Insolent Puppet roils Canadian politics

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Feb 16 19:09:13 UTC 2004

>>From the NYTimes,  February 16, 2004

An Insolent Puppet Roils Canadian Politics

TORONTO, Feb. 15  Conan O'Brien came to Toronto last week, and he nearly
started a civil war. Just kidding, sort of.

On a taped segment on Thursday night's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" on
NBC, the puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog visited the Winter Carnival
in Quebec City and touched the third rail of Canadian politics by telling
the Quebecois they ought to learn English since they live in North
America. "So you're French and Canadian, yes?" Triumph asked a passer-by
in a Continental accent. "You're obnoxious and dull."

If that were not enough teasing along the delicate cultural divide between
Francophone and Anglophone Canadians, the puppet told another: "I can tell
you're French, you know. You have that proud expression, that superior
look." And of a third, rather plump, man the puppet asked: "Are you a
separatist?  Maybe you should try separating yourself from doughnuts

Worst of all, perhaps, the Toronto audience laughed heartily. Such
dialogue was hardly what Toronto's tourism authorities had in mind when
they invited Mr. O'Brien to bring his show here along with Canadian comic
stars like Jim Carrey and Mike Myers to boost American interest in a city
that is still hurting from last year's SARS epidemic.

The four-night production did fill an estimated 700 hotel rooms, and gave
some part-time work to scores of stagehands who have had a lot less work
in recent months because of SARS and a rising Canadian dollar. But the
seemingly harmless if crass remarks of a puppet created a blaze of
protests on the floor of the House of Commons and became fodder for
national politicians seeking to win Quebecois votes. Canada is in the midst
of the biggest political scandal in more than a generation, but the
foul-mouthed puppet was still front-page news and heavily covered on
national television.

"We can all make jokes about each other but you don't start telling people
in Quebec they have to speak another language," said Stephen Harper, a
Conservative member of Parliament who is a contender for Prime Minister in
elections expected this year. "That's completely unacceptable." Alexa
McDonough, a member of Parliament from the social democratic New
Democratic Party, demanded that the show return an estimated $750,000 it
received in Canadian taxpayer's promotional money for coming to Toronto.
She characterized the puppet act as "vile and vicious."

CHUM television, the local broadcaster, cut the puppetry act out of a
rebroadcast of the episode and issued an apology. Leading Quebec
politicians generally refused to comment. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a
character created by the comic and writer Robert Smigel, appears often on
"Late Night." Triumph has landed some controversial shots before, and his
targets have included the rapper Eminem and "Star Wars" fans. But his
latest television fray could be the biggest since the 1999 "South Park"
animated movie "Bigger, Longer and Uncut" farcically depicted a war
between Canada and the United States.

Some commentators expressed puzzled amusement at all the fuss. A headline
in Saturday's Toronto Star read: "Oh, Canada! We let ourselves be baited
by a dog puppet." Nevertheless an editorial in the same issue of The Star
said the sketch "wasn't clever it was hateful and, yes, racist." The
editorial went on to say, "O'Brien would never have dared such a stunt at
home in New York City with American Hispanics or Jews," and added:
"Goodbye, Conan. Don't come back soon."

Political satire is a big part of Canadian culture, and it can be rather
ribald. It can also be rather anti-American, with hefty helpings of
insults about President Bush and American ignorance about things Canadian.
Crude anti-French jokes are not uncommon outside Quebec, but they are
generally told in private along with other ethnic humor considered
politically incorrect. One reason nerves became so frayed was that the
Triumph the Insult Comic Dog routine came just three weeks after Don
Cherry, the CBC hockey commentator and an hero among a certain class of
rough-and-tumble Anglophone Canadians, poked fun at French Canadian and
European players for wearing protective visors on their helmets.

That remark was one in a string of statements made over the years deemed
unfair to Quebecois players, leading the CBC to design a seven-second delay
system to suppress any future insults before they are broadcast. Tensions
in Quebec have subsided since a 1995 separatist referendum went down to a
narrow defeat, and laws designed to protect the French language have been
effectively enforced. A pro-federalist premier was elected in Quebec by a
landslide last year. Mr. O'Brien stopped short of an apology, although in
his fourth and final taping of the week, he said, "For those of you who
don't know me, I'm the guy who was hired to make Don Cherry look good."

Marc Liepis, a spokesman for NBC, said neither Mr. O'Brien nor the network
would have any further comment.

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