I thought my reaction to the popular CBC parody show, This is That was unlike that of others, so I never mentioned it until this summer when I was talking to my friend in Montreal. It turned out, others have felt the dislocating sense of disbelief about our news as I have, as Tom Waits said about keys to the city at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “that there were a whole lot of them.” My friend had the same reaction.
When the show first aired it was so effective as a parody—or our current news broadcasts are so ineffective at avoiding at being thought a parody—that many people thought This is That was real. This led to twitter storms as twits took to the keyboard to express their outrage at how ridiculous their world had become, little aware that they were the ones being ridiculous.
The episode that featured the interview with the Canadian border guard, “Canadian border guard bullies CBC Radio host,” for example, was one of the pieces that excited the most commentary, with people declaring that the bullying man in the interview pretending to be a border agent be demoted, fired, or conversely, supported and valorized. A man named Alex, on the petition to get rid of Murray Swift as a border officer, calls for his dismissal: “Shocking and disgusting. Such childish behavior cannot be tolerated especially when coming from a government employee in a position of authority.” David from British Columbia reiterates this opinion: “From this interview, his behaviour, attitude, demeanour, and lack of interpersonal skills does NOT qualify him to led [sic] any session n [sic] how to deal with the public. If Mr. Swift typifies our boarder [sic] patrol, we are in trouble. One can [ ] an effective officer without being a bully, aggressive, confrontational, and intimidating.”
My reaction to the show has less to do with the stories offered, although some of them are favourites that I think about even now, such as the border guard story, or that which described the locals in Lloydminster wanting to divide the small city. I missed the demand that dogs in Montreal be bilingual, “Bilingual Dog Bylaw proposed in Montreal,” and the changing attitude to fine art in Canada: “National Museum to allow high school kids to complete unfinished Group of 7 paintings.” As well, I missed those which exposed the gross stupidity of capitalist culture and contractor incompetence “Casino for kids opening in Las Vegas” and “Mississauga condo developer forgets to put 120 bathrooms in brand new building.”
My reaction to the show was more located in what happened to me upon listening to it. Usually I have CBC playing in the summer in my cabin, but when I would listen avidly to the parody show, my mind would gradually become attuned to their effective representation of stodgy CBC presenters and I would begin to apply the satire they evoked to the news that immediately followed the program. The news broadcasts, especially those that focus on the ridiculous behaviours of political leaders, or the incompetence of public figures, became hard to distinguish from reality. That was an impression I tried to cultivate, for as long as possible, after the show had finished. It enabled me to listen to our news with the distancing required to see the foolish nature of media choices.
If the news is meant to edify, then I cannot see the educational advantage of knowing about the Las Vegas shooting. I am not in Las Vegas, have no plans to ever visit, would likely avoid visiting countries whose governments encourage such shootings, such as NRA-sponsored American policy, and even if I were there while such an event took place, I can’t think of anything in the broadcast of that news that would help me in any way. The purpose of news should not be just what has happened recently—what is new—but rather what might help me negotiate the world around me and inform me about events that will help me make decisions. For the Americans, if they were listening, the latest mass shooting incident might assist them in their concern over gun laws, although that is not really happening.
When I spoke to my friend in Montreal, who would likely be out walking her bilingual dog if she were not on the phone, I found that we shared the same slightly disconcerting feeling. After listening to This is That we began to enjoy the uneasy impression that the world around us is a parody of itself. I felt as though we were able to pry aside the wallpaper and get a glimpse of the plaster that covered the reality of our media presentation of information. That glimpse seemed to indicate that there is something wrong with the way we inform the public, so profoundly wrong, that a parody program is taken as truth, and yet the same program is required so that we understand there might be another way news can be relayed.