Conversation with Montreal Journalist Josh Freed

With a world so polarized there has never been a time more needed than now to view our differences in a comedic way. People need to lighten up and come together. We need a positive force to repair families and friendships that have been trashed by the pandemic. Comedy is our saving grace, and Josh Freed has been serving it up for decades.

Josh Freed was born in Montreal and he lived here for most of his life except for a stint in Toronto in the 1980s and another in Los Angeles. He returned to Montreal time and again because he found Toronto to be boring with the city shutting down too early for his liking. Los Angeles, he described as a “salesman’s town.”

I recently had the pleasure to interview Josh, and this is what he had to say.

How did you start out your writing career?

While at McGill University I became the Sports Editor at the newspaper following in the footsteps of Mark Phillips and Mike Boone. I was always interested in writing sports from a comedic perspective very much to the chagrin of the coaches there.

When did you make it into the Montreal daily newspapers?

In 1971 I started working for the Montreal Star doing articles all over town, hanging out in magazine shops and writing about the vibe of the city at the time. The columns were received positively, and it gave me a chance to learn my craft.

Did you know any other famous Montrealer’s like Mordecai Richler or Leonard Cohen?

I knew both of them to say hi to. I was only in my early 20’s and those guys were a generation ahead of me, but it didn’t stop Leonard, he stole about six of my girlfriends from me.

I heard he was suave, wasn’t he?

Well, he was a poet, good looking, intelligent. I would say that Leonard and Mordecai were acquaintances as I didn’t know them all that well.

What kind of work did you do while in Toronto?

I did satirical sports articles, half-hour documentaries. Tom Alderman was the number one guy in Toronto, I was number two. We did funny stuff on baldness which started happening to me then and then fatness which also happened. I really enjoyed this time because we had a good size staff and we travelled a lot in those days, all over Canada.

This seems to be a formula that you have used all your life.

Yes, I believe we need to mix serious messages with humour because messages go down better. It is a way of bringing people of differing opinions together.

What politicians have you had fun panning?

There was a time when Jean Drapeau was not giving any interviews and I was writing pieces about the missing Jean Drapeau. I received a letter from him saying that he loved the stories, he thought they were funny. I also had a good relationship with Jean Dore. Michael Finstad wrote to me saying he liked some of my work and some other pieces not so much.

What about the Provincial leaders like Levesque or Bourassa?

I wasn’t on the Quebec City beat so I didn’t have any contact with those guys.

I remember when you and Terry Mosher (Aislin) came out with the “Anglo Guide to Survival in Quebec” that was quite a triumph wasn’t it?

It was the early 80’s and the Quebec government just had come out with the term Anglophone and we decided to have a laugh at it with the usual black sense of humour. I was really surprised at how well we did. I was absolutely stunned when we received calls from bookstores saying they were running out of copies of the book. They were selling 200-400 copies an hour. To this day people are still looking for copies.

What is it like working with Aislin?

Terry is a friend of mine; I am always happy to see him. Working with someone on a book is intense, like a marriage. We are close colleagues, and we are both very opinionated, some things we agree on, others we don’t. By the end of the day, we are ready for a vacation.

Recently you worked on a project with Aislin and Bowser and Blue?

Yes, we did a series of shows with Bowser and Blue called “4 Anglos surviving the Covid apocalypse.” Terry took care of the cartoons, in fact, he secured the rights to 40 of the best cartoons from illustrators throughout the world for the production. I read parts of my latest book (Postcards from Pandemica), Bowser and Blue sang all to the images that Terry collected, it was tremendous.

I guess it was very cathartic.

Yes, people were laughing and then crying. Everybody has been under so much stress in the last couple of years and this gave them the opportunity to get it all out. To laugh about what you used to cry about is great.

What are some of the greatest changes you have seen since the internet became part of the journalistic cycle?

I was just in Florida on a little vacation with my wife and I wrote a piece about how people are not wearing masks there and how I wore a mask at the restaurant because the waiters were not. I received thousands of hateful messages calling me everything from a Commie Canadian to a traitor, wimp to worse. It is a polarization, a violent rage. The mask has become a political symbol, it is quite amazing really. I wrote the article as a soft criticism and my approach was really middle of the road. You know, I do question some directives from the government on Covid, but this was crazy. It was like take that mask off, you Communist!

What do you think as a columnist about the polarization of the news, especially in the United States?

Well, the aforementioned story of my trip to Florida is a good example. The news has been made into a commodity targeted to the Left or Right leaning consumers. Very little news is in the middle or centre. It has been this way for a long time in Europe and we now have it here. Most of the news is editorial.

This takes us back to the original message of your work, doesn’t it?

To get the message through you have to mix in humour because when people laugh, they relax, and it creates an opportunity for people to understand each other better. I write for all people, not people of a particular political point of view.

What is your favorite activity between writing books, directing movies, or writing articles?

I love doing them all. I would rather have a mix than being stuck doing one of them. Writing a column is good once per week, three times per week would be too much for me. I like to be doing different things all of the time. Recently I worked on a film narrated by David Suzuki and CBC’s Nature of Things, called “In your Face.” I have written 52 articles last year. I have worked on the project with Terry and Bowser and Blue. Since Covid I have been most productive. Some people stay at home and rearrange their medicine cabinet. I do this.

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