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'Being Canadian' Explores How The U.S. Views Its 'Exotic' Northern Neighbor


Rob Cohen is openly Canadian. Living in Los Angeles as a comedy writer, he's come across many fellow migrants from the great, white North. And Rob Cohen knows that they are spooky to Americans because they can't be picked out of a crowd easily.


ROB COHEN: They almost look like Americans, but it's almost like they were Russian spies dressed up as Americans, you know?


COHEN: And we can talk like Americans.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This club of Canadians that all sort of walk around knowing, like...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Winking at each other.

SIEGEL: Rob Cohen set out to document what it really means to be a Canadian in a very funny film called "Being Canadian." In it, he takes a cross-Canada journey as well as interviewing his many fellow ex-pats back in LA. Those include Mike Myers, Seth Rogen, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox and Eugene Levy. Rob Cohen joins us now to talk about his movie and his national identity.

Welcome to the program.

COHEN: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Tell us, what was the trigger that got you to make this film?

COHEN: The trigger was the compounding of decades of living outside of Canada and having non-Canadians all over the world freak out when they found out that I was Canadian because they assumed I was American or some other more jazzy nationality. And you could just see the gloss of indifference come over their eyes as they started to think about Canada. So I just decided I would go out and make a user's manual that will hopefully explain us to them because I got tired of doing it.

SIEGEL: It in the film, you have a series of questions that you attempt to answer about Canadians, and the one that I enjoyed most and found very revealing was the question of why are Canadians so polite? I want to play a collection of voices on that subject.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Everybody knows us for apologizing for things. And, yeah, it's a stereotype, but it's a true stereotype.

CATHERINE O'HARA: If I - if I hit the wrong key on my keyboard, I'll say, oh, sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I was on a vacation recently, and I bumped into a tree, and I apologized to that tree.

O'HARA: Twice I was rear-ended, and I apologized, and they drove off.

DAVID STEINBERG: We're in an elevator, and all I did was just move my shoulder a little bit, and someone said sorry. And then I turned around this way, and another person on my left said sorry. And my daughters were, like - they were amazed. So when we would go to elevators, I said this elevator ride's going to be a three-sorry elevator ride or a two-sorry elevator ride.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). Rob Cohen, tell us who some of those very apologetic people are.

COHEN: The last one was the great David Steinberg, a great comedian, one of my heroes. Catherine O'Hara was in there. She was talking about getting rear-ended and apologizing. Another one was this great reporter for The Toronto Star who talked about bumping into the tree and apologizing on vacation.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) She apologized to the tree.

COHEN: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Some of those people are in show business, and the list of names I read at the beginning is evidence of something quite remarkable. Can you explain why so many Canadians who come to show business in America do comedy?

COHEN: Well, first of all, I want to apologize for the lengthy list.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

COHEN: So hopefully it didn't take up too much of your time.


COHEN: I think, honestly, we are surrounded by amazing British culture and American culture, and we absorb it and then sort of refract it and beam it out through our Canadian-ness. And I think the allure of - certainly with sketch comedy and TV comedy is that you get to sort of act out. And normally, in Canada, you almost have to act in.

SIEGEL: You mean it's as if you grow up in Canada, if you possess the desire to perform, you say, hey, there's a country south of here where they actually like people who perform.

COHEN: Yeah, and I think, also, there's more opportunities in the States just given the size. And you would say to somebody that - you know, the classic example that I use is, if you say to an American that Captain Kirk is Canadian, they will usually be disappointed because Captain Kirk's an American legend, and now he's sort of been besmirched.

SIEGEL: This is William Shatner we're talking about.

COHEN: Exactly, yes. Sorry, I know him as Captain Kirk.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). He's last seen doing commercials for a personal injury law firm, actually.

COHEN: Exactly.

SIEGEL: You've made a funny film filled with funny people, but you touch on some very serious issues. How do you think Americans are going to come away from this film feeling about Canada and Canadians?

COHEN: Honestly, it's been such a pleasant surprise. We've gone to a bunch of film festivals, and every single time, the American audiences went crazy because they didn't know a lot of these weird quirks. So it's been such a positive experience because you tell somebody that a TV show ran for 21 years about old men collecting logs off a beach, and they think that's the craziest thing ever. And in Canada, we go, yeah, it's "The Beachcombers," of course.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

COHEN: So I think it is, hopefully, presented in a humorous way about this exotic country nobody ever thinks of just north of where you are.

SIEGEL: You're married to an American.


SIEGEL: Do you have children?

COHEN: No, not yet.

SIEGEL: When you have children, will raise them to be Canadian or American?

COHEN: They will internally be Canadian and externally be American.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

COHEN: I don't know.

SIEGEL: All right.

COHEN: I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: I've enjoyed it a lot. Thanks a lot.

COHEN: You got it. Bye.


THE THERMALS: (Singing) I want to take you to a place I know, a place that's called Canada.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The more you find out who is Canadian, the more you're like, yes, score. Like, Leslie Nielsen - yes.

SIEGEL: The film is "Being Canadian," and we were talking to its director and star, Rob Cohen. The movie opens in limited release today and will be available on demand.


THE THERMALS: (Singing) I want to take you to a place I know, a place that's called Canada.

SIEGEL: Do Canadians have any tells, you know, to one another? When you're in a room with 15 people who look perfectly American, can you tell that that guy over there - he's Canadian?

COHEN: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Really? How do you know that?

COHEN: You can sort of smell them out. It's like, if there's like a little nod - if I was looking at you right now and you were Canadian, I'd sort of look at you, and you might have some gesture or inflection. And I'll sort of lean my head back a bit and sort of cock my head, like, are you - and then you'll look at me, and we'll have sort of a slight nod.

SIEGEL: And you just know that I'm thinking in meters, not yards, or something like that?

COHEN: Yeah, well, all the cool people do think in meters.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.