For the past nineteen years, This Hour Has 22 Minutes has been taped before a live studio audience in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I've always wanted to go but procuring tickets and getting away from work before 6 pm was always a challenge. But I am limited no more! Thanks to the diligent effort of Dale Willman with the HalifACTS! local actors group, I finally got a chance to go this past Monday night.
We packed into the lobby of the CBC building on the corner of South Park and Sackville, taking great pains to ensure that no-one was left outside in the bitter cold (lest we find them later on stuck to the sidewalk like a morsel of discarded Juicy Fruit). At the appointed time we were herded upstairs, plied with cheap wine and then led into the studio.
Show writer / utility cast member / stand-up impresario Albert Howell soon appeared to warm up the crowd and introduce the cast. The show's current roster includes:
It was fascinating to watch the show get pieced together right before our very eyes. Coming back from "commercial" a wide or overhead shot would establish the studio set and audience. The floor camera would then track in on a designated cast member as they pitched their punchline in front of an appropriate graphic.
Occasionally Albert would instruct us to watch a previously-taped segment in the monitors overhead and react appropriately. Conveniently we seemed to default to laughter thanks to the pointed political barbs and the sharp delivery of the collective cast.
As funny as the material was, I'd like to humbly pitch my own cost-conscious but otherwise winning idea for a new CBC television show. Just take the entire 22 Minutes cast, sit 'em all around a table, give each of them a bottle of that complementary wine you tried to get us loaded on, start throwing topics out and then film the resulting hilarity. I call it Funny People Sitting around a Table and Making Fun of Stuff. Trust me, this idea is money.
The most compelling evidence that his idea would work: the side-splitting improv served by the cast up when the cameras weren't rolling. Mark Critch killed with his "Girls Night Out" diagnosis of the audience, which culminated in a breathy rendition of "Man, I Feel Like a Woman" by Shania Twain. Shaun Majumder crankily poked holes in every skit and segment as his alter-ego "Captain Logic" asserted himself. Cathy Jones charmed with her vaguely befuddled mutterings and confessed to an appreciation of all things "schmutz".
Mark also spent many of the breaks mercilessly hounding one of the floor cameramen who'd worked on the quintessentially banal CBC television program Land & Sea. The show was notorious for documenting the most mundane minutia that went on in rural and outport Newfoundland.
"What didya like best?" Mark baited. "Was it 'Land' or did you prefer 'Sea'? My God, so many great episodes to choose from, heh, wah? Hard to pick a favorite. Was it 'The Cow is Sick'? 'Let's Paint The Shed'? Or maybe 'It's Wet Outside, Let's Go In'?"
Since I'd tried (unsuccessfully) many times to watch Land & Sea as a youngster, I spent most of this time apoplectic with laughter. I nearly asphyxiated when Mark's tormenting escalated:
"You must have been like a rock star when you were filming there, eh?" Critch pursued. "I imagine all the women were like: 'OoOoo, 'ee's from the CBC!' There's probably an illegitimate, puffy-haired, headset-wearin' baby in every outport in Newfoundland thanks to you!"
After the main show was wrapped, the cast was kind enough to treat us to a few bonus skits. First off, Susan Kent and Cathy Jones did a side-splitting deconstruction of Valentine's Day (culminating in HalifACT-or and birthday girl Helen Corkum receiving a rose from Shaun Majumder). Then Mark Critch interviewed Meredith MacNeill as a tightly wound, anti-spanking crusader and Cathy Jones as a twitchy, destructive, Tourette's-prone witness for the defense. It not hard to tell that sketch comedy is Cathy's arena. She was pure, inspired genius.
Shaun and Mark were kind enough to hang around with us after the show. They patiently let themselves be pawed at by the adoring masses and photographed like exotic wildlife. I, for one, couldn't let an opportunity go by without praising Mark for his spot-on impersonation of bionically eye-browed political contrarian / walking thesaurus Rex Murphy.
Here's the real Rex:
And Mark's spot-on take:
Despite being under the weather, Shaun was a gracious host, shaking hands with everyone and chatting amicably. If you're not familiar with his work, you need to rectify that post haste. As someone who spent their formative years growing up in Newfoundland, I'm a really easy mark for stand-up bits like the following.
(WARNING: not suitable for work. ALSO: funny as shit)
There's a reason why such a disproportionate amount of Canadians (and an even more disproportionate amount of Newfoundlanders) have achieved international success as comedians. They're genuinely funny, self-depreciating, sharp, charismatic and approachable.
For me, this wasn't just a simple television show taping. Newfoundland has a long, proud tradition of sketch comedy. Back in 1980, our provincial network NTV started broadcasting a variety show featuring the Wonderful Grand Band. For three years they kept the entire population of the province entertained with their unique blend of music and skits. In addition to launching the recording career of Ron Hynes, the comedy skits featuring Greg Malone and Tommy Sexton from CODCO soon became the stuff of local legend.
So influential was this show, that it inspired me and my two cousins Donna and Debbie to come up with a set of recurring characters and comedy bits centered around a fictional Newfoundland radio station. We'd do them live at the drop of a hat for any relatives foolish enough to ask and then tape record it for posterity.
Eventually Donna (wisely) came to her senses and disowned the two of us. Me and Deb tried to forge on as a duo for awhile but, like Donna, we eventually outgrew it. A part of me still thinks I may have kept up with it if my school had offered any kind of drama class. And I didn't have a crippling fear of strangers.
Long after WGB left the air, Greg Malone and Tommy Sexton were approached by the CBC to do a new show. They assembled fellow troupers Cathy Jones, Mary Walsh and Andy Jones and, in 1987, CODCO began as a half-hour sketch comedy show following the wildly-popular Kids In The Hall. Canadians nation-wide were finally exposed to our own unique blend of Newfoundland humor and merciless levels of parody. Lord help them.
CODCO packed it in 1992 but a year later This Hour became the default showcase for regional talent. A pastiche of SNL's Weekend Update, social and political commentary and traditional Newfoundland humor, the show came loaded to bear with a slew of crazy characters and inspired segments. They included:
Rick Mercer just Talking to Americans
Mark Critch as Newfoundland's delightfully gonzo ex-premier Danny Williams