At Large

Conan’s Triumph

Now Canada’s terrified of an American comedian’s puppet dog. Alas, help is not on the way.

By 2.15.04

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EDMONTON -- The Spectatorians have asked me to comment on the outcry against Conan O'Brien here in Canada, and while I wouldn't dream of defending the phony indignation of a handful of socialists, kleptocrats, and race-baiters, there is a genuine cultural issue here. The people who are stamping their feet over the antics of a hand puppet are, I think, genuinely confused as well as politically opportunistic.

There is no cultural referent here, you see, for the thing Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is actually parodying, which is the tradition of the insult comic. Canada lived in a British universe, culturally, until quite recently -- and that cultural heritage includes the British comic mainstream rather than the U.S.'s. British comedy, to risk a very broad generalization, is zany, intellectual, and playful, a product of the music hall rather than the strip club.

It is no coincidence that so many of the major Canadian comic figures on the Canadian scene are essentially sweet-natured, "cute" figures. This is the country of Mike Myers, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman, and Jim Carrey (who admittedly has great reserves of anger, but mostly self-directed anger). None of these people made their names by going over the top.

So, to many Canadians, Robert Smigel -- the voice of Triumph -- must have just seemed like a guy walking around bellowing abuse in the street. They're not in on the meta-joke which is the essence of the thing. It's a foreign country, despite appearances to the contrary. Still: We've heard of Don Rickles. We're not complete idiots.

There's no real excuse for the outrage. It's being fomented by the social-democratic NDP, which is opposed to humor on principle, and by Quebec politicians, who have an interest in representing Quebec to Quebeckers as being constantly under siege by menacing Anglo imperialists (cultural and/or political).

NATURALLY, WE DIDN'T HEAR too many complaints from this sour-faced gang when the governments of Canada and Ontario chipped in US$750,000 last year to bring Late Night with Conan O'Brien to Toronto. (The NDP did object, but half-heartedly.) After Toronto's bout with SARS in the summer of 2003, it was decided that a little more tourism was just what the Hot Zone needed to put its economy back on its feet.

It's possible, one supposes, that there are Americans who choose holiday destinations by watching late-night television. And it's possible that tourism's benefits to merchants are worth the higher prices that locals have to pay for goods and services bid up by travelers. It's even possible that the net effect was worth the expenditure of a million Canadian dollars in tax money. Though I wouldn't want to bet the farm on all three things being true.

Given what SARS demonstrated about the state of public health in Ontario, it seems likely that a better use could have been found for the money. But then, there's nothing glamorous about preventing epidemics. If you plow money into health prevention, it works only if nothing bad happens; and it's hard for a politician to take credit for an absence of catastrophe. Much easier, really, to bribe a famous American television show to move north for a week and let people see their compatriots on U.S. teevee. We must be important -- we're on after Leno!

Now, of course, it's all gone pear-shaped. The halfwits who denounced a plastic dog-shaped glove have put a brand-new weld in the sealed American conviction that the gay-marrying, pot-legalizing, military-hating, gun-registering, socialized-everything Canadians are completely bughouse -- a freakish bastard admixture of Yippie and commissar. Even the Kucinich voters with braided beards and BUSH KNEW tattoos are looking north and going "Dude... it's a puppet. Chill." Given the uproar, who wants to visit Toronto and possibly touch off some kind of international incident by saying the wrong thing? Aren't there dank, fungal Turkish-style prisons up there for people who make ethnic jokes? (Answer: not yet, but check back in ten years.)

What we have here is the classic tale of the slick, savvy, and ultimately blameless American capitalist abroad. Conan took the money, came north, offered exactly what was ordered, and went home, leaving behind a bunch of baffled yokels who somehow felt cheated.

But remember, you can't cheat an honest man. Canadian authorities promoted Conan's show without performing one minute of due diligence. Triumph has been a centerpiece of Late Night for years, and everyone but the politicians knows that his act consists of insults -- insults of the precise sort that is gradually being socially proscribed, and criminalized, up here.

They confused entertainment for advertising, too. Show business is business, to be sure, but without the show, there's no business. Was Conan expected to spend a week lulling American audiences to sleep with some kind of stale Soviet travelogue expounding gustily on Canada's glories?

Oh, great idea -- for Triumph to poop on!

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About the Author

Colby Cosh is a columnist for the National Post of Canada.