The Tonight Show, Doctor Who, The Simpsons, The Price is Right. Some TV shows south of the border have been around for so long that it seems they have always been on-air. In Canada, only a few shows have made such a lasting impression, not only for how long they’ve been on our screens, but also because of the impact they’ve had on our pop culture. This Hour Has 22 Minutes is certainly one of them. What was supposed to be a six-episode satirical series during the 1993 federal election became the longest-running scripted comedy show in Canadian history. Having won more than 50 awards over the course of 26 seasons, this weekly television comedy is now a beloved household name across the country. Mark Critch, writer, comedian and actor on the current cast, shares his thoughts on what makes 22 Minutes a true success.
Mark Critch, writer, comedian and actor - Photo: 22 Minutes
With all the parodies and humorous editorial content currently available on television and on the web, it’s hard to imagine that, not so long ago, TV news satire was ground-breaking. As Mark Critch reminds us: “The idea came from Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones, with the producer Michael Donovan (DHX media). The concept was to parody the news, with comic interviews of politicians. In 1993, it had never really been done on North American television before. It was before The Daily Show, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and all the other ones. It was quite new and it got a lot of buzz. The episodes aired around an election and the show took off. The ratings were pretty good and the CBC decided to give This Hour Has 22 Minutes a primetime spot. The rest is history.”
This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ original cast: Mary Walsh, Greg Thomey, Cathy Jones and Rick Mercer. - Photo: tonights.tv
The name itself, “22 Minutes,” refers to the usual duration of a half-hour broadcast on network television, commercials removed. It sets the irreverent and satirical tone reflected in the various segments. For example, Rick Mercer, anchor from the original cast, presented the recurring bit Talking to Americans, where he would ask them questions on the street to expose their ignorance about Canadians. It became an instant classic and was even made into a TV special in 2001, attracting 2.7 million viewers.
But the main part of the show was the ambush of politicians: “It was quite surprising at first, but politicians started to expect it. Because 22 Minutes has proven to be such a great platform, politicians began to understand that they had to do it. Back then, you might get an interview from a member of Parliament, but pretty soon, we got to the point where we could get the Prime Minister to be on the show. It changes the power balance a lot, when you have a show where the Prime Minister feels he has to appear on.”
Mark Critch’s impression of President Trump - Photo: Corey Isenor
The show kept growing over the years. A little after Rick Mercer left in 2001, Mark Critch joined, first as a writer, then also as an anchor. From there, there was more sketch comedy, and the comedians also started to do impressions — including Mark’s famous impressions of US President Donald Trump. But no matter the type of segment or topic, the writer-actor-comedian underlines that the main challenge is to make the audience laugh: “With comedy, it’s funny or it’s not. If people don’t laugh, you failed. You cannot walk away thinking ‘oh, it was ok.’”
Making people laugh is one thing, but when you do it criticizing the government’s shortcomings, it can get tense very quickly: “With political parties, sometimes, the governing party will say ‘oh, you are too hard on us!’ while the opposition also will say ‘oh, you are too hard on us!’ — but when we are hard on both sides, we generally tend to be fair.” Still, the team had to face their share of controversy: “For a show, then-Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish stomped on a George W. Bush doll and the footage got on the news even before the show aired. It became a big news story and she got herself removed from the government. We are supposed to parody headlines, but sometimes, the parody actually becomes the headline.”
This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ current cast : Mark Critch, Susan Kent, Trent McClellan and Cathy Jones - Photo: 22 Minutes
Whatever the pitfalls or the hits, the team does not have too much time to spend dwelling on each show: “Every week, we write a new episode, we tape it in front of a live studio audience, and then we are on to the next one. Today, because of the internet, everything is quicker and people react a lot faster. In a show like ours, when something happens, we write about it right away, so we are showing what people are talking about at this very moment. So it’s kind of a big strength that 22 Minutes has.” This fast-paced creation process could scare a lot of writers but Mark Critch seems to enjoy it a lot: “On writing days, sometimes I don’t have anything in my head at first. But then, something will hit me and I’ll write it up. Next thing you know, people are building a set for it. And a wardrobe. And then we shoot it in front of a live studio audience and they are laughing. A few days ago, none of this existed but now it’s there and we do it every week. It never gets old to me. I find it quite magical.”
Interviewing Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau - Photo: Adam Scotti
This weekly magic couldn’t be created everywhere in the world, and Mark seems very aware of this: “We can be proud to be Canadians. Here, I can talk to the Prime Minister, and make fun of him, and nobody stops me. I’m not going to go to jail for it. Politicians expect us. The amount of access we have to our politicians; this does not even happen in the United States. It’s a great thing that we have that. Where we are open to see the lighter side of things, or to take a joke, or to letting a show like ours be out there in the world. It’s unique.”
Indeed, a format like This Hour Has 22 Minutes is perfect for talking about hot topics and real issues with irony and humour. Of course, the show has changed a lot over the past 26 years. The cast evolved, and with new politicians, characters and topics changed too. But it was — and still is — a cheerful way of exposing the truth about the shortcomings of the political world and the challenges facing the society we live in. Let’s wish for a couple more decades of 22 Minutes. Because now more than ever, a weekly funny reality check, in a swamp of questionable fake news, might just be what we need. *
This Hour Has 22 Minutes Season 27 premieres September 17 on CBC. The show is taped in front of a live audience in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Full episodes are available on CBC Gem. Most watched sketches are available on YouTube. You can also get the latest news about 22 Minutes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.