HALIFAX, N.S.—There’s a full colour ad on page A4 of today’s Globe and Mail for tonight’s episode of the Rick Mercer Report. We see Mercer in emergency gear splashing though a frozen pond. The ad copy says he’s on thin ice.
In big, black, block letters on the bottom right hand side it says that the all new episode will air tonight at 8 p.m. Below that, in teeny tiny letters, it says “followed by 22 Minutes.”
And that’s about all the love this iconic Canadian comedy series, now in its 17th season, seems to get from the CBC these days. While Doyle and Erica and the Dragons get all the full promotional push, try to recall the last time you saw an on-air promo, billboard or ad for 22 Minutes.
Yet travel to the CBC Halifax TV building on a Monday night and you’ll find plenty of evidence that the series is as funny and vital as ever. Over 200 fans file in to the studio and take their place in the bleachers. Mainly from Halifax, they love it when fake news anchor Gavin Crawford reads a report that between the ages of 25 and 29 is the perfect time for a woman to have a child, “or for New Brunswick women, a grandchild.”
Getting to spend a Monday with Crawford, Mark Critch and Geri Hall, as well as executive producer Mark Farrell and the entire cast and crew, is like trying to join the last leg of a fairly brisk marathon. You can try to jog along, but everybody is focused on that night’s finish line.
It helped to be in town on a gloriously sunny day after a month of bleak winter weather. The 22 Minutes team are great hosts, with Halifax Films communications director Renee Pye always there to steer a critic toward an interview or a craft services opportunity.
It was 14 years ago when I first visited Halifax to interview the original This Hour Has 22 Minutes players for a TV Guide article. Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones, Rick Mercer and Greg Thomey were just hitting their stride then. I envied the joy and fun they all seemed to be sharing. These are great jobs, although don't kid yourself, cranking out a weekly sketch comedy series is a grind, as tough a job as you'll find in television.
On this day, Farrell leads the cast and other writers through a morning read through, where 76 potential desk jokes are presented. With the Academy Awards the night before, the writers have come up with a couple dozen new jokes. 22 Minutes had been taping on the Friday before for the Tuesday broadcast, but one of the first things Farrell did when he came back to run the series after he wrapped 13 episodes of Dan For Mayor was slam the schedule back to the day before broadcast to keep things current.
A grizzly bear joke kills at the table read and gets the biggest laugh later than night from the studio audience. These guys know what plays in their room. A few lines goofing on the O Canada kerfuffle fall flat at the table read and seems destined for the dustbin. When big mouth critic boy pipes up and suggests Canadians will expect to see 22 Minutes take aim at that juicy target, Crawford comes up with a gag on the spot. I love it, but it gets a muted response that night at the taping.
Only about a dozen of the desk jokes make it to air. Some of the taped bits feature Shaun Majumder, who had to skip Monday night's taping when he had to rush to L.A. after getting picked up for an ABC pilot. All of the pre-taped sketches are presented on giant monitors for the studio audience. One bit with Majumder and Critch as government backbenchers (above left) is friggin' hilarious. Critch also takes a second swing at Jay Leno (below), with Majumder as bandleader Kevin Eubanks--wearing a "Team Coco" T-shirt.
The crowd loves two live sketches goofing on the government. Critch goes ballistic as cranky transportation minister John Baird and Hall has an airport-style hissy fit as minister for the status of women Helena Guergis. Preview the sketch from tonight's show here.
Perhaps the funniest bit is when Crawford does a wicked take on that oddball PBS painter guy with the giant 'fro and beard. Crawford has him painting some snow on the mountaintops of Whistler. Later, Crawford points out a touchy little problem with the sketch--that dude died several years ago. Occasionally, a few viewers will write in to say WTF.
The three cast members are in and out of designer Penny Lee's makeup chairs as they get fussed over with wigs and costumes. (Original trooper Cathy Jones, whose appearances are less frequent this year, booked off this week.) All three make time to chat about the series and their road to it, mainly for an upcoming piece I'm working on for The Canadian Press. Hall was an Oakville waitress not that long ago; now she's in so many commercials they even goofed on that in a sketch that did not make tonight's cut.
Critch was just back from a weekend jaunt to New York visiting former 22 Minutes scribe Tim McAuliffe, now writing for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The two found time to hit the famed New York's Friar's Club (showbiz savvy Fallon has gifted his entire staff with memberships). Critch and I got talking Berle, Jessel and The Marx Bros. and its a wonder he made last night's taping.
At the end of the night, Farrell has 47 minutes of material to choose from for the broadcast, which really does come in at around 22 minutes. Halifax Films boss Michael Donovan, who has been championing this series since the beginning, huddles with Farrell, director Stephen Reynolds and other producers. Together they start tossing out sketches, including a funny filmed bit from offbeat contributor Nathan Fielder, back in the mix after landing a gig in the Dimitri Martin writer's room. At three minutes, Fielder's sketch was long but will make it into one of the two remaining shows still to come this season.
The whole thing gets sliced and diced and was delivered to CBC by 9 a.m. this morning. Check it out tonight at 8:30, following, yes, the Mercer Report. 22 Minutes doesn't get enough promotion--especially for a series thrown against American Idol--but watch tonight and see why here it gets plenty of respect.