From 6 episodes to 19 seasons
Greg Thomey, Cathy Jones, Mary Walsh and Rick Mercer formed the original cast of This Hour Has 22 Minutes when the show premiered in 1993. (CBC Still Photo Collection)22 Minutes
has been a long-time favourite by CBC viewers. So many will be surprised to find out the beloved series was never meant to go beyond six episodes.
was never supposed to be a series," says original cast member Rick Mercer. "It's one of the few TV shows were there wasn't any mechanism in place for it to become a series. It was six half-hours. That's all it ever was. There was no discussion that it would go past that at all."
The award-winning hit comedy series is now set to return for its 19th season CBC Television on Tuesday, Sept. 13. Armed with political satire, sketch comedy and parody, the current cast will present a gang of characters ready to take on the week's news and Canada's politicians.
But that successful outcome could've never been foreseen when the show first premiered in 1993, says Mercer.
At the time CBC was buying television episodes in packs of six and one of the six-packs was slated to come from Atlantic Canada.
Mercer had been in talks with CBC at the time about starting up his own show. Mary Walsh had also been in touch with CBC about the possibility of launching a program she'd star in. And at the same time, Salter Street Films was proposing a six-pack to CBC.
In the end, Salter Street agreed to ditch their originally planned six-pack and told CBC they'd be willing to work with Mercer and Walsh to develop a six episode mini-series - and This Hour Has 22 Minutes
was born.No money despite cast 'brimming with ideas'
Mercer says the original cast of himself, Walsh, Cathy Jones and Greg Thomey ended up in a room with show executive producer Michael Donovan and everyone was "just brimming with ideas."
"At this point I'd never had a job more than six weeks in my life and this was it - I was going to be on national TV, it was going to be late night. It was pretty heady stuff," Mercer says.
But the show didn't have much of a budget to produce the series "... and all of these great ideas that people were having ... at the end of the day there was just no money," he says.
The lack of money helped fuel the decision to format the show as a news parody, he says.
"There was nothing. There was just nothing. It was born out of necessity in many ways. The cheapest set is a news desk. The news interview is the cheapest way to do a couple minutes of television."
Henry Sarwer-Foner was brought in as the original director of the series and had to quickly come up with a way to make the show work.
"One of my jobs was to come up with a way to tie all these elements together - sketch, rants, satirical news, commercials parodies, mockumentary, whatever," Sarwer-Foner says.
It quickly became apparent the strength of the cast lay in character rants and a 90-second rule for the sketches helped fuel a modular format that kept the series from being painted into any corners, he says.
"It pretty much allowed us to do anything we wanted depending on what was happening that week. It also gave the show the rapid-fire pace it needed to grab the short attention span of TV viewers," he says.'We were just trying to do a show that didn't suck'
The show was also lucky it was based out of Halifax and considered regional, in addition to being slated to air late at night, he says.
"So we were kind of left alone. It was this kind of experimental series and I don't think people had very high expectations. We were just trying to do a show that didn't suck."
In the end, it was a bit of serendipity and timing that worked in This Hour Has 22 Minutes
' favour, he says.
Canada was in a period of political change when the show first went on the air in 1993. After only being on the air for a couple weeks, the country was cast into a federal election.
"In show business, whether you're talking about an individual's career or a TV show's success, there's a lot of aspects but luck is certainly one of them," Mercer says.
Canadians were being asked to cast ballots in what basically turned out to be a referendum on the Brian Mulroney years of government. The chain of events provided the cast with lots of fodder.
CBC decided to include the cast of 22 Minutes
in the election night coverage, cutting to them live in Halifax several times throughout the evening as the results came in.
On election night of Oct. 25, 1993, the Progressive Conservatives under the leadership of Kim Campbell were defeated by Jean Chretien's Liberals. Lucien Bouchard and the Bloc Quebecois formed the official Opposition and the Reform Party lead by Preston Manning became the third party.Live on 1993 election night
"It was election night - my favourite thing entire the world. We were in Halifax, we were only on air a couple of weeks and they put us on election night live," Mercer says, still almost in disbelief all these years later.
"None of us had really done live TV and they were going to us, live to the nation, during an election. We had our desk and sketches that we were writing as the night was progressing. We did this conga line around the desk. It's completely outrageous," he laughs. "We were young."
There is no bigger audience for a show like 22 Minutes
then CBC on election night, Mercer says, especially for anyone deeply interested in politics like him.
"I mean that's every political junkie in the country is watching CBC on election night. That was big. Whoever was fearless enough to put us on on election night had a big part in our success for sure," he says.
The four voices of the cast then continued to drive 22 Minutes
' success after the election, he says.
Due to the limited budget, the cast was writing most of its own material in the early days of the show, Sarwer-Foner says. It meant that four very distinct voices developed on the series and that characters were developed to showcase each of the cast members' strengths, he says.
"Everybody was just left to their own devices," he says. "Everyone sort of marked their own territory and was given freedom to do their job."Fitting sketches into 22 minutes
The number of sketches shot each week always exceeded what was needed to fill the 22 minutes that could be used on the show, he says. It meant that a lot of content ended up on the editing room floor and that a bit of a scramble for airtime developed on the show.
"Sometimes a performer wouldn't even get anything on the air for a few shows in a row," he says. "On 22 Minutes
, there was four actors, four mouths that needed to be fed so to speak, so we needed to try to make it somewhat fair in terms of what got to air and there was a bit of competition there - natural competition."
But in the end it was the distinct voices and different creative approaches among the cast as well as the ability of people behind-the-scenes to juggle all the priorities and keep everyone on television that just made the show "something that worked," Mercer says.
The show was able to connect with viewers because it "reflected Canadian culture back to Canadians," Sarwer-Foner says. "Kind of like a fun-house mirror. It was topical, it was raw, it was smart."
"Canadians are kind of news junkies and here was a show that kind of satisfied that itch," he adds. "The cast gave voice to whatever bugged us that week and were very saucy and insightful and never afraid to take a shot at authority. People sort of appreciated that."
Sarwer-Foner worked on the show for more than 10 years before moving on. He now works with Mercer on the Rick Mercer Report
.The Mercer Report
also premieres on CBC for a new season on Sept. 13.
But 22 Minutes
is the kind of show that could go on forever, says the director. New characters, sketches and rants can always be added, he says.
"The show depends on the strength of the characters."
Jones is the only remaining member of the original cast. Mark Critch and Geri Hall now round out the current cast members. Shaun Majumber, who had previously worked on 22 Minutes news desk, will also be returning this season.
In the season 19 premiere, the cast will help recently retired news anchor Lloyd Robertson find a new job and investigate who's really behind the NDP/Liberal merger rumours.Keep watching the 75th anniversary site for an exclusive video interview with Rick Mercer about This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the Mercer Report, Talking to American, his rants and CBC.
Posted on Sep 13, 2011 2:51:02 PM