CanCon, Canadian TV aaaaaaaaand Satan!

I am proud to be Canadian. I am not always proud of Canadian things.

I can’t imagine being from anywhere else. It would be wonderful to live in Britain. My great-grandparents were from there, if there’s another country where I feel a connection it’s England and if it wasn’t for World War II my great-grandmother probably would have never left Surrey. I just can’t picture myself writing anything but “Canadian” in the nationality section of a customs form. That doesn’t mean I like Canadian things. Once bitten, twice shy and if I see something boasting that it’s Canadian I see that as “not good”, “cheap”, “or fake American.” Canada has always suffered from being in the States’ shadow and feeling the need to act out to try to stand out.

Until recently I was happy to make a “Canadian TV” joke. Canada has been the backdrop for many American movies, TV movies and TV shows. Vancouver becomes Los Angeles, Toronto becomes New York or Pittsburgh but that’s where it ends. It’s improving now, but Canadian television still has something to prove. There’s a running joke that the Maritimes are ten years behind the rest of the country, but Canadian television in the nineties looked like they should have been in the eighties. Growing up, the Littlest Hobo being an exception, I avoided Canadian media products. This wasn’t easy as we only got two English channels. The CBC didn’t play anything interesting; they tried really hard but whether it was my age or interests I avoided CBC as often as I could. Global at least carried American shows to break the monotony of news that they so often presented. Why should I be proud of this stuff? Although they said they were Canadian I didn’t see any evidence of that. It was watered down American nonsense about American things. I like American nonsense, it’s what I grew up on, but this was watered down. Growing up in the Maritimes probably didn’t help as no one seemed to talk like I or my family did and they didn’t have the same problems as us. If I had been older I think Air Farce would have been another exception. I enjoyed watching it for the physical comedy and the funny voices, but their jokes were Canadian but focused on politics and as a kid I didn’t understand them.

When I was a teenager I learned about “Cancon” aka Canadian Content, which states that Canadian radio and television broadcasters (including cable and satellite specialty channels) must air a certain percentage of content that was at least partly written, produced, presented, or otherwise contributed to by persons from Canada. In other words, to my young mind, a certain percentage of everything I watched on Canadian channels would be awful.

Fast-forward to last year: would I like to watch a Canadian sitcom called Spun Out? I was hesitant. Thanks to my family’s obsessive love of “half hour comedies” I assume anything that calls itself a situational comedy will be like “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “King of Queens”. (I’m sorry but I would rather watch paint dry!) Tack on the word “Canadian” and what hope was there for it? How could it possibly be good? I gave it a shot.

Spun Out is not a great show, you see the jokes coming from miles away and honestly some of the actors shouldn’t be doing comedy. It calls itself Canadian, but it feels American. Then there was the lead. The lead actor was excellent. He was funny; he was charming and charismatic even playing a less than charismatic role. The actor’s name was Dave Foley. That name means a lot for many Canadians (and internationally) but not me. We stuck with the show for some reason I still don’t understand, and when episode seven rolled around and Chris mentioned “Kids in the Hall” and how the other four members of the troupe would be appearing in the episode with Dave Foley I was intrigued. I had heard of Kids in the Hall before, it’s impossible to be Canadian and avoid references to certain things but I had never seen the show. Heck, there’s a Kids in the Hall bistro here in Edmonton. The fact that I had heard such glowing reviews made me skeptical as it always does as a contrarian, it couldn’t be THAT good. Seeing the Kids, now as middle-aged men didn’t hamper the experience. They weren’t kids anymore, but their style of comedy was still there. It left an impression. It was possible to be witty, cool and Canadian even dressed as goth guys with a suicide pact.

I forgot about Kids in the Hall for a while until recently, due to a variety of factors (one being I was bored out of my skull) I marathoned: all five seasons of Kids in the Hall, the 2010 TV special Death Comes to Town and the 1996 movie Brain Candy. It was an enlightening experience. I plan to write a review proper at some point.

How could this show be Canadian? This wasn’t American stuff with a thin veneer of Canadiana thinking they were clever mentioning double-doubles or having a Canadian character. This was Canada that I understood. These were guys from Alberta, Montreal and Ontario making fun of what they knew: hosers, hockey, Tim Hortons, place names of small little prairie towns that sound made up but aren’t, and all the other day-to-day drudgery that everyone despises. They never explained the references, you either understood or you learned, it was unapologetic (how very unCanadian!) They didn’t make an aside or dumb down their content. The sketches may seem crass and foolish sometimes, but they are a lot smarter than they are given credit for. Watch Cabbage Head for instance (with interview at the end with Bruce McCullough)

The important part of all of this is they just drop these references in without thought, making it sound natural, which it is! It’s the little things like hearing an actor say “mum” instead of “mom.” ‘Mum’ is all I’ve ever called my mother and it’s all I grew up hearing. It isn’t a word commonly used in the States. You hear it in the UK (are you my Mummy?) but I’d never heard it on Canadian TV before.

So why am I writing this? It wasn’t to take the mickey out of Canadian TV because as I said I’m proud I’m Canadian. It wasn’t just a reason to talk about Kids in the Hall either, although that is really fun and it did make me change the way I think of Canadian TV just a bit.

It’s given me hope that Canadian television shows can stop pretending they’re American and still be interesting. Kids in the Hall, the show and the performers that make up the troupe, seem to strike that perfect balance of “we’re doing our own thing” with “but we’re not ashamed to be Canadian.”

So what say you, readers and internet wanderers? What Canadian TV shows am I missing? I’m looking for made in Canada with Canadian actors like Kids in the Hall.

Or, what’s your favourite Kids in the Hall (KITH) sketch, eh? Chicken Lady? Buddy Cole? Let me know in the comments.

Gifs from: KITH Gifs Tumblr

16 thoughts on “CanCon, Canadian TV aaaaaaaaand Satan!

  1. Andre says:

    While there is a swath of sketches that spring to mind. For some reason I constantly come back to the catchy song “These are the Daves I know”. Mayhaps it’s because it is such an earworm but it relentlessly upbeat in my mind. Silly to have that stand out but it does.


    • As my coworkers can attest I had that song stuck in my head all day yesterday. Must be the lack of a proper rhyme at the end of the stanza.


  2. Da Vinci’s Inquest. Wojeck. Being Erica. Slings and Arrows. The Jane Show. Seeing Things. (most of) The King of Kensington. (much of) Due South. (all of) SCTV. Orphan Black. The Newsroom (the Ken Finkleman version). Fortier and Omerta (both French Canadian but subtitled). Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High (the originals). The Hiliarious House of Frightenstein. My wife and parents love Corner Gas (I can’t get into it).

    I think that’s a good start.


  3. Sean says:

    I think, overall, there’s a lot of good Canadian TV, but for every good show, there are 10 that just suck. Sitcoms are the best at being the worst. Somehow, with some exceptions, Canadians are really good at comedy but suck at sitcoms. Other good shows I’d add to the list started by Graeme are Motive, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and Intelligence (I was so pissed when CBC cancelled that show and replaced it with dreck – it was one of the few good scripted shows on that network).

    I can’t agree with your assessment of Corner Gas – I love that show – but I can see your point. I suppose it’s like The Beachcombers was for me: loved by many, but I just couldn’t get into it. The other big “hit” Canadian show I don’t care for was The Trailer Park Boys.

    Street Legal (which wasn’t all that bad a sho) should get a mention, because it was one of the few law shows to reflect Canadian legal customs and procedures. Another high-quality show was North of 60. Finally, while I didn’t care for it, I have a friend who’s quite the business woman who was very disappointed when they cancelled Traders.

    While not live action, I think you might have liked the animated show ReBoot. It was the first fully computer animated show on TV and was produced in Vancouver. It ran in the 90s, starting just as the internet was becoming a thing for people outside of academia. It’s set in a mainframe computer, and the denizens of Mainframe would deal with threats posed by viruses or games that were run on the mainframe by The User.


    • I purposefully left out Beachcombers to see if someone would mention it, glad you didn’t disappoint. I adore Trailer Park boys, why didn’t I think to mention it? It’s another good example of a show that just happens to be Canadian and doesn’t make a big fuss about being that way. You see it all around them more than they mention it, other than the mentions of Moncton and a few other cities. Also nice to see a Canadian show that isn’t filmed in Vancouver or Toronto and sounds Maritime. 🙂

      I like ReBoot but I tried to focus on live action and to be fair it’s not set in Canada.


      • Sean says:

        Maybe the Mainframe is in Canada, or The User… 😉

        I couldn’t stand it, but did you ever watch Republic of Doyle, shot and set in Newfoundland?


    • Forgot about North of 60 and am so embarrased. And Intelligence. Little Mosque and Motive slid past my radar. I’m a huge Street Legal fan but it’s so trashy (in all the right ways) I feel like I can’t recommend it.


  4. I’d say Buddy Cole is my favorite character, but that’s just because I’m forgetting all my other favorites at the moment. Hecubus! No, wait, you asked about sketches… Oh, I absolutely couldn’t choose just one. Detective Peter Prince? Gavin wants to help paint a chair? Buddy joins the softball team? Daddy Drank? The Beard? Citizen Kane? I’m drowning in a nightmare ocean of choice!


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