TORONTO — The rhinoceros roams the Canadian hinterland, the hockey puck adorns Canada's flag, and this country is led by Prime Minister Jean Poutine. Or so many Americans, standing before Canadian TV crews, will swear.
Canucks have long suspected that Americans know little about their largest trading partner and cultural cousins to the north. Now, a comedy show has apparently proved the point with a segment called "Talking to Americans," and the gag is gathering record-breaking audiences of shocked and delighted Canadians.
Part of a weekly show called "This Hour Has 22 Minutes," the segment features comedian Rick Mercer as a newsman traveling the US to conduct "man on the street" interviews on a range of bogus topics. The show is so popular that producers recently compiled them into an hour-long special. The show drew an audience of 2.7 million, making it the highest-rated TV comedy ever aired by the government-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
In the show, a Harvard University professor signs a petition to protest "the Canadian government's decision to resume the Saskatchewan seal hunt." (Everyone knows Saskatchewan is a land-locked prairie province ... right?)
Enthusiastic Americans congratulate Canada for opening its first university recently, getting its first volunteer fire station, adding Grade 9 to schools, getting FM radio, permitting the Irish to vote, and allowing dogs as house pets.
A young man at New York University is outraged when told that 70 percent of Canadian Grade 7 students can't name their congressman or find their home states on a map (because Canada has neither states nor a Congress).
"It's disgraceful that people are unaware of the world they live in," he says with disgust.
At New York City's Columbia University, students and a professor sign a petition demanding an end "to the Canadian tradition of placing senior citizens on northern ice flows, leaving them to perish."
Geoff D'Eon, the producer and director of "Talking To Americans," says the show works "because we exploit two things: the boundless ignorance of folks south of the border about Canada, and the great generosity of these people toward Canadians. Americans tend to be very friendly, open people who are, by and large, very opinionated."
Beneath the humor, "Talking to Americans" taps into an age-old inferiority complex often felt by the smaller partner in an economic relationship. "Let's face it. Why should the elephant know about the mouse?" he says.
"All I know is that it somehow speaks very loudly to Canadians. It's not a consciousness-raising exercise or anything. It's just a joke, and we get paid to make Canadians laugh. It's as simple as that."
Whether it intends to have a real political impact or not, the show has made some bona fide news headlines.
During the recent US presidential campaigns, candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore were deftly skewered by Mercer gags.
Told his campaign was being endorsed by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Poutine, Mr. Bush said he was "honored" without realizing that the Canadian leader's name is Chretien, not "poutine," a French-Canadian dish of french fries, gravy, and cheese.
Mr. Gore was caught when he didn't correct Mercer for suggesting that Canada's capital city is Toronto, not Ottawa.
A few US governors have also been duped. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee congratulated Canada on preserving its "national igloo," which he was told was a frozen copy of Washington's Capitol building. Iowa Gov.
Tom Vilsack was pleased to hear Canada had finally switched from a 20- to 24-hour clock, so as not to confuse American tourists.
John Thompson, a Canadian studies professor at Duke University in North Carolina, says he's seen "Talking to Americans" and thinks it's "very funny, but not very fair."
"I think you could probably fool Canadians the same way, if you dressed someone up in a suit and gave them a microphone," he says. "Soon enough, you'd have Canadians congratulating Americans for executing their 5,000th inmate or some such thing."
Mr. Thompson, a Canadian who has lived in the US for 15 years, says "dissing Americans is a vital part of the Canadian identity."
"It's not a bad thing really, because most newer countries' identities are created by contrasting with others," he says.
While Canada is no newer than the US, the concept of "defining Canadian identity" is much more prevalent here.
The American identity in the 19th century was equally oppositional, Thompson explains. "Back then, Americans were obsessed with comparing themselves to Europeans and standing up to the English, in particular."
Canadians know more about Americans than vice versa because they're constantly exposed to a multitude of US television shows, says Thompson, who is vaguely apologetic for recently becoming an American citizen. "I know how that will go over in Canada," he laughs.
Julie Commerford, still an American after living in Toronto for 15 years, says that when she first moved here, "Canadians were a little hostile to me."
"It's true that we're not taught a lot about Canada in American schools, but don't hold it against me just because I don't know how many provinces there are," says Ms. Commerford.
Still, she finds "Talking to Americans" extremely funny. "That bit about Jean Poutine - I just had to laugh out loud," she says. "But at the same time, I was a bit embarrassed that my countrymen don't know who Canada's leader is."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor