November 21, 2014 by T. Gregory Argall
Years ago I was a regular contributor to the hilarious and much-missed comedy website CPFOG.com, which was run by my friend Gord. With a mandate to be funny AND Canadian, Gord had asked me to write some articles focusing on various aspects of Canadiana. When time pressure and life in general conspired to bring an end (hopefully still temporary) to CPFOG.com, I re-used some of the articles on my crappy blue website, which existed mainly as an effort to teach myself how to make a website. One of the articles was about a uniquely Canadian television experience called “Hinterland Who’s Who.” So that the rest of this story will almost make sense, I’m presenting that essay here in its entirety…
Hinterland Who’s Who
Every time I hear the haunting strains of that lone flute playing its woodland theme, my mind drifts back to my childhood days. Back then, the whole family would gather around the television and tune in the CBC. It didn’t matter what the program was, because we were waiting for the commercial breaks. Every commercial break was a potential chance to see another “Hinterland Who’s Who” vignette.
We learned so much from those little gems of wilderfilm. So many childhood questions were answered by those sixty second time-fillers. Questions like, “What’s a hinterland?” and “Why don’t a muskox and a muskrat look alike?”
First aired in 1960, “Hinterland Who’s Who” was developed because the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation couldn’t sell enough advertising time to fill a commercial break. But, it had the added benefit of teaching Canadians, young and old, about the wonder and beauty to be found mere yards outside of their igloos or cabins. Narrated in a dull, flat tone by a dull, flat man, each segment examined the environment, behaviour, and general characteristics of a specific animal indigenous to the Canadian wilderness.
It was certainly an eye-opener for this young lad.
I learned the difference between the Greater Snow Goose and theLesser Snow Goose.
I was privy to the secrets of the Snowshoe Hare.
I discovered that a Redhead isn’t just the pretty girl in math class with the fiery temper, it is also a freaky-looking type of diving duck.
It was disclosed to me that the name of the Caribou is a corruption of the Micmac word “xalibu” which means “the one who paws.”
The Semipalmated Sandpiper‘s feet are only partially webbed, otherwise they’d call it fully palmated.
The Lemmings of the Canadian Arctic have no suicidal tendencies whatsoever, unlike their European cousins, showing that even rodents know that Canada is the best country in the world.
That old black guy on Sanford & Son wasn’t the only Red Fox on television.
All this knowledge and more was mine for the asking with “Hinterland Who’s Who” and ask I did. However, amongst all of the diverse tidbits and snippets of wisdom gleaned from this classic Canuck creation, one fact stands out. “Vignette” was the first French word that I learned from someplace besides the other side of the cereal box.
And I know that everyone who grew up in Canada in the last half of the twentieth century can say the same thing.
As many of you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of irony. I believe that irony is one of the greatest natural resources in the universe and I get a warm feeling deep inside every time I find accidental irony.
Recently while doing my weekly Ego-Google, I found a hit on the official Hinterland Who’s Who website. An excerpt from my essay has been quoted there in a sidebar on the Hinterland History page.
Initially, I thought it was a beautifully ironic case of sarcastic parody being mistaken for honest sentiment, but the more I thought about it, the more unlikely that seemed. Even briefly scanning the essay, one would note that it is not entirely serious or factual. It’s (hopefully) an obvious bit of parody. The quote is credited to “T. Gregory Argall, Canadian Playwright, Humourist” so it seems apparent that they understand the comedic intent.
After some consideration I concluded that it is actually an irony within an irony….
They were trying to demonstrate the influence that the Hinterland Who’s Who vignettes have had on creative and significant Canadians.
They think my opinion matters.
Oh, the sweet irony is so delicious, with a hard, crunchy shell and soft, chewy centre.
They’ve used the designation “Canadian Playwright, Humourist” like it actually means something. I got billing above Robert Bateman, fer cryin’ out loud.
You can apply whatever titles and labels you like to yourself and it’s just a bit of a ego-wank, but when others start applying those same titles to you, then it becomes “fact.” Especially if they are government-funded.
They even quoted me in French.
Eight years later, it’s still on their website.
I am immortal.
Try to be nice to each other.