For the past week, everywhere he goes, Mark Critch has been hearing the same thing, over and over.
“People are just shouting out constantly — ‘What are you going to do now, Critch?’ I was on Parliament Hill this week and all you’d hear was ‘Oh my God, Critch, what are you going to do?’ French guys, MPs from all over the place were asking. Jeez, b’ys, I didn’t step down,” the “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” funnyman told The Telegram.
Critch has been poking fun at former premier Danny Williams on the CBC TV show for the past five or six years. It started off as an impression — Critch was spot-on with Williams’ accent, hand gestures, even hairstyle — and he decided to incorporate it as a joke for a gig he was doing at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre which Williams was also attending. The idea was to get Williams to “catch” him doing the impression, but one thing led to another, and Williams not only showed up willing to take part, but brought two police officers with him to drag Critch off stage.
In 2004, Critch invited Williams on the show to do a skit, shortly after Williams walked out of a first ministers’ meeting and accusing the prime minister of breaking his election promise to protect Newfoundland and Labrador’s oil revenues.
“The bit was going to be that I would come in and interview him in his office, but anytime I mentioned anything that he was ticked off at, he would get up and storm out, and he’d call a press conference on how badly the interview was going,” Critch said. “That happened a few times. The last scene was at a drycleaner, he was going to pick up his drycleaning but his pants weren’t ready, and he called press conference about how it was a slap in the face to every Newfoundlander and Labradorian.”
From there, Williams replaced former prime minister Jean Chretien as the “22 Minutes” crew’s political go-to guy, and they called him up to make various cameos, making fun of himself in a larger-than-life, cartoon way. He appeared in a skit about his controversial trip to the States for heart surgery, took a Grade 1 French class, and once opened the show, sitting at the newsdesk, pretending to be Critch.
Critch also continued his own skits as Williams, jokingly portraying him as a dictator, a loon, or a big sook.
“Every time I did it on the show, I’d get a little note from him saying, ‘Good job,’” Critch said. “He was always a really good sport about it.”
The former premier was always up for a laugh and never once declined to do anything Critch asked him to, although in the beginning, his staff was nervous, Critch said.
“They said, ‘I don’t know if you should say this, Premier,’” Critch said. “I said, ‘Danny, do you trust me? You have to go big. If you don’t go big, it’ll be fine, but if you want to be really funny, you have to go big.’
“He said, ‘Yeah, I got it. No problem,’” and ever since then, he never questioned it at all.
Critch said he had a feeling Williams might step down after announcing the $6.2-billion Lower Churchill deal earlier in November, but was surprised the resignation came so soon. When the announcement was made, Critch knew he had to celebrate it with something bigger than usual, and started working to get Williams on the show as soon as possible.
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Williams made the announcement Nov. 25; two days later they were taping.
In the skit — already a YouTube hit — Williams visits The Codfather, Gordon Pinsent, to ask permission to step down.
“Did you get everything I asked? Did you get the oil?” Pinsent asked.
“Yes, Codfather,” Williams replies.
“Did you get the Lower Churchill?”
“Did you throw a tantrum like a huge baby every time you didn’t get your way?”
“Oh yeah,” Williams says with a smile.
The skit also features an appearance by “Republic of Doyle” castmembers Allan Hawco and Sean McGinley, who step in to rescue Williams and Pinsent after Critch takes them hostage.
Critch said the actors were amazed by Williams’ acting and comedic timing.
“I showed him the script and he looked at it for maybe a minute, and then he had it memorized,” Critch said. “He said, ‘Are you ready?’ and boom — we were into it. We shot that piece right away, with him being in the room maybe five minutes. He’s a fast learner, very natural and he gets what it’s supposed to be.
“I know people always accuse him of being an egomaniac or whatever, but he totally gets it, and it says a lot for a person to make fun of themselves the way everyone else makes fun of them.”
Cleaning out his office on Wednesday, Williams told The Telegram he’s enjoyed his “22 Minutes” and “Rick Mercer Report” appearances, since it gave him a way to show that he has more to him than being a political scrapper.
“It was wonderful, because people tend to see you in a suit, in a shirt and tie, serious, fighting, gloves off,” he said. “What Mark Critch on ‘22 Minutes’ and Rick Mercer allowed me to do was sort of just let my hair down and have a laugh.
“I love to laugh, I love to have a sense of humour. I love to have a bit of fun.”
Williams noted there was often a fine line, however, and he sometimes had to be a little guarded, whether or not he let it show, since it would have been “beneath the office to go too far” with the jokes.
Critch hopes Williams will return to “22 Minutes” every now and then, much like Chretien has done.
In the meantime, he said he’ll find someone else to pick on. He doesn’t expect a politician like Williams, up for anything, to come along any time soon.
“Oh God no, can you imagine if I called someone like Clyde Wells in? Even Brian Tobin was like he was trying to hard to be funny. It’s pretty rare that comes along. (Williams) has got a really good sense of humour; he’s like one of the boys.”