The Next Chapter·Q&A

22 Minutes star Mark Critch reveals how he found the funny in new memoir An Embarrassment of Critch's

The St. John's comedian spoke with Shelagh Rogers about his book and career during the 2021 AfterWords Literary Festival in Halifax.

'My thing growing up was I wanted to write my own material and tell Newfoundland and Labrador stories'

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. (CBC)

Mark Critch is a Canadian comedian at the height of his powers. For 14 years, he has starred on CBC's flagship comedy show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, also known as 22 Minutes. He's the host of CBC's Halifax Comedy Festival and has written for and appeared in CBC's Just for Laughs series. He is also the author of the memoir Son of a Critch, a book about growing up in the 1980s in Newfoundland and Labrador, which is set to be adapted into a TV series for CBC.

An Embarrassment of Critch's is the second memoir by the St. John's comedian. It follows Critch's journey from Newfoundland to the national stage and back again.

One of Critch's earliest acting gigs was in a Newfoundland tourist production. Since then, he's found more opportunities to take his show on the road. He revisits some of his career's biggest moments in the memoir, revealing all the things that have happened along the way.

Critch spoke with Shelagh Rogers during the 2021 AfterWords Literary Festival in Halifax about An Embarrassment of Critch's and his journey from wanting to be a "serious actor" to being known as a comedian in demand.  

When you told your parents you wanted to be an actor, your dad suggested that maybe you ought to get a "real" job, like in the fishery. When you started being an actor, the thing that was going on at the same time in Newfoundland was the collapse of the cod fishery. How are those two things connected — you going into acting and the collapse of the cod fishery? 

Well, I was coming out of high school. Newfoundland & Labrador is divided between townies and baymen. If you're from St. John's, you are a townie ... anywhere else you're a bayman, which covers all genders. 

For me, the very reason Newfoundland and Labrador seemed to exist was a fishery. That all ended, in a day, with the swipe of a pen. We fell into huge economic disarray, and all of these different programs appeared to try and retrain people, which was impossible. People in their 50s and 60s had only learned one way of life, which was to fish and be involved in the fishery. Now, they were going to retrain them as hairdressers or retrain them as this, that and the other thing. 

In my small town, it was decided that people who had worked in the fishery could be retrained as actors, which seemed like the maddest idea of all the mad ideas. So this was a thing: I went out there and there were a bunch of people who had just lost their futures. They had to act for the summer for tourists, in a place where there hadn't been that many tourists.

It's a weird thing: I got to start my career because the careers of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians ended.

I'm coming from St John's, excited just to be an actor. But meanwhile, there were people thinking, "My father and grandfather fished. I have nothing — and now I have to pretend to be the ghost of my father, to pretend to be a historical character wandering the streets." But I was all "razzle dazzle!"

It was fascinating. Growing up in St John's, I didn't know that much about Newfoundland and Labrador. But I made friendships that I have to this day. It's a weird thing: I got to start my career because the careers of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians ended.

As you write about your early acting years, you decide you want to become fully unemployed and become a comedian. Where did that instinct come from? 

For myself, Rick Mercer and Alan Doyle, the big thing that happened — the explosion in our culture — was Wonderful Grand Band, which later became CODCO. That was a group that did their own music, it included Ron Hynes, Sonny's Dream, and also Greg Malone and Tommy Sexton doing original comedy. 

For myself, Rick Mercer and Alan Doyle, the big thing that happened, the explosion in our culture was Wonderful Grand Band, which later became CODCO.

We grew up in a world where we could turn on TV and see ourselves reflected back to us. We're the first generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to grow up and go, "Oh, you can do that." 

I had been an actor, and tried to be a "serious" actor for a while. But I started to perform and people wanted me to do more comedy. So I started to do it more. My thing growing up was I wanted to write my own material and tell Newfoundland and Labrador stories. My heroes at the time, when I first fell in love with the arts, were doing that.

WATCH | The CBC television series CODCO aired from 1988 to 1993:

Codco pushes comedy boundaries on CBC

32 years ago
Duration 6:32
Three members of the Newfoundland comedy troupe talk about comedy in 1989. 6:32

You had a big break when Rick Mercer left. This Hour Has 22 Minutes, at least according to your dad, this was your big opportunity. What did your dad do to encourage and clear that path for you? 

Dad figured he could call all his contacts and the media in St. John's, basically saying that I had the job. These little articles started appearing — "Mark Critch to replace Rick Mercer" — and I'm thinking, "Where's this coming from?" I called a guy at CBC Radio. He said, "Well your father called and said you were?'' And I said to my dad, "What are you doing?" And he said,  "Oh my God, the truth is what gets printed." 

I wasn't successful for a long, long time. And my parents were always like, 'OK, we're in,' which I thought was a beautiful thing.

I was very frustrated with him at the time. But he was a great supporter. The funny thing about mom and dad is they grew up with very, very little. They did everything they could for myself and my brother. 

But when I'm like, "I'd like to be a clown," they were like, "Are you sure? Is there anything else? All right." And it was never brought up again. There was never a "You should get a real job." I wasn't successful for a long, long time. My parents were always like, "OK, we're in," which I thought was a beautiful thing. 

But yeah, dad called around and lied about me a hell of a lot to try and generate press around me, which I thought was just humiliating.

WATCH | Mark Critch interviews Canadian senator Jim Munson:

Interview with Senator Jim Munson

6 years ago
Duration 2:48
Senator Jim Munson confides in Mark Critch about what a wonderful place the Canadian Senate is for... napping? 2:48

You've been satirizing politicians for more than 20 years now. What has it taught you? 

The vast majority get into politics for the right reason —  because they want to, because they want to help people, because they think it's a good thing. Over time and wanting to stay elected — and then wanting to get their pension — people will change. They will lose a bit of themselves. But all the politicians I've met in my life, and I have probably met more than most, their hearts are in the right place at some point.

But all the politicians I've met in my life, and I probably met more than most, their hearts are in the right place at some point.

I feel bad for a lot of them in a lot of ways because I think there's a machine that they get caught up in.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

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