Still standing and grinning
By Jim Poling Sr.
So here I am scrolling through the nightly TV doomsday reports when I stumble into a barrel of laughs. On the CBC, of all places.
The CBC isn’t exactly known as the fun channel, but there they are, guffawing faces on a 30-minute show called Still Standing.
The laughter is generated by Jonny Harris, a Newfie comedian with a bedhead hairdo and a mischievously goofy look. (He also plays Constable George Crabtree on the television series Murdoch Mysteries.)
“The population here is not even a fraction of what it was back in the ’60s,” he chirps in an episode from Bell Island, in Newfoundland’s Conception Bay.
“A decline in population . . . you don’t expect that in a place called Conception Bay, right?”
Then he gives the audience that devilish grin and adds: “Dwindling population, I mean, that might be the case over in Contraception Bay . . . .”
Still Standing is a hybrid comedy/reality show premiered on CBC in the summer of 2015. It has Harris visiting small Canadian towns that have seen better times. He gets to know the people, their struggles and how they are overcoming them, then gathers them together for a stand-up comedy performance that has them laughing at themselves.
In an episode from Schreiber, Ontario last fall he explored the town’s Italian heritage – making Italian sausages and talking about the Filanes Falcons Junior B hockey team, named for the Filane-Figliomeni business family that is involved in everything from restaurants to sports clothing to entertainment.
“I thought there was a bunch of kids on the team named Owen,” Harris says during the stand-up part of the Schreiber show. That was because the coach told him that “early in the season the team was 0 ‘n 4, then later on 0 ‘n 10 and at the end 0 ‘n 28.”
“I think it’s hard for Italian-Canadian kids to play hockey ‘cause your parents keep taking your hockey sticks to prop up tomato plants,” he jokes.
The towns Harris visits are all small, tight-knit communities that you might say have seen better days, although Still Standing highlights how the residents are fighting back and living good lives. They are towns where a main industry has left, businesses have closed and young people have moved to big cities to find work.
Schreiber for instance once was a bustling railway town, a Canadian Pacific Railway divisional point 190 kilometres east of Thunder Bay. Railway jobs declined and a mine that provided significant employment closed.
Joking about the towns and their people before a live audience of residents can be a bit tricky.
“It’s got to be a little bit saucy and cheeky,” Harris has said about the stand-up comedy part of the show in which he singles out individuals, the community’s difficulties and how it has responded to them. “But it also has to be respectful. I’m not there to make anyone feel uncomfortable.”
He has found that folks are “not overly sensitive, and are just up for the laugh.”
He knows the importance of humour to small, struggling towns. He comes from Pouch Cove (pronounced Pooch) a short drive north of St. John’s. It was founded as a fishing and mixed farming community but as fishing declined became more a bedroom community for the Newfoundland capital.
Viewing Still Standing can leave you nostalgic, even sad. It hurts to see so many small towns where prosperity left to live in another place.
But Harris’s light-hearted antics bring out what’s really important about these places: the good-hearted people and how they make the best lives for themselves, their families and their neighbours.
A bonus of the show are the gorgeous landscapes and histories seldom-heard about places scattered from one Canadian coast to another. It gives you a deeper sense of our country and its people.
When each show closes, often with Harris pretending to talk with his mom back home, you get a nice warm feeling about being a Canadian.