This week, on the new CBC-TV show The Debaters, guests were busy arguing the merits of tea versus coffee and whether there are too many TV channels in the world. Participants on the show, a debate argued by professional comedians, have also covered zombies versus vampires and showers versus baths.
Why aren't they debating whether Greece should be allowed to default on its debt or who should pay to house the new convicts who will be created by the Conservative government's criminal law reforms?
Comic Steve Patterson, host of the show, which he originated on CBC Radio, is happy to debate that too. In fact, he is on something of a crusade to introduce a mix of real comedy and real issues to nighttime TV in Canada, shopping around a proposal to mount something like a Canadian version of the tongue-in-cheek Colbert Report.
"The panel show is king over [in Britain] but they don't limit talking heads to political or economic people, they tap into their comedians," Patterson observed. "The States does it with Bill Maher or Jon Stewart. I don't know why we don't do it in Canada."
Uh-oh. Sounds like another attempt to launch a nighttime talk show, one of the most troublesome genres in English-Canadian television.
More than a million francophones gather around Radio-Canada's Tout le monde en parle every week, making it such required viewing that critics have dubbed it Quebec's Sunday mass, and Americans remain faithful worshippers in the church of Jay Leno who, despite dire predictions about the death of late-night, has fully recovered his ratings since a disastrous experiment with an earlier time slot in 2009-2010.
English-speaking Canadians, on the other hand, are notorious talk-show agnostics.
CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight currently averages only about 110,000 viewers each night (while The Debaters, in a prime-time spot on Tuesdays, is drawing 200,000). In 1993, the CBC cancelled Friday Night! with Ralph Benmergui in the middle of its second season; Open Mike with Mike Bullard had a six-year run on CTV but did not survive a move to Global in 2004.
English Canadians love to talk Canadian politics. They produce more than their fair share of comics. So why can't they seem to find the right mix of late-night talk and late-night jokes?
Those who try say defeatism is one problem.
"We have an incredibly unsupportive entertainment business. Everyone tells you why it won't work, why you aren't Letterman," says Stroumboulopoulos, now in his seventh season hosting Canada's one national nighttime talk show. "The hardest people to get on the show are Canadian A-listers; they don't play the game. It's easier for me to get Tom Cruise or Samuel Jackson than ... I am not going to say."
Among the exceptions are Sonja Smits and Eric Peterson who dropped by recently to discuss a play they were appearing in together in Toronto and reminisce about their years on Street Legal, a 1990s show that CBC audiences could be counted on to remember fondly. As the grey-haired Peterson teased Smits about how she was the one who had maintained her looks, the atmosphere was cozy – unusually cozy.
That's the challenge for a Canadian talk show, a psychic problem larger than guests or hosts or timeslots. Unlike a talk show in Quebec or Los Angeles, a Toronto talk show has a great deal of difficulty gathering an audience around a single cultural hearth.
In Quebec, an appearance on Tout le monde en parle, which draws 1.3 million viewers most weeks, can be a career-making proposition for an entertainer, a pundit or a politician – as NDP leader Jack Layton found out during the 2011 federal election – while the occasional refuseniks discover they have to justify their absence from this platform to the Quebec press.
To explain the water-cooler success of Tout le monde en parle, La Presse television critic Hugo Dumas points to the tightness of Quebec's entertainment scene: Potential guests all live in Montreal, know each other and, in a culture where political and artistic disagreements are aired more publicly than in English Canada, are willing to really blab.
"It gives people the security, like talking to family," he said. "It's not like going to L.A. or Toronto; everyone is in the same pool so they say what they want.... In English Canada, the territory is so vast, it's hard to get the chemistry going."
Often, as Bullard complains, English Canadians are too polite.
"The pundits in the U.S. are more exciting, the guests are more controversial. An Ann Coulter in this country wouldn't last 10 minutes ... Far right doesn't work in Canada on TV or on radio," he said, although Sun Media TV's various hosts are busy trying to prove him wrong.
Without the same provocative or celebrated guests that a U.S. talk show can draw, the host is absolutely key, Patterson says, arguing that people tune in for the comedian and the show's formula not the stars.
He believes the solution is a Canadian Colbert, Stewart or Maher, arguing that it's ridiculous that Canadians, enthusiastic viewers of national newscasts, then follow that by watching Americans comics spoof a different set of headlines. The Rick Mercer Report and its many stunts may be one solution, but Patterson points out that Mercer is always forced to work out of studio: "I think there is another way to interview Bob Rae than jumping in the lake naked."
Stroumboulopoulos, meanwhile, will keep pushing the rock uphill, saying it may take years of a regular presence to get Canadians to trust that this is the place to tune in for a cozy chat.
"You are setting up a different cultural conversation; it can take years before you develop the presence that people will just go to," he said.