TORONTO — It's 2013 and comedian Mark Critch is in the office space of federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau — Critch doesn't know it yet but he’s on the verge of a classic “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” moment.
Critch is questioning the politician about recently admitting to smoking marijuana since becoming a member of Parliament in 2008.
He sets up the exchange: "I’ve never really been to a throne speech before, you’ve been to a lot of them. Jesus Justin, it’s boring stuff," says Critch, to an amused Trudeau. "The question I wanted to ask you is, where around here can a fella light up?"
As the actor pulls out what appears to be a joint, Trudeau yells "You're not going to hotbox my office, no way!"
Critch has since interviewed Justin Trudeau several times, but says that the interaction was one of the better examples of an unplanned "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" moment that’s still remembered today.
“That was a piece of paper rolled up but I told them it was a joint. I didn’t have a lighter so that wasn’t planned beforehand since I had to get one off of somebody,” says Critch, recalling the future prime minister's reaction.
“You could prepare things like that or write things as you go, but it's all about listening, seeing an opportunity and going, ‘what can I do here?’”
In the case of Critch, it’s this kind of improvisedjoke that positions him as one of many unforgettable comedic veterans of CBC's “22 Minutes,” whichon Tuesday will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a special broadcast in front of a live studio audience in Toronto.
“In some ways, unless I think about it I still feel like the new person in town even though I’ve been here the longest,” says Critch who has been with “22 Minutes” since 2003. “You rarely stop to look in the rear-view mirror, because it’s such a fast pace, but looking back I love it. It’s kind of a unique and rare thing.”
Season 30, which premiered September, intends to continue its run by introducing perspectives on topics such as the cost of living, inflation, racism, and many more Canadian politicians.
To this day, the comedian says he’s surprised by how oftennewly minted Canadians approach him. “They’ve told me how the show was this microwave-fast version of what’s going on in the country,” he says. “It's neat how the series can still be this kind of crash course about Canada for so many people.”
It’s been quite the journey for both Critch and the Halifax-based CBC news comedy sketch show, aptly considered a cornerstone of Canadian culture. When it launched in 1993, the series branded itself as a segment that would run alongside coverage of the federal election when there wasn’t as much competition in political satire on television.Greg Thomey, Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones, and Rick Mercer, all from Newfoundland, were the original headliners of the series.
Mike Allison, the executive producer and writer, still remembers the perfect petri dish of untouched content the original cast had at their disposal in the early years.
“What Rick Mercer was doing with his Talking to Americans segment for example was so stuck in that specific time that we’ll never be able to recreate it,” says Allison, acknowledging a new set ofsensitivities to consider with the advent of social media and a far more diversely Canadian country.
“Now with 22 Minutes, I’ve had to rewrite jokes because 'SNL' did it the night before, or we’d have to be careful not to say something that had already been said on Twitter.”
Allison says that while the challenges and cast have shifted since then, the political and satirical heart of the show remains intact.
“My job is to strive to be that voice of whatever this nation is at the moment,” adds Allison. “It’s complex and more complicated every day.”
Aside from confronting issues surrounding COVID-19 and the Me Too movement, for example, Allison considers talent additions including Aba Amuquandoh — the youngest and first Black woman to join themain cast — as a considerable contribution to broadening the scope of the show.
“I know I can do my raunchy humour to topics that affect Black people and Black women, but it’s a completely different thing to translate that onto '22 Minutes,'” says Amuquandoh through laughter. “I thought, ‘Am I going to get there and be asked to be a furniture piece singing about Calgary?’”
Prior to the show, the comedian from Nigeria who was raised in Brampton began her acting career while she was a student at the University of Toronto, where she co-wrote and produced the award-winning play “I Can't Trust Anyone, Everyone Hurts Me." She’s also performed at Second City and is a part of the Untitled Black Sketch Project,an all-Black Canadiansketch comedy troupe.
Since joining the show in 2020 as a writer and supporting performer, she was promoted to star in the 2021-22 edition alongside Trent McClellan, Stacey McGunnigle and Critch — afeat she in part credits to “22 Minutes” alumni Susan Kent, who Amuquandoh says insisted that she be replaced with a woman of colour upon her departure.
“An intense request like that is the reason I got hired essentially,” says Amuquandoh.
She adds Kent's silly and joyful style that provided her with a template to tap into, whether it be a sketch about a modern-day Karen or her Alanis Morissette “Ironic” parody of Canadian civil rights activist, Viola Desmond.
Her admiration for the show runs deep, but she also recognizes the need for the series to present itself beyond the institution that it fundamentally is.
“Canada's changed rapidly and it needs to be represented in that way, not just from the perspective of young, Black people like myself, but for the other pockets we’ve yet to explore,” says Amuquandoh.
“Especially with the rise of fascism, Canadians are waiting for a real opinion about our current landscape. I can’t wait for '22 Minutes' to continue to critique that, because I think we’ve really been on the button with that this year.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2022.
Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press