Comedy·Feature

Mark Critch on Ha!ifax ComedyFest, sneaking into the White House and more

Critch is the host of the 24th season of Ha!ifax ComedyFest.

Critch is the host of the 24th season of Ha!ifax ComedyFest.

(CBC)

Mark Critch is one of the most recognizable faces in Canadian comedy, best known for his work on CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, where he started as a writer and in 2013 became a regular cast member. Watching his entertaining and charismatic interviews with some of the most powerful and famous personalities in the country, from politicians to celebrities, is a thing of the legends.

He's also written a book, Son of A Critch, and appeared in the CBC series Republic of Doyle and at countless comedy festivals.

Ahead of the broadcast of the 24th season of Ha!ifax ComedyFest, we've had a chance to connect with Critch over the phone to talk about his early days in comedy, his hilarious Ha! performance, how he fearlessly snuck into the White House, and more.

Starting standup early led to big things and unflinching confidence

Growing up in St. John's, Critch says, his inspiration to go into comedy was a local sketch comedy show called The Wonderful Grand Band — a CBC show that evolved from another CBC series called CODCO, which aired around the time that The Kids in the Hall did. 

"Those guys debuted when I was in the first grade, so it was really cool to see people, from the place I was from, doing comedy. That was really what made me want to not only do comedy, but write my own comedy."

His first performance was at 15 years old at a theatre that he and a couple of friends rented where they did a sketch comedy show in the 11 o'clock slot.

"11 at night is, you know, not really when a teenager should be doing comedy in a harbour town. We got a lot of drunk sailors and weird random people who happened to be roaming the streets at 11 o'clock on a weeknight. But they kind of liked it."

Critch (second from right) performs with his first comedy troupe, Cat Fud. (Submitted)

"We kept doing that show all the time, like several shows a year. And then one day my dad was walking downtown and saw this poster of us playing in a bar. This is a bar that was booked up and the poster said they were having a fetish night. And if you got paddled at the door, you only had to pay half the cover charge. And our sketch comedy troupe, we had no idea what that was." 

"We were like, 'We got a gig!' And dad was like, 'You're not playing this show.' We were way over our head very early but it was quite the education."

The great thing about youth is it gives you confidence.- Mark Critch

"Like you're too stupid to say, 'You don't know that what you're doing is ridiculous.' Because you've never done it and you're trying to act like you know what you're doing."

"And then afterwards you realize, 'Oh, OK. Oh, well.' But you've already done it by the time you realize that it's crazy. So that was great."

 

Critch said it all worked out in the end because finding his voice early on, and finding out at that age what works and what doesn't, eliminated the fears and pains of things not working out. "It was the best learning round. Ever!" exclaimed Critch.

Preparing for Ha!

Preparing for a comedy show is no easy feat but Critch does it relatively fast. He says that it takes him about two weeks to narrow down the concept and flesh out the ideas and decide what he'd want to do for the standup show. 

"A lot of people would work on the same routine for a year or years. I'm just used to doing stuff [fast] and boom, it's done, and move on to the next things."

Critch says he sends himself an email with around 15 different ideas that he may explore for Ha!, that he'll expand on or contract. After that he lets it ruminate in his head and from there he'll select three different points to get across that he'll turn into a longer piece.

Ahead of the gala — where his performance is taped — he does get a chance to test out some of his jokes, as he is the host for each comedy night at the Ha!ifax ComedyFest. "I'll try out some of that material and see what's working and where the jokes are." 

"What I find is my mind will be a natural editor. Like I'll forget a piece when I go do [the show] and I'll read it again and go, 'Oh, I forgot that thing'. And then you realize, 'Oh, I forgot that because you don't need it, that's unnecessary'. So it's like a subconscious editing happens."

Critch also tends to improvise on stage and says it's important to react to what is going on and that if you're just remembering the act or regurgitating it, it doesn't come across as interesting. 

During his Ha!ifax ComedyFest gala where he talked about his colonoscopy, he invited a cameraman to come over so he can use it as a prop to get his point across.

(CBC Comedy)

Sometimes improvising can turn out to have an opposite effect, he says, especially if the cameraman that he called over didn't cooperate. "Then it's dead time and it makes it awkward." 

Luckily it worked out for him and the audience enjoyed it. "It's important that the audience is in a good mood because these people got babysitters, they got dressed, they got in cars and drove here. They decided to buy your ticket, got in the line and like they want to be there. They want it to go well, they want you to do well. They're going to be on your side."

"If you give them as much as they've given you by just getting there, then it's going to be fine. That ticket stub is a contract, 'I'm going to give you this money and you're going to see do your very best for me for like an hour, OK.' It's a deal. Contract signed so you have to engage them. And that's the great thing about performing live."

"If I look at a couple in the audience and I see one of them nudge the other one and give him a look like, 'That's you, or that's true isn't it', that's great because that means you're getting to people." 

You can diffuse a situation with humour but you can also say a truth with humour that other people can't say…  Humour is uncovering truth in a different way.- Mark Critch

"And the best laugh is that big laugh you get when somebody says something probably that they shouldn't but it's true, and that everybody is thinking. It's a big laugh because a true laugh is like sneezing or vomiting, it's something you have no control over — it just comes out."

Sneaking his way into the White House

Critch's unflinching comfort level on stage and as an interviewer is truly commendable. He's  interviewed and poked fun at many prominent Canadian personalities: from a few prime ministers to musicians such as fellow Newfoundlander and friend, Alan Doyle. 

 

He also photobombed the current PM Justin Trudeau. It doesn't get any funnier than that.

Mark Critch couldn't resist photo bombing the PM with no shirt. (Mark Critch/CP)

Well, it may, keep reading. Not only does he get to make fun of politicians for a living and to their face, Critch also visited the White House when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with then-president Obama.

"I got to fly on the prime minister's plane to the White House. It was a big trip, an official state visit. We just applied with the other media to get on the plane that the media flies down with the prime minister. You got to pay a fee or whatever to go but they approved us." 

"We got a private time with the prime minister and you're in the White House."

That wasn't his first time at the White House either. He's been there once before, on Thanksgiving. Critch says: "We kind of snuck in. We said we're CBC News and got onto the list to go to the Rose Garden for an event when Obama was there."

"It was the day when they let a lot of press in. That's when they pardoned a turkey, like a PR thing. But, there were lots of questions so [I'm thinking] like, 'Oh, that's how I'll get into the White House'.

"Next thing you know, you're in the White House walking past the gate and you're sitting in the famous room, you know, the press briefing room with the podium and everything."

"And I'm thinking, 'OK. This is great'. And then this guy who works there — he ran the press briefing room — comes over to me, points at me and goes, 'You! Come here'. And I was like, 'Oh oh'." 

"He goes, 'What are you doing here? You're some kind of a comedian, aren't you?' And I'm like, 'Oh my God! They know me down here.' And he goes, 'No, no, no, 'I know who you are. My mother's a Canadian and we go visit her and my mother-in-law'. And he says, 'When we visit her, we have to watch the show [22 Minutes] because that's all we get up there."

"He lifted up his pant leg, and he had a maple leaf tattoo. He goes, 'OK, I'm going to do something for you. And he brought me down to the basement underneath the [press briefing] podium." 

"The press briefing room is built over what used to be President Kennedy's pool and all the tiles are still there underneath and it looks like a pool, but they keep like computer servers down there because there's a natural kind of protective bunker. And all the tiles are signed by celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Pamela Lee and Sammy Davis Jr. and all these people who have been taken down to the basement of the White House during parties and stuff. And he got a marker and he said, 'Here. My mom thinks you're a celebrity. You can sign it'. So I got to sign a tile."

"Later when I went down with the prime minister, some of the people were like, 'Have you ever been in here before Mark? This must be impressive to you?' 'Dude I've been in the basement,'" says Critch jokingly.

When I started playing for sailors at 15, I never thought it would take me to the basement of the White House.- Mark Critch

Behind the scenes of the special

Critch had done many big jumps in his career including a significant one since his first Ha! gig to now hosting the festival. "But boy, I remember that was a big deal to get the Ha!ifax Comedy Festival, when I did it the first time. And it still is a big deal for me."

Mark Critch from 'This Hour has 22 Minutes' hosts the 24th season of Hal!fax ComedyFest on CBC Television. (Chris Smith)

He still gets a bit nervous before going on stage. "Behind that door, I'm always very nervous. Second I'm out through the door, I'm as happy as a clam. The second you open that door, there's a big round of applause from these people who are so excited to be there, you can't go wrong, you know. "

Critch particularly likes that comedians can watch what is happening on stage from the back room on a big screen. "So you walk off the stage after doing a rant and then you walk into the wings and everyone back there has just watched you and so they're all applauding and they're saying, 'Oh that was really great or I love when you said this' or whatever. It's almost like a ballplayer coming back to the dugout after getting a home run. Everybody is patting you on the back and stuff." 

"Standup comedy is a solo endeavor so to come back and to have your comrades in arms there to greet you is pretty exciting. They're very supportive." 

I must say, Canadian comedy scene is a very supportive and uplifting place. There are some very good people there.- Mark Critch

"It's great because you get comics from all over the world. And it's not just seeing their acts — which is interesting because it gives you an idea of what's going on in comedy now — but also getting to know all these people. Lifelong friendships I've had performing alongside some of these folks. It's interesting to have those conversations about comedy and about what it's like in different places." 

"You know how dentists will have a convention once a year and they'll talk about the latest drill, for me that's what this is. It's my little comedy convention. And I'll get together with people who I may not have seen for years or just met and have a drink and talk about this business of show that we're in." 

"The special is going to be some of the new acts from last year which for me was probably the best year overall of the [Ha!ifax Comedy] Festival. We had one of or best ever lineups. Everybody was hilarious and on point." 

"My first real time doing standup on national television was with them like in the late '90s. Back when there were only ever two comedians on an episode. And now you see a big pile and so in all that time, I think that this past year is probably our best year. So if you're a fan of the show, you're not going to want to miss this one."

About the Author

Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic is a producer, journalist and a perpetual optimist who loves a good show/film, breathes music, writes poetry, and dabbles in tech and innovative ways of storytelling (including through XR/VR/AR/MR). You can find her stories at cbc.ca/television and cbc.ca/comedy or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @neptunes_blues.

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