by Frank Kuin
On first sight, Greg Nielsen's research project is a laughing matter. The director of Concordia's Centre for Broadcasting Studies is conducting a comparative study of several comedy series on the CBC and Radio-Canada, The Royal Canadian Air Farce,This Hour has 22 Minutes and Kids in the Hall on the English network and the annual year-end revue Le Bye Bye, La Petite Fille and Moi et l'Autre on the French side.
The project includes an analysis of jokes from the 20-plus years of these radio and television shows. But for Nielsen and his co-investigators, John Jackson (Sociology and Anthropology) and Mary Vipond (History), the study is serious business.
The team has been awarded a $98,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to fund the project from now to the year 2001. A full content and narrative analysis of both satirical programs up to 1996 should, by that time, shed new light on the different sociological perspectives from the two solitudes within Canadian public broadcasting since the 1960s.
As Nielsen explains, the project, rather than being strictly about comedy, is a comparative analysis of Quebec and Canadian public cultures through the study of their national broadcasting corporation. "It's about two societal cultures, Quebec and [English-speaking] Canada, participating in the same organization, within one federal state." He chose to focus on the genre of comedy because of its "emphasis on the critique of tradition and contemporary figures and themes."
The first step of the project addresses how two serio-comedies (about 500 half-hour radio episodes of Air Farce and some 25 years of two-hour Bye Byes) ha ndled social and political events, and toyed over the years with such issues as sexuality, gender, ethnicity, and justice. This will give a perspective on ways in which the CBC and Radio-Canada differ in thinking about their own societies, and how far each side has gone in pushing boundaries.
"We think of broadcasting, or cultural production in general, as part of the mainstream," Nielsen said. "And that real critique of society comes from some other source, not from major institutions. So the question is, How far can a publicly funded broadcasting institution go in criticizing the norms and values of its own society?"
The comparative study of CBC/SRC serio-comedies fits the mandate of the Concordia Centre for Broadcasting Studies, founded in 1981 by Professor Howard Fink and Jackson. The Centre houses an archive of about 16,000 radio drama scripts from the CBC that date back to 1928, and seeks to conduct research into public culture.
Nielsen, who came to Concordia three years ago after 10 years as an associate professor at York University, has been studying the material in the archive since its establishment. He has already completed a similar study about the 1940s and 1950s (Le Canada de Radio-Canada, published in Toronto by Gref); the current project is the final phase of his archival analysis.
A central element in Nielsen's analysis is what he calls the "fundamental difference" between two sides of one organization. "It would be impossible to think about the history of the CBC and Radio-Canada as identical," he says. "It's really the history of two countries inside of one state, and about two social imaginations. The one does not look to understand the other."
As an example, he quotes the jokes both sides made about the 1995 referendum on sovereignty. Consistent with a trend that the emphasis of the comedies has shifted over the years from social commentary to caricatures of political figures, Air Farce tended to portray the sovereigntist leaders as Nazis. Le Bye Bye, on the other hand, had a sketch about a plane-load of drunken Ontarians coming to the pre-referendum federalist rally in Montreal to profess their hollow love for Quebec.
Although there are times when Nielsen falls off his chair going through the comedy scripts, it doesn't happen often.
"Studying comedy is not always funny," he observed. "Comedy is liberating, even cathartic, but it's also a weapon. And watching people use weapons, if you think about it carefully, is not always pleasant."