anyone think this business is all sweetness and light.
"Humor is the cry of the powerless," Mark Breslin, founder of the Yuk-Yuk's chain of comedy clubs and artistic director of the Humber workshop, chimes in.
Marginalized? Powerless? Come on...
But no - they're serious.
Tom Henighan, an English professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of "Ideas of North," a survey of Canadian culture, makes a similar point: "We're a small country next to a large country that is sort of a circus day to day."
US politicians provide better grist
In the United States, Professor Henighan suggests, it's almost too easy: "The late-night comics can go to the day's headlines for their material. They had a field day with Clinton."
Canadian politicians provide less entertainment, by contrast. "And so Canadian comics are driven to be more universal.... They're driven to more basic human issues."
All the above goes double for Newfoundland, long a rich source of comedy in Canada, such as the famous troupe Codco, Henighan adds. "Poor, marginalized little Newfoundland never seems to get its act together - but it's full of a rich Irish verbal tradition of wit."
Moreover, except at certain points of the hockey season, Canada doesn't have the unified national consciousness that holds the US together. It's not just tensions along the Anglo-French language divide. "Canada is a curious country," Henighan says. "For all the talk about 'the north,' it's basically a streak along the [US] border." This "fractionalizing" of the country has led to a tolerance for ambiguity that feeds comedy, he suggests.
He adds, "Comedy is essentially an intellectual art.... It's the gap between two realities that don't quite mesh. You have to have a thinking perspective to recognize this, and Canada is an educated country."
Also, Canada has long had a tradition of comedy clubs, specific venues that "magnetize" performers, as Henighan puts it. "You have to have a center. The Old Firehall [in downtown Toronto] was the generating point for Candy, for Andrea Martin, for I don't know how many other comics - seven or eight who hit the very top."
Comedy clubs are not unknown in the US, of course, but Canada seems to have proportionately more of them - as well as other elements of infrastructure such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., with its mandate to support Canadian culture.
The Canadian cultural scene generally has also been hit with a wave of "fringe festivals" in recent years that have served as important venues for emerging performers."Canada is about the best place you can learn," says Hart Pomerantz, a Toronto lawyer who is also a comic and former performing partner of "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels. "But the US is the best place to be."
And this points to another reason Canadians seem to loom so large in Hollywood: Many of them feel that to get to the very top, they have to leave Canada.
Mr. Pomerantz scoffs, in a soft-spoken way, at the notion of comedy as a Canadian export industry. "Canada doesn't 'export' comics. They run away to join the bigger circus."
He agrees on the importance of training grounds like the Old Firehall: "You've got to have them. If you don't, you just have your friends, and they may laugh at anything.... There has to be a place for you to perform when you're lousy."
Cultivating new talent
He assesses the CBC as "pretty good" at providing opportunities for newcomers but less effective at cultivating first-rate talent. This appears to be the downside of the much-vaunted Canadian modesty. "In Canada, a star's considered a showoff," he says.
Pomerantz complains that on three different occasions, network executives canceled shows he was doing because their ratings were too high. "They thought it was time to give somebody else a try. As if this were social work. The CBC is like the post office."
Elaine Smookler, a classical singer and impresario now branching out into comedy, explains Canadians' humor with the observation that they are not oppressed so much as suppressed - quiet, mild-mannered souls out of whom comedy bursts when the impulse to self-restraint is finally overcome.
"There are certain flowers that you have to pinch back to get them to bloom," she says. "You pinch them back and back and back and finally they really bloom."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society