Saneman

In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Michael Cera is the ultimate Canadian superhero
Illustration by Graham Roumieu

Before we talk about Michael Cera, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or Seth Rogen, or Loverboy, let’s talk about Alpha Flight. For those not versed in Marvel Comics lore, Alpha Flight was a band of Canadian superheroes created in 1979 by John Byrne, a writer and artist who grew up in Alberta and who was, at the time, arguably the most influential figure in mainstream comics. The group made its debut in Uncanny X-Men No. 120, when, as part of a top-secret Canadian government program, under orders from Pierre Trudeau, Alpha Flight was dispatched to capture rogue Canadian hero Wolverine (the guy played by Hugh Jackman in the movies). The concept was a hit, and in 1983 Marvel decided to give Alpha Flight a comic book title of its own.

The membership of Alpha Flight was, in hindsight, hilarious — a hinterland who’s who of Canadian regional stereotypes. From the Maritimes, you had Marrina, a half-fish woman who could breathe underwater. From the West came Sasquatch (that was his code name) a hairy, orange strongman. There was a First Nations medicine man named Shaman, who carried a magic satchel; Northstar and Aurora, two hotheaded, airborne Québécois twins; Snowbird, an Inuit demigoddess from the Northwest Territories who could transform into Arctic animals; and, most delightfully, a self-described dwarf from Saskatoon named Puck, who wore an all-black unitard. His power was to bounce around and knock people’s teeth out — you know, like a hockey puck.

To top it off, Alpha Flight’s leader was a stalwart fellow from Ontario named James MacDonald Hudson (code name: Guardian) who wore a Canadian flag for a costume. (Picture the 1972 Summit Series Team Canada hockey jersey, only skin tight, with a mask). As a comic-devouring kid in Toronto in the ’80s, I found Alpha Flight exhilarating, because the mighty Marvel Comics machine — arbiter of all my personal mythologies — was acknowledging the existence of my native land. But even then, I was a little embarrassed that these Canadian superheroes were, in fact, Canadian clichés. (I used to joke that were a similar superhero band ever assembled in the US, it would feature Egghead, an eastern elite smarty-pants; Corn Husker, an Iowan who wields deadly boomerang cobs; and the Southern Gentleman, a courtly racist from Alabama who dresses like Colonel Sanders.) The best we in Canada could hope for, it seemed, were Canuckified versions of American tropes. They had Captain America; we had Guardian. They had L.A. Law; we had Street Legal. They had Bon Jovi; we had Loverboy. Our culture was like an off-brand imposter perfume. If you like Hall and Oates, you’ll love Chilliwack!

Ah, but then there was comedy. At this, we inarguably excelled. For two decades, we proudly exported titans like Lorne Michaels and the SCTV gang and, later, Jim Carrey and Mike Myers. We were so prolific that for years we stroked our collective chin and pondered: just what is it that makes Canadians so funny? In 1999, the Canadian consulate in New York held a symposium on that very subject, with a panel that included Michaels, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Michael J. Fox. One conclusion, as reported by David Rakoff in Saturday Night, was that our comedic adroitness arose from a national “preference for the keen observation of others, rather than being keenly observed ourselves.” More tellingly, Rakoff — himself a formidable Canadian expat humorist — characterized the event not as a celebration but as suffused by “a kind of reactive disdain; or, at the very least, its milder (Canadian) cousin: discomfort.”

This may have sprung from an awkward reality. For all our success, there was no defining sensibility to “Canadian comedy,” at least not of the brand we exported to the south. Candy and Carrey and Myers had all made it big, but what did their comedy have in common, really? Their only shared traits seemed to be that a) they were born in Canada, and b) they could make Americans laugh.

A classic definition of a Third World economy is one in which raw materials are exported to developed countries, then sold back to the originating country at a premium as finished products. If that’s true, then Canada was a Third World nation of funny.

Which brings us to Michael Cera. He is twenty-two years old. He’s from, and still lives in, Brampton, Ontario. He is, by reputation and in my brief experience interviewing him, unflaggingly humble and gracious and polite — so much so that during one such encounter I actually wondered if he was playing some kind of meta–Andy Kaufman prank on me: a subversive character called the World’s Nicest Movie Star.

He got his big break in 2003 as George Michael, the awkward teen, on the Fox sitcom Arrested Development, then went on to star in a series of films — from Superbad to Juno to Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist — that established him as the shy-sweet, lovable-tart, cuddly-neurotic face of what people find funny right now. If every era has a representative sensibility — if the ’70s were defined by the Belushi-Martin nexus of wild ‘n’ crazy; the ’80s by Seinfeld’s “Have you ever noticed” quippery; and the ’90s by the Garofalonian alt-comedy slacker ironist — then this era belongs to Cera and his ilk.

What’s more, one can’t help but notice that a surprising number of said ilk are fellow Canadian expats. In Juno, Cera starred opposite Halifax’s Ellen Page, in a film directed by Montreal’s Jason Reitman; in Superbad, he appeared with Seth Rogen, ex-Vancouverite, who co-wrote the film with his childhood friend, Evan Goldberg. Cera’s next project, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, due to be released in August and currently setting nerd hearts aflutter online, is based on a series of manga-flavoured graphic novels by former Torontonian Bryan Lee O’Malley. Scott Pilgrim chronicles the adventures of a group of Toronto twentysomethings who play in bands, sleep on each other’s couches and occasionally in each other’s beds, and, by the way, travel through another dimension called “subspace” and have ninja sword battles with evil ex-boyfriends.

You may dismiss this concentration of funny Canadians as another demographic coincidence, a fluke of nationality, or the latest losses in a comedy brain drain that’s been going on for over thirty years. After all, Cera and Rogen and Page seem to have little in common, save the films on their resumés. Yet Cera’s comic persona — the sweet neurotic; the gallant yet under-confident standby; the sharp observer who’s ready with the perfect pointed comment, if only he can work up the guts to interrupt — is, it seems to me, not only the dominant comedic ethos of the moment, but as intrinsically Canadian as any poem about the Yukon or Gordon Lightfoot song about tragically sinking ships.

There are two classically funny scenarios: a sane man lost in an insane world (think Albert Brooks in Lost in America), and an insane man loosed on a sane world (think pretty much any Peter Sellers role). Canada has always excelled at producing the former: Dan Aykroyd, playing opposite the antic Belushi; Dave Foley at the centre of the maelstrom on NewsRadio; Paul Gross as a straitlaced Mountie paired with a wild card American cop in Due South. We’ve also exported our share of virtuosic nutbars: Jim Carrey comes to mind, if you’ve seen any of his early films or, more recently, if you follow him on Twitter.

Michael Cera may be our greatest and most influential sane man comedian yet. In fact, I’d argue he’s not only conquering Hollywood, but his sensibility is also conquering comedy. To appreciate that sensibility, it helps to look back further than Superbad and Arrested Development to something called Clark and Michael. It’s a series of ten webisodes that Cera produced with his friend and fellow actor Clark Duke, and which you can watch at clarkandmichael.com. (Treat yourself to episode three, which features a hilarious cameo by Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz.) Clark and Michael chronicles the misadventures of two aspiring actors in LA, and, as with every comedy duo in history, these two wring humour from their opposite, yet complementary, temperaments. Clark is the clueless blowhard, driven forward by unearned bravado; and Cera is, well, Cera: the cautious, hilarious neurotic. In other words, in this classic formulation Clark is the joker and Cera is the sane man.

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8 comment(s)

June 15, 2010 17:31 EST

The original SCTV, the Kids in the Hall, and Trailer Park Boys are all WAY funnier than anything their various alumnus (or anyone mentioned above) has participated in Down South, INMHO.
But yeah, Alpha Flight sucked.

June 16, 2010 08:47 EST

Your people are funny because of the influence of the Scottish and Irish sense of humor. I know this because I live in the US close to Canada and grew up around Canadian transplants. This has resulted in me having an odd sense of humor for an American. I will pee my pants at Scottish, Irish and Canadian comedians, but stare blankly at most American comics, wondering when they will shut up. You shouldn't be worrying about it, just love that you are the funniest people on earth.

June 16, 2010 20:31 EST

I was giving this article the benefit of the doubt until this question: "But is it intrinsically Canadian?"

I hate crap like that

June 16, 2010 20:32 EST

I was honoured to have a chance to write for Michael Cera when he was a minor character in a little-remembered Canadian kid-com called "I Was a Sixth Grade Alien". Michael quickly became the darling of all the writers. No matter what we threw at him, he pulled it off brilliantly. But even more impressive was what a normal, polite, kind Michael was. The only attitude he had was good attitude. A total pro. I am so thrilled that he's made it big. In an industry of huge egos and small talents, he is the absolute reverse! I can't wait to see what he does next!

AnonymousJune 21, 2010 12:02 EST

BTW, "third world" does not mean what you say it means. It is a cold-war term, meaning those countries that were neither first-world (the US and its allies) or "second-world" (Soviet Russia and its allies.)

IanJune 21, 2010 16:48 EST

This was a great article with some sharp observations about Canadian comedy expats. Though I would argue that several of the comedians and characters you labelled as "saneman" types are actually quite the opposite. Dan Aykroyd played tons of manic, rapid-fire characters on SNL. not to mention the character of Scott Pilgrim in the original comics. In the books he is written as unmotivated, but also headstrong, excitable, and with little common sense. Admittedly I'm not sure that Cera, talented as he is, is the best casting choice for this role. But we'll see in August...

Jack RuttanJuly 09, 2010 14:59 EST

Paragraph after paragrah of Canadian angst? "Garofalonian" I hate crap like that too.

RichFebruary 24, 2011 13:50 EST

I recall — vividly! — my collection of Alpha Flight comics! Kudos for the flashback, Adam, and please keep those martinis dry. Your wit and voice have earned an avid reader.

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