Wheel snipe celly, boys: Letterkenny is the most linguistically gifted TV show I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Don’t agree with me? Sort yourself out.
A hefty haymaker in the face of tropes and stereotypes about small-town life, the denizens of Letterkenny, Ontario are whip-smart, worldly, and, above all, literate as hell. Their deep engagement with language, dialect, and slang is the show’s primary modus operandi—far more so than its storylines.
In fact, any description of the sitcom’s plot seems ho-hum in comparison to the experience of watching it. Here’s an example: Canadian farmer Wayne goes to pains to uphold his title as the Toughest Guy in Letterkenny.
Ok, I guess.
What about this one: Two Canadian hockey players try to court the prettiest girl in town and end up in an on-again, off-again poly relationship. Better, right? But still sort of ho-hum, in its way. Here are some more: A drug-dealing dude trapped in Letterkenny, Ontario tries to get ripped to fight a big-city drug dealer. Three hicks build an ice-fishing hut. Letterkenny, Ontario citizens attend an Ag Hall meeting. There’s choring to do. Some rural Canadians drink and dance all night. There’s a big fuck-off tree stump that needs to be burned.
It’s all sort of comfortable and familiar with a dash of weirdness, but nothing groundbreaking. But that’s where the show’s wild and sometimes even infuriatingly obsessive commitment to language comes in, and the result is a true one-of-a-kind show that feels, even while it’s still airing, like a once-in-a-generation juggernaut.
Whether you’re a fan of this absurdly good comedy or not, it’s worth taking a moment to study the work of writers Jared Keeso (who also stars as Wayne) and Jacob Tierney in the context of some of their favorite poetic devices.
That’s right, poetry and television: my favorite will-they-or-won’t-they couple.
For American audiences, the most distinct feature of each sub-group in the Letterkenny universe—whether it’s the hard-working and hard-drinking Hicks, the drug-addled Skids, the douchey hockey bros, the ultra-cool and formidable First Nations folks (warmly referred to as the “Natives”), or the other-worldly and pugnacious Québécois—is the way they speak. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic in the least to refer to nearly every piece of dialogue in the show as pure poetry, even when the characters are talking about drinking, fighting, and fucking.
The Hicks have their casual eyeroll-equivalent: “Get this guy a Puppers.” The Skids are overly verbose and fond of antiquated outbursts like “Wondrous,” while the hockey bros have a veritable library of bizarre macho lingo like “Crushin’ sandos” and “rippin’ reps.” The Natives and Québécois bring the full force of their culture into their everyday speech by mixing non-English words and phrases into their conversations with others, too.
While their daily chores, jobs, or duties might seem utilitarian at times, the way the citizens of Letterkenny speak hints at their deep and abiding enjoyment of language. There’s nothing thrifty about the way they talk to each other. They take long, circuitous routes to make a point. They even occasionally burst into a brief song because it feels good, because it connects them, and because it’s funny as hell. It gives them pleasure. Mishearings, lengthy echos, and puns litter the dialogue of all the characters, which highlights how hilarious, intelligent, and human they all are, even in their apparent differences. And that’s what the best art does. In short, they’re collaborating in an art form: the art of language and conversation.
One bit of wordplay that interests me most, as a poet, is the show’s use of the alphabet as a vehicle for comedy. Look at this excerpt from the video posted above: Wayne, the square-jawed, be-plaided first speaker, utters the plain-text phrases below. Daryl (“Darry” to his friends), Wayne’s coverall-ed interlocutor, utters the phrases I’ve italicized, for clarity:
So you got up, gathered your goods, guts and gonads, got after the goofy goon, gave glory a good go.
Have at 'er.
Hucked a haymaker.
Irked the idiot.
Out-juked the jerk. Out-jabbed the joker. Out-jammed the juice head.
King Kong threw a karate kick that kinda caught you in the kisser.
But that legend lady luck was lingering and left you with only a lovely little lump on your lip.
But maybe mention you may use MMA, Mr. Muay Thai.
After listening or reading for several seconds, you’ll pick up on the fact that Wayne and Darry are using the letters of the Latin alphabet in order in their conversation.
Keeso himself has referred to this as “Alphabet Aerobics,” which is a reference to Blackalicious’ rap of the same name. Black rappers have long dominated the universe of linguistic genius, and when Daniel Radcliffe rapped the song on Fallon in 2014, the notion reached a new audience.
Older still than rap, however, is the abecedarian, pronounced simply (the way you think it wouldn’t be) as “ay-bee-see-DARE-ee-an,” (or maybe I should say “ABC-Darry-an”). This is an ancient poetic form that uses all characters of a given alphabet in order. Blackalicious’ excellent “Aerobics” is a brilliant member of this old-as-dirt category of human utterance.
Seriously, y’all. It’s old. Like Hebrew Bible-old: Check out Psalm 118 (Psalm 119 in the KJV). Chaucer also pulled one off. It’s sort of like a “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” for just about anything, but instead of a 14-line sonnet, the writer or utterer offers a rhapsody that involves every letter of the alphabet.
On Letterkenny, Keeso also makes use of heavy alliteration inside the abecedarians themselves. In case you snoozed through that part of freshman English, alliteration is the repetitive use of a letter or sound. For example, “got after the goofy goon, gave glory a good go” uses a repetitive hard G sound. You don’t necessarily have to do this in order to write an abecedarian: it’s an extra layer that Keeso is adding.
Natalie Diaz’s impeccable “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,” on the other hand, is a more traditional use of the form, where each line begins with the next letter of the alphabet, and the sounds within each line are various, whereas Keeso is hammering hard on each letter of the alphabet more than once. Sometimes this feels like flames painted on the side of an already-bitchin’ car: it doesn’t need it, but it’s so over-the-top that it becomes a comment on itself.
The form of the abecedarian is fascinating and versatile because of its above-average inclusivity (for speakers who use that alphabet), its highly arbitrary and exhaustive nature, and the child-like wonderment it lends to even the strange of topics. To write or utter an abecedarian, you’re showing that you have an all-encompassing knowledge of your topic. You’re ready to school some folks.
Though they’ve been employed as mnemonic or educational devices for children, the form has also been shrewdly employed by poets such as Harryette Mullen, whose genius Sleeping with the Dictionary employs the form for the long game. Here’s a taste:
You are a ukulele beyond my microphone
You are a Yukon beyond my Micronesia
You are a union beyond my meiosis
You are a unicycle beyond my migration
You are a universe beyond my mitochondria
A shared lingo makes us feel most at home in the world, makes us feel okayest in the deepest soul-sense. In-jokes do this. Nicknames. Local slang. Family sayings. And in the simplest yet most astute way, using the alphabet as the backbone of your speech clues everyone who uses the alphabet in it makes insiders of all of us. Guess what comes after C? It’s D! Bet you knew that.
And so, when Letterkenny teaches us how to parse its language in season one and then gives us an abecedarian as its season two cold open, it feels like a red carpet being rolled out for us, for the initiates. Welcome home! Because American and Canadian audiences know this alphabet and can predict its moves, we're endeared to the wild-ass diatribe that Keeso treats us to almost immediately. Who doesn’t have a soft spot for the ABCs? When you share the same alphabet, hearing an abecedarian feels like being clued in to an inside joke, even if the speaker is a stranger.
To follow up on the success of its season two cold open, Keeso and Tierney gave us season three’s Super Cold Open, which was, literally, an abecedarian about being fucking freezing:
This abecedarian is both virtuosic and oddly familiar to me as a Michigander. One of the things I admire most about Letterkenny’s engagement with the abecedarian is the writers’ willingness to frame it as a conversation between two people rather than some bullshitty, virtuosic performance by one guy. Darry joins forces with Wayne during these opens, asking questions, commenting, and egging him on, all while preserving the abecedarian’s form.
That, to me, seems to embody the spirit of community and collaboration that characterizes places like the show’s eponymous 5,000-person town. It also seems, to this American, very Canadian in a way that I deeply admire.
If you enjoyed reading this, subscribe or tell a friend about PopPoetry, try out the simple-yet-complicated abecedarian form yourself, drop a Letterkenny reference in the comments (I wish you weren’t so fucking awkward, bud), or stream the show on Hulu. Pitter patter!