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Chris Selley's Calgary Controversy is a Lesson in Comedic Context

07/01/2013 12:27 EDT | Updated 08/31/2013 05:12 EDT
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Residents stand near rising waters before the Olympic Saddledome (background) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, June 21, 2013. Flooding forced the evacuation on Friday of some 100,000 people in the western city of Calgary and nearby towns in the heart of the Canadian oil patch. AFP PHOTO / DAVE BUSTON (Photo credit should read DAVE BUSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

It seems nowhere in Alberta is safe from doom and gloom these days. Calgary's still tallying up untold billions in flood damage, Medicine Hat residents are just beginning to return to their waterlogged homes, and Edmonton's languishing under the oppressive weight of a mildly hurtful editorial column.

Chris Selley is a writer at the National Post, best known for his tri-weekly "Full Pundit" feature where he snarkily summarizes a bunch of recently-published editorials from big city newspapers across Canada. It's a fairly boring and lazy premise for a column, and certainly doesn't remind you of the insightful brilliance of "Media Bites" at all.

Anyway, in the June 24 edition of "Full Pundit," one of the columns Chris singled out for particular disdain was the June 22 offering of the Calgary Herald editorial board. The Herald was feeling mighty proud of its city in the aftermath of the big flood, especially the restrained dignity of its residents.

"There was no major crime, there was no rioting," praised the board, adding "that's not southern Alberta's way and never has been."

Chris pasted that same quote in his piece, followed by this saucy rejoinder:

"Edmonton, for example, would be a smoking hole in the ground at this point, infested with twitchy-eyed, machete-wielding savages."

Now, there are two ways to interpret what  Mr. Selley is trying to say here.

The first is that he's a cynical smartass who finds the premise that southern Albertans are better behaved than anyone else an implausible exaggeration that deserves to be mocked in kind -- namely with sarcastic "agreement" that yes indeed, people who live north of Calgary are, in fact, literal savages.

This interpretation makes the most sense if we assume Selley is some manner of sheltered eastern-type who doesn't know or care much about the epic Calgary-Edmonton rivalry or the large role north-south geography plays in Albertan socioeconomic realities, and is simply trying to mock what he presumes is a hilariously parochial newspaper inventing a phony sense of civic pride. Ha ha! North Albertans and south Albertans are actually the same, you silly bigoted newspaper, says Chris.

In reality, alas, the evidence suggests north and south Albertans actually are quite different. Edmonton's murder rate, for instance, is almost two-and-a-half times higher than the murder rate of Calgary, and their rates of rape, robbery, and assault are significantly higher too. There are more poor children per capita in Edmonton than Calgary, more drug addicts, and twice as many destitute aboriginals.

In short, if you live in Edmonton, it's also possible to interpret Chris' snark as hitting a little close to home.

That certainly seems to have been the perspective of the city's mayor and the head of the Edmonton chamber of commerce, who breathed flames of fiery wrath at Selley last Friday, denouncing his column as "despicable" and "reprehensible", respectively. And then the whole thing became a full-fledged controversy, with outraged WAR IN EUROPE-style banner headlines in Edmonton newspapers, defensive clarifications from the Post editortwitter battles, ironic hipster re-appropriations, and even a clever hashtag.

And since the scandal involved the media, needless to say, the nation's leading media-types had no shortage of opinions.

Good old Ezra Levant of Sun News, for example, had quite the little twitter back-and-forth with Selley coworker Andrew Coyne, defending the honor of his native province from the cruel mockery of the "Media Party."

"There's nothing sadder than a comedy writer spending two days insisting he was funny and that the problem is with his dumb audience," said Ezzie. "Why not admit the joke was vague and not that funny? Why defend it so loyally and mock those who aren't laughing?"

"Actually, virtually everyone got it, Ezra -- including you," replied Andy, "You merely pretend that you didn't."

Selly, for his part, spent much of the weekend RTing the happy words of his more upbeat Edmonton followers (sample: "you are an ignorant asshole spreading hate!")

"People," he said, "A JOKE. GOOD LORD."

Overall, the most consistent Selley defence is that context matters. Chris, say his defenders, was clearly making an ironic dig at self-righteous Calgarians by exaggerating the imaginary evils of Edmontonians, meaning, in the words of his editor,"if anything, it was a pro-Edmonton column".

The most consistent Selley critique, meanwhile, is that, uh, context matters.

If the premise of your joke is absurdist implausibility, it's usually a pretty good idea to do a bit of research beforehand to determine what's actually implausible. For example, the idea of a hippopotamus killing someone sounds pretty funny until you learn that they're actually one of the world's most deadly animals. A stand-up comedian whose set includes a bit about his mother-in-law being so incompetent on safari that even the hippos got her might not go over too well in Africa, where hippo-related deaths are said to top around 3,000 per year. Likewise, jokes about the hilariousness of a city descending into anarchy of machete-wielding lunatics might not provoke a barrel of LOLs in a place with actual machete attacks.

Of course, it's also possible to just be oversensitive. And a good case can be made that an ability to find self-deprecating humor in one's own darkest troubles reveals greater maturity and confidence than thrashing with outrage at the inadvertent insults of people who don't know any better.

But let's be honest -- that kind of thoughtfulness is really more of a southern Alberta thing.