Tart and soul
How the left-leaning, scotch-drinking, bullshit-detecting, high-school-dropping, joke-Googling, single-mom-ing, storytelling, serial tweeting, cheese-puff-cooking Tabatha Southey became one of our leading political humourists.
Tabatha Southey hadn’t expected to hear anything back. She’d sent three children’s stories to a publisher, but, six months later, nothing. Oh, well, she’d sent them only at the urging of a friend anyway. She had been driving with writer and editor Jane L. Thompson, two toddlers, and a baby buckled up in the back, and Southey prattling away, as she is wont to do. “Do you write?” cut in Thompson.
“No, I don’t write,” Southey said sheepishly.
“Well, you should.”
So she wrote some stories she’d told her children. After six months of silence, the phone rang. “Hi, so we really like your stories,” said a voice. “But you didn’t put your name on them.” That rookie mistake could easily have been the end of her career; instead, Key Porter Books liked her writing, hunted her down, and published The Deep Cold River Story in 2000.
That’s the way it’s always been for Southey: people want her. A year earlier, she had run into an acquaintance, Andrew Coyne, then National Post national affairs columnist, who suggested that she write for his paper. “In my mind I thought, that doesn’t really happen,” she says. “One doesn’t just get to write.” But if you’re Southey, apparently it does.
“Drunk with Men,” the query letter she sent the Post, pitched doing what she thought she was most qualified to do: “I would like to be employed to get drunk with various men, and document my experiences, so that I may bring some of the wonders I have seen back to the general public and possibly raise some awareness in single-men-aged-15-to-26-who-will-never-get-a-date-until-they’re-30.”
Classic Southey. Her writing was a little more convoluted then, she used too many hyphens, and some paragraphs were so wordy you had to go back and reread. But there was that Southey voice. Ellen Vanstone, then editor of the Post’s weekend section, remembers thinking, “We should just publish the query letter.” After a tiny bit of editing, she did.
A quick wit and trademark voice were the only résumé that Vanstone needed. She started using Southey regularly, and in 2004 recommended Elle Canadahire her as the Elle Girl columnist, a role Vanstone was leaving. That led to work for Explore and The Walrus, and three years later, a coveted Globe and Mail column.
Today, the woman who forgot to put her name on her manuscript is one of Canada’s most hilarious political commentators. Although she’s written everything from the will of the last Pinta Island Tortoise to a discussion between giant squid, her political columns are the shrewdest. She’s known for her distinct style, humour, and insight, but it didn’t come from world-class schooling. She dropped out of high school after Grade 9, left Guelph, Ontario, for Toronto, and found odd jobs like nannying, serving, and retail. She says she learned everything she knows reading three newspapers a day behind various jewelry and vintage store counters, and tells a story about starting on the front page of the Globe and finishing in the classifieds of the Toronto Sun going, “Oh, look, I see Todd sold that Camaro. I never thought that’d happen!”
Entering journalism as an underdog gave her a point of view that is not only funny, but also relatable. She puts political discussions in a new perspective for readers who might otherwise be bored or confused by them. She gives them something to engage with in a way that many political writers do not, and as her following has grown, Southey has worked her way into the centre of Canadian journalism. The outsider is now an insider.
Southey’s writing makes you laugh out loud when she imagines Prime Minister Stephen Harper scolding Conservative MPs for calling their political opponents pedophiles—“No, no, ‘Nazi’ and ‘pedophile’ are the bad words, remember?”—or nod your head with her on the David Petraeus scandal: “We must either disassemble the Internet or decide that sex between consenting adults is often an excellent idea, always a private matter, and mostly not that entertaining to anyone not in the bed.” Sometimes you just admire her sentences: “Apparently, to Mr. Romney, hiring a woman is, in spirit, an exaggerated take-your-child-to-work day, and anyone hearing that respect for women in the workplace demands a gallant acceptance of their innate desire to be home to cook dinner at 5 o’clock might almost be forgiven for thinking that this dinner-at-5-before-all-else thing explains why women in the United States still earn about 72 cents to the dollar earned by men.”
Other writers have opinions on what Southey’s special something is. “Her take on things zeroes into the weirdness of the situation,” says Toronto Starcolumnist Shawn Micallef. “She often starts from an unexpected place with a subject and often reels her readers slowly into her point,” says her editor at the Globe, Carl Wilson. Adds Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells: “She’s got a bullshit detector that allows her to see through all the artifice and get to what’s really going on.”
If it were Southey, she’d probably say it’s her expert online shopping skills. She might make a sarcastic joke, crediting her success to her dog, Tulip, or her love of scotch. She points to The Goon Show, the absurd and surreal British radio program, for contributing to her sense of humour, and British singing duo Flanders and Swann for implanting their comedic pattern into her subconscious. Southey has also spent a large part of her life with what many people would consider the bottom rungs of society. “Down in the Ds, we’re an interesting group,” she says. “But I’m glad I did those years in retail, I’m glad I did all those jobs. I took a lot away from all those things.” For one thing, the wayward path led her to a six-year marriage to Dave Foley, best known for The Kids in the Hall and NewsRadio. Joking with him and his fellow comedians refined her sense of humour and comedic timing.
Applying those tricks to her own trade, Southey combines that humour with insight, as she sees news stories from a different angle. “She either articulates what you’ve been thinking but no one’s been saying,” says Helen Spitzer, editor of bunchfamily.ca, “or completely turns things around for you.”
Southey considers a column successful if she can make herself laugh out loud, so she explains things to readers the way she explains the obviously ridiculous to herself. She described Conservative MP David Wilks’s conflicting statements on the omnibus budget bill by comparing them to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech, saying, “I have a dream, but I won’t bore you all with it, because I know other people’s dreams are never very interesting.” And she turned Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s follies into the city’s newest tourist attraction: “Now, the name Toronto is evocative to people, like other great cities’ names: I Love New York; Paris, the City of Light; Toronto, the City with the World’s Most Embarrassing Mayor.”
She satirized accusations that women can’t take a joke about sexual harassment: “The next time one of your superiors presses his pelvic area against your bottom as he passes behind you at the photocopier, burst out laughing loudly.” After Julian Fantino, then associate minister of national defence, endorsed longer sentences to deter criminals, she asked if he imagined “would-be criminals sit down at their desks and carefully plot out their next moves on a spreadsheet, doing a lengthy cost-benefit analysis of armed liquor-store robbery versus enrolling in that pastry-chef course they’ve always dreamed of, and perhaps opting for a little light shoplifting as a compromise?”
Often her distinct view comes from something she has done, said, or tweeted. When a friend mentions a broken toilet handle, she says, “I can fix that, I fixed a handle last week. I can fix all your toilets, even the deep, inner parts.” Then adds, “I looked it up on Google.” You half expect the rest of a 600-word column to come tumbling out of her mouth right then. Her columns flow so effortlessly that they read as if she writes them on a napkin over a bagel and coffee—but that is far from the case. Her office, on the second floor of her sumptuous Victorian home, is lined with green leaf-patterned wallpaper and covered in vintage photos and children’s artwork. Her bookshelf bursts with books stuffed into every open space and her large, sloped wooden desk—reminiscent of a teacher’s desk from the days when students used individual slates—faces the bay window.
After filing her column on Thursdays, she will start looking for that week’s topic the following Monday. As soon as Wednesday night hits, she is holed up in her office, pumping out her piece, not to be seen or heard until Thursday. She reads her columns aloud eight or nine times, believing, “Bad writing cannot stand being read out loud,” and she sometimes Googles her jokes and checks Twitter to ensure no one else has used them. Then, between Thursday, when she files her column, and Saturday, when it appears, she lives in fear that Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert will crack one of her jokes. “There are so many columnists who are happy to be the 13th or 14th columnist to write the same thing,” says Wells. “She’s never been like that.”
Political satire has been around since there were leaders to make fun of. Two of the best are P.J. O’Rourke and Calvin Trillin. O’Rourke, one of America’s only Republican humourists, started as an editor at the National Lampoon, before working for Rolling Stone and writing 16 satirical books, and Trillin, who writes much of his political humour in poetry, is a staff writer for The New Yorker, a columnist for The Nation, and author of 18 books. They’ve helped sustain a market for insightful, yet scathing, satirical writing.
From The Onion to The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs section, humour is everywhere, but Southey claims her reading of choice is dark and dry. Still, she admits to liking P.G. Wodehouse, best known for his novels about wealthy Englishman Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves, but also for parodying politicians and the mid-20th century in his storylines. David Sedaris, another of Southey’s favourites, has mastered the personal essay by satirizing his own life. In Canada, The Rick Mercer Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes make fun of politicians on TV, Scott Feschuk writes political humour forMaclean’s, and Terry Fallis’s novel, The Best Laid Plans, won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, but otherwise, political coverage isn’t very funny.
Canadians miss out on more than good laughs. Lance Holbert, a professor of mass communications at Ohio State University and specialist on political satire, says visible, relevant political humour benefits democracy by generating awareness, increasing knowledge, and even getting people involved and out to the polls. Often without even realizing it, people who read political humour expecting something funny end up more aware and engaged.
Southey is under no illusions she’s responsible for the political knowledge and participation of Canadians. She will set up her columns with a few brief sentences, but expects her audience to be relatively informed. Sometimes she writes to illuminate a topic in the news she believes isn’t getting enough attention, sometimes she tries to make a dull topic more exciting, sometimes she is simply trying to understand an issue better herself. Above all, her goal is to be funny: “I think it is almost impossible to chronicle the world with any accuracy, and not end up with something that is at least occasionally funny.”
Southey sits in a dimly lit corner at the back of House on Parliament pub in Cabbagetown, a Toronto neighbourhood full of Victorian homes and cozy cafes. Staff here keep picking up the maroon knit scarf that she can’t manage to keep safely on the back of her chair. “This is my local,” she says. She talks about her career humbly, eyes darting to her lap, to the wall and back, and mentions eight times over the course of an hour how lucky she has been.
But when she thinks about the Globe’s decision to discontinue her column in 2010, she becomes exasperated, throwing her hands up and raising her voice. “I was fired, I was devastated,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘That last column I filed, it wasn’t very good! It should’ve been better!’” Gabe Gonda, editor of the Focus section at that time, initially denied killing Southey’s column, then conceded that it was “suspended briefly,” then gave a “no comment,” and finally said the paper “briefly toyed with the idea of changing the column and running another column in that space.”
But others speculate. The Globe, which was launching a major redesign, may have been looking to clear out some old voices and bring in fresh ones. “Maybe the people making the decisions didn’t share Tabatha’s sense of humour quite as much, so they didn’t see the appeal,” says Wilson. Wells thinks that by starting to run columns by bigwigs like Irshad Manji and Chrystia Freeland after Southey left, editor-in-chief John Stackhouse was trying to buy prestige with brand names and glistening CVs. “Unfortunately for that theory, Tabatha can write better than the next 15 columnists combined,” he says. “And the Globe just simply needed their readers to tell them that.”
And they did. Colleagues and loyal readers started a Twitter uprising not quite as powerful as the Arab Spring, but significantly stronger than the Jian-Ghomeshi-for-the-Canadian-Bachelor movement, and deluged Stackhouse’s inbox with angry emails. They weren’t looking for “fancy people with fancy job descriptions,” as Wells calls them. Within weeks, Stackhouse sat down for drinks with Southey and invited her back. She says Stackhouse gave her the impression he didn’t know she’d been fired.
To be fair, anyone who has devoted fans also has devoted critics. One commenter attacked her for questioning Ann Romney’s statement that she and Mitt once had an ironing board for a dinner table: “Stick an iron in it, Southey.” Another advised her, “Open a small business because you can’t write.” Her convoluted sentences and sense of humour are definitely a particular brand. Her politics lean to the left, giving her some critics from the right. One of Jason Kenney’s people once ominously warned her: “We’re watching you.”
But how effective is a political satirist in a paper whose average reader is 51 years old and has an annual household income of about $96,000? What purpose is left for Southey if her readers are already explained, informed, and engaged? Andreas Krebs is one of the creators behind The Satire Project, which has partnered with rabble.ca to publish videos, cartoons, and columns to reach Canadians who don’t read newspapers. He argues that since her readers tend to be older, affluent white people—and informed—Southey doesn’t achieve what he believes is satire’s purpose: engaging those who are fed up with traditional politics and news. Perhaps the school dropout has become too exclusive for her own people.
Nonetheless, after five years and hundreds of columns, her followers are eager for the day she writes without constraint of word count or weekly deadlines, and publishers have been approaching her almost since the day she began. She has considered fiction, non-fiction, and an anthology of her columns, but Southey’s in no rush.
In the meantime, both Elle and the Globe have more or less given her free rein to write whatever she wants. Wilson knows columnists are important to analyze the news, to inform, and to entertain—and serve as familiar faces to identify with in a sea of bylines. That’s especially valuable in the paywall era. Southey is your Canadian girl next door who taught herself everything she knows by just reading the newspaper, but perhaps coming from no status or prestige gives her that highly sought-after insight. It has certainly contributed to her being so damn funny.
“Let me check on my cheese puffs.” Southey parts the crowd in her kitchen and reaches the oven, where her cheese puffs are cooking away. Moments later, in her lobster-motif apron, she serves them on a red ceramic dish in a red-oven-mitted hand: “Cheese puff? Cheese puff? Try a cheese puff.”
The crowd is here to watch the results of the American election. Her home is carefully kept; decorative plates adorn the walls, antique lanterns hang from doorways. The space is filled with Toronto journalists mingling and glancing at the mini-TV above the fridge. Even so, all eyes are on Southey. She sympathizes with a just-fired friend while cutting up more cheese for the immense platter, calls out for an election update as she washes glasses for the never-ending stash of wine, and, of course, never forgets about her cheese puffs. Her guests seem to hover near her like a cloud of electrons around a nucleus, vibrating around her as she circles the kitchen. She disappears into small groups of people, sending them into fits of laughter before being drawn to the next.
Helen Spitzer met Southey as she was leaving the National Magazine Awards gala. Spitzer and a group of middle-aged male journalists stepped into the elevator and faced that famous head of red hair. “They were all abuzz with being in the elevator with Tabatha. Everyone’s attention was drawn to her,” she says. Presented with a private audience, Southey nailed it with witty one-liners about the evening. “It was like seeing a bunch of puppy dogs run into the elevator and start wagging their tails.”
Southey is a study in opposites: a shopper at Holt Renfrew who bikes there, a high school dropout with a national column, humourous while making a serious point, a regular joe outside the journalism world, and a celebrity inside it. On Twitter, she banters with other journalists (frequently outwitting them), and come Saturday morning, big names retweet her column—their equivalent of a thumbs-up. Yet, she still has the same voice and outlook she did 10 years ago, and writes about omnibus bills the same way she wrote about getting drunk with men.
Inside the kitchen, Southey is off in a corner chatting away, iPhone in one hand, picking at the remnants of pasta with the other. “Tabatha, they announced California and Obama won!” someone shouts. All heads swivel for her reaction as she cuts for the TV.
Minutes later, Southey whips out her iPhone and posts a new tweet: “Has anyone checked on Lindsay Lohan?”
Of course, Lohan, a Romney supporter, would be the first thing to pop into Southey’s mind. And the result is a six-word tweet that’s different, takes a new perspective, and is hilarious. The line that others will wish they’d written. Once again, Southey nails it.
by Loren Hendin
Loren Hendin was the Publicity/Marketing Director for the Summer 2013 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.