TELEVISION

Headline high jinks

This Hour Has 22 Minutes-and even more laughs

JOHN DeMONT February 20 1995
TELEVISION

Headline high jinks

This Hour Has 22 Minutes-and even more laughs

JOHN DeMONT February 20 1995

Headline high jinks

TELEVISION

This Hour Has 22 Minutes-and even more laughs

Somewhere deep in the warehouse-style room in downtown Halifax, Cathy Jones is screaming into a telephone receiver. The noise provides an edgy backbeat for the rest of the mid-morning chaos: the two television screens tuned to the O. J. Simpson murder trial; Rick Mercer and Greg Thomey lost in an improvised commercial for “stool-flavored vodka” made out of the icebergs that flow into St. John’s harbor; Mary Walsh explaining that “the Shaq”—nickname for American basketball star Shaquille O’Neal— is actually hockey war-horse Eddie Shack. “It’s Monday morning,” shrugs Gerald Lunz, creative producer of the satirical television show This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Which means the room is already crackling with the manic energy that comes from the knowledge that the overworked team of performers, writers and producers has just five days to put together another 22-minute show

to be done live to tape on Friday night.

By any measure, they consistently deliver.

In just two seasons, the series has snagged a Golden Gate Award for best comedy at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival and nominations for three awards at this March’s Gemini Awards. Its average weekly audience—which includes everyone from Newfoundland fishermen to Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who calls the show his favorite—hovers near 900,000,

compared with 350,000 when it was launched in 1993. And with a perprogram budget of less than $100,000, that sort of viewership is a bargain for Halifax-based Salter Street Films, which produces the series in association with CBC television. “The CBC brass love this show,” gushes Michael Donovan, a partner in Salter Street as well as executive producer of This Hour. “It’s cheap to make and it’s very, very funny.”

The idea—combining sketch comedy with a mock television newscast that sends up the week’s events—is hardly new. But the cast of This Hour brings a zany new spin to the genre. “It’s the best format in television,” declares Mercer, 25. “It allows us to be topical and unapologetically Canadian.” The four cast members bring extensive experience to the show. Mercer had toured the country a few times with his hysterical one-man stage productions. The rubber-faced Thomey, 32, has written and acted in his own satiric plays. Jones, 39, and Walsh, 42, are two of the country’s best-known comic actors, whose experience includes 20 years as members of the outrageous CODCO comedy troupe,

which had its own CBC show from 1986 to 1992.

Styles and strengths among the four vary. But what they share—along with a grounding in the salty, irreverent humor of Newfoundland, where they have all spent most of their lives—is the ability to create a startling array of characters. Many are truly memorable: Babe Bennet (Jones), a throwback to the working-girl movie heromes of the mos; Marg Deiahunty mm,

perhaps best described as a brazen, know-itall aunt who dispenses scathing political commentary from her bed or while swimming laps in a pool; Jerry Boyle (Thomey), the hapless leader of the Newfoundland Separation Front political party; laid-back Vancouver rocker Wind McPherson (Mercer), who recently acknowledged that the success of the Rita MacNeil show has inspired him to “come out of the closet” and admit that he was actually born on Cape Breton Island. During the course of an average episode, wigged-out Generation Xers, sage native Canadians, punk lesbians, heartless right-wingers and dim-witted eco-terrorists also materialize on-screen. ‘Writing for these people is like having a cast of thousands,” declares writer Alan Resnick.

Each week, some 60 ideas

are beaten, buffed and boiled down into a tightly produced, 15-to-20 item show complete with snappy visuals, on-location camera shoots and ambush-style interviews with real politicians—including Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a two-time victim, and Reform party Leader Preston Manning, who wrestled Thomey into a playful headlock. “You just have to keep telling yourself that it always works out,” says Jones, the mother of a 13-year-old girl, and the only member of the troupe who lives in Hali|fax year-round. “The show z always comes together.” Q But not without some “ pain—particularly on those I weeks when the real news g contains little fodder, or is o simply too grim or gruesome for comic treatment. There is

nothing leisurely about the frantic, nerve-wracked writing and development process, throughout which the cast members and five other writers seek constant reassurance that their material is working. There have been gaping holes to fill on Fridays with the taping only hours off. Usually, though, the whip comes down on Wednesday, when the cast and writers run through their routines before a board of producers who have final say over what goes and what stays. The creative team calls that ego-bruising process “the Humilatorium.” But, as Thomey puts it, “One of our great strengths as a group is that if one of us is having a bad week, somebody else is always ready to pick up the slack.”

And, of course, until this year’s season ends on March 13, there is always next week. Friday night, the cast and staff collapse, drink a few beers in their trailers and forget about the show they have just taped. Come Saturday, though, they stagger back to the newsstands, pick up magazines and papers from around the world and begin the search for new material for the next episode. “Oh yes, it’s great,” quips Walsh, who has a five-year-old son, “long as you don’t have a real life.” For This Hour’s four brilliant comics, it sometimes seems that this life has 22 minutes.

JOHN DeMONT in Halifax