Black sheep of the tribe

Amanda Hale (right) digs for buried treasure in her WW II English family history to tell the “fictional memoir” of a socially shamed father and the impact it had on his wife and children. FULL STORY

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Mountains give rise to mirth

August 07th, 2012

A question I’m often asked: “Do you think you could have survived as a professional humorist if you hadn’t lived in British Columbia?” (Actually, and I’ve never been asked that question, buy information pills but it is more useful here than “Where’s the men’s room?”)

Answer: No. I’m sure my inhabiting B.C. has been absolutely essential to hacking it – if that is the gerund I want – as a professional humorist.

B.C. teems with humorists. Most of them don’t even know they are funny. They go into politics, sickness get chosen as party leaders, and regularly are elected to become the provincial premier.

I have been told that Canadian humorists have been sighted east of the Rockies, but so have UFOs. It has been years since the late Bob Edwards was seen around Calgary. Paul Hiebert, the rogue professor who roamed over Sarah Binks, was a literary aberration, never repeated in Manitoba.

Stephen Leacock was the last of the Ontario hoots. A freak body of water – Brewery Bay – near Orillia favoured the deviant academic that was Leacock.

Climate plays a role. B.C.’s wild herds of humorists are able to feed one-liners all year ‘round. Vancouver abounds in comedy clubs that provide shelter, if not forage, for monologuists of both sexes. The rutting season for comedy extends from early January to late December.

But the factor most conducive to B.C. humour is the topography of the province. In particular, the mountains. It is impossible, for me at least, to live in the immediate presence of the Coast Range without being imbued with a sense of the ridiculous, as an object only five feet ten inches high.

The noblest work of God? Gimme a break. Grouse Mountain – there’s his heavyweight. I once tried to challenged Grouse on skies. Grouse won. I got a humour piece out of the humiliation. That is how B.C. works, for the humorist. She or he has relations with a mountain, or the Pacific Ocean, ends up lost in a canyon, or marooned on an island, and garners enough grist for milling into a 1000-word piece for the Sunday supplement.

A writer can’t get the same effect from the CN Tower. If Torontonians have a problem with levity – as indeed they do – it is because they can see no natural feature to persuade them that they are not necessarily the lords of creation. This explains why Torontonians experience laughter as an acquired trait.

Regrettably, laughter in Vancouver is, like good fresh air to breathe, diminishing with the spread of political correctitude. More and more journalists writing for the city’s mainstream media are starting to take themselves seriously – a grievous affliction. They turn up for work sober. They join trade unions.

Unions! Attending just one union-members’ meeting can zap one’s sense of humour. I have felt obliged to join various writers’ unions, in my time, but now always with the tacit understanding that I would never attend a meeting, or call someone “brother” or “sister” simply because we are linked by greed.

So, many B.C. humorists have taken to the woods. They live off berries and Raincoast Chronicles. The Sunshine Coast is a virtual humorists’ refuge. Or they migrate to the Gulf Islands, where their loonish laughter blends with the raven’s cackle. Some, those who affect the straw sucked between the teeth, find a congenial field up the Fraser Valley, and grow beans beside a reasonable facsimile of Walden Pond, till the RCMP come and drag it for a body.

That is the problem for the B.C. humorist: being forced, by the pressure of urban sprawl, farther and farther into the wilderness, to avoid being contaminated by organization. Some funny folk are said to be locating as far north as the Arctic Circle. They read their humour pieces to sled dogs, and eventually become totally mad, though happy with it. What does this mean, for the future of the professional humorist in British Columbia? As a specimen rapidly becoming of interest only to literary anthropologists, I would say: Keep your day job. Get on-line with the Internet and engage your rapier wit in a duel with another amateur humorist, in some outback where editors are eaten alfresco.

Who knows, you may build up an international audience and eventual fame, without ever seeing a word of yours in print. Frankly, I prefer to lodge between hard covers, but much depends on the stamina of the B.C. forests that supply the paper. It’s a dilemma: hug a tree, or Talonbooks? Tough call.

Essay Date: 1995

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