Apology to Americans: The Borders of Television Satire

Curator's Note

Satire is often defined as a moralistic mode of address that critiques the missteps and hypocrisies of those who wield cultural and political authority. It is a tactic of resistance for those who sit outside the circles of power and its success depends on the complicity of an audience of cultural insiders who are privy to the codes needed to “get the joke.” Consequently, satire is seen to be one of the most culturally specific forms of discourse as it speaks to issues of social cohesion and division rooted within the particular experiences of places and communities. Satirical sketch comedy has been one of the most successful genres on Canadian television and the nation’s unequal relationship with its powerful southern neighbor is a favorite target. Despite being on location in Washington, D.C., we know that Anthony St. George (played by Colin Mochrie) the ‘correspondent’ from the faux news comedy This Hour has 22 Minutes is not in anyway apologizing to Americans. Unless they live in a nearby border city, few Americans will ever watch the weekly comedy series as it airs on the national public broadcasting network, the CBC. The monologue engenders the shared, knowing laugh of the audience who is acutely aware of the disproportionate power that the U.S. exercises in the continental relationship (and the view that this power may not be exercised wisely). It reaffirms the negative sense of identity in the Canadian cultural project — to be Canadian is not to be American. Yet it is also double-coded as the apology provides a send up of the stereotypical Canadian etiquette wherein you apologize to the person who stepped on your foot. The self-referential acknowledgement of the ‘passive aggressive’ voice of the satirist raises interesting questions about the potentials and limitations of the genre. It can contribute to a momentary affirmation of community through the critique of the more powerful ‘other.’ Does the ‘political’ begin and end with the subversive wink and giggle — particularly when exercised between nations? And what is the role of reception? Does satirical critique preach primarily to the choir, so to speak? And, if so, does the laugh let us off the hook?


The filming here is quite masterful, pitting, as it does, the lone Canadian talking to the huge voiceless, seemingly timeless and immoveable American structures -- a nice visual reminder of the relatively disempowered position from which Canadians, other non-Americans, or even most Americans are left in when complaining. In this context, the boasts about sacking the White House or beating Americans at hockey are contextualized and framed as somewhat hollow and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Thus while it offers the retreat into feelings of Canadian superiority, and in doing so risks being more about the Other than about anything local, the frustration lingers -- and is invited to linger. Colonial humor, perhaps?

As as ex-pat Canuck living in the US, I found this clip very cathartic because it reinforced my own desire to imagine myself as simultaneously marginalized by and superior to my (literal) American neighbors. The combination of fake apology and wistful gestures to the ways in which Canadian identity is (always being) eroded by American culture works to construct a nostalgic longing for what never was -- a coherent, stable, authentic Canadianness that united the country in the face of American cultural imperialism. While I know that This Hour Has 22 Minutes also satirizes internal regional, political, ethnic and class differences within Canada, it is interesting to think about how these Canada versus the US segments work in relation to those other potentially more divisive skits to demarcate the shared cultural anxieties that unite "us" as a nation. nostalgia = erase internal struggle

The May 2007 issue of The Walrus (a CAD monthly mag) argues that "CAD satire can't measure up to Stewart and Colbert" because "Cad broadcasters, including CBC and CTV, have a deal with federal parties to restrict the use of debate footage to news and current affairs programming...televised deabtes [betw political candidates eg] are off limits to CAD comedy shows..." but not to TDS and CR!! The article goes on to state that "Canada's defamation laws haven't evolved...defendants in a defamation case are guilty until proven innocent...'I was just joking' is not a defence." (p 34-35) This of course stands in contrast to laws on free speech and parody in the U.S. Just wanted to add this to the great discussions this week on satire!

Jonathan and Avi -- you both have hit on the issues that I was musing about in regard to this clip. It is marked by a colonial positioning that echoes the cliche (?) of the Canadian moral superiority-political/economic inferiority complex. It's an interesting form of catharsis -- a fleeting moment of intangible power in a situation where 'real' political influence over the Other seems impossible or at least minimal. But is this also a feature of satire in general (i.e. other national contexts)? Avi's equation of nostalgia = erase internal struggle corresponds in a way with my question of whether or not deflecting blame on to the United States allows for a temporary forgetting that the relationship is just as much influenced by the actions of Canadian politicians as it is by their American counterparts. Avi, I think you've identified an interesting issue -- how does the reading of a clip change when it's looked at in isolation from the rest of the segments in the half-hour formats? You're right there are an equal number of segments that deal with internal,national divisions. How does the meaning change when these bits break from the overall flow and circulate separately on sites such as Youtube (or even our own comments here)?

Megan, thanks for contributing this. I found that Walrus article fascinating, primarily because I read it as a rather disingenuous argument. The author of the piece seemed to conflate two different issues: satire and the debate coverage and the much larger problem of libel chill. Considering that election debates only happen every few years and that comedians are allowed to use other news footage (and as the author notes -- discussions are underway to change the agreement on debate footage before the next election anyway) this seemed to be a 'straw man' on which to peg the very different argument about self-censorship from fear of libel. I saw this as disingenuous because media personnel in both Canada and the U.S. have long-stated fears of libel accusations (despite the article's emphasis on the difference in defamation laws). An important difference is one of economics -- a network like NBC has the deep pockets to risk a legal battle (if it so chose). The CBC doesn't have the finances to take the chance even if it would set a new legal precedent and update very old legislation. I think the argument would have been more productive had the article's author explored larger structural dimensions of the media industries instead of resorting to the usual 'freedom of speech' as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence cry. Corporate censorship, for instance, is invisible in this piece -- the fact that U.S. networks have Standards and Practices personnel, the FCC's increasingly interventionist role in policing content, etc. Whenever I hear the freedom of speech argument I think about the fate of Politically Incorrect after Bill Maher stated a personal opinion about the events of September 11th. I'm not stating that one system (Canadian or American) is better or worse than the other but rather that a discussion of the different structural constraints on all forms of media speech in both countries would have been a great contribution to public discourse about the importance of informed citizens. As a not-for-profit organization with a stated goal of education, the Walrus could have been a good forum from which to generate this debate. Anyway, didn't mean to ramble on but I find this topic very interesting -- thanks again for raising the issue!

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