Being Canadian: Doc asks A-list comics, regular citizens about national identity

‘Late at night, if I get on a subway car and there are some Canadians on…I get off’

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Being Canadian

Megan Rane/Being Canadian
“If America is hamburgers and steak, and if Mexico is salsa, Canada is celery.” – Mike Myers
Hockey, beer and snow are things the outside world often associates with Canada and that we do, admittedly, cherish, but Hollywood scriptwriter Robert Cohen thinks we can do better than just the stereotypes.

In his directorial debut, Being Canadian, the Calgary native aims to find out once and for all: “What does it actually mean to be Canadian?”

Cohen has already interviewed a slew of Canada’s — make that Hollywood’s — most revered comedians including Mike Myers, Michael J. Fox, Dan Aykroyd, Will Arnett and Martin Short as well as their American counterparts Conan O’Brien and Ben Stiller. Currently, he’s crowdsourcing and filming the last leg of the documentary, which wraps up at a Canada Day parade in Vancouver.

The insights he’s garnered are self-deprecating and hilarious, in true Canuck fashion.

“I’m not afraid of much, but late at night, if I get on a subway car and there are some Canadians on the subway car — I get off,” O’Brien, on his late-night talk show, tells Cohen.

Being Canadian was inspired by “years of a comedic frustration, having been in the United States so long and having people repeatedly have this misconception about Canadians,” says Cohen from a bar in Toronto — just one of the stops on his cross-country tour.

“They’ll inevitably go to hockey or beer or they’ll say ‘Eh’ and it’s that sort of strained smile like, ‘Good one.’”

After moving to Los Angeles at the age of 17, Cohen, in a period of a few years, went from delivering late-night soup under the table to writing for The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory. He’s now lived in the U.S. for longer than he did in Canada, but says in some ways, he and his Canadian friends in showbiz still feel like outsiders.

“We sort of have a cult where we’re walking around like The Illuminati; we sort of know what’s up but we know we blend in.”

In addition to asking everyday citizens about their national pride, Cohen looks at Canadian cultural peculiarities — why are we so darn polite and apologetic all of time?

“When we landed in Nova Scotia, a woman getting off the plane drove over the back of my leg with her bag and I apologized to her,” he confesses.

The movie also ponders Canada’s rise to “coolness” within the last 10 years or so. Down south, says Cohen, the change in attitude is palpable.

“It’s gone from nobody caring at all and being completely ignorant to people asking how to become Canadian.”

He thinks people started to take notice of Canada during President George W. Bush’s tenure, and that our resilient economy has become a source of global envy. But what makes us even more likable, he says, is that we don’t need to toot our own horn.

“Our superpower is subtlety.” It doesn’t get much more Canadian than that.