Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Lunch Laughs with Miriam Toews and Christian McPherson

It was great to be able to sneak away to a noon hour event, especially one featuring Miriam Toews (whom I had never previously considered a comic or “funny” writer) and Christian McPherson on a chilly yet brisk Monday afternoon. Titled ‘Is It Hard To Be Funny?’ the question rings rhetorically but as the ensuing discussion illumined, it’s rather more fecund for discourse (or banter at least) than at first glance.


Humour has often been a strange animal, which like live ones seem to die upon dissection with the supplementary insult to injury being that its anatomy still remains inscrutable. This was highlighted by the snail joke our gregarious host, Ottawa Citizen’s Peter Simpson, delivered in his opening remarks which elicited a mixed reaction. Doing stand-up comedy must be one of the difficult gigs in the world, if memoirs of comedians are to be believed. Writing comedy on the other hand, isn’t any easier (nor does it get easier as time goes along as Toews would later attest).


Toews read a passage from her latest offering, her novel Irma Voth which tells the story of a 19 year old Mennonite woman’s experience in meeting characters quite apart from her world. Her deadpan observations really give a form to the absurd incarnations of life which can latch on to our own sense of relating to them by extending our own experiences, transporting our empathy to the protagonist. Voth as a character instantly seems perspicacious and likeable.


McPherson read from his first novel The Cube People which chronicles, with very sly autobiographical allusions, the life of a public servant Colin MacDonald. MacDonald’s trip to the fertility clinic was sympathetic and hilarious. McPherson really owned his narration despite what seemed like early jitters and led the audience through what sounded like an entertaining SNL short skit.


Peter Simpson, in his interview, pointed out that the much beloved comic writer Eric Nicol called writing comedy a “low calling”. The one “doesn’t make a habit of it and doesn’t accept payment for performing it”. While this sounds like an obvious self-parodying jibe, Toews took exception to it in the sense that the notion of thinking of comedy as somehow less “smart or intellectual is completely false.” It was interesting to hear that both writers didn’t consciously try to be funny but rather deliver their observations in their own voice as honestly as possible. I had the impression that a novelist might have the luxury of not consciously trying, but someone writing for say The Colbert Report or This Hour Has 22 Minutes have a different reality as they need to produce funny material on a deadline. This then begged the question as to whether humour is innate or something you strive very hard to produce. This query also leads the subjective notion of humour itself, where Simpson noted that a very affable, educated friend of his didn’t much care for Monty Python whereas Simpson regarded it as the height of comedy.


As a social endowment, there is always a sense of envy with the funny types, because it seems that charisma and thus popularity seems to come to those who can induce the giggles. Scientific studies on the role of laughter in helping with social bonding and the increasing popularity of laughter yoga seem to indicate that comedy in our lives in not at all superfluous but necessary. The emergence and breakout of Novak Djokovic (nicknamed the ‘Djoker’) this year in men’s tennis lends evidence that even court clowns can indeed climb to the top of the proverbial mountain rather than being relegated to being side-shows. 


There is also a darker side to humour that goes beyond merely coping with the despair of life, the one that lies at the edge of madness and crosses it. One of the more sobering quotes was given by Rorschach of Watchmen fame about the depression of the fictional clown Pagliacci. Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker is also a very complex character whose crust of mirth hides a deep abiding cruelty. Due to time constraints, a discussion on the subversive nature of humour was missed and I’m sure that both Toews and McPherson would have had plenty to say on it.


It’s astounding to note the prolific presence of Canadian comedians working on-screen but also the presence, albeit sparser, in literature. From Stephen Leacock to Mordecai Richler to Will Ferguson and our two authors for the afternoon, there is much proof that shtick and subtle levity has a place alongside the solemn in and from Canada – and that is a very good thing.