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Why's everyone talking about Winnipeg? Because they like us... they really like us

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OK, then, remind me .... just exactly where are we?

"Ah, a gentleman from Canada. ... Winnipeg -- the third city of Canada, and the capital of the province of Manitoba. Distance from Montreal: 1,424 miles. Am I right, sir?"

Well, sort of -- if it's 1935, and I'm sitting in the audience during a scene in the cinematic version of The 39 Steps, directed by legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. The sequence, in which a self-proclaimed memory master is fielding questions from a boisterous crowd that eventually erupts into fisticuffs and gunfire, is probably the first in what has become a long, mostly-loving series of on-screen references to our modest Canadian Prairie outpost.

The stage version of The 39 Steps opened this week at Manitoba Theatre Centre, complete with the aforementioned River City reference. Interestingly, it may have been this snippet of scripted conversation that planted a seed of curiosity in a young Winnipegger who would eventually compile an amusing and amazing clip reel of Winnipeg and Manitoba mentions.

"When I was a kid, we used to visit my grandparents in England, and I remember seeing The 39 Steps on TV in the middle of the day," says Dougald Lamont, owner of Winnipeg-based Jetpack Media and creator of the clip-compilation duet Does Winnipeg Really Exist? and OK, Maybe Winnipeg Exists, which have become viral-video YouTube hits viewed more that 150,000 times.

"It has that question about Winnipeg in it, and I remember thinking, 'Is that my Winnipeg?' And then, over the years, I started to realize that there were all these other references, whether it's in Cheers or The Sopranos or The Simpsons or whatever. So I scraped them all together and made that first video, which went viral pretty quickly and was mentioned in Maclean's.

"And the second one actually came about because so many people who saw the first one had suggestions about this one or that one that I had missed."

The videos, which were prepared as part of an Economic Development Winnipeg promotional campaign and can still be viewed on YouTube, offer a rapid-fire recitation of mostly comical references to our Manitoba home -- starting with The 39 Steps and including sitcom snippets from The Bob Newhart Show (in which psychologist Bob tells wife Emily she's behaving "just like I did last Tuesday night in Winnipeg"), Cheers (a starstruck Carla recites career stats back to hubby-to-be Eddie LeBec -- "... played for a year with the Leafs, then traded to the Winnipeg Jets, then to Calgary, then to Boston...") and The Office (Michael and Andy take a business trip to Canada, where Michael observes that "A concierge is the Winnipeg equivalent of a geisha -- this is a woman who has been trained in the fine art of fanciness and pleasure").

There are also big-screen drama references, from Reds (Warren Beatty alludes to the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike), The Shipping News (Julianne Moore's character moans, "He ran off to Winnipeg with some little bitch who was barely out of high school -- is that ****ed up enough for you?") and the crime thriller Taking Lives (in which a murder witness tells tough cop Angelina Jolie, "I should have stayed in Winnipeg, you know? I had a nice gallery, three paintings on the wall, nobody ever came in...").

In all, more than 30 clips are included, and Lamont says there could have been more -- including a gag from The Beverly Hillbillies and a lengthy reference in the wartime propaganda film 49th Parallel -- but in some cases, he was aware of references but was unable to locate appropriate clips to add to the compilation.

"In assembling the first one, it was important to me that these were some of the biggest shows and some of the top directors of all time," he explains. "Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest directors ever; The Sopranos and The Simpsons are among the best TV shows of all time.

"You sit there thinking, 'Why are they all talking about Winnipeg?' And it's deliberately done -- even if it's a sly joke or a punchline, the fact that it's a place worth talking about is saying that this is a place that's valued. It's of enough significance to put it in a movie or in a Simpsons episode; part of my motivation for putting it together for Destination Winnipeg was that it was a funny way of saying that this place really does exist and it's important enough that these filmmakers, these directors and TV producers, have decided that this is a place worth talking about.

"They aren't talking about Saskatoon; they don't talk about Edmonton or Calgary or Vancouver. For some reason, Winnipeg is the go-to place for making these points or making these jokes."

While some of the references are clearly random, perhaps inspired by nothing more than the fact Winnipeg is a remote, chilly place with a funny-sounding name, other mentions may have happened for more practical reasons.

According to Lamont, there's a Winnipeg-spawned comedic inspiration that has taken deep root in the Hollywood screenwriting community.

"In some cases, it's specifically because there are writers who worked with Ken Finkleman or David Steinberg," he says. "These are two people who ultimately became very important in comedy ... so there's a personal connection in some of those references. It's important because they are actually part of Winnipeg's comedy legacy."

Lamont's theory is confirmed by Al Jean, executive producer of The Simpsons, who told the Free Press in 2005 that his show's Winnipeg references are a tip of the hat to Finkleman, who gave Jean his first Hollywood writing job (on the 1982 comedy sequel Airplane II).

"The reason we ended up in Winnipeg is that I got my start in Hollywood working for Ken Finkleman, and Winnipeg is his hometown," said Jean. "So this was sort of my little tribute to him."

So take heart, flatlanders. When TV and the movies make mention of your Prairie home -- whether in a Saturday Night Live sketch about "the nicest, most Canadian show about celebrities" or a cheesy TV movie about an out-of-fuel airliner (Freefall: Flight 174, in which William Devane warns "There's no glide path into Winnipeg; if I keep this heading, I'll not only lose this aircraft, I'll take half of Winnipeg with me!"), there's much more affection than derision intended.

Like the sign on The Simpsons declares: NOW ENTERING WINNIPEG -- WE WERE BORN HERE, WHAT'S YOUR EXCUSE?

Says Lamont: "We're valued, even if it's as a punchline."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2011 G1

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