When I started doing stand-up comedy, the intention was to change the damn world. I had the passion of a new liberal arts degree mixed with being told by my friends that I was funny. That was all I needed to write a joke that would make Papa Jon Stewart proud: a piece of satire so accurate and devastating that my country's own prime minister, Stephen Harper, would resign effective immediately and the tar sands would sink into the ground, never to be seen again.
Then, of course, reality set in. The difficulty of stand-up, a creeping horror of night after night performing in front of six other lowly comics who don't give a shit about your material, is very effective at obliterating any ideologies or agendas that you may have had. You literally have to learn how to walk and talk again, so trying to change the world takes a backseat to just saying anything that won't result in you bombing on stage. The other thing you see is that there are few worse things in comedy than bad political jokes. They are hacky and impersonal and come off as pedantic or pandering.
I say all this because I'm experiencing this personal dilemma at a time when the longer this Canadian election goes on, the more essential satire seems to be. We have an incumbent prime minister who is descending into pure racism and bigotry, as well as his traditional anti-democratic impulses and deceptive economic posturing, while his opponents are too concerned with being the blandest possible option to truly take the winds out of this monster. Canada needs some good Harper jokes.
Which is no easy feat. Harper has worked very diligently to be as bland and boring as an Alberta prairie; a joke about him can drift by in the wind like a tumbleweed. I'm not alone on this though, so to get some assistance on my quest for a funny Harper joke I decided to talk to some of my favorite comedic peers about this dilemma: Can we make Harper funny and, really, is it even worth it?
Monica Heisey (writer, comedian, I Can't Believe It's Not Better)
Comedy has always been an important tool for social critique, and because it's often written off as "just" a joke, comedians can get away with more virulent criticism than, say, a pundit or environmental scientist. It's crucial to maintain an ability to mock powerful figures, and especially our current prime minister, although I won't say that it doesn't make me nervous about next auditing season every time I tweet something critical of Stephen Harper.
Jeremy Woodcock (comedian, writer This Hour Has 22 Minutes)
Probably the hardest thing about joking about Stephen Harper has been the commonly accepted view of him as a cipher. A bland, gray-washed nerd with dead eyes, which is where "humor" about him commonly comes from.
But then there's the guilt of that cop-out, of treating him as impenetrable and bland and perhaps benignly harmless or at least inevitable. Today, to be a satirical comedy writer, you can't just try to write really funny jokes. It's your responsibility to be informed, to know what to attack through humor. Dig deeper, find out what he's done, which things are wrong, which are right. Don't just go by the commonly accepted view and what's presented publicly, our job has to be beyond that. That's the whole point: not just a cheap easy laugh, and especially not just a comforting laugh that reinforces what we figure we're all already thinking.
We've got to have more curious journalist in our comedy writers, and we've got to have more vicious comedy writer in our journalists.
Nile Seguin (comedian, Just For Laughs)
I realized it was because he really hasn't shown a sense of humor or any other sign of humanity. This might seem harsh but I'm not saying it as a dig, I'm saying it as an actual fact. He very much controls everything about his public image, so you don't get anything that he doesn't want you to see—and what he wants you to see is boring and artificial. I guess in that respect he might actually be clever because he makes it hard to make jokes about him. But it's this control and projected boring/inhuman image that makes it difficult to get comedy traction. Making fun of him feels very much like making fun of a computer. Again, I'm not saying he isn't human. I'm just saying that he's controlled his image so much that making fun of him would be like having a series of jokes about a laptop. No one would really care. He doesn't inspire enough emotion for people to get invested in the premise.
Heidi Brander (comedian, writer for This Hour Has 22 Minutes)
OK, cool, this is what I'm theorizing: It's hard to make fun of Stephen Harper because he's been around for so long that every joke you could make about him has already been done to death. It's also tricky because he's such a huge nerd that when you make fun of the obvious things like his Lego hair and his pet chinchilla and his Beatles cover band full of dads, it feels bad. It feels like "punching down" and in comedy you're supposed to "punch up." And then you're like "Oh wait, duh, but he's the prime minister!" but by that time he's taken away your reproductive rights. What a goof!
Bob Kerr (writer for This Hour Has 22 Minutes)
It's hard to make fun of him, for sure. He's bland, but he's also very intelligent. He's not quotable (with the exception of the recent "Old stock Canadian" remark). There's nothing sensational about him or Canadian politics in general. When you hold American politics up against Canadian politics, it's a totally different ballgame. American politics is pop culture. That doesn't exist here. Our politicians, for the most part, are boring, old white men who don't stir the pot so much as they just bring it to a slow boil. And that's a strength for them, because they can push through bills like C-51, which strips us Canadians of our fundamental rights and freedoms and I'd be willing to bet that a vast majority of Canadians don't even know what Bill C-51 is. I don't think I would. Our job is to try to bring that stuff to light.
Stephen Harper doesn't talk to the press. Not really. Outside of the odd interview with Peter Mansbridge, and an announcement here and there, he's a media ghost. But now, given that an election is happening, he pops out. He's a four-year groundhog.
Stephen Harper is bland, but he's also intelligent. He talks mainly of politics and business and foreign affairs and Canadians' eyes glaze over. He doesn't talk about his experience of being a human being. He doesn't humanize himself, so he's barely a human to us.
With Stephen Harper, it's almost like there's nothing to blow up or even make up.
Mark James Heath (comedian, Running at the Mouth, American!)
It seems to me that the difference between Americans and Canadians, in terms of their relationship to government, is that we Americans fear our government. Either we see them as a big and powerful overlord to hide behind or serve, or we see them as our powerful right hand to smite others. Canadians look at politicians more like the people who fill out the paperwork while everyone else lives their lives. It is because of this that I feel Canadians have no problem openly mocking and criticizing the government. So there's not a lot of subtle nuance to political criticism in this country you can simply state exactly how you feel because no one has any sense of fear of the government—they barely pay attention to the government. So in terms of political satire, etc., it's not fertile: people just blatantly say, "Fuck Harper." On that note, Harper has sort of energized the Canadian public. People are very charged-up to vote because he's pretty much let everyone down in the country. It's not a two-party system, yet he has offended all the parties. More than I've ever seen in the last decade that I have had a relationship with Canada people are very politically charged. They are ready for a change and willing to pay close attention to achieve it.
Aisha Brown (comedian, Running at the Mouth)
Stephen Harper is way into cats. It's weird… Pretty sure he eats them.
Jordan Foisy (writer of this story, VICE)
I asked one of my favorite comics, Chris Locke, about this and his response was simple: "Right now I would say it's hard to make fun of him because it's become so sad." This is my fear. That underneath all of Harper's efficient and effective blandness there is something else at play that makes it hard to write the joke. The pointlessness of it all. The sadness of watching the past 14 years of the world and ten years of this country go by and seeing things getting worse and worse no matter how many people fight or disagree. To see all the hilarious jokes (never mind protests) against the war in Iraq or austerity go by with no effect whatsoever. The steely boringness of Harper to me represents a deeper truth. The ideology that he represents and the powers he serves have taken control of history and are as unmoved by our resistance as Harper's hair is in the wind. Maybe the bad guys have won and there might not be anything funny about that.
Follow Jordan Foisy on Twitter.