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Canadian TV finds funny bone

Homegrown comics seed sitcoms

MONTREAL The sitcom may be on life-support in the U.S. but it’s the hottest thing on TV in the Great White North.

For years, the common wisdom in the TV biz here was that Canadians didn’t do sitcoms well. But that’s changed big time over five years thanks to boffo ratings garnered by shows including prairie yuk-fest “Corner Gas,” theater-fest set “Slings & Arrows,” the Halifax-set foul-mouthed-hosers satire “Trailer Park Boys,” and much-talked-about Muslims-in-a-small-town laffer “Little Mosque on the Prairie.”

This funny state of affairs was underlined at Canada’s Gemini TV industry awards on Oct. 28, where “Corner Gas” grabbed three awards including best comedy series, and “Slings & Arrows” nabbed four.

Many believe the reason scripted TV comedy is thriving in Canada is that, for the first time, a lot of the homegrown A-list comedy talent has consciously decided to stay put rather than head south.

In the past, the funnymen (and women) who remained in Canada tended to stay away from sitcoms and instead gravitate toward sketch comedy, which has always been popular here, thanks to shows like “SCTV,” “Kids in the Hall” and “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.”

“Canadian comic talent has never been an issue but unfortunately it’s been an export for so long,” says Christopher Bolton, exec producer, writer and star of hockey-themed sitcom “Rent-a-Goalie,” which just began its second season on pay TV web Showcase. “People were funny and they went to the States to reach bigger audiences. But now people are staying here and the Canadian broadcasters are doing more original programming.”

“Staying here is not such a crazy thing to do,” says “Corner Gas” star Brent Butt, who also is a writer and exec producer on the show about a gas station somewhere in rural Saskatchewan. “When I was a stand-up comic in the late ’80s and early ’90s, everybody talked about going to the States. When I first pitched ‘Corner Gas,’ everybody except (commercial web) CTV said ‘You can’t do that.’ ”

That skepticism has faded in the face of the popularity of the shows. “Corner Gas” regularly pulls in 1.5 million viewers on CTV, making it one of the top-rated homegrown shows in the country. “Little Mosque on the Prairie” draws a weekly aud of just over 900,000 viewers, making it the top draw on pubcaster CBC other than the perennial ratings-winner “Hockey Night in Canada.”

Now these comedy shows are gaining attention beyond Canada’s borders.

“Corner Gas” airs across the U.S. on the WGN Superstation and is broadcast in 28 other countries. “Little Mosque” has been sold in 80 territories — paybox CanalPlus picked up the gentle spiritual comedy for France, along with French-speaking Belgium, Switzerland and Africa. When “Slings & Arrows” aired on the Sundance Channel in the U.S., it elicited rave reviews.

The next Canadian comedy export hoping to garner chuckles south of the border is “Kenny vs. Spenny,” about two best friends who have bizarre competitions, like seeing who can produce the biggest fart. The off-beat comedy will make its U.S. debut on Comedy Central this month and the new episodes are exec produced by Matt Stone and Trey Parker of “South Park” fame.

“The older comedies (in Canada) were a bit more formulaic and based on the American model,” says Tara Ellis, VP of content at Showcase. “The new shows are succeeding because the executives have let the talent develop. They’ve found unique comic voices like Brent Butt and that’s the starting-point. It comes out of this rich, dark, comedic culture in Canada.”

So will the Canuck comedy boom last?

Susanne Boyce, president of content at CTVglobemedia, certainly thinks so. Boyce notes that a key factor was the creation of the CTV-owned Comedy Network 10 years ago, which has been an incubator for much of this new wave of comedy talent.

“You don’t have to go other places anymore,” Boyce says. “You can stay here and practice your craft.”

For Butt, it’s simply a question of Canada coming into its own.

“It’s just that Canada’s older now and we’re less insecure than we were 10 or 20 years ago,” he says. “We’re less inclined to do just what the U.S. or England tells us to do.”

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