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The Brutally Funny, Radically Moral World of ‘Letterkenny’

The ensemble comedy is a mix of ferociously smart, savage dialogue and lyrical, slow-motion fight scenes that have you rooting for them like a hockey fan.

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Jared Keeso as Wayne, K. Trevor Wilson as Dan, Michelle Mylett as Katy, and Nathan Dales as Dary, in Letterkenny, 2016

During strange times when a body is well advised to stay indoors, television can take on important new dimensions. A truly great sitcom can go beyond merely providing confectionary yuks—it can become background music for your life. 30 Rock fans, for example, tend to agree that the overall geist created by the show’s fusion of zippy orchestrals and whip-bang verbal syncopation can be an all-over mood-enhancer during the drudgeries of your day that can make your life feel quick, tuxedoed, and screwbally, as though you’re on the set of Gold Diggers of 1933, even if you’re merely Lysoling your power-strips and barely even listening to it.

The star and creator of Hulu’s Letterkenny, Canadian actor and writer Jared Keeso, has described the show in interviews as an “unsafe” and “fairly lowbrow” comedy that comes from a “negative place.” This, he says, is because the cast members dress each other down all the time with brutal delight. “We take the piss out of each other; that’s something a lot of networks would ask you to pump the brakes on,” Keeso told q, a radio show on CBC. 

Indeed, the characters use every conceivable swear word in English—and a few in French—to vivisect each other with almost Shakespearean invective (if Shakespeare had been drunk, Canadian, and a survivor of several concussive jet-ski accidents). In a normal world, the constant lambasting might cause all the characters to decline into psychiatric pill-popping.

But Letterkenny is not a normal world—nor, really, is it negative or unsafe. It’s more like a bucket of “day beers,” or even actual fun, if you are open to a wide-enough latitude of mature input stimulus.

For comedy fans, the dialogue of 30 Rock is usually considered the gold standard, because the writing is so consistently dense with memorable burns. (“Lemon, Lesbian Frankenstein wants her shoes back.”) Shows that funny, which bear up under repeated viewings, are as rare as two-headed snakes. The ensemble comedy Letterkenny is, in broadest strokes, like a visually luxurious, punk-rock 30 Rock, with ferociously smart, memorable, whirling-tire-chains of savage dialogue, and lyrical, slow-motion fight scenes that you end up rooting for like a hockey fan even if you deplore violence (or are merely bored by it).     

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Letterkenny is the name of a fictional rural Ontario town. The show began in 2013 as a short web series created by Keeso called “Letterkenny Problems”—vaguely autobiographical musings based on Keeso’s growing up on his family’s historic sawmill in Listowel, Ontario, and playing a lot of regional hockey. In the web series, Keeso and his friend, actor Nathan Dales, lean on barns and various pieces of large farm equipment, break the fourth wall and deliver short, absurd soliloquies about small-town life, lousy with fast, thick Canadian slang, directly to camera. It was such an enormous success on YouTube that the show was picked up by Canada’s CraveTV in 2015; in 2017, it won the award for Best Comedy Series at the Canadian Screen Awards. In 2019, it was licensed by Hulu, on which the show’s ninth season is said to premiere some time this year.

The photography and editing, which have also received multiple nominations for Canadian Screen Awards, deserve special mention for their beauty. The show opens on panoramic scenes of rural southern Ontario (it’s shot on location in a small town called Sudbury): an old barn, a patinated tractor sitting on acres of Easter-green farmland, a frozen lake covered in quaintly Philip Guston-ish ice-fishing sheds.

The main characters may be found, at the beginning of each episode, drinking heavily in broad daylight and talking stylized smack in front of their farm’s produce stand. The lead character is Keeso himself as the incorruptible Wayne, whose triangular, iron-pumped build and Batman jawline make him look as if he’s been drawn by Tom of Finland. Wayne is the “toughest guy in Letterkenny,” a title he defends vigilantly against a parade of musclebound “degens [degenerates] from upcountry.”

His sister, the sleek, insatiable Katy-Kat (Michelle Mylett), is a polyamorous model who prefers to date two guys at a time, and never hesitates to punt other women in the groin (“right in the Twiffer!”) during a “donnybrook” (a fight that spontaneously erupts for almost no reason between more than two people).

Wayne and Katy are joined by their omnipresent childhood friends and fellow agricultural workmates, Daryl or “Darry” (Nathan Dales)—a friendly, goofy-smiling yokel who spits and commits the faux pas of “wearing his barn clothes” out in public—and the affable, bearded, rotund, and jester-like “Squirrely Dan” (comedian K. Trevor Wilson), a “gigantic cure for loneliness” who passionately lectures the characters about their backward social attitudes, in favor of the political correctness he learns in his women’s studies class.

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When this foursome of aggy “hicks” isn’t stone-picking, dog-breeding, binge-drinking, or hay-baling, they are sucked into interactions with the rest of the community and its colorful subcultures. “There are 5,000 people in Letterkenny. These are their problems,” warns the text that appears on screen before each episode.

Some of their problems are with the gooned-out, gym-rat hockey players of the Letterkenny Shamrock team (“Whale-shit, Senior A”- division) led by the dim and vaguely homoerotic jock twosome, Jonesy and Reilly—the silky “Pantene pros” (the stars) of the local league, both of whom are occasional boyfriends of Katy. There are dust-ups with the local black-nail-polished “Skids”—emotionally labile, black-jean and chain-wallet wearing, meth-addled gamers led by the handsome bowler-hatted Stewart (pronounced Stoort) and his gay creature-of-the-night sidekick, Roald, who breakdance on pieces of cardboard in front of the dollar store, and fight by stabbing each other with the EpiPens they always carry (due to their numberless allergies).

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Tyler Johnston as Stewart, center, and the ‘Skids,’ Letterkenny, 2018

There are the Christians, led by Glen, the obviously-but-not-quite-openly gay evangelical preacher (played by the show’s co-creator and director, Jacob Tierney) who regularly tries to persuade the characters to devote themselves to “Ham” (“Him,” in Canadian). Letterkenny is located near the reservation of an unnamed indigenous tribe, which is indomitably led by its de facto matriarch, the comely Tanis (played by Kaniehtiio Horn), who is an occasional love-interest for Wayne (when she’s not setting fire to his produce stand because the Skids owe her money for bags of loose cigarettes—because when she has a beef with one group in Letterkenny, she punishes the entire town).

Each sub-group possesses its own singular patois, which is why it helps to watch the show with subtitles (not because it’s Canadian and therefore unintelligible, but for the same reason it’s fun to watch Shakespeare with subtitles—you get more Banquo for your buck.) One of the joys of Letterkenny is that its specific Ontario dialects contain many inscrutable idioms, and phrases with too many plurals in it, as some rural Canadians are wont to use: 

“You could cuts the tension in here with a fuckin’ beach balls.”
“You are so fucking 5’11”.” (Translation: you’re so average.)
“Well, I don’t like that one bell pepper!” (He doesn’t like it one bit.)
“You’re spare parts, bud.”          

The dialogue is jam-packed with musical wordplay and verbal towel-snaps. Some of the most delightfully lethal quips occur when the hockey players heckle or “chirp” their opposing teams—brutalizing them psychologically to undermine their performance. (Keeso maintains that while the players mercilessly “chirp” each other, chirping isn’t bullying. It’s a fine line, but one that Keeso observes strictly: bullying is wrong.) But the chirps themselves are comedy poutine, if you  happen to like cheese curds on your French fries (because you drink during the daytime).

“Your mom ugly-cried because she left the lens-cap on the camcorder!”
“Three things [are going to happen]: I hit you, you hit the pavement, I jerk off on your drivers’ side door-handle.”
“What’s your laundry-folding channel there, hon?”        

These lightning-rounds of deadly chirps extend to the women’s hockey team, the Shamrockettes: “Who would have thought that the girl who ingested mosquito eggs after drinking out of mud puddles would ever almost be accepted to community college?”

The soundtrack of Letterkenny, curated by Toronto’s Supergroup Sonic Branding Co., has become a sensation unto itself, the subject of numerous playlists on multiple music platforms. The show has expanded the audiences of various hard-driving, obscure Canadian indie groups (each subculture in Letterkenny has its own style of music accompanying its scenes). According to the show’s music supervisor, Cody Partridge, Keeso writes the dialogue with particular music in mind. The fight scenes are so gloriously choreographed to complement the beat-heavy gnashing of bands like White Denim and Japanther, they end up feeling like dance numbers from West Side Story.

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But aside from the toe-tapping brawls and rapturous character assassinations, the real star of Letterkenny is the radical moral decency at its core. Letterkenny is a decidedly Arcadian place, where there is enough leisure time (unlike in the corporate-driven, wage-slavery hellscape of the metropolitan United States) to drink, play video games, and socialize. It is a bundle of electric frictions between contradictions: a peace-loving place of brotherly love and neighbors who mow each other’s lawns, where everyone nonetheless loves a daily fistfight; a feminist place where the women all just happen to be tall, willowy model-types who wear Daisy Duke shorts and midriff halter-tops, but they’re all fiercely smart, suffer no fools, and their identities aren’t defined by men. (When Wayne derides Tanis for the unladylike act of spitting while on a date, Tanis retorts, “What? Do you want me to go borrow an ankle-length dress from my auntie?”)

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It is an entirely tolerant and integrated atmosphere, where everyone drinks in the same local bar (MoDeans, which burns down several times in the course of the series). Presumably for verisimilitude, the jocks and hicks all deride each other for acting like “Sallies,” but even the dimwit hockey players make fast friends with a gay couple at the gym, and actually hang out with them. “You slam-crush butts, we slam-crush box, and the world keeps on turning, boys,” the hockey players tell the men before they teach each other vernacular handshakes.

While America is still fighting civil rights battles over race and sexuality while suffering crushing class and economic disparity issues, an imaginary municipality of white folks unreservedly loves their black friends (there aren’t many, granted), finds a way to co-exist with the local Mennonites, and even eventually befriends the French Hicks of Quebec (with whom English-speaking Canadians have always had a testy relationship). The characters of Letterkenny: small-town yokels, set in their ways, may want to wrangle you into a Texas Cloverleaf or a Scorpions deathlock, but not because you’re gay or differently abled or worship golden calves. (They don’t care much for “Yanks”—that’s us—but we must presume this disaffection is well-earned.)          

All walks of life are not just tolerated in Letterkenny but seamlessly integrated without issue. Tanis has a no-nonsense, barely mentioned abortion, which isn’t even a B-plot; just a side conversation between brawls. There’s no celebration of Seinfeld-style casual narcissism. The characters, for all their small-town small-mindedness, may ridicule each other unto death, but there is an unwritten rule: whenever an out-of-towner annoys or threatens them, all the disparate groups come together to kick ass as one.

A particularly strong episode includes a cameo appearance from Canadian comic Jay Baruchel as “Hard Right Jay,” an American fascist with whom the Skids become acquainted on the Dark Web, who comes to Letterkenny with a posse of tiki-torch right-wingers to campaign to save the Letterkenny Chiefs soccer team from having its name changed for reasons of political correctness. There are few scenes on television as satisfying as when the entire cast comes out to beat up the alt-right crew imported by this polemic-spewing dipshit. Letterkenny acts upon Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance” by refusing to tolerate the intolerant—which feels as satisfying as seeing Nazi planes go down in a World War II movie.     

“He’s kind of a sap,” the director Jacob Tierney says of Keeso in a CBC interview, when queried about the essential nature of the show. “He applied self-tanner for this interview,” Keeso says of Tierney, on the same program. The two clearly abuse each other in real life as vigorously as opposing hockey teams would—a combustive dynamic that seems to produce their peculiar creative nectar. (I read somewhere that Keeso now has a dog named “Tierneh,” the Letterkenny hick pronunciation of “Tierney.”)      

When the new season of Letterkenny drops, it may seem a chore to catch up with the previous eight seasons, but as Wayne says, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”


Letterkenny is streaming on Hulu.

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