Why CBC Comedy has grown stale—and that’s no laughing matter

Opinion: The CBC—once the home of world-class comedy—now struggles to land its jokes. And with more competition than ever before, it’s losing its place in the cultural firmament
CBC Paid App 20171204
A photograph of the CBC building in Toronto on April 4, 2012. CBC says it plans to launch a paid version of a new CBC TV app that will let viewers watch programs without ads. The broadcaster says in a memo that the new app will allow users to live stream CBC TV, watch episodes on demand on the same day they’re released, see ad-free children’s programing, and see series not aired on the network. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

It wasn’t so long ago that the CBC was known as the Canadian home of strong satire and sketch. Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, dubbed by Time as the “king of comedy,” got his start in the early ‘70s on the CBC’s Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour. In a retrospective on the world’s greatest sketch comedy shows, Rolling Stone called SCTV, which ran from 1976 to 1984, “nothing short of genius.” They also called Kids in the Hall’s CBC run from 1988 to 1995 a surreal and complicated comedy, while Vulture dubbed it as “a platform for lasting genius” in a flattering look-back, decades later. Even as late as 2007, the debut of Little Mosque on the Prairie attracted international attention, strong ratings, and praise from the L.A. Times. The CBC helped launch the careers of iconic comedians like Dan Aykroyd, Andrea Martin, John Candy, and Martin Short.

But now, when Canada needs a compelling comedic voice more than ever, the CBC’s output has largely grown stale and irrelevant. Their official YouTube channel, full of old, lazy jokes like “one cat and you’re a crazy cat lady” and an insipid Guy Fieri parody that’s just a lot of yelling and gesturing, has just over 67,000 subscribers. Those two videos each have fewer than 1,200 views (for comparison, a random user’s nine-second video of their child playing with a toy horse managed 21,000). CBC Comedy’s Twitter account has around 5,300 followers, and many tweets linking to their written comedy, like “Big reveal at gender reveal party is that no one wants to be there whatsoever,” lack a single reply or like. It’s the Internet equivalent of a tumbleweed. There have even been campaigns to kill CBC Comedy, suggesting it’s a poor use of taxpayer money.

The CBC, meanwhile, continues to rely on its stable of ever-aging dinosaurs instead of promoting new shows. For every Kim’s Convenience, which has found an audience even outside our borders, there’s at least one Crawford, a critically panned series that plumbs a standby voice (its co-creator is This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Trailer Park veteran Mike Clattenburg) for material. And there are many more failures to be found among what should be its bread-and-butter in the modern age, its digital content. Aside from the occasional quick mention during a hockey game, the CBC has done nothing to let the world know of the existence of CBC digital series like My 90-Year-Old Roommate. Its first-season premiere has managed to scrape together 29,000 YouTube views over the last two years, while the season finale managed a pitiful 5,700. If the CBC isn’t offering exposure or even the illusion of wanting to promote new voices, then why should anyone with serious comedic aspirations work with them?

And now reports suggest that This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the longtime anchor of the network’s comedy lineup with its daffy, undaring send-ups of Canadian politics and life, has found itself in an “existential crisis,” with veteran writers and production staff leaving, including long-time star Shaun Majumder, who was fired, he says, because his proposed new direction for the show led to “creative differences.” “Do you maintain your audience while it dwindles due to natural causes or do you maintain the status quo?” a source close to production told The Toronto Star. “I think in the case of Shaun (Majumder), he may have certainly wanted to take more risk than they were comfortable with.” That dread seems to have suffused itself into CBC Comedy as a whole—all while the options for aspiring Canadian comedians to strike out on their own or try to make it in Los Angeles grow vaster than ever before.

So why has our country’s national comedy hub grown so fallow?

The cast of This Hour has 22 Minutes, from left, Susan Kent, Shaun Majumder, Cathy Jones and Mark Critch. Majumder says he was fired from the 25-year-old show because of ‘creative differences’. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Looking at CBC Comedy’s successful competitors helps make things clear. The Beaverton, for instance, is a website of Canada-centric political satire that aligns itself with the rise of hit U.S. shows like Last Week Tonight and online offerings like The Onion, and enjoys significant social media success—not bad for a site started by one University of Toronto grad working on it in his spare timeAnd while far from every joke works, they at least have a distinct voice. “Ontario leaders blame their platform miscalculations on poor provincial math curriculum” may be a groaner, but it’s one that’s undeniably theirs. But whether the CBC’s dedicating anemic sketches to pockets in women’s clothing or “joking,” in a 500-word piece, that a “volleyball legend retires because ow it hurts your arms,” the CBC’s comedy has no clear voice or intent. They’re making observations that thousands of people have already made, telling jokes that could be found in countless stand-up routines, tweets, sitcoms and satire sites, nearly all of them with a greater reach and a stronger execution. As The Logic reporter Sean Craig pointed out on Twitter, CBC Comedy once ran “10 Rejected Buzzfeed Quizzes,” a tired premise that the Huffington Post did seven months earlier and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency did three years before that. Even if you’re a person who still considers jokes about hipsters and millennials to be ground-breaking, your first instinct would not be to visit the CBC.

That universalist tone is by design. “We are targeting a broad audience with different tastes and so our feed does not have a specific niche audience in mind as other comedy feeds might,” said Michelle Daly, the senior director of CBC Comedy, in an e-mail interview. “It’s tricky as our linear comedy content is broad and we don’t have the goal or luxury of creating a niche comedy site that doubles down on a specific kind of comedy (i.e. satire), given our mandate.” The CBC, it was emphasized, wants to engage all Canadians, regardless of their tastes; that’s part of the challenge of its mandate as a government entity. But aimlessness does not create good comedy—especially an aimlessness that comes from a fear of rankling others.

“[In 2016], early in its existence, the site was working with some excellent writers and developing a cool tone—a blend of satire and absurdity with a bit of edge,” said a Canadian comedy veteran who currently contributes to CBC Comedy’s digital wing, and who wished to remain anonymous. (That desire for anonymity is telling on its own: several CBC contributors declined to speak to Maclean’s for this piece, even anonymously, citing the risk of damaging their professional relationships in the small, insular circles of Canadian comedy.) “Not everything published was the best, but when stuff worked it really worked—reaching hundreds of thousands, getting good traction on social media.”

The veteran added that after Rebel Media and the National Post published critical articles, they pulled back on political material. “Beyond avoiding politics, they didn’t want CBC Comedy to do anything resembling news-style satire—never mind that the best stuff on the site was in that style and that it’s the style that works the best on social media.”

Compelling comedy is not created by trying to placate every potential audience member until you are left with no audience members; in trying to make something that can appeal to everyone, they’ve made something that’s easy to be ignored by everyone. “Their comedy punches so lightly you can hardly feel it,” says Diana McCallum, the Toronto-based co-creator of the From Superheroes comedy network, which has managed to equal CBC Comedy’s Facebook engagement and triple their Twitter engagement, despite her operation being run by just two people. “I’ve seen a few articles that are so soft on their premise that when they show up in my feed I’m not sure whether they’re comedy articles or actual news. So there’s no edge and no direction, which makes it kind of just there, waiting to be ignored.”

For her part, the CBC’s Daly said that they “found that sharper satire didn’t resonate with our audiences as much as we had anticipated,” but noted “we are constantly refining our tone based on how audiences react and respond.” But refinement needs to be based on a clear strategy, or else you’re just rearranging furniture while the foundation rots.

McCallum’s success with more niche material also reveals another problem with CBC’s approach: the jokes are simply too broad. “They’re clearly trying to appeal to everyone, which means you’ll probably appeal to no one,” she says. “People go to websites for very specific things and no one is going to go to a site for general comedy.”

She adds that the CBC could likely find success through specifically Canadian-focused content, but has chosen to ignore that even though at the time of her interview with Maclean’s three of the CBC’s five most popular articles were about Air Canada. “This tells me that the focused Canadian content shares and does better in general, and yet they don’t seem to be pushing a Canadian tone to their comedy.”

So in an era where an independent comedian like McCallum can find success by cornering a specific market, The Beaverton can rise on the back of unbowed, sharp-elbowed political satire, a compelling and funny Twitter account like @Stats_Canada can get a book deal, and when consumers have more options than ever before from Canada and beyond, what motivation does a talented Canadian creator have to work with the CBC and its diminishing digital reach?

The answer is money. But while a second anonymous freelance contributor to CBC Comedy described the money as “good compared to many sites,” they also noted that there’s “no solid feedback on why anything worked or didn’t,” no “insight into what [they] want” and no apparent attempts at promoting the work on social media, all of which is normally industry standard. In response, Daly insists that CBC Comedy is “working with a range of exciting emerging talent from across the country, creating short-form videos developed specifically for social and digital feeds,” pointing to Rakhee Morzaria’s Note to Self, which features a talented, diverse cast and was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. But the majority of Note to Self’s episodes have been watched fewer than 100,000 times, and CBC Comedy’s Twitter account has mentioned it just 17 times in well over a year.

Stand-up comedians aren’t immune either, as the demise of national TV exposure in the face of cord-cutting and Netflix is also an issue. For stand-ups, comedy specials on streaming services are the name of the game now, and Canada has completely failed to adapt. Not coincidentally, Canadian comedians aren’t eligible for government grants because they aren’t considered artists, a broader issue with talent cultivation.

If the CBC continues to downplay new voices online and shackle itself to long-time creators who produce staid broadcast work, it risks losing a hold among the creators that are the lifeblood of the scene. That would represent a real problem for the national broadcaster. After all, world-class comedy, alongside journalism, fiction, music and art, was part of the essential Canadian voice that the CBC promoted on the international stage at a time when Canadian values and identity were at their most distinct from the rest of the world’s. Once again, we find ourselves at a point in history where maintaining a Canadian identity is as important as it’s ever been. The CBC’s response? Writing painfully lazy and unfunny jokes about how millennials find adulting hard, and leaning on the same tired comedic voices of the last few decades.

As it currently exists, the CBC gives talented creators little incentive to write anything better and smarter. It’s time to stop coasting off of legacy work, establish a clear direction, recognize comedians as artists, and properly promote those artists through social media and streaming services. Until they do, Canadians will rightfully continue to ignore CBC Comedy in favour of the many superior alternatives.