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Laughter from the Attic
by Richard Lubbock

Whether you're an optimist or a pessimist, hilarity can only be a blessing. Pessimists like to jeer at Fate and so make themselves mightier than the gods. Optimists always laugh because Fate has turned out to be toothless, and therefore merits ridicule. In any case, people deserve to laugh because it's good for them. It pushes their endorphins around and when that job's done, they expand. So naturally they pay rich fees to anyone who's able to help them rattle their tonsils. What's more, in a cold climate like ours, everyone needs to laugh several times a day.
That's why the production of mirth is the most wealth-creative of all Canadian industries, far more precious than the idiotic, smelly, noisy railroads, the creaky forests, or (blech!) gold. Pierre Berton should be ashamed of himself. He missed the whole point with his stupid historical scenarios about politics and timetables. Laughter, that's what Canada is all about. Andrew Clark tells the story of our deepest, most significant formative enterprise in his grand historical survey Stand & Deliver: inside Canadian comedy.
Clark begins from the questionable proposition that Canadians are defined as not-Americans and not-French. He prefers to lump Canadians in with the English, but I think that tends to downplay the grumpy importance of the Scotch streak in Canada. Clark proceeds on his merry history, climaxing with the exploits of the one greatest benefactor to Canadian culture, the ‹bermensch and onlie begetter of true Canadianism, Mark Breslin, club-owner, artists' agent, and entrepreneur. That's my considered opinion. In Clark's book we learn that Breslin has a short temper that enhances his gifts of charm and commercial savvy. I personally feel that no-one deserves greater glory for the creation of our country than Mark Breslin, unless it be Moses Znaimer, who isn't mentioned anywhere in the book. But then Moses isn't funny, is he, so he doesn't deserve a mention. If Clark has a theme to wrap his history around, it is the question "Why are Canadians so good at being funny?" And after that he feels impelled to ask, "Why do so many Canadian comics go to America?" The second question seems easy to me. No need to philosophize about it. Most comics of every nation would like to work in America because that's where the money is.
I would answer the first question-Why are Canadians so good at being funny?-with the fact that every single human being is funny, so Canadians really aren't special after all. But also we must concede that life itself is a joke. And we should also never forget the final, teleological rule that the ultimate purpose of life is to have fun-and to have yet more fun. It happens that the libertarian American culture is more conducive to outright hilarity than less-favoured social systems, and poor Canada sits in America's attic. Quite naturally the taste for American-style fun infects Canada first, and then the magnetic power of American money drags Canadians across the border. I can see no mystery in this mechanism. It all follows as the night the day.
Although a critic might question the validity of Clark's explanations, he spins out of them a likely yarn on which he hangs the careers of more Canadian comics than you've ever heard of. I won't bother you with their names. Oh, hell, here are some of them: Jim Carrey; The Dumbells; Sandra Shamas; Wayne and Schuster; Codco; SCTV; The Kids in the Hall.
Funnily enough, although Stand & Deliver at first sight passes as a competent well-organized piece of journalism, a glint of much higher quality flickers in Clark's prose. Because he takes the trouble to adopt a historical stance, he manages to transform what could have been only a dreary list of biographical facts and showtime line-ups into a narrative that can lure the reader on. And in parts of that narrative we can identify intriguing character sketches that take on a literary life of their own.
Take Chapter 10: "The Girl Who Scared Boys", which tells us about Sandra Shamas, hitherto unknown to me, who has evidently been successful with a self-organized, one-woman performance show. She made a fortune and, Oh my, she really kicked ass. And she caught trouble in the end. The way Clark tells it, her reputation at the end of her fiery career stank to the skies, worse than the spleen of Oliver Cromwell on his deathbed. Here are fourteen pages of chilling interview and biography which could stand alone as a short story.
When you absorb his set-piece on La Diva Shamas, and then read Clark's many sharp personal profiles of the lords of comedy, and add his searing anecdotes about comics on the road, who have to play for their grim laughs in the darkness of the Canadian hinterland, one begins to suspect there's a larger piece of literary work in the making here.
In the book Andrew Clark has displayed ability that marks him as capable of transforming his workmanlike catalogue of gritty snapshots and harsh philosophy into an ironic novel of considerable power. If he doesn't do it with this material, then he should do it with some other. Talent should assert itself. 

Richard Lubbock is a Toronto comic who has performed for unsmiling audiences.

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