Of all the literary genres, humour is the hardest. Especially political humour. Just ask Green Party leader Elizabeth May after her epic fail at the national press gallery dinner. Or the late Alberta premier Jim Prentice, after his “math is hard” jibe at his successor Rachel Notley in a televised election debate. Or deposed rookie Alberta NDP MLA Deborah Drever, after the skeletons of some lame jokes spilled out of her online closet. Or Justin Trudeau, after his self-immolating side-splitter about Russia invading Crimea in a snit over losing Olympic hockey gold. Or Jimmy Wang, the aspiring Ottawa high school student council president whose candidacy was scotched after a mildly off colour witticism in a campaign speech. Or Bassem Youssef, the brave Egyptian satirist who quit his TV show last year out of fear for his family’s safety.
Or just ask me, after an attempt at a light-hearted, self-deprecating send-up of the Alberta election result in C2C Journal a few weeks ago precipitated a deluge of angry, profane emails. Ouch!
All this was inspiration for the theme of the Summer 2015 edition of C2C. Our objective was to rebut oppressive political correctness, redeem the lost art of political satire, remind people that a healthy democracy knows how to laugh at itself, and give our readers something to relieve the Summertime Blues.
When we first put out the call for submissions, the working title was “Great Canadian Political Humour.” One wag wished us luck, saying he hoped it would turn out longer than the Book of German Humour. (Here I feel compelled to apologize to all readers of German ancestry, which tells you something about how thin-skinned we are these days.) And indeed, the initial response was pretty thin. Not surprising, perhaps, since few of C2C’s contributors are professional humorists, and all of them know how hard it is to find and tickle readers’ funny bones.
But we persevered, and after some cajoling, wheedling and begging, the story pitches started to come in. As sometimes happens in these circumstances, the pitches led the theme in a new direction. Instead of being purely humorous, several of the proposals were for commentaries about political humour, in the context of our humorless times. Happily, this made for a no less funny magazine overall.
And really, political humour is pointless unless it makes a point – the sharper the better – as all the great political humorists and satirists and politicians with a comedic touch have always known. So brace yourselves, for there is some fairly pointed political humour in this magazine. It is designed to prick sensitivities, puncture pomposities, and poke fun at the powers that be. In the immortal words of the Scott’s Coulee Outlaw, a scurrilous Alberta rag that published vicious and hilarious anti-Conservative invective in the late 19th century, we offer “malice towards all and charity to none.”
As Peter Shawn Taylor writes in our opening essay,* the funniest political actor in Canadian history was our founding prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. He could slay a rival with a flick of his tongue, sometimes literally, as occurred when barfed up a quart of whiskey at a candidate’s debate and blamed it on the nauseating content of his opponent’s speech.
Macdonald was the first in a long line of mirth-making Canadian conservative politicos and writers, including Stephen Leacock and John Crosbie (and Rex Murphy and Mark Steyn in our time), notes Philip Cross in an impolite polemic arguing that liberal and socialists are congenitally humorless (Exhibit A: Liz May) because they wake up every morning wondering how to make a horrible world perfect, while conservatives greet every fresh news from hell with a let’s-make-the-best-of-it shrug.
If anyone knows how comedically bankrupt our political culture is, it is Terry Fallis, two-time winner of the Leacock Award for literary humour. He has almost single-handedly kept the art of political satire alive in Canada and we highly recommend his novels as well as his piece in this magazine lamenting the dearth of humour in contemporary political advocacy. If you find that a bit gloomy, then turn to John Robson’s tribute to Mike Duffy in the voice of Robert Service. Read it out loud to your family at the dinner table. They will snort chunks.
There is much, much more than I can recount here, including Funny Tales From Campaign Trails, among them some nuggets from the memories of 87-year-old Ted Byfield, whose storytelling gifts are as witty and pithy as ever. Maybe the funniest political anecdote in the book, though, comes somewhat unexpectedly from the pen of Preston Manning. Like most politicians with an ounce of instinct for self-preservation, he mostly kept his sense of humour under wraps when he was actively navigating the minefields of democracy in the Age of Outrage. In retirement, he cut loose with one of the funniest speeches we’ve ever read, reprinted in this edition of C2C for your enjoyment and edification.
Paul Bunner is the editor of C2C Journal.
*The stories in the Summer 2015 edition of C2C Journal will be posted on the C2C website one at a time every few days over the month of June.