Canada’s Most Memorable (English) TV Thing: Final Four

UPDATE: We are now in the championship round. Click here to vote.

The four most memorable pieces of television in our history are a bizarre sketch comedy series that didn’t really catch on outside Canada, a teen drama that was a decade ahead of its time but offered no giant leap forward in storytelling, a series of 60-second commercials telling Canadians about their heritage through stilted dialogue and powerful white men being skeptical about things, and a kindly middle-aged man talking to an androgynous puppet and his mute dog about the things he found in his “tickle trunk.”

To which I say: damn straight.

We have whittled down the memorable TV, in our English-speaking nation’s history, to four finalists: the best of comedy, drama, children’s programming, and those things in middle.

(Rememer: shows still on the air were ineligible for the competition)

These are the things we care about. These are the things we’ve cared about for decades. These are the things that we celebrate, we lionize, we get nostalgic about, we make weird comparisons with against American shows.

And it’s nice that we’ve gotten to this point of celebration. But there can be only two finalists.

Which brings us to the Final Four.

SEMIFINAL #1: KIDS IN THE HALL (COMEDY WINNER) VS. DEGRASSI (DRAMA WINNER)

First, the tale of the tape:

Kids In The Hall: 1989-1995, CBC. Defeated Double Exposure (95% of the vote), Royal Canadian Air Farce (67%), Trailer Park Boys (80%), SCTV (54%)

Degrassi: The Kids of Degrassi (1979-86), Junior High (1987-89, Degrassi High (1989-91), CBC (NEWER SERIES DON’T COUNT, BECAUSE THEY’RE STILL ON THE AIR OR WRAPPED UP IN THE LAST FIVE YEARS). Defeated Traders (88% of the vote), Danger Bay (65%), The Beachcombers (54%), The Littlest Hobo (58%)

Second, AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

But now, we must choose.

First, a video endorsement of Degrassi, courtesy of Winnipeg free Press writer Melissa Martin, named the country’s best columnist at the 2017 National Newspaper Awards:

“Our culture often devalues teen media. It treats it as unserious, something to be mocked. And to be fair, there have been a lot of pretty bad shows aimed at youth. But Degrassi wasn’t one of those. Where many other teen shows are melodramatic, or kind of slapstick, Degrassi was honest. It was real, and it was groundbreaking.”

“It may be easy to look back at it now, and see its flaws: the production values, some cheezy writing, some kind of wooden acting, but they were just kids. And besides, that’s judging it by its wrong set of criteria. Because what made Degrassi special, and why it deserves to make the final .. is it was brave. It was brave to go out and address real topics that kids were dealing with at that time, [and] most children’s programming wouldn’t touch. It was brave to be honest. And it was brave to be oriented around the belief that young people were smart enough to hear the truth about what life was all about.”

So that’s an argument! But in the interest of balance, I feel Kids In The Hall deserves a chance to speak. And as it happens, a few of my friends (Trevor Record, Hans Seidermann, Stuart Darrach-Cottick and Kalyeena Makortoff) have been workshopping a Kids In The Hall podcast, ‘KITH and Tell.’

I asked them to give their argument. They get a little longer, because there’s no 12-minute video endorsement.

There’s a protocol that goes along with talking about Degrassi with someone you don’t know that well.

You call it a “guilty pleasure,” you immediately talk about Spike, and how ahead of its time it was. You mention that, you know, Drake was in it.*

When you bring up Kids in the Hall with the same person, you don’t need to worry about that. You’re asking if they get it. No, we don’t mean if they’re cool. Just… do they get it? It’s fine if they don’t. Far be it from you to push anything on them.

Over the course of six years, the Kids in the Hall produced the most distinct and memorable television comedy that Canada has ever seen, and there haven’t been any shows since that can compare to it.

Unlike its American counterparts, KITH didn’t bother with celebrity impressions or parody. The show was half a burlesque about the mundane – the world of businessmen, arguments with friends, 30 Helens, and seeing your dad get pathetically drunk. The other half was surreal segments; nonsense songs about terriers, the Head Crusher, and a sexually-charged Chicken Lady. Somehow, it all made sense and fit together.

We already know what the Degrassi voter is going to say to this: That Degrassi was talking about real issues, that it was connecting to people emotionally, that it was serious.

But KITH was also talking about real issues, it just didn’t come off like a poorly written livejournal while doing it.

For some of us, the real trauma of a dysfunctional home life needed a bit of healing through comedy. So we got a villainous patriarch attacking his wife for cooking an overly Salty Ham. We also needed a queer character on TV that we could look up to, so we got Buddy Cole – an unstoppable force of nature.

Let’s be honest, Degrassi would be a humiliating “most memorable Canadian TV Show.” In all of its inceptions, it represents everything that Canada gets made fun of for internationally. Don’t believe us? Take a look. Degrassi is what people are talking about when they witheringly say “after-school special.”

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council recently announced that they have reconsidered their blanket prohibition on the word “fuck.” You know who didn’t care about profanity regulations in 1989? The Kids In The Fucking Hall. KITH isn’t for everyone, but it represents the Canada that is admired by everyone: daringly ahead of its time, willing to crash and burn in the sake of progress, and hilariously funny.

*Yes, the series which Drake appeared in is not included in this contest. But how many votes do you think it got because of him, regardless?

Alright, now pick one. NO PRESSURE OR ANYTHING.

SEMIFINAL 2: MR. DRESSUP VS. HERITAGE MINUTES

First, the tale of the tape:

Mr. Dressup, CBC (1967-1996): defeated The Edison Twins (93% of the vote), Reboot (75%), The Raccoons (79%), The Friendly Giant (76%)

Heritage Minutes (OLD ONES ONLY, 1991-2000): defeated Hinterland Who’s Who (59% of the vote), National Film Board Shorts (60%), Wayne and Shuster (68%), Body Break (78%)

There’s been one thing through this entire tournament that has dominated, never getting less than 75% of the vote, and that’s Mr. Dressup. And the show has done it against four very different types of programs: Edison Twins (80s nostalgia), Reboot (90s CGI), The Raccoons (animated Canadiana) and The Friendly Giant (Canadian Education Writ Large, I’M SORRY I FAILED YOU BOB HOMME)

Illustration by Virginie Menard

And in each one, Ernie Coombs and his puppets has vanquished the competition with ease.

There aren’t a lot of simple explanations for why, over 20 years after it went off the air, Mr. Dressup is still beloved, except for this: it was perfect.

Perfect for its age bracket, perfect for the balance between fantasy and reality, perfect between the balance of playtime and morality for children 5 to 10 years old (90% to 10%), just utterly perfect. And perfect for 30 years! Two entire generations! Millions of people finding joy out of the tickle trunk!

There was no secret sauce to Mr. Dressup, nor could there be: for something revolving around one human performer, for long, it had to be rooted in the inherent genius and decency of the person creating it.

Canadians have a weird thing lionizing the people who did their best work outside of this country and putting it into our shared value system.

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Scotland and spent most of his life in the United States, yet we praise him as one of our own. James Naismith created basketball in America and spent virtually his entire adult life in the United States. From Wayne Gretzky to Ryan Reynolds and everyone in between, the composite of a Canadian celebrity is a person who grows up here, moves to the U.S.A., lives there full time as they grow old, but gives fealty to our dominion when asked for it.

Which is fine. Which is, in many ways, expected.

But if you want to ask what show and which person mattered to Canadians, for more years and to more people than any other, you have to start with a man born in Lewiston, Maine, who produced a show here for 32 years, became a Canadian citizen, died in Pickering, Ontario, and never showed the slightest hint of ego to his millions of young fans.

“He had a trunk, a couple of puppet friend, scissors, paper and glue. That’s all Ernie Coombs used to make this country fall head over heels in love Mr. Dressup,” said Laurie Brown, in her obituary of Ernie Coombs on The National in 2001.

The most amazing stat? Mr. Dressup went on for around 4,000 shows, when the person he’s most compared to, Mr. Rogers, produced around 900.

Quite simply, there will never be another person, or show, like his again.

And there are also Heritage Minutes. And I love Heritage Minutes. They’re hokey, amazing, educational, and memorable to this day. But I’ve written over 18,000 words ranking each and every one of them, and that’s more than enough. So I’m just going to copy and paste what I’ve written before. Such as:

“Every year, hundreds of grants are given out to promote national culture. There are myriad regulations promoting and protecting distinctly Canadian art and media. The government invests millions of dollars to celebrate our history. And yet, a series of one-minute commercials, many produced over 20 years ago, endure.”

“National symbols don’t just happen. They’re chosen because they represent a story we want to tell about ourselves. We only know about the Bluenose because it’s on a coin, and we only know what it did because of an endlessly played Heritage Minute.”

“Why did Pearson and Diefenbaker suddenly enter the room? Where are they going? Why are they putting so much power in the hands of a clearly insane man?

We’re never told any of that. What we are told is that John Matheson, the crazy man talking to himself, got everyone to agree on Canada’s flag.”

“I do enjoy how often Heritage Minutes gloss over the most important part of Canadian accomplishments— how they actually happened. Granted, you only have a minute, and that’s the least dramatic part, but you could basically make a meme at this point:

1. We get to know the person
2. They want to do something
3. Someone (preferably a Powerful White Man) is skeptical
4. Person gives a reason for doing it
5. ???
6. FAMOUS!!!

“For the first time in our nation’s history, a Powerful White Man Was Skeptical. And that’s why we’re called Canada.”

Choose. Feel guilty. We’ll see you in the finals, starting on Friday.

Categories: FeaturesTags: , , , ,

18 Comments

  1. Lachlin McKinnon

    This was fun until the universe imploded when SCTV lost to KITH. The only thing more preposterous would be if Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton and become President.

  2. On what planet was KITH not popular outside Canada? On planet earth, it was HUGE in the US. I watched it daily on Comedy Central. I watched in on HBO and on CBS. I never got to see the troupe live until I immigrated to Canada in 1997 but to say that KITH never caught on outside Canada is absurd.

  3. Gregg V McElroy

    Wonderfull job son, I think Mr. Dressup won the the hearts and soul of so many Canadians over such a long time was that he offered something, simple ,fun and easy to follow for children and adults, that made all of us feel welcome and warm.

  4. Wendy Ellen Burton

    Your description of Mr Dressup should give credit to Judith Lawrence, who lives on Hornby Island, who designed Casey and Finnegan, voiced Casey, and wrote the scripts for their parts of the show for over 25 years.

    Mr Dressup’s “two puppet friends” are, I believe, a big reason why the show was so popular and is now a finalist. Credit for the puppets goes to Judith, not Ernie.

  5. Jane

    I’m okay with the quarter finals and the semi finals, even though I didn’t pick Mr. Dressup, but i was the first demo that watched casey and finnegan.

  6. Wendy Williams

    So hard to vote today. Only girls or women were on Degrassi. Hard to be reminded so clearly how male and white TV was and mostly still is.

  7. David Schultz

    I don’t understand why your KITH advocates had to go negative against Degrassi. Degrassi was nothing like an after-school special; those were condescending and mostly melodramatic, as Melissa Martin said. Far from being “everything that Canada gets made fun of for internationally”, the first generation of Degrassi earned plaudits worldwide.

    “You’re asking if they get it. No, we don’t mean if they’re cool. Just… do they get it? It’s fine if they don’t. Far be it from you to push anything on them.”

    This passage sounds like the epitome of faux-cool to me. Why are they so insecure that they have to attack a show that was just as groundbreaking in it’s own way?

  8. ironflange

    Sad to see Definition wasn’t there but Bumper Stumpers was a good choice; you could do a whole bracket of hokey Canadian game shows. It was fun to see The Trouble With Tracy (I love SCTV, but I’d have voted for her), and congrats to the Hobo for his strong run.

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