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The touchy art of laughing at (and with) Americans

It is a plain fact that, at the present time, we are discouraged from laughing at our American neighbours. It's an unspoken rule. They've had a hard week. A week so monstrous they need major recovery time.

Exceptions to this rule include Reese Witherspoon, who, with the uncanny ability of a fine actor, provided levity at just the right moment. We can't help laughing. Apparently Witherspoon, previously noted in celebrity coverage for being, you know, nice and down to earth, got sozzled and spent some time engaging with an Atlanta police officer.

Specifically, she was hanging out the window of her car demanding of the officer, "Do you know my name?" Concerned, the officer took her into custody on the basis that she was a confused person temporarily unaware of her own identity.

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Oh, we can laugh. But maybe it was the hard, hard week that Americans endured that caused her confusion about her name and such. We gotta be careful here.

Another exception might be those U.S. politicians who balk at even the most minor increases in gun-control legislation. The evidence of the need for greater control stares them in the face and still they balk, spinning out strange fantasies of threats to the American way of life. When we laugh at that, we do it ruefully, with sadness.

There's a lot of rueful laughter to be experienced tonight, as it happens.

Just For Laughs 30th Anniversary: 30/30 Hindsight (CBC, 8 p.m.) is a two-hour retrospective of the annual Montreal comedy festival featuring dozens of stand-up comics riffing, about the United States, mostly. And since it features jokes that go back through the decades, ruefulness abounds.

In normal circumstances, one could dismiss the special as yet another sneaky attempt by Just For Laughs to recycle bits and pieces from years and years of comedy routines at the festival.

However, as host George Stroumboulopoulos reminds us, it is, in fact, "three decades of human history put into perspective by the best comedians."

It – the special, not Strombo – is a salutary reminder of how much has changed and, indeed, how little has changed. And that some of what seemed hilarious years ago ain't funny no more.

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This theme touches on matters from the slight to the profound. Along comes Ray Romano, from the 1990s, making fun of cellular phones. He speculates that, soon, we'll all have this little thing inserted in our heads that allows us to take calls, answer and put people on hold. As he mimes this hilarious possibility, he is doing an uncanny impression of what we see today – people walking the streets, equipped with a tiny earpiece, having multiple conversations with people we can't see.

There's a 1997 clip of Dave Attell riffing about plane hijackers trying to book a plane ticket by phone that is both funny and eerily weird, since such jokes became impossible to deliver after 9/11. A British comedian points out that Al-Qaeda makes the IRA look quaint, because the IRA used to give phone warnings about bombings.

A young Jon Stewart is in the special, mocking the dumbing down of the USA. He says, "The U.S. is now smart bombs and really stupid children." Louis C.K. takes up the same theme, years later, and aims scorn at people whose vocabulary is so limited they describe almost everything as "amazing." Veteran Canadian comic John Wing talks about moving to L.A. and having his kids in school there. "In America, they don't teach the kids to read and write, because in America, when they grow up, they won't need to do that."

In a later appearance, Stewart heaps mockery on George W. Bush. And then comes a parade of comics doing the same. You get a sterling reminder that Bush was the most loathed man in the world. And it is in sharp contrast to the jokes about Ronald Reagan that appear in the special. Yes, Just For Laughs has been going on for that long.

There are Canadians, too, of course. Shaun Majumder has fun with the decline of the U.S. economy and the strength of the Canadian dollar. But, watching the Canadians, it seems most of our comedy is mildly self-deprecating and lacks the eviscerating anger of the Americans.

It's the Americans we savour in this special. Somebody – it's hard to keep track of them all – jokes, "Bill Clinton is the closest thing this country's ever going to get to having a black president." And the comic runs with that material, which seems so time-capsuled now that U.S. President Barack Obama is into his second term. But we savour the American comics because, while the small details change, the big issues remain the same – guns, politics, relations with other countries, the mystifying ignorance of Americans about the outside world.

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But we're laughing with them, not at them. Besides, some of this tells us emphatically that nothing changes, and that isn't funny at all. Like Reese Witherspoon, Americans seem a tad unaware of who they are.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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