On Nov 20, 2018, I had one of the proudest moments of my life. I stood on a dais in a beautiful room in Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence in Ottawa, and received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian distinction given in this country.
As you can imagine, swaddled in pomp and grandeur, I had a long, dreamlike series of images pass before my eyes. I thought of the humble beginnings of my career in a community centre basement, of all the negative criticism from friends, family, and the press, of the ups and downs, the audience walkouts, comics’ revolts, investor lawsuits, and having been denounced in Parliament by name, not just once, but twice!
The order is not populated by a lot of people in show business, and very few in comedy. Those esteemed colleagues of mine have all been involved in sketch comedy- Lorne Michaels and most of the cast of SCTV, but I was the first in the history of the order to receive the distinction for stand-up.
I can tell you one thing for certain. The researchers who examined my life with a fine toothed comb to ensure I would not bring embarrassment to such an august club never saw my act. In the heady wild 70s and 80s, there was no topic so controversial and no language so scurrilous that didn’t send the prudes running for the exits, that I would not touch. I did so to give the other comics license to express their own freedom which gave rise to YukYuks alumni like Howie Mandel, Jim Carrey, Tom Green, Norm MacDonald, Russell Peters, and others, all of whom managed to offend somebody on their way to stardom.
I knew about the award since the previous November. I was told to not say anything except to my immediate family until the announcement the following month, which was hard to do in the company of friends who asked what was new. I had to tell them we had a drink special in the Niagara Falls YukYuks, biting my lip all the while. When it was announced, a month later, my social media lit up like the proverbial Hanukkah bush.
I got a small enamelled pin in the mail, which I wore on the lapel of my sport jacket (but looked silly on my bathrobe) and was told to wait for instructions for the big ceremony and dinner in Ottawa later in the year. Months passed, and I had not heard from the committee. I called them repeatedly, certain that they’d had second thoughts. Finally, the pleasure of my company was requested, along with four guests of my choosing, in November. I made my travel arrangements, got fitted up for a tuxedo, and talked about nothing else for months.
You need to know I’m a professional cynic, but all that melted away when I stepped into Rideau Hall, which is this country’s Versailles. It puts the prime minister’s residence, 24 Sussex, to shame. The halls are decked with a history of Canadian art. The ballrooms are breathtaking. The room where the ceremony and dinner took place used to be an indoor tennis court but now is festooned with pink and white striped bunting, making you feel like you’re deep inside a birthday cake.
On the morning of the ceremony, you and about 30 others are herded into the room filled with family and friends. You sit waiting for your name to be called, and when it is, you approach Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, bow to her, and stand on the aforementioned dais while someone reads your accomplishments. Then you return to the governor general, and bow again as she puts a big version of the pin on your lapel, complete with ribbon that makes it look like you fought at Dieppe.
My wife and son looked on through all of this. My boy, who is 8 years old, will likely remember this for the rest of his life, and he shone with pride the whole time in Ottawa, as did the rest of my family.
That night there was a formal, black tie dinner. I noticed that most of the new members were involved in science or philanthropy. There was a distinguished Stratford actor, a renowned pianist, and me, a slinger of questionable jokes and draft beer. But I was treated with great respect, especially from Payette. There had been some grousing in the press about how she was bristling against the diplomatic functions of her job. But I saw nothing but extreme graciousness, and her gift for making her guests feel comfortable in a very formal environment.
The whole day and evening was a once in a lifetime experience which I will replay again and again in my mind whenever I’m having one of those bad showbiz days which happen about twice a week in my life.
Oh, and the food? Very tasty- but such small portions!