Wayne and Shuster's cultural nation-building

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As part of its 75th anniversary, the CBC is showing an hour this Sunday of old Wayne and Shuster comedy material. They appeared for almost 50 years, first on radio; then they made the perilous leap to the new medium, TV.

They were a comedy duo in an era of teams: Abbot and Costello, Martin and Lewis -- the form reached back to vaudeville. There was the funny guy (Wayne) and his straight man (Shuster), who fed him lines. They did "skits," which sounds quaint and unprofessional now. Those too began in vaudeville, when you could live forever off a decent routine like Dr. Krankheit. They became hometown heroes by appearing often on Ed Sullivan's TV show in the U.S., but choosing to live in Toronto rather than move there.

They looked forward as well as back, in the literate quality of their humour: to Woody Allen and his Tolstoy references, or Monty Python's soccer showdown between Greek and German philosophers. Vaudeville had assumed a mass, working class audience, but by the 1950s universities had opened up to large numbers. Wayne and Shuster specialized in Shakespeare references. When the umpire in a baseball game calls a ball foul, the manager rants, "So fair a foul I have not seen." I'm not saying they influenced Allen or the Pythons (though there were those Sullivan appearances); just that we had our own version, early.

There's a gentleness and generosity in their comedy that seems alien now. I think it had to do with the immigrant experience. Both were Jewish Canadians born here whose families came, like mine, early in the 20th century. They knew the world could be harsh: they'd seen anti-Semitism in the 1930s and were in the armed forces during the war. But they managed to thrive here and felt, through the CBC, that they had a chance to help shape a nascent national culture. It was a net positive, engendering a comedy of gratitude.

The immigrant experience has changed. Those of the Wayne and Shuster years were usually poor and often farmers. They came with hopes of rising into professional ranks (even comics), owning homes and becoming part of Canada. Now, with immigration points based on professional credentials or capacity to invest, in an economy with a shrunken base and continuing discrimination, you find people with law or medicine degrees or PhDs in Victorian literature, lined up in limos awaiting arrivals at the airport. You get more bitterness, less gratitude.

So Russell Peters' comedy is based on immigrant experience in an overt, critical way that Wayne and Shuster's wasn't. They rarely mentioned their Jewishness. They were part of an immigrant culture that helped shape the overall culture without ever mentioning ethnicity. Jews and other immigrants played a similar role in the U.S., via Hollywood or popular music. Irving Berlin gave his compatriots White Christmas and God Bless America. Wayne and Shuster were a distinctive Canadian version.

What about legacy? Sketch humour has become rarer; it's been replaced by standup and sitcoms. The last redoubt of "skits" is Saturday Night Live. But hey -- the founder and presiding genius at SNL is Lorne Michaels, from Toronto. He'd been the straight man in a comedy duo that had a slot on CBC, much like Wayne and Shuster's, before he moved south. He even married Frank Shuster's daughter. How strange must that have been? The marriage ended in 1980.

The other interesting current is political humour. I used to think Canadians like Michaels who went to the U.S. had an edge politically since U.S. comics tended to be so outraged by what they felt was the betrayal of principles they'd learned in school that they lacked the distance to be funny about it. But The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have mastered that challenge. Meanwhile, as our own politics gets polarized along U.S. lines, comics here like Rick Mercer start to seem too mild to handle it. Look how politicians line up to go on his show. If they appear with Colbert or Jon Stewart, they do it with trepidation.

But I digress. Wayne and Shuster never did much political humour. They were too focused on what you could call cultural nation-building.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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