Canadian humor -- an oxymoron?
Not really, especially if you've attended the recent mini-festival, Canadian Cool, celebrating the comic cinema from up North.
Opening the festival was a documentary titled, Being Canadian -- a celebration of all things Canadians and the Canadians that love being so even if they live down south. It features interviews with the likes of SNLer Mike Myers and Dave Letterman sidekick, band leader Paul Shaffer.
Its roots lie in Los Angeles. When Canadian Robert Cohen moved to LA to become a comedy writer, he quickly realized that his American friends and colleagues knew nothing about his homeland of Canada.
After years of frustration, the 48 year old director embarked on a personal quest, nearly traveling from one end of Canada to the other, to prove that being Canadian is more than maple syrup, Mounties and “Oout and Aboout.”
Being from Calgary,Cohen is the pride of the Canadian Rockies with more than 20 years of work in sitcoms, sketch comedy, variety, improvisation, animation, and films. His feature film contributions include the Austin Powers films, all three Shrek films, Dodgeball, Madagascar; Tropic Thunder, and Anchorman 2. Cohen’s comedy writing stints include The Ben Stiller Show (for which he won an Emmy), Just Shoot Me!, The Big Bang Theory, The Wonder Years, Saturday Night Live, MADtv, and The Simpsons.
Rob also works as a commercial director and has produced/directed pilots and short films for MTV, Comedy Central, and HBO; eight episodes of the critically acclaimed IFC series Maron; studio feature campaigns for Paramount, Sony, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox; a music video for Aimee Mann; and multiple promos starring Tom Cruise, Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, and Robert Downey Jr. Rob’s turn-ons are honesty, cold pizza, and moderately short bios.
As the visual inspiration for Bart Simpson’s best friend Milhouse — whom he still bears a striking resemblance — he really established his pop-culture credibility.
But none of this has assuaged his frustration so as a misunderstood Canadian, he made this film and established himself as Canada's unofficial ambassador.
Q: Now that you’ve raised the media profile of Canada, are the Canadians going to give you a plaque or some special reverential position?
RC: I will happily accept it, but so far nothing has come through on my email [laughs].
Q: As long as they don’t require you to eat hockey pucks.
RC: Well, I’ve done worse.
Q: Do you think this movie will help reposition or redefine Canada as sort of a not-America, or as not an also-ran, but in redefining Canada in a positive light, will people realize that the real actors are in Canada, and the real directors really come from the North — and do you get more Canadian financing than we down in America get?
RC: Well, the goal was never to redefine anything. It started with me trying to solve a problem I’ve been dealing with since college; and my producers are here, what they’ve been dealing with their whole life being outside of Canada… but hopefully at the end of the movie, it just shows how cool Canada is now; that it’s really coming into its own. It’s a country that’s just -- no pun intended -- very cool.
Q: The funny thing is, Canada has produced some of the better television shows, and we Americans steal from them all the time. You have a duty in your future part two, to let us know it.
RC: if you join me in making part two, we’ll do it [laughs].
Q: When you made your wish list of those you wanted to interview for this film, how long was it? You said before that only one person refused, but there’s a lot more people that were on it and in the film when you start to add up the list.
RC: The list came about in a different way. We started off with friends of ours that we knew we could sit down with, and would give us some of their time. Then [we] had a separate list that was really like our dream list. Like Jeff from the band Rush, or Malcolm Gladwell, or a former prime minister.
Then as we started adding to the first list. The second list, for the most part, became more realistic because we sat down one day and thought, “Who do we really appreciate and respect and enjoy from all different walks of life?”
It wasn’t just comedy people, maybe they didn’t have to be famous, but that they would round this out so it would feel like it’s a movie about Canada, not just Canadian comedy or Canadian celebrities. So we just laid out index cards of everybody that we really would love to speak to, and started the process of reaching out to them.
Q: Was the toughest thing trying to figure out who to use of the non-celebrity Canadians that you interviewed, or the non-Canadian people in Canada that you interviewed?
RC: Again, we were really fortunate that Ben Stiller, Conan O’Brien and Kathy Griffin, who are in the movie and very American, were so on board with helping us out, but we also…
One of my producers, Colin, had some great people that helped us get people in Bangladesh and in Britain, and we shot some stuff in Japan, and so that was sort of the easy part. I know when I was in Tokyo filming people, I was trying to explain what I wanted, which was very difficult, but when I said, “Canada” they really just started laughing and smiling at me.
Q: Just like I did.
RC: Exactly. So, that helped grease the wheel a little bit.
Q: This film is a great résumé for builder for you to have your own talk show, you’re going to be on the air all the time, your face in front of the camera?
RC: Oh you know that’s my favorite thing of everything. Chocolate is number two, and that would be number one. I just love it!
Q: I don’t know, I think you might be getting offers. I think you’re in trouble now.
RC: Sadly, other people have mentioned that, but I think this is my debut and my swan song [laughs].
Q: It could also be that now people now one will ever confuse you with Rob Cohen the horror director. Or maybe they will confuse you even more.
RC: Look, that guy would be very fortunate to be thought of as a Canadian, but it’ll still happen. I need to identify myself more.
Q: He doesn’t have any Canadian roots, huh? So there you go.
RC: No, he’s all-American.
Q: When this was shown in Canada, did you have to make apologies to Canadians for the things they felt were omitted, or were there things that were included that even they were surprised?
RC: Well, the honest answer is when we premiered at Hot Docs, we were one of the opening films there, and we had two shows that sold out far in advance, with lines around the block. The weather was actually pretty cold then, not surprisingly, but people were very, very enthusiastic.
I think a lot of people had no idea we have a secret maple syrup reserve in the country, and we apologized beforehand for people spending their evening with us, but the response was great. You know, Canadians definitely always point out where we didn’t go in Canada, and that’s something I think is just based on pride more than nitpicky-ness, but overall, everybody’s been really cool.
Q: There’s a lot of great films that have come out of Canada, yours not withstanding. What would you consider the classic Canadian films that are about life in general, and particularly about Canada, because there’s some films that people don’t realize are Canadian, and then there’s [those] Canadian directors that have been emerging.
RC: I would say the two that pop into my head are that we identify as a Canadian movie is Meatballs, because it was made in Canada, directed and produced by Canadians, with a few Americans in there. But I would also say, as far as great Canadian movies, there’s Strange Brew.
Q: Sometimes Americans don’t know what North American — I should say, United States — citizens don’t know what to do about Canada. It was really peculiar that a hit Canadian movie like Starbuck — about a guy who bonds with the hundreds of his children born because he was a very effective sperm donor — could be distributed directly in the United States, yet someone still thought they had to do an American remake, Delivery Man starring Vince Vaughn.
RC: Right, right.
Q: You’ve hit on a strange thing. We Americans don’t quite know what to do with you guys, because we don’t quite understand the conflict between the French and English. It sort of adds a wrinkle to what Canada’s all about. It’s only beginning to get understood here. And I think maybe the whole phenomenon of extreme sports adds a whole other wrinkle to understanding Canada. What do you think?
RC: The thing is, you know, this whole movie is just our view of what it means to be Canadian and covers hopefully a million different topics that are very Canadian-centric, like curling and maple syrup and comedy and things like that, but I just think because we’re so close and we appear so similar to Americans that we’re never really thought of as exotic.
When people find out that Canada has a lot of its own unique cultural history, they have to take a step back and realize that we’ve been around for over a hundred years, and it is its own place, so that’s one of the things that we love to brag about, but also be frustrated about.
Q: In all seriousness, I think you may have something ongoing. Do you see something expanding from this? Maybe some kind of an ongoing web series? Or do you want to explore this in any other ways or do more docs? Or go back to doing what you’ve done in your path already?
RC: I would say we’ve already been approached by somebody that wants to expand this and do some sort of TV concept, which I don’t even--we’re not even discussing it right now, just because we’re in the middle of it. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad move, but you know, the other thing that’s been really nice is a lot of schools and colleges in Canada and the U.S. have been requesting us to come, and sort of give a crash course on being Canadian using the movie. So that’s sort of a cool benefit.
Q: You did do one cop-out. You didn’t make your way to the Northwest territories or the Yukon to prove your total Canadian journey. Did you take the soft route so you didn’t freeze your butt off.
RC: You’re so right. We didn’t visit Newfoundland or Labrador, none of it. We were wussies, basically. We intended to cover a huge area, and we’d have loved to have gone everywhere. It just mathematically wasn’t possible, but it’d just be….
Again, we were lucky enough to speak to some native Canadians and Canadians of different ethnicities and genders and leanings. We did get fortunate when we would go through larger cities, that we could get a cross-section of people, but physically, I would have loved to have been everywhere.
Q: You didn’t have any protests from Inuits; there wasn’t a lot of Inuit presence in it?
RC: No, actually, there’s at least three Native Canadians. We interviewed a lot more.
Q: If there was anyone you could have put in the movie or you weren’t able to get or isn’t alive, who would you have put in the film?
RC: I have such a respect for Lorne Michaels. If we were able to work that schedule out, it would have been a huge thrill.