“Letterkenny,” a CraveTV comedy series set in rural Canada, has the energy and feel of early “Seinfeld” episodes in its linguistic weirdness and in its Zen-like existence in a self-contained universe where only etiquette seems to matter, strange as it may seem to compare the two.
“Seinfeld” had to grow on me over the years. But my first encounter with “Letterkenny” was akin to seeing “Southpark,” “Raising Arizona,” or “Reservoir Dogs” for the first time. As in, what the heck just happened to my brain? Then, this is the most original thing I’ve come across in many moons.
Like “Seinfeld,” “Letterkenny” is mostly an extended discussion of the ps and qs of social graces (or lack thereof). Ultimate right and wrong scarcely play into the matter at hand. Instead, characters spend what must be pages and pages of the script in Whitmanesque pseudo-poetic, somewhat-scatological catalogs of the correct and incorrect ways to behave given that an initial condition of some sort is true. For example, there’s a running gag about two characters who allegedly had sex with an ostrich. Or one of them did, while the other held the bird. Allegedly. The exact mechanics are unclear. And that is the joke. Not the “why” of it, but the “how.” Ostrich sex is acknowledged as a wrongful act, but then hundreds of variations of the mechanics are discussed and dissected in an attempt to understand how it might happen at all.
So it goes on “Letterkenny.”
What’s more, the show’s mostly middle-of-the-road political nature is incredibly refreshing after enduring so many other comedy series surrendering their creativity and becoming sloughs of progressive hate-wallowing (see Comedy Central’s once-promising “Broad City” as a prime example).
There is one problem right now with “Letterkenny,” which is that you can’t actually legally stream the show in the U.S. The first season is available in DVD format, but for the moment, the whole run of four six-episode seasons is exclusively viewable at Cravetv.ca, which only takes credit cards with Canadian addresses. Season four debuted Christmas Eve 2017. You can find it elsewhere, though, if you’re ambitious.
The series revolves around an agriculturally-oriented group that includes unofficial leader Wayne (Jared Keeso), his beautiful and scantily-clad sister, Katy (Michelle Mylett), as well as Wayne and Katy’s friends Daryl, mostly known as “Dairie” (Nathan Dales) due to his work, and Squirrely Dan (Canadian comic K. Trevor Wilson). All are farmers and agricultural types living on the outskirts of the fictitious Canadian village of Letterkenny. The opening of the show announces that Letterkenny is a town of 5,000 people, and states, “these are their problems.” The setting is loosely based on the Western Ontario hometown of Keeso, who co-created the series with director Jacob Tierney and is also the series principal writer.
Wayne and his posse are the “shirt-tuckers,” the area hicks, and Wayne is the toughest guy in town. He doesn’t seek out trouble, but will fight anyone to prove it. The brawling is amusingly Three-Stooges-like (although not played directly for laughs). Wayne always wins, and is usually flawlessly courteous to his fallen opponent afterward. This politeness is a hallmark of the show.
Letterkenny is host to other social cliques and claques, each with a leader or two who represent his type and interact with Wayne. There are the hockey players Riley and Jonesy, two guys so joined at the hip that they are both going out with Wayne’s sister Katy at the start of the series. The two build up interactive crescendos of near-unintelligible hockey slang (at least to this Southerner) that is as wonderfully strange as Wayne and Dairie’s hick-speak. Apparently, you can celebrate the biscuit all you want, but the snap bomb doesn’t count unless you gobardownski. Then it’s tilly-time.
Also in town are the Skids, the local hipster-goth boy gang, who dress like Canadian versions of the Lost Boys, play video games through the long winter, cook homemade meth for income, and do a great deal of break dancing in Letterkenny alleyways when weather permits. Outside of town are the Natives on the Rez, who sell cigarettes in town (presumably skirting local taxes), and have run-ins with the Skids over turf. The Natives also invariably fight the beer-league hockey players in response to some primordial Canadian principle, like elk stags compelled to clash.
You get the idea: the show is extremely Canadian. At least I think it is, since half the time I have no idea what the characters are actually referring to in their jargon-laced, super-thick accents. There’s also loads of profanity, and every episode seems to have an extended scene consisting mostly of fart and poop jokes. Often these are the most inventive bits. There’s an entire deranged episode revolving around local social media site “Fartbook,” for instance.
The series began as “Letterkenny Problems,” a group of short videos put out by Keeso in 2013 that became a web sensation. Now that the show is sitcom length and more traditionally funded, the creators do make a good faith effort to create through-plots with standard character obstacles, rising action, and climaxes and such. But, as with the original web series, this isn’t really the point. Character comes through not via dialog — it’s all basically the same voice coming out of everyone — but in the poses the different characters strike. This is most extreme is Keeso’s Wayne, whose deadpan, sing-song delivery contrasts with his character’s two-dimensional surreal movement. Wayne moves from pose to pose, like some mad cross between John Wayne, a macho mime, and a jack-in-the-box set to pop.
The best way I’ve found to watch a “Letterkenny” episode is to sit back and just let the Canadianese and the authors’ verbal inventiveness roll over you. “Pitter-patter, let’s get at ‘er.” “Tick-tock.” “Ten-ply.” “That’s a hard-no.” “Can confirm.”
Keeso was a semi-pro hockey player in his youth, and there are a great many hockey references likely to fly over the heads of those of us not from the Great White North. The word “ferda,” for instance, which is a mainstay of the hockey players in the series, I had never heard before. It apparently is Canadian for “for the boys.” That is, something like “I’m doing this for the guys” in a fraternal sense, and in some cases, for the two boys in the ferda-sack between a man’s lower extremities.
In addition to fart and sex jokes, there is a lot of small-town and rural humor that, as a born-and-raised small-town Southerner, I do find familiar. When Stuart, the leader of the Skids (a wonderfully over-the-top Tyler Johnston), wants to impress Katy, he rents the Letterkenny Ag Hall to d.j. a rave. Wayne and Dairie are incensed — not because they dislike Stuart or his music (there’s a lot of mutual toleration in “Letterkenny”), but because, as Wayne declares, “agricultural halls should be for agricultural music.”
Also southern is the sarcasm and cutting humor bound up in the invariable countrified politeness. Anyone raised in the American South understands that southern charm, while normally pleasant and mostly meaningless, can be weaponized and deployed to devastating effect at a moment’s notice. There’s a lot of that going on in the Canada of “Letterkenny.”
While one gets the sense that most of the actors and probably the writers are lefties, all seem committed to keeping the show true to the setting, and thus very middle-of-the-road politically. A foundation of the show’s ethos is that the hicks, at least, have jobs. They earn enough to get by, and any offer to lend or give one another money is promptly rebuffed. While we seldom see Wayne and company laboring, we understand that it is only between the chores, and after the work is done, that they sit down in the kitchen, or in front of Wayne’s produce stand, to drink a six pack of “puppers,” the show’s fictional beer, and start the gabfest.