Tonight’s the night Ôø? the premiere of the most promising Canadian sitcom in ages, Rideau Hall on the CBC at 7:30 p.m.
Actually, the premiere was back in January, when two one-hour specials aired back to back: Rideau Hall and An American in Canada (which will pop up in January as the CBC’s first high-definition project). So many viewers have already met Governor General Regina Gallant (Bette MacDonald), the one-time disco diva named to the vice-regal post by a cynical Prime Minister bent on destroying Canada’s monarchy from within.
I’ve read an early draft of one of the scripts, and it looked smart, funny and surprisingly politically savvy — which is saying something, given our national record of cranking out sitcoms that land squarely in the creaky-to-godawful range.
There’s been a lot of talk over the years of why we don’t produce more decent sitcoms, especially given our success in producing (and exporting) comic talent like Mike Meyers, Andrea Martin, Jim Carrey and Dan Ackroyd. Sketch comedy has been our special forte: Wayne and Shuster, SCTV, Air Farce and Kids in the Hall.
So why no sitcoms?
For a Darwinian take on the question, read Geoff Pevere and Greg Dymond’s Mondo Canuck, their survey of Canadian pop culture from Aaron, Lee to Znaimer, Moses. They suggest that our failure is due less to a lack of humour than to sheer economic scale.
“Under the proper conditions (that is, in the United States), Canadians have not only managed to create situation comedy, they have managed to do it exceedingly well,” Pevere and Dymond note.
They point out that the handful of sitcoms that make it to a second season in the States are winnowed out from the thousands of treatments and pitches developed every year, the 100 of those that make it to the pilot stage, and the 40 that then get the green light for a first season. Canada just doesn’t have the talent, resources and skills to spew out enough sitcoms for there to be any survivors.
They also point out the chicken-and-egg dilemma — that without a viable sitcom career path in the Great White North, aspiring Canadian talent has to look south of the border to sell their ha-ha. How can a Canadian sitcom assemble a writers’ room — that gaggle of comedians who sit around a table and stuff jokes into a script (okay, along with plot, character and a discerning sense of zeitgeist — if we can’t afford to pay them, even if they were still living here?
But there’s been hope in recent years. While Pevere and Dymond were publishing their blistering chapter back in 1996 (it includes a cringe-inducing romp through the very worst shows), Ken Finkleman was creating The Newsroom, a ground-breaking, inventive series that was genuinely hilarious, mercilessly dark and relentlessly satirical.
And maybe that’s our niche. Not necessarily as dark as The Newsroom, although I’m looking forward to the two-hour movie due later this fall, but comedy with an angry edge to it… comedy that aims to deflate stuffed shirts and irresponsible privilege.
It’s hard to imagine the next great family sitcom coming out of Canada, but that might not be such a bad thing.
Maybe sitcom development in Canada has to happen the same way any new industrial sector arises (especially next to a gigantic economic power): finding a niche where we have a comparative advantage, and building from there.
In which case, Rideau Hall looks like a pretty good start.