Twice within one year many moons ago, two different friends in two different cities whisked me off to a comedy show, saying, “you have to see these guys.”
In the first instance, “these guys” were Greg Malone and Tommy Sexton, touring as a duo but better known as part of Newfoundland’s CODCO troupe that also included Andy Jones, Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones. My university pal in Halifax, George Earles, was from St. John’s and one of his many siblings knew one of Greg’s siblings. Or something like that.
The second time, after I moved to Toronto for the summer to work at the Globe and Mail, my fellow summer staffer, Zsuzsi Gartner from Calgary, raved about some comedians she knew from home performing that night in Toronto. Off we went to the Rivoli on Queen Street West to see The Kids in The Hall.
The latter group — Dave Foley, Scott Thompson, Mark McKinney, Kevin McDonald and Bruce McCullough — went on to land a comedy sketch television show broadcast in Canada and the U.S. from 1989 to 1995; since then, they occasionally reunite for other shows and tours. I was in Montreal in 2007 when they did their first show together in many years at the Just For Laughs comedy festival and I laughed myself silly when, at the end, Mr. Tyzik (McKinney) crunched everyone’s heads. (If that sentence makes no sense to you, you’ve never seen The Kids In The Hall). To quote IMDB, this sketch comedy troupe “more often than not, puts bizarre, unique, and insane twists in their skits.” Foley later became a regular in U.S. sitcom world, with a lead role in Talk Radio; McKinney was a lead in the creative team for Slings and Arrows.
As much as I enjoyed “The Kids”, though, even from those early days, the Newfoundlanders stole my comedy heart. The impressions! The jabs! The satire!
Two comedy partners of Malone and Sexton (who died from AIDS complications in 1993), Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones, joined Newfoundlanders Rick Mercer and Greg Thomey in 1993 to create This Hour Has 22 Minutes, a weekly comedic political commentary and satire show that, 24 years later, still airs on CBC Television, although only Jones remains from the original quartet of performers. The current crew — Jones, Mark Critch, Shaun Majumder and Susan Kent — are all Newfoundlanders.
Canadians “are great observers of American culture,” Rick Mercer has said. “We look like them and sound like them. We’re so much like them except at the end of the day, we’re not, and that gives us a distinct advantage when we’re satirizing American culture.”
I’d extend that a notch to say that Newfoundlanders have that same kind of “we’re like them, but we’re not” ironic distance from the rest of Canada, particularly the political power brokers of Ottawa and the financial finaglers of Toronto, that make them the ideal satirists of all Canadian foibles.
Walsh’s take-no-prisoners alter ego, Marg Delahanty (who also appears as Marg, Princess Warrior) is a comic creation that moved beyond the stage and studio into real-life settings: she became famous for ambushing political and other authority figures at news conferences, announcements, and public events. I am guessing (perhaps wrongly) that CBC producers cleared these gigs with security guard details before they happened and perhaps the politicians were in on the joke, but these were classic King’s Fool moments: speaking truth directly to power, coated in a comic icing.
Mercer went on to his own series in 2004, The Mercer Report, which has now run for 13 years on CBC. He’s famous for his Rick Rants, where he eloquently spouts off on whatever has infuriated him that week (usually politicians) while pacing along a graffiti-decorated alley. He even collected these monologues into a book in 2012, A Nation Worth Ranting About.
There are other rich Canadian comedy mines, notably the earlier Second City TV show, (1976-1984), which grew out of Toronto’s Second City live venue comedy troupe. Its performers included later-Hollywood-famous comedians John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis, Martin Short, and Dave Thomas. Canadian comedian and entrepreneur Mark Breslin founded Yuk Yuks comedy clubs, credited with launching the careers of comedians Howie Mandel, Jim Carrey, Norm Macdonald, and Tom Green. Russell Peters, a Canadian-born stand-up comic whose parents migrated to Canada from India, has gained a huge following.
Even the producer of the oh-so-American Saturday Night Live late-night comedy show —currently experiencing a relevancy resurgence with its skewering of the Trump administration — is led by a Canadian, Lorne Michaels.
My current favourite Canadian comics are in Baroness Von Sketch Show, which carries on CBC TV’s tradition of supporting satire, this time led by an all-women cast: Carolyn Taylor, Meredith MacNeill, Aurora Browne, and Jennifer Whaler. The show, launched in 2016, doesn’t target government officials: rather, they zap the drug store staff who harass a woman trying to buy medicine for a yeast infection; the odd politics of being a cottage guest; the hopeful and hilariously recognizable way moms say, “hel-loooo.” National Post commentator David Barry wrote, “These parodies are much closer to the Kids in the Hall’s deep-seated frustration with the absurdity of early-90s suburbia, born of being inescapably steeped in it, not distantly dismissive of it.”
“If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?” my mother used to say. Canada’s comics’ share the same home truth.
Main image: Cast of This Hours Has 22 Minutes, 1997, Anita Kunz, M2012.114.9: With permission, McCord Museum, Montreal.