Did Conan's skit insult Canadians?
An Insolent Puppet Roils Canadian Politics
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
Published: February 16, 2004
ORONTO, 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 Québécois 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 first."
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 Québécois 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 Québécois 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.