By Hans Tammemagi
Outside our country, Canadians are seen as apologetic, conservative and, well, grey. Not true, we Canucks are actually darn good chuckle inducers. For example, in the early 1900s, Stephen Leacock was considered the best-known English-speaking humourist in the world. More recently, the US television show, “Saturday Night Live”, has been and continues to be a hotbed of Canadian comedy talent. Our most humorous include Rick Mercer, Jim Carey, Bill Richardson, Cathy Jones and many more.
A leading member of this pantheon of drollery is Arthur Black. His immensely popular 90-minute weekly radio show, “Basic Black”, ran for 19 years ending in 2004 – an incredible feat. Compare this to I love Lucy, which ran only seven years. “Basic Black” was a wacky, weekly potpourri of off-beat music, comic sketches and interviews with the weirdest nonconformists Black could dig up. He proudly describes the program as a “rollicking repository for oddballs.” In the last half-hour Black performed a comedic monologue, often about minor everyday frustrations with a uniquely Canadian perspective.
Underlying Black’s success is a huge talent for writing. He has authored an astounding 18 books. Three of them (“Pitch Black”, 2006; “Black Tie and Tales”, 1999; “Black in The Saddle Again”, 1997) won the prestigious Stephen Leacock Medal, Canada’s highest award for humour. Black has also won national awards for his magazine and radio productions. Furthermore, until the end of 2016, when he decided, finally, at age 73, to slow down, he wrote a weekly humour column that was syndicated to 50 newspapers. Whew, what a prolific guy!
When he recently spoke at our local library on Pender Island, I was drawn like a moth to a flame. Black wore a green felt fedora, a blue vest and a blue denim shirt. His jeans were held up by a belt with a brass buckle like a lion’s head, which he purchased at a yard sale. He looked fit and was full of energy, vitality and, of course, wit. He appeared much younger than his age. He quickly had the audience in stitches, making the most mundane subjects such as tomatoes, tourists, children’s names and STS (stuck tune syndrome) hilarious. He also told a series of “How many — does it take to change a light-bulb” jokes.
Black’s hilarity is built on a combination of intellect, a terrific facility with words and the ability to recognize the unusual and even absurd in a situation.
“I’m like Velcro with words,” he told me. “I’m fascinated by them, and any new ones I jot down and look up.” Black has kept a notebook throughout his career and every day makes notes of unusual words, characters and happenings. Helping immensely is that Black is likeable, even endearing. Friendly and casual without any airs or pomposity, he shows a sincere interest in those he meets. Black cites one of his inspirations as Garrison Keillor, the creator and host of A Prairie Home Companion.
“Keillor is a master at making a point without ridiculing or humiliating people,” Black says. “One can conduct humour without cruelty.” Furthermore, Athur is self-deprecating.
“Watch out for the glare,” he warned the audience as he removed his hat to reveal a balding dome. When asked how he got into humour, he responded, “I am totally useless at everything else.”
“On Basic Black, we specialized in weird,” he said. Over the years he’s chatted with eccentric scientists, serene cave dwellers, transvestite bikers, nude sunbathers and skunk control officers. “My favourite was a New York couple who tied themselves together with a six-foot rope for one year. When I interviewed them, she wasn’t speaking to him.”
Black was also the host of a television show, “Weird Homes”. “I remember a home made entirely of embalming-fluid bottles. The light through the walls at sunset was haunting.”
Born and raised in Toronto Black was first drawn to the west coast by the “Globe and Mail” column, Madrona, about a fictional Gulf Island. In 1995, he and his partner Lynne Redmond moved to Salt Spring Island. “I love the ornery characters on the island” he says, “and the warm feeling of community. If something bad happens, then everyone comes out to help.” Black plays pool regularly with Valdy, another island character. Now that he’s (finally) slowing down, Black has taken up carving walking sticks, which he produces in massive numbers. Black feels his vitality is due to exercise (he enjoys hiking and aquacise). He gave up smoking and drinking alcohol 20 and 10 years ago, respectively. A sense of humour also aids longevity.
As Black said, “You never have time for negativity.