Transcript

65:

Who's Canadian?
Transcript

Originally aired 05.30.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/65

Prologue. Passing.

Different Voices

From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio International. Public Radio-- Public Radio International. One more time.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And our program today really began at a dinner conversation about a month ago. Three members of the This American Life staff-- Alix, Nancy and Paul-- were eating together.

Paul Tough

Well, we were all out at Leo's.

Nancy Updike

I don't know how it came up. I don't know which one of us brought it up.

Paul Tough

I don't know how it started. I don't know how it first came up.

Alix Spiegel

I don't even remember how we got on the topic, honestly.

Paul Tough

But we started mentioning Canadians. And I guess I was doing most of it, as the Canadian in the group.

Alix Spiegel

He started with William Shatner, and I thought that was wrong.

Ira Glass

What did he say?

Alix Spiegel

That he was Canadian.

Paul Tough

People got increasingly freaked out.

Alix Spiegel

That's what he said about him.

Ira Glass

That's all he said about him.

Alix Spiegel

That he was Canadian, yeah.

Ira Glass

And what's the problem with that?

Alix Spiegel

Well, the problem is that I grew up watching Star Trek. And he is like my American ideal. I mean, he represented for me everything that's good about America, in a way.

Paul Tough

Alix was saying, if William Shatner is Canadian, I might as well be Canadian.

Ira Glass

It isn't just that there are Canadians among us, it's that they're at the very epicenter of our culture. It's the guy who created Saturday Night Live and Jim Carrey and Michael J. Fox. It's Mike Myers and the blond from Baywatch, Pamela Anderson Lee, and the director of the Terminator films, James Cameron. It's Matthew Perry and Jason Priestley, Alanis Morissette and Celine Dion, and the bassist in Courtney Love's band, Hole.

Nancy Updike

I remember Alix being continually and repeatedly amazed.

Alix Spiegel

I was shocked. I was very shocked.

Nancy Updike

I mean, she stopped eating, I think. And it wasn't just that she'd be shocked at one and would then sort of go on. She'd come back to ones that were shocking earlier. "Peter Jennings? I can't believe it!"

Paul Tough

I remember Alix being really freaked out about Peter Jennings,

Alix Spiegel

Peter Jennings, especially.

Ira Glass

But he's just a news reader.

Alix Spiegel

But he delivers information about America to Americans.

Ira Glass

He's like the leader who binds us together?

Alix Spiegel

Yeah, and he interprets our culture for us. So it's like having some Czechoslovakian as your vice president or something. I mean, it's just wrong. There's something about that that's wrong.

Paul Tough

She just thought it was wrong, that actually, there should be an actual law against it.

Ira Glass

For there to be a Canadian broadcasting the news?

Paul Tough

Well, anchoring. I think CNN, she probably would let a CNN anchor be Canadian, but not ABC.

Well, I think that Americans generally think of Canadians as a pretty quiet, nondescript, stay-at-home kind of culture. And when Canadians come to the United States and have that kind of impact on the culture, I think it's a surprising fact. But I also think that it's a little disturbing and spooky to Americans because they haven't known. It's like suddenly discovering that everything you believed about someone was false.

Alix Spiegel

I guess it's the whole invasion of the body snatchers syndrome. They look like us, but they're not us.

Nancy Updike

It's weirdly like people hearing that somebody they didn't know was gay is gay, and it turned them back on themselves, that they could have brushed so close and not known.

Ira Glass

He's Canadian, so that's why he never married.

Nancy Updike

Exactly.

Ira Glass

The thing about the Canadians among us is it's not clear what it means.

Nancy Updike

Well, I think that's part of what is so compelling about it. It doesn't suggest anything. It's not that, oh, he's Russian. He must be communist. Oh, he's French, he must be rude. It's just a sense that they're a little off somehow, in some way that you don't understand, and you can't pin it down. And that makes it all the more unsettling. You can't put it anywhere and just have it rest there. It's just sort of continually surprising and disturbing.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, we try to make some sense out of what it means, having this Canadian menace among us, if it is a menace. All this hour, stories by and about the Canadians in our midst. Act One, White Like Me, one Canadian's attempt at passing in New York City. Act Two, The World's Most Perfect Pneumatic Vacuum, in which our own Sarah Vowell arm wrestles with Ian Brown of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation over what it means to be an American and what it means to be a Canadian and if they are any different at all. Act Three, Outing. An expose on the pro-Canadian bias and Peter Jennings' nightly newscast for ABC, and more. Act Four, Who's Canadian? Two siblings separated, not at birth. One gone to live in Winnipeg, one gone to live in Manhattan. Their stories. Stay with us.

Act One. White Like Me.

Ira Glass

Act One, White Like Me. As a 17-year-old, David Rakoff moved from Toronto, Ontario, to New York City. He's been there now for half his life, works in publishing and as a writer and actor. This American Life listeners may remember his story about portraying Sigmund Freud in the Christmas windows at Barney's a few months ago. David Rakoff says that from the day that he arrived in New York City, he decided he was going to try to efface his Canadian-ness and pass for a local.

David Rakoff

My tactics were to adopt a certain kind of world-weary, jaded, anxious neuroticism. And it was taken on as a cosmetic mantle at the beginning until such time as you simply can't pull the mask off your face. Oh my god, it's stuck. There you are years later, a jaded, affectless, neurotic, disenchanted, sad person. But that's fine.

Ira Glass

Would you consciously not bring up the fact that were from Canada at any point, when you think back on those years?

David Rakoff

No. No, I would never consciously not bring it up. I would occasionally consciously bring it up because it would-- amazingly enough-- make me more exotic. Because let's face it, in New York City, I'm a Jewish guy with dark hair who works in publishing with a gift for the gab. I meet myself coming and going 12 to 14 times an hour. So occasionally, I'll need that little bit of spice. And what's more spicy than being Canadian? I ask you.

Ira Glass

I'm told that Canadians tend to know who else is Canadian who's famous.

David Rakoff

All the time. Everything. And that, to me, is chemical. You know, the easy ones. Glenn Ford, Kate Nelligan, Hume Cronyn, Cowboy Junkies, Monty Hall--

Ira Glass

Monty Hall? Wait, Monty Hall? The host of Let's Make a Deal?

David Rakoff

Yeah. Live and learn, huh?

Ira Glass

Who could be more American than the host of Let's Make a Deal? Even the name Let's Make a Deal--

David Rakoff

And yet, remember, Monty only facilitated the deals.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS] And, I guess, that name, Monty.

David Rakoff

There you go.

Ira Glass

Who else?

David Rakoff

Glenn Ford, John Kenneth Galbraith. But here's the thing about knowing who's Canadian. There is a woman named Shania Twain. She is Canadian. I know that she's Canadian. I do not know who the hell Shania Twain is. I don't know what she does. And yet, for some reason, I know that she's famous in America and that she's Canadian.

Ira Glass

How did this come up? Did your parents talk to you about it?

David Rakoff

I literally don't know. I feel there's a chip in my head or something because I simply happen to know that. Here's the other thing-- Borje Salming? Not --

Ira Glass

Who?

David Rakoff

Borje Salming. Hockey player. Not Canadian. Daryl Sittler? Yes, Canadian. Ira, I have never been to a hockey game in my entire life. How do these things enter my brain?

Ira Glass

But at some point, somebody told you.

David Rakoff

I don't even think so, you know? I just think it comes in off the breeze or in a cold front. And I know. I just know in my heart who's Canadian.

It's so strange. And of course, the arm on your space shuttle.

Ira Glass

I'm sorry?

David Rakoff

The arm on your space shuttle for making interstellar repairs.

Ira Glass

In Canada, the space shuttle is referred to as--

David Rakoff

The American space shuttle with its Canadian-built arm. Never any other way, as in "The American space shuttle with its Canadian-built arm blew up today."

Ira Glass

No, that didn't really happen.

David Rakoff

No, well, I was actually here at the time, but the Canadian-built arm gets a lot of airplay. Not down here, huh? In fact, if you were to ask most Canadians, "What do you think the space shuttle is for?" they'd say, "Oh, to go up and move stuff around in space with an arm."

Ira Glass

And so, when a Canadian finds out that some figure is Canadian, what happens in their heart?

David Rakoff

Oh, well, your heart does a little bit of a-- a certain special Canadian's chamber opens up and enfolds that name and you keep it. Or if you mention a famous Canadian in conversation to a Canadian without acknowledging it, there's a vague flicker over their eyes like the shadow of an angel's wing passing, and then the conversation will go on and on. And then, just as an afterthought, they'll say, well, you know, he's Canadian, by the way. Of course, it's all you've been waiting to say the entire conversation.

Ira Glass

This is in a conversation with a Canadian or a non-Canadian?

David Rakoff

If a non-Canadian says to you, and you are a Canadian. But you can do it with a Canadian too.

Ira Glass

But with a non-Canadian, like if you and I were talking, and I would bring up--

David Rakoff

Monty Hall.

Ira Glass

--Monty Hall, which happens so often.

David Rakoff

Why, just the other day when we were talking about what was in your purse. Remember, I asked you? And I would be compelled by DNA--

Ira Glass

You would actually say at some point, he's Canadian?

David Rakoff

Not even at some point, Ira. Let's try it. Go on, you start.

Ira Glass

All right. So anyway, I was in the car on my way to work, and that song from Bachman-Turner Overdrive came on.

David Rakoff

They're Canadian. That's how I do it. I don't even wait. I don't even wait. Bachman-Turner Overdrive. They're Canadian. And then I'll tell you, "Taking Care of Business," they wrote that. They're Canadian. I don't even bother waiting. Very effective. And it always also begs the question, which is, oh, are you Canadian?

Ira Glass

Really? People, then, ask that?

David Rakoff

Well, of course they'd ask that. It's a little unbalanced if one wasn't. Don't you think that would be somewhat strange behavior?

Ira Glass

I have to say here that as somebody who grew up as a Jew in suburban Baltimore, this game of Who's a Canadian, it was very, very familiar. Every adult I knew in Baltimore played a very similar game. See now, among my parents' generation, there was the game of Who's a Jew?

David Rakoff

Oh, yeah. I'm somewhat familiar with that game. So can you imagine what the double triumph is if someone's a Canadian Jew? Lorne Greene. You fairly cannot imagine anyone more heroic than Lorne Greene. He's a Canadian.

Ira Glass

Do you remember this coming up in your household?

David Rakoff

Absolutely. He's Canadian, and Jewish too.

Ira Glass

Who's a Jew?

David Rakoff

And imagine how crestfallen everybody was when they found out that Andrea Martin of Second City TV is not just not Jewish, she's Armenian. But she's from Maine. She just lived in Canada. And then everybody shrugs and says, well, Armenians, they're very similar. And Maine, it's very close. And she lived here for so long.

Ira Glass

When you meet a Canadian, do you have certain prejudices about them once you learn that they are Canadian?

David Rakoff

When I meet them here?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

David Rakoff

Yes, I worry that they're going to be really literal and take everything that I say totally seriously-- even the throwaway remarks-- and then I'm going to have to backtrack and explain myself. I worry that they're going to blow my cover.

Ira Glass

As a Canadian?

David Rakoff

As a Canadian masquerading as an urban sophisticate.

Ira Glass

How would they do that in your fantasy of this?

David Rakoff

They would suddenly say, "You're not a sophisticated New Yorker. You're just nothing but a tobogganing Canadian." And then I always feel that I have to turn in my liquor supply and my books and return home. And then, in fact, all the quips that I made all over the years turn out to actually have been made up by someone else, even though I didn't know it.

Ira Glass

So if you know that there's another Canadian in the room, do you feel like you've been outed in some way, and that you'll be seen as less than the sophisticate that you are?

David Rakoff

That? Yes.

Ira Glass

You do?

David Rakoff

Briefly. Briefly. And then, another kind of reserve kicks in. And one thinks, well, everybody's got to come from somewhere, don't they? And, in fact, it's a little bit even more vindicating because you have that whole sort of, not bad for a boy from Canada, sort of feeling.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff, immigrant. He's lived in the United States for 15 years.

Ira Glass

When you first came to this country, there must've been differences between the two cultures that struck you.

David Rakoff

There was an adorable-- I remember going down to the deli or something one night when I was a freshman in college and looking into the dairy case and seeing what you call those individually wrapped slices of processed cheese food.

Ira Glass

American cheese.

David Rakoff

Yes. And we call it Canadian cheese. And I, of course, thought, oh, isn't that cute. They're trying to take credit for Canadian cheese. And now, of course, my feeling is that we should be calling it American cheese, and you guys should be calling it Canadian cheese. It seems like something one should be throwing the blame right across the 49th parallel, whatever side you're on. But I thought, oh, that's adorable.

Ira Glass

So wait, so in Canada, that kind of American cheese, that is called-

David Rakoff

Canadian singles, yes.

Ira Glass

Canadian singles sounds like the name of some bad import movie.

David Rakoff

Doesn't it just?

Ira Glass

You know, the Canadian Cameron Crowe would write Canadian Singles, and then it would appear on cable here late at night.

David Rakoff

They all work in a coffeehouse in Guelph, Ontario. Some of them are majoring in animal husbandry.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff discusses things Canadian and things American in his new book, Fraud.

[MUSIC--"TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS" BY BACHMAN-TURNER OVERDRIVE]

Act Two. The World's Most Perfect Pneumatic Vacuum.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The World's Most Perfect Pneumatic Vacuum. Canadians. They get our TV shows, eat the same breakfast cereals, drive the same cars. They look like us, they speak the same language-- some of them, anyway. So are they us?

Well, the perfect person to discuss that question with is Ian Brown. For years, he was the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's program Sunday Morning. Ian Brown is the perfect person to discuss the differences between Canadian and American culture, not only because he feels his Canadian-ness so deeply, but because he lived in the United States for years. And he loves Americans enough that he married one. He spoke with our contributing editor, Sarah Vowell, back when he was still hosting Sunday Morning.

Sarah Vowell

Like most Americans, I don't particularly care about Canada. But every week, I spend three solid hours thinking about goings-on in Moose Jaw and Manitoba. The reason is this. Even though I don't care about Canada, I do care about radio, passionately. And my favorite radio program-- aside from this one, of course-- is Sunday Morning. And the most moving segment of the show is usually host Ian Brown's personal essay at the end.

One week it's about hockey versus basketball, the next about his opposition to a separate Quebec. But what it's really about is the idea of nation. Listening to him ask questions of his country and his place in it, I get to ask those questions of mine. It's not something we tend to dwell on in American broadcasting. But Brown says that in Canada, it happens all the time. And because America's cultural presence is so huge and so near, Canadian self-reflection must, by definition, involve thinking about living next door to such a noisy neighbor.

Ian Brown

I think we've developed the same attitudes that, say, the Pakistanis have towards India or, say, the border the Poles have to Russia. American culture somehow seizes you. But at the same time, we're not part of American culture. In fact, for years, Canadians have defined themselves-- or many Canadians have defined themselves-- as being, we're Canadian because we're not American. It's not a very good definition, but it's certainly one that a lot of people--

Sarah Vowell

So when you're here without the protection of the border--

Ian Brown

Well, exactly.

Sarah Vowell

--are you swallowed?

Ian Brown

It's flipped around. You're always slightly afraid and slightly amazed and slightly aware that you're swirling in some huge vortex that might just suck you down. At the same time, I should say that-- and I don't know whether this is a widely shared view-- but one of the reasons why Canadians are so obsessed with America is that it is such an energetic culture. It's so important in the world. It is the great empire of the 20th century-- has been. And you can't avoid that.

Sarah Vowell

Well, even before the 20th century-- I was thinking about this when I was looking at this Canadian history book over the weekend-- and how almost embarrassingly gradual your path to independence seemed, to me, And I was wondering how in the world you could teach schoolchildren about this really complicated, subtle history in a way that would be halfway inspiring.

Ian Brown

Well, you've struck on quite an important point there. It often isn't inspiring because it is so gradual. We've been talking about the constitution in this country. To my direct knowledge-- I've been following it since I was about-- well, the flag debate. I was about 11, I guess.

Sarah Vowell

The American flag debate?

Ian Brown

No, the Canadian flag debate, when we finally got a flag of our own.

Sarah Vowell

And what year was that?

Ian Brown

Oh, that was 1965.

Sarah Vowell

Fairly late.

Ian Brown

Oh yeah, exactly, 100 years after the Confederation.

Sarah Vowell

Which was also fairly late, it seems to me.

Ian Brown

Which was also fairly late. Yeah, sure. We're gradualists. We don't like to do anything extreme. And Margaret Atwood says that this is because it's so cold here and that you have to be so careful. You'd like to take your clothes off and go running outside, but it's so cold most of the time that you keep at least some of your clothes on, even though you're pretending to be naked.

Sarah Vowell

I was thinking about this the other day. And I was engaged in a little us-versus-them debate with a Canadian friend. And I was talking about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and words and phrases like "We, the people" and "life, liberty, pursuit of happiness," and how these things have had this enormous bearing on me, certainly as a writer, and being able to say what I think, and that it's codified within these governmental structures. And at one point, I just said, "what's your sound bite?" And he didn't have one. Is there a sound bite of Canadian-ness?

Ian Brown

Well, I always liked "the True North, strong and free" myself. That's always appealed to me. And it's probably imported from somewhere. But that's always the one I like. And I think it's Voltaire's description of "a few acres of snow." I think he said that. I always liked that image.

Sarah Vowell

"A few acres of snow." Doesn't that just make you want to go out and change the world?

Ian Brown

No, what it does is it reminds you that this country-- far more than yours-- is a physical country. You folks have all these ideas-- or so-called ideas-- Manifest Destiny, the pursuit of happiness-- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But they're ideas. And physically, the country doesn't really exist. I was always amazed that more Americans aren't interested in politics down there. Your voting participation rate is absolutely abysmal. And I think it's because people can't conceive of the country in any way. It's like an amassing together of individualisms.

But after a while, there's so many individualisms that there's nothing collective there. In some ways, Canada has exactly the opposite problem, that we've needed to be collective. And for so long, it's been impossible to be an individualist and still be a Canadian. But it has to do with how youthful the country is.

I've been in the wilderness quite a bit in both Canada and the United States. And I always notice this incredible difference. In Canada, if I go-- I don't know-- 100 hundred miles north of Winnipeg, there are places where you go out into the bush, you go out into the wilderness, and you really do have this sense that you may very well be the first person to be standing there. That this is really virgin territory and you're standing there. And that's an incredible feeling, because--

Sarah Vowell

But I'm from Montana. We have that there too.

Ian Brown

But you don't have it the same way. I've been in Montana. I've been on the top of the Teton Mountains and all the rest. And you get up there, and the sensation you have in the American wilderness is, well, this is incredible because I'm standing where so many people have gone before. Lewis and Clark were here, blah, blah, blah, all these people. And I'm standing in their footsteps, and that is the great thing. Whereas in Canada, it's the exact opposite. No one was here. I'm the first person.

And it has real consequences. In America, the great thing you have is your history and your tradition. The hard thing in America these days it seems to me looking at it from afar, is that it's so hard to think, well, I can do something new. We can break out of the box we're in. Look at something like campaign reform. Nobody thinks you can ever fix it, so why the heck try? Whereas in Canada, we have exactly the opposite problem. We all think, well, I couldn't possibly do this because no one's ever been here or done this before. It really is like the invert of--

Sarah Vowell

Well, you're right, except the very idea of America is that even though tons of people have been there, done that, the idea of America is that you don't care. You just keep going.

Ian Brown

Yeah, but you've got to be more and more outlandish, it seems to us. The fact that Jerry Springer comes from your country is--

Sarah Vowell

Oh, thanks for bringing that up.

Ian Brown

Well, I'm sorry, but how does he fit into Manifest Destiny? If that's the end result of it--

Sarah Vowell

Well, we have to take the agony with the ecstasy.

Ian Brown

Well, that's what makes your country so interesting. And I think that's why people stereotype Canada and say it's boring. They think there is no individual spirit here. Wrongly, of course, but they do think that. And we think all you've got is yakking.

Sarah Vowell

Well, that's interesting for someone who yaks for a living to say.

Ian Brown

Admittedly. Well, I have an American wife, remember.

Sarah Vowell

That's right. Well, we won't hold that against you.

Ian Brown

No, but the Canadians hold it against her. She often complains. She says there is a distinct anti-American feeling here. And she's a lovely person, and people like her. But she says people are always saying at parties, oh, that's so American, when someone talks about somebody being crass or somebody being particularly ambitious or particularly in your face. They say, oh, that's so American. Then they remember she's American and they say, oh, sorry, Johanna, not you. You're different.

And she thinks it's quite widespread. And I will say that as a Canadian, I never noticed anything like that down in America. It is a very, very, very tolerant place until you stand up and say, well, Canadians are different. And then they say, oh, no you're not. You're exactly the same. You like Disney too, don't you? And we say, well, yeah we do, but not all the time.

Sarah Vowell

Can you recall one of those particular moments where you felt like an alien or you felt like an American did or said something that seemed completely foreign to you?

Ian Brown

I was walking along the boardwalk of Manhattan Beach in California. Manhattan Beach is right on the water, and there's this beautiful-- I was walking along, and I was having an argument with my wife. Not a loud argument, but an argument. A debate, I guess you could call it. And we were debating the merits of speaking in front of our children-- in front of my daughter-- and having discussions as if she wasn't there.

And as we were walking along, some guy on rollerblades went by and looked at us. And then he turned around, he came back up to me, and he said, "Man, I want to tell you, man, it, like, really lays some heavy lumber"-- I don't think he said lumber, but-- "it lays some heavy groove on your kids, man, to be fighting in front of them." And I said, "Well, first of all, we weren't fighting. We were having a debate. And B, it's none of your business. Get out of my face." That would never happen.

Sarah Vowell

You don't have jerks in Canada?

Ian Brown

It's not jerks. I mean, he probably had a point. But no Canadian that I have ever encountered would ever deign to even come close to telling you how-- especially publicly. Especially publicly.

Sarah Vowell

Well, it seems like the things that you've been bringing up-- these differences-- are rather confined to the sphere of minutiae. I mean, are the two cultures really separate? Can you separate them?

Ian Brown

I understand your question, and there are so many similarities that many Canadians ask much the same question. We live in a global world, it's a global economy, we're all the same, nationalism is for jerks. But civically, we're very different. We have a parliamentary democracy here. There are at least two, and possibly more, parties involved in every single debate. Everything is voted on.

We elect our representatives directly to the House of Commons. Our prime minister is chosen from amongst them, generally speaking. That's not the case in America. You have this complicated checks and balances system, which seems to us to have no direct representation at all. And judging from the fractions in which you vote, a lot of Americans feel the same way, too. Whereas in Canada, voter participation is pretty high.

Sarah Vowell

But besides these political differences, how-- for instance, we've been having these conversations around here in planning this show where someone says, Neil Young-- Canadian. Everyone says, he's Canadian? Or Mike Myers or Pamela Anderson Lee. You know, the blond bimbo babe of all time-- Canadian.

Ian Brown

They can't believe she's Canadian?

Sarah Vowell

Canadian, yeah. It always ends the same way. And it seems like despite these small, little differences, or even huge political ones, it's really hard to tell an American and a Canadian apart.

Ian Brown

Well, it depends how you measure them, though. Neil Armstrong is a great-- Neil Armstrong. He was American, right? He's the first guy who ever-- and he's American. It's incredible! No, Neil Young-- he's a brilliant songwriter and musician, so he hits the universal in that way.

Sarah Vowell

Yeah, but he wrote my favorite song, "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," which is, to me, maybe one of the most American songs. It has this incredible beat, it rocks, it's a condemnation specifically of the Bush administration, but it's also about hope and imagination as well as Styrofoam and the ozone layer. To me, it's an American song.

Ian Brown

Well, that's, I think, you defining the song. It's not Neil defining the song. One of my favorite songs of his begins, "There is a town in North Ontario." I'd say that's the emblematic Neil Young song. And to me, he's hugely Canadian. Not only is he hugely Canadian because he writes the songs he does, because so many of them have a northern, isolated feel to them, because they are about strong emotion expressed quietly and expressed in a quiet vessel but also because his dad was a sportswriter for The Globe and Mail who everybody read. So I can't separate him out.

Sarah Vowell

OK, what about Pamela Anderson Lee, then?

Ian Brown

Well, as I say, we're talking about the universal here, aren't we? You know what they say. If you want to sell something to everybody, make sure it has a large bust line. So she feels that--

Sarah Vowell

They say that?

Ian Brown

Marketers sometimes say that. What is she? She's like the most universally pneumatic vacuum in the world. So it's true. That doesn't feel particularly Canadian. And I understand why. But she's not a serious example. She's a woman--

Sarah Vowell

You only want the serious people? You only want to claim Neil Young?

Ian Brown

I only want to talk about the ones that you can actually measure on a real basis. I don't know what Pamela Lee was before she was inflated. But I'd be willing to say the old, uninflated Pamela Lee, before she became almost the quintessential Hollywood bombshell, I'll bet you could find Canadian stuff about her. I don't know. It would be an interesting story. That's for sure.

Sarah Vowell

And is the plastic surgery-- is it that part of her is now physically American?

Ian Brown

That is definitely American. Oh, absolutely. Yeah. That part of Pamela Lee is as American as American goes.

Sarah Vowell

I know that you're running out of time. If not, you're out of time on your end. But I just want to ask before we end, what was your favorite thing about being a Canadian living in the US when you did?

Ian Brown

Americans. Americans. Because I work as a writer. And in Canada, one of the biggest parts of the job is to draw people out, to make them comfortable, to get them talking, to get them to realize that it's just a conversation, that they can be themselves. Americans are much less conscious of themselves. They have much less self-consciousness. They're much more themselves in the world. And damn it if you don't like it. I'm an American. I'm an individual.

And so you get all this incredible unconscious behavior happening right in front you. It's like having your own little stage show wherever you go. There's always some entertainment because there's always people being themselves. You don't get that as much in Canada. And I found it--

Sarah Vowell

Do we amuse you?

Ian Brown

No, I don't mean in a condescending way. I'm glad I'm not of it, but I love having a seat ringside.

Ira Glass

Ian Brown with This American Life contributing editor Sarah Vowell, author of the book Take the Cannoli.

[MUSIC - "ROCKIN' IN THE FREE WORLD" BY NEIL YOUNG]

Coming up, the secret pro-Canadian messages in Peter Jennings' nightly newscast and more, in a minute, when our program continues.

Act Three. Outing.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Who's Canadian? Stories of the Canadians among us. We've arrived at Act Three, Outing.

Well, the Canadian on the This American Life staff, Paul Tough, tells this story about watching the movie Wayne's World. There's a scene in Wayne's World where one of the stars and writers of the film, Mike Myers, and his buddies in the movie, allegedly portraying American teenagers, play street hockey.

Paul Tough

They're doing what a lot of Canadians do and what I certainly did as a Canadian youth, which is they're playing on the street. They have nets set up on the street. They're playing with a tennis ball and hockey sticks. And the goalies are all in equipment. And when a car comes down the street, the first person to see the car yells, car! And everyone just stops the game and grabs the nets and gets to the side of the street. And then when the car passes, they say, game on! And they start playing again.

And when I saw that, it was like it was a secret message from Mike Myers to me and all the other Canadians who were watching this movie in the American audience, because those were exactly the two phrases that we would use. And no American knows those phrases. And Mike Myers, of course, growing up in [? Otobaco, ?] the true Wayne's World, grew up playing road hockey just like I did. And the sad thing is, he couldn't set his movie in Canada because then it would've been a Canadian movie, even if it was exactly the same movie. It was about Canadian culture, but in order to pass he had to set it in Illinois.

Ira Glass

Canadians, of course, are everywhere in the American media, from Lorne Michaels to Alanis Morissette. Well, the question we ask in this act of our program is this. When Canadians rise to the top of American pop culture, the American media machine, once they have America's attention, what do they decide to do with it?

To answer this question, let's examine first a show that, on first glance, seems quintessentially American, could not get more American, Beverly Hills 90210. Danny Drennan writes the entertaining and definitive 90210 Weekly Wrapup on the world wide web. He argues that 90210 is a kind of Canadian Trojan horse.

The show is based on a Canadian TV series called Degrassi High. Some characters and storylines are lifted straight from the original series. Not one but two Canadians star on the show, Kathleen Robertson and Jason Priestley. And Priestley has slowly risen from actor to director and producer of the show. Once Priestley had control of storylines and content, yes, the inevitable happens.

Danny Drennan

Canadian references start to show up in 90210 in various guises. One episode sees Steve, Brandon, and Joe meeting some girls from Canada. And Jason's character, Brandon Walsh, unnecessarily comments on where they are from, Parry Sound, home of Hall of Fame hockey player Bobby Orr. Who even remembers who Bobby Orr is, much less where he was born? Brandon's later comment as he ogles the girls from afar is, "O, Canada." When their girlfriends get jealous, Brandon is like, we just got totally hosed, eh?

In one episode, for no reason whatsoever, Brandon refers to Manitoba. In the season finale, Steve makes the throwaway statement that his American actress mother is doing theater in Toronto. In yet another, Kathleen Robertson's character, Clare Arnold, called Steve a hoser. Clare is often heard gratuitously attempting to speak mangled French, like the time when she wanted to say, "let the best man win." In French, "que le meilleur gagne," which instead came out "culla mello gong," in what I can only imagine is a shout-out to Quebec or something.

Brandon, in one show, plays in a charity hockey tournament with guest stars Cam Neely and Ron Duguay.

Brandon Walsh

You must've got a few splinters from your stick in my jersey.

Tom Miller

Maybe you're too fast for your own good.

Brandon Walsh

I think you may want to pick up your jock strap. You left it back there by the blue line.

Tom Miller

This is going to be fun playing with you all.

Danny Drennan

Could someone please tell me who plays hockey in Los Angeles? The fact is that in real life, Priestley used to play center on a Division II hockey team where his teammate was Michael J. Fox. It's all connected.

Then there was the show that starts out with an extreme close-up shot of a maple leaf insignia on the back of Brandon's shirt for, like, two minutes before Brandon walks away. The show basically starts out displaying the Canadian flag. I mean, aren't there FCC laws against this kind of thing?

Another show featured a Ukrainian dance troupe, which is a stealth reference to Canada where such dance troupes are well known. Alex Trebek, former host of the Canadian show Stars on Ice and current host of Jeopardy!, which makes unwarranted reference to Canada more often than can be explained statistically, himself stars in a Jeopardy! dream sequence on 90210.

Most recently, during a school talent show, Donna and Steve recreate a scene reminiscent of the Nelson Eddy- Jeanette MacDonald operetta-based movies of the '30s and '40s, in this case, featuring a Canadian Mountie and his gal singing "Royal Canadian Love Affair." A great cultural reference for Canadians. I mean, at least give the American audience a clue as to what you're talking about by mentioning Dudley Do-Right or something.

Adding insult to injury, because of hockey playoffs, and unlike every other American-made entertainment product, 90210 is often seen on Monday night in Canada, two days before the Wednesday broadcast in the United States. Canadian friends and fellow viewers of the show have informed me that hoards of Canadians cheer as these Canadian references to the revolution are broadcast over the American airwaves. How did we ever reach this point?

Ira Glass

Well, how indeed. Danny Drenna of the 90210 Weekly Wrapup and the forthcoming book, New York Diaries.

Our own contributing editor, Jack Hitt, has another searing expose on these strangers in our midst. He's been keeping tabs on Canadian Peter Jennings, host of ABC World News Tonight.

Jack Hitt

It goes without saying that Peter Jennings is a mole, a spy, a shill, a confederate for Canada. All you have to do is watch his program, as I did one week.

Peter Jennings

In Costa Rica today, President Clinton went to the rainforest, and he got wet.

Jack Hitt

He's not liberal or conservative. Jennings just seems to have it in for the American government. Sometimes his reference is implied, even bizarre.

Peter Jennings

The Pentagon does say today it is very concerned about an incident involving the Russians. Last month off the coast of Washington State, it appears that a Russian merchant ship directed a laser beam at a Canadian military helicopter carrying a US naval intelligence officer. He and a Canadian crew member both had their eyes burned, though not badly. The Russian ship was apparently monitoring American submarines in the region. The helicopter was monitoring the Russians.

Jack Hitt

What are we being told by this story? It's not easy to parse, but it's either about an innocent Canadian blinded by our defense obsession or the superior maturity of Canada for not being directly involved in the two superpowers' now admittedly absurd arms race. So there's no question about where Peter's loyalties lie. In fact, Peter wants to come out of the Canadian closet. His Freudian slips cry out.

Peter Jennings

When we come back out-- or when we come back--

Jack Hitt

Reckon you mean when you come back oot, don't you, stranger? Do you hear how Peter strains to split the difference between the Canadian oot and the American out? Listen again.

Peter Jennings

When we come back out-- or when we come back--

Jack Hitt

You'll notice that Peter's always about to come back from somewhere.

Peter Jennings

When we come back, the stunning drop in the welfare rolls.

When we come back, the space-age technology that is already down on the farm.

When we come back, your money--

Jack Hitt

Or he's heading out.

Peter Jennings

We're going to begin tonight with an--

Jack Hitt

Or he's inviting us somewhere.

Peter Jennings

Finally this evening, we're going to take you to Alabama.

Jack Hitt

See, Peter's on a journey to someplace. If you watch his show long enough, it's obvious. The very structure of the show has a sense that we're going somewhere-- a place, a mythical place. Every program has this feeling of zigzagging en route to some ultimate destination. And you know where he wants to take us? Canada. That's right, Canada.

But actually, after you've watched World News Tonight long enough, you realize that this is not a journey to the real Canada but to the platonic ideal of Canadian-ness. Stay with me here. See, Peter's news is noticeably different from Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw's. Tom and Dan see a hostile world erupting with bad news everywhere, full of murder and mayhem, macho and dismal, hell in a hand basket, fire and brimstone stuff. You know, very puritanical, very American in outlook.

Dan's all clenched jaws, garretted coat and tie, a human time bomb waiting to explode. Peter's just kicking back. He could be wearing a smoking jacket and, during the commercial, sipping a mild single-malt Scotch. Once Peter gets past ridiculing the American government, it's odd, but suddenly, the news he's reading is uncannily bright. Cheerful and good news. Healing news. Soothing news. Ecumenical news. Canadian news.

Peter Jennings

They've approved a new type of laser device that should permit a dentist to fill a tooth more efficiently, and for you, if you have to go, maybe more comfortably, as well.

Jack Hitt

More comfortable dentistry. My, that is good news. But wait.

Peter Jennings

You may soon be able to check for E. coli bacteria right in the supermarket.

Jack Hitt

No more food poisoning. Terrific.

Peter Jennings

The new obesity pill that actually breaks down fat in the body.

Jack Hitt

To understand the real meaning of this Canadian news, one has to read past the literal facts embedded in each statement and get to the level on which television actually speaks to us-- emotion. To really feel it, you have to merge the ads and the news into one seamless half hour of Peterphoria. You have to step a bit further back from the screen, lie down on a down comforter, and let it wash over you, like reading Finnegans Wake.

And if you do this, suddenly the hidden meaning becomes instantaneously clear and weirdly repetitive. The message is, surrender. Your time is over. My fellow Americans, a great nation is being asked to lie down and give it up. Peter's meaning is clear. Even superpowers must age and yield and settle down. One ad that airs a couple of times every show is for SunAmerica. Sun, as in setting sun.

Announcer

SunAmerica. Ask about our personal retirement portfolios. SunAmerica, the retirement specialists.

Jack Hitt

Retire. No commercial break passes without the word reverberating through the screen. But of course, Peter and his fellow travelers try to keep this message lively and vibrant.

Singer

[MUSIC PLAYING] You did your job. You did it well.

Jack Hitt

It's OK, see? Over time though, the message goes even further than that. Why just retire? Even the musical score begins to hint at the next logical option.

Tums Commercial

Tum-tum-tum-tum, Tums.

Jack Hitt

I don't think I'm stretching here. You heard it yourself. The message is, let it go. Cross all the way over to the other side. The entire half hour is a kind of advertisement for dark eternity.

Announcer

Sometimes you have to tell yourself, stop. Look around. This is the good stuff.

Singer

[SINGING] The look, the feel of cotton, the fabric of our lives.

Announcer

This is cotton.

Jack Hitt

This is cotton? Honey, this is a shroud. Just when is it that you stop living and look around? We're dying here. See how obvious it is once you take off your rose-colored glasses and see what's in front of your face? Once you tune in at this level-- the real level-- each commercial gets increasingly more frightening.

Announcer

Wouldn't you like to go someplace that felt really safe and secure? Well, now you can.

Jack Hitt

Someplace safe and secure. Someplace like America, but without all those tense Dan Rather troubles. Someplace like Canada. And isn't that how Americans have always thought of Canada? It's like America, only without any jazz. Tranquil and safe and secure and endless, like death. If only Peter can take us to that place where we no longer have any anxiety. If only Peter can remove the sting. If only Peter can end the fear. If only.

Peter Jennings

When we come back out-- or when we come back-- taking the anxiety out of the fear.

Jack Hitt

Uh huh. Take us out, Peter. Tell us what the story is all aboot.

Peter Jennings

Today, the story that reminds us once again that things are not always what they appear to be.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt.

Act Four. Who's Canadian?

Ira Glass

Act Four, Who's Canadian? Another story of siblings parted ways. Our senior editor Paul Tough and his sister grew up in Toronto, the most American of Canadian cities. Then, about 10 years ago, they both left and headed in opposite directions. He moved to New York City, where he's lived ever since. She began a series of moves to smaller, more typically Canadian cities and towns. In Paul's view, she is the good Canadian. He's the bad one.

All this hour, we've heard people talk about who's Canadian and what it means to be a Canadian. We asked Paul to call his sister and find out whether she still considers him to be a Canadian.

Paul Tough

It's not just that my sister actually lives in Canada, and right in the heart of the country where it's winter for eight months out of the year, that makes me think of her as the quintessential Canadian. And it's not even her ideas about the place or her sense of patriotism. It's more the way that she lives in Canada, connected to her small community and her neighbors and the natural world around her, working at her church and in her kitchen and in her garden. That, to me, is a Canadian life. And from my studio apartment in New York, her life in Winnipeg seems very far away. And I think to her, I seem far away, too.

Paul's Sister

It's interesting because I talk about you often when I talk to people. And I talk about you as being my brother who has gone off and lived in the United States. And I talk about you with a great deal of pride. And people certainly respond by being very impressed. But there's that sense in which-- so I was thinking, if you came here, you would be a celebrity in the sense that you're my brother who lives in the United States and you live this highly sophisticated life and you live in New York City and everyone's deeply impressed by this.

But you wouldn't be of us. I think the perception would be very different if you had done the same thing over the last 10 years in London, England. I think you would be perceived as being more Canadian still than having gone to the United States for 10 years. I suspect it might even be true if you had gone to another European country, that you would still be perceived as being more Canadian than you would be perceived now.

Paul Tough

But there's a way, because of the place that the United States has in the Canadian imagination, that going to America has a very special flavor to it.

Paul's Sister

Yeah.

Paul Tough

It means something.

Paul's Sister

Yeah.

Paul Tough

And what is that? What does it mean?

Paul's Sister

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but I think in some ways, it's going over to the other side.

Paul Tough

What about when other people move to the United States and musicians you like or actors you like or writers you like?

Paul's Sister

Wayne Gretzky, let's just say.

Paul Tough

Uh huh. The tragic trade.

Paul's Sister

The tragic Wayne Gretzky story.

Paul Tough

Not to mention the whole Winnipeg Jets team. Where are they now?

Paul's Sister

Phoenix, of all places.

Paul Tough

Phoenix, Arizona. What was that like? Were you there when the Jets moved to Phoenix?

Paul's Sister

Yes, I was. It was just not pretty. It's just not pretty. I mean, it's a really deep sense of loss, I think, and betrayal for Canadians.

Paul Tough

And who did they feel betrayed by?

Paul's Sister

Oh, whoever goes. And it's obviously not so rational all the time, right? So there's two things. There's a sense of betrayal, but there's also just a sense of sadness and a realization that that's the reality of the world and the economy that we live in. And also, maybe weariness, almost, when another one goes.

Paul Tough

Did you ever have any opinions about the fact that I was living in the United States? Do you ever feel like I had given up my birthright or denied my country?

Paul's Sister

You are a bum.

Paul Tough

Not even necessarily in those terms. But did you ever feel sorry that I wasn't living in Canada?

Paul's Sister

I think only on a personal level. I don't think in any of those sort of philosophical ways. I think I would feel different, though, if you told me that you were deciding to become an American citizen. But I think until now, I've always felt like you're just living there and working there and eventually, you'll come back.

Paul Tough

Really?

Paul's Sister

Yeah. Or it's not even that clear, but it's still that you belong here somehow. And even though you don't come back very much, somehow you're still Canadian.

Paul Tough

A lot of the Americans that I've spoken to have talked about how there's just no difference at all between Americans and Canadians, that Canadians are exactly the same as Americans. And, in fact, there are some people who say that in a really positive way.

Paul's Sister

[LAUGHS] Oh, don't worry. You're just like us.

Paul Tough

Exactly. There's no difference between you. You don't have to feel different. Just like whites would say to black-- [INTERPOSING]

Paul's Sister

Sure. Oh, you're really just like us.

Paul Tough

Exactly. So then, what's the answer? What do I say to people when they say, well, OK, what is Canadian?

Paul's Sister

What does it mean to be Canadian?

Paul Tough

Yeah, what's the Canadian-ness?

Paul's Sister

Yeah, I think that's really a struggle for Canadians. And in some way, I think it's that struggle that, ironically, defines what the answer is. I think in some ways, the answer is that a Canadian is someone who struggles to figure out what is to be Canadian and not American. And all of those things, it's really hard to make a pavilion about. There's that eternal problem of how do you make a Canadian knight? How do you make a Canadian pavilion? And you kind of have maple syrup, and that's the end of it. And we don't have a nice national dress and national food. And we have, well, the beaver, and not too much else.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced by Nancy Updike, Paul Tough, and me, with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Laura Doggett and Sylvia Lemus. And And did I mention Paul Tough?

David Rakoff

Yes, Canadian.

Ira Glass

Indeed, he is. Today's program was first broadcast back in 1997, hence the oddly anachronistic references to Beverly Hills 90210.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

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[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia.

David Rakoff

Yes, Canadian.

Ira Glass

Oh, say it's not so. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

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