Humber College in Toronto and the École nationale de l'humour in Montreal offer post-secondary programmes in comedy (writing and performance). Montreal is also home to the bilingual (English and French) Just For Laughs festival and to the Just For Laughs Museum, a bilingual, international museum of comedy.
Folk humour and satire were responses to the domination of 19th-century French Canadian culture by the Catholic Church. Napoléon Aubin satirized Quebec public life in his journals Le Fantasque (1837-45) and Le Castor (1843), and through his theatre troupe, Les Amateurs typographiques, established in 1839. He was imprisoned during that same year for his views. This cosmopolitan tradition is also seen in the journalism of Arthur Buies, editor of La Lanterne canadienne (1868-69), a highly satirical journal of that era.
Light comedy that mocked local customs, was typical of 19th-century theatre in Quebec. Examples include Joseph Quesnel's L'Anglomanie, ou le dîner à l'angloise (1803), which criticized the imitation of English customs, and Pierre Petitclair's Une partie de campagne (1865). More serious dramas attacked specific targets: the anonymous Les Comédies du status quo (1834) ridiculed local politics, and Le Défricheteur de langue (1859) by Isodore Mesplats, (pseudonym of Joseph LaRue and Joseph-Charles Taché), mocked Parisian manners. Other examples of theatrical satire were Félix-Gabriel Marchand's comedy, Les faux brillants (1885) and Louvigny de Montigny's Les Boules de neige (1903), which took aim at Montreal's bourgeoisie.
By the early 20th century, the satirical tradition was well developed in English Canada as exemplified in the writing of Stephen Leacock. In Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), Leacock, renowned for his satirical wit, used tragic irony and astute insight in examining day-to-day, small-town life. The book remains a classic of Canadian literature, and was followed by Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich in 1914. An annual Canadian literary award, the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, is named in his memory. The award is presented to the year's best work of humorous literature by a Canadian. Donald Jack, three-time winner of the Leacock Medal, wrote a number of comedies for the stage, radio, and television, but is best known for his nine-part series of novels about aviator Bartholomew Bandy.
Following the Révolution tranquille in Quebec, theatrical satire reappeared in 1968 with Michel Tremblay's play Les Belles sœurs, written in Québécois joual. The controversial play picked apart the myth of a stable bourgeois Quebec society with a mix of realistic comedy and allegorical satire. Following Tremblay’s lead, Jean Barbeau exposed Quebec popular culture in La Coupe stainless (1974). Tremblay and Barbeau set the stage for reviews such as Broue (1979), a collective production, which toured English-speaking Canada as Brew (1982).
Humorous fiction in French Canada draws from the oral tradition of folk songs and folktales which were the common coin of humour in the 19th century. Only a few of these folk tales surfaced in writing prior to the 20th century. However, contemporary writers such as Jacques Ferron (Contes du pays incertain, 1962) in Quebec and Antonine Maillet in Acadian New Brunswick (La Sagouine, 1974, and Pélagie-la-Charette, 1979), rely extensively on folk humour and popular culture. Other Quebec writers noted for their humour include Roger Lemelin, Gérard Bessette, Jacques Godbout, Roch Carrier and Yves Beauchemin. Beauchemin's picaresque novel Le Matou (1981) is the all-time best-selling novel in Quebec literature.
The plain talking alter-ego as an instrument of satire continued with Robertson Davies' series of Samuel Marchbanks books (1947-67) and John Metcalf's James Wells in General Ludd (1980). Davies is one of many Canadian writers of "serious" literature who were also renowned for humour in their work. Margaret Atwood, Farley Mowat, Paul Quarrington, Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields, W. O. Mitchell, Pierre Berton and Miriam Toews are all acclaimed writers of mainstream literature who have also been acknowledged for using humour and wit in their writing.
Many other writers of Canadian humour have been published as newspaper or magazine commentators, including Gary Lautens, Richard J. Needham, Eric Nicol, Joey Slinger, Will Ferguson and Linwood Barclay.
Particularly in recent years, Canada has produced a number of famous musical groups who have been described as "comedy rock". Bands such as Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Früvous, Odds, Crash Test Dummies, The Awkward Stage and Rheostatics are sometimes misunderstood as being strictly novelty bands, but in fact many of their songs use humour to illuminate more serious themes.
Nancy White is a noted Canadian musical satirist, whose comedic folk songs about Canadian culture and politics have regularly appeared on CBC Radio programs. In addition to more serious material on his primary albums, folk musician Geoff Berner — who has also run for political office as a candidate of the Rhinoceros Party — frequently releases pointedly satirical songs, such as "Official Theme Song for the 2010 Vancouver / Whistler Olympic Games (The Dead Children Were Worth It!)", as free downloads from his website.
Jann Arden, a singer-songwriter renowned for writing sad love songs, is also paradoxically known as one of Canada's funniest live performers, whose witty, unpretentious stage patter about herself and her family is as much a part of her relationship with her audience as her music is.
Another noted Canadian musical comedian is Mary Lou Fallis, an opera singer who performs both in classical opera roles and as the comedic character "Primadonna", a touring stage show in which she parodies popular stereotypes of opera divas.
Canadian heavy metal frontman Devin Townsend is known for using humour in his music. Projects such as Punky Bruster and Ziltoid the Omniscient are heavily comedy driven, and Devin's heavy metal band, Strapping Young Lad, use a fair bit of satire and sarcastic tongue in cheek lyrics as well.
Many of Canada's comedy acts and performers have started out on radio, primarily on the national Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) network.
While individual comedy show and segments have been around almost as long as the network, the focus has tended be more on specific shows featuring particular groups of comedians. The real beginnings of Canadian radio comedy began in the late 1930s with the debut of The Happy Gang, a long-running weekly variety show that was regularly sprinkled with corny jokes in between tunes. It debuted in 1938 and ran until 1959. The Wayne & Shuster show debuted on CBC radio in 1946, their more literate and classy humour regularly appearing on the airwaves well into the early 1960s.
The Royal Canadian Air Farce started as a radio show debuting in 1973 featuring mainly political and some character-based comedy sketches. It ran for 24 years before making a permanent transition to television. It started a tradition of topical and politically satirical radio shows that inspired such programs as Double Exposure, The Muckraker and What a Week.
A zanier, more surreal brand of radio comedy was unveiled in the early 1980s with the debut of The Frantics' Frantic Times radio show, which ran from 1981 to 1986. Its smart and surreal style fostered a new take on Canadian radio comedy that was followed by the likes of successor shows as The Norm and Radio Free Vestibule.
By the 1990s the satirical and zany elements merged into two of the more notable CBC radio comedy shows of the 1990s: The Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour, a show that offered bitingly satirical pieces from a First Nations perspective mixed in with general silliness; and Great Eastern, a show set in a fictitious Newfoundland "national" radio station featuring improbable news stories, fictitious archival recordings and unlikely archeological findings played straight.
CBC Radio continues to play an important part in developing comedy performers on radio. Madly Off In All Directions became a weekly national forum for regional sketch and stand-up comics, a practice that continues in the more recent series The Debaters.
Many of Canada's most popular and enduring comedy shows are in the sketch comedy genre. Paradoxically, Canadian television has fared poorly with conventional, American-style sitcoms, but has often had much greater success with dramedies and other types of programming that break the sitcom form.
Canadian television comedy begins with Wayne and Shuster, a sketch comedy duo who performed as a comedy team during the Second World War, and moved their act to radio in 1946 before moving on to television. They became one of Canada's most enduring comedy teams, not just on Canadian television, but in the United States as well: they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 67 times, a record for any performer. They were particularly famous for their Julius Caesar sketch, Rinse the Blood off My Toga, with its legendary catch phrase, "I told him, Julie, don't go!"
Wayne and Shuster continued to appear on CBC Television until the late 1980s, with specials that mixed new sketches with their classic material.
La famille Plouffe, the first regularly scheduled television drama in Canada, was produced in 1953 by Radio-Canada, in French. The program was broadcast on both English and French networks of CBC TV from 1954 to 1959, (in English as The Plouffe Family). It was a mix of drama, humour and social commentary about a working-class Quebec family in the post-World War II era. Another of the CBC's earliest productions was a television adaptation of one of the enduring classics of Canadian humour writing, Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.
Another pioneer in Canadian television comedy was, oddly, a news series. This Hour Has Seven Days, which debuted in 1964, was primarily meant as a newsmagazine, but its segments included political satire as well as serious news reports. Later series such as Royal Canadian Air Farce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Rick Mercer Report have all drawn on the tradition of political satire established by Seven Days, and have been among Canadian television's most popular comedy series in recent years.
Canadian born Lorne Michaels, who had moved from Toronto to Los Angeles in 1968 to work on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, launched the NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live in 1975. Over the years, several Canadians came to fame as part of the SNL cast, including Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, and Mike Myers. Michaels also produced The Kids in the Hall for Canadian TV in the 1980s.
Many Canadian comedy shows, while not directly about politics per se, have made profound political statements by satirizing society and pop culture. This includes shows such as SCTV, Buzz and CODCO. CODCO, in particular, was intensely controversial at times for its use of comedy in tackling sensitive subjects; the show ended when Andy Jones quit in protest after the CBC refused to air a sketch that made a very explicit political statement about the Mount Cashel child abuse scandal.
Other shows, such as The Kids in the Hall, The Frantics, Bizarre and Puppets Who Kill, revelled in absurdist humour, making household names out of characters such as Chicken Lady, Mr. Canoehead and Super Dave Osborne.
Other notable sketch series have included Zut!, The Gavin Crawford Show and The Holmes Show. Canadian television also frequently showcases stand-up comedians. The popular series Comics, based around one comedian each week, has been the first national television exposure for many of Canada's current comedy stars. Another series, Just for Laughs, has for many years presented comedians appearing at the Montreal International Comedy Festival. That series has also spawned the more recent Just For Laughs Gags, a practical joke show similar to Candid Camera.
Although several notable Canadian sitcoms have been produced, such as King of Kensington, Hangin' In, Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie, Canadian TV has also produced what is widely regarded as one of the worst sitcoms in television history, The Trouble with Tracy. Other sitcoms, including Material World, Mosquito Lake, Snow Job, Check it Out!, Rideau Hall, Excuse My French and Not My Department, have generally fared poorly with critics and audiences as well. Critic Geoff Pevere has pointed out, however, that American television has produced a lot of bad sitcoms as well. The difference, according to Pevere, is that the economics of television production in Canada mean that whereas an unpopular American sitcom may be cancelled and largely forgotten after just a few weeks, Canadian television networks can rarely afford to lose their investment — meaning that a Canadian sitcom almost always airs every episode that was produced, regardless of its performance in the ratings.
On the other hand, Canadian television comedy fares much better when it breaks the sitcom form, especially with dramedy. Unconventional comedy series such as The Beachcombers, Due South, Made in Canada, Chilly Beach, The Newsroom, Primetime Glick, The Red Green Show, La Petite Vie, Seeing Things, Trailer Park Boys, Supertown Challenge, Les Bougon and Twitch City have been much more successful than most of Canada's conventional sitcoms, both in Canada and as international exports.
Canada has a national television channel, The Comedy Network, devoted to comedy. Its programming includes some of the classic Canadian comedy series noted above, repeats of several hit American and British series such as The Simpsons, South Park and Absolutely Fabulous, and original series such as Kevin Spencer, Odd Job Jack, The Devil's Advocates, Improv Heaven and Hell and Puppets Who Kill.
One of the most famous figures in Canadian television comedy in the 1990s and 2000s has been Rick Mercer. Mercer began his career in 1990 with a touring one-man show, Show Me the Button, I'll Push It, about Canadian life in the immediate aftermath of the failed Meech Lake Accord. That show was a sellout success; in 1993, he made his television debut as one of the writers and performers on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Mercer's "rants", short op-ed pieces on Canadian politics and culture, quickly became the show's signature segment. When he published a collection of rants in 1998 as Streeters, the book quickly became a bestseller. Mercer left 22 Minutes in 2000 to devote more time to his other series, Made in Canada. When that series ended its run, he launched the new Rick Mercer Report.
Another famous comedic export in the same era was Tom Green, whose surreal and sometimes grotesque humour on The Tom Green Show began as a community cable show in Ottawa before becoming a momentary hit on MTV.
As with many other genres, Canadian television comedy also frequently plays with the topic of Canada's relationship with the United States. Mercer turned another 22 Minutes segment, Talking to Americans, into a 2001 television special, which was a ratings smash. In Talking to Americans, Mercer, in his 22 Minutes guise as reporter "J.B. Dixon", visited American cities to ask people on the street for their opinion on a Canadian news story -- the joke for Canadians was that the news story was always fabricated, and either inherently ridiculous (e.g. a border dispute between Quebec and Chechnya or an annual Toronto polar bear hunt) or blatantly out of context (e.g. wishing Canadians a "Happy Stockwell Day".)
Another notable show, the sitcom An American in Canada, reversed that formula, finding comedy in the culture shock of an American television reporter taking a job with a Canadian TV station. Tom Green once played with this staple of Canadian comedy as well, during a controversial segment in which he burned a Canadian flag.