A frenzy of activity goes into every episode of CBC TV’s long-running show. The Telegram’s Tara Bradbury jumped into the whirlwind that makes up the cast’s upcoming hour-long Christmas special
First in a two-part series
They call it “22 Minutes,” and the show comes together almost that quickly. The satirical CBC TV show, now in its 19th year, invited The Telegram to its Halifax set last month for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this year’s hour-long Christmas special, set to air Tuesday night.
What goes into an hour of “22 Minutes”?
A whole lot of work, done in an incredibly short period of time.
For this year’s show, a team of writers put together dozens of scripts for sketches — from John Baird’s Yelltide Greetings to animated videos, and skits poking fun at everything from the Occupy movement to Nickelback — which executive producer Peter McBain narrowed down to just under 40. The entire “22 Minutes” crew, including actors, producers, cameramen, hair and makeup artists, set designers and others, then came together for a read-through, to get a feel for how each skit would sound.
Once a team of producers, led by McBain, decided on the cut, the chosen scripts were emailed to the network for approval, as well as to lawyer Rob Aske, who scanned them for potential legal problems. Defamation of living people or businesses and copyright or trademark infringements are his two main concerns, Aske told The Telegram.
“I don’t generally give them suggestions, because I don’t think they want to hear them from me because they think I’m the boring lawyer guy,” Aske said, chuckling. “I’ll say, ‘I’m concerned about this sketch, should we really suggest this about this?’ or ‘Do you have something to back this up?’ Even if the sketch may be funny, we have to be cautious. It’s a judgment call, and I have to try and use common sense and decide in the eye of the viewer if this disparaging or if it’s just funny. Obviously, if there’s a grain of truth then it’s easier to stretch that or have a little fun with that, like Peter MacKay and his helicopter ride. You’re allowed to comment, even harshly, on underlying facts that are true. How that fits into a silly sketch on ‘22’ is a little tricky, but you have to figure it out.”
The CBC also has a say in what gets in or not, and often makes changes to scripts it feels might be offensive to viewers. In the case of one of the Christmas skits, a Rex Murphy monologue, written by show star Mark Critch, network representatives changed the word “Christ” — which is repeated in the skit in different contexts — to “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”
“Is it as funny now? No, but it still works,” Critch said of the change. “‘Christ’ was like ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake,’ I didn’t mean for it to be taking the Lord’s name. It’s was just more colloquial. That’s part of it, though. That’s network television.”
It was evening by the time everything was a go, and shooting was scheduled to begin early the next morning. Within a span of about 12 hours, scripts were perfected, camera angles were worked out, sets were built and hair, makeup and costumes were figured out.
It isn’t always easy, said wardrobe designer Patti Parsons.
“It’s only maybe long enough to buy some fabric. We pray a lot, every single day,” she said with a laugh. “Sometime we sit in the read-through and we’re like, ‘Oh no!’ It used to be that my biggest fear was having to do an American general or a Hitler type of guy, because it’s hard to even get in the ballpark of matching those costumes. But we have a lot of fun.”
“We just do it. We have to be fast, we don’t have much time,” added assistant Susan Rainsford. “I remember first when I started, I was making a pattern out of newspaper and Patti came in and said, ‘No! No paper patterns, just cut it out and make it!’ We’ve got to do it freehand.”
There’s been many a challenge over the years, the ladies said, including costumes for gargoyles, moving aliens and the Grinch, which all had to be put together overnight. Many times the cast isn’t available for a fitting until it’s time to shoot, and other times they have no choice but to improvise.
“I’ll never forget the first time we did Mary (Walsh)’s Marg Delahunty, Warrior Princess,” Rainsford said. “It was a Wednesday afternoon and Patti said to me, ‘We need it for 2 o’clock on Thursday.’ We had Mary’s old housecoat to make it out of.”
“All through (that time period), Mary wanted different variations of that same fabric, so finally I bought a bolt of it and she’d want to make a boxing robe or a military outfit or a Chanel suit. She was a Lara Croft-type of character once — it went on and on,” Parsons said.
The “22 Minutes” makeup and hair artists have similar challenges but, like Parsons and Rainsford, they are experienced and able to work under pressure. Make-up designer Penny Lee is a Gemini Award winner and Emmy nominee who’s worked with the likes of Michael Caine and Jean-Claude Van Damme, while key hair stylist Lisa Leonard, relatively new to the show, has worked on films like “White Chicks,” “Disturbing Behaviour” and “Free Willy 3.”
Once they’re given the scripts, they go to work online, looking up photos and doing research on the characters they’ll be recreating. Turning Critch into a monkey and a former castmember into Gollom from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” were among the biggest challenges, Lee said.
During The Telegram’s visit to the set, Lee and Leonard were transforming actor Cathy Jones into Queen Elizabeth — complete with pale skin gray, curly wig — and Critch into a slightly wrinkly, round-faced Paul McCartney.
“It’s almost like painting,” Lee explained. “It’s all about highlighting and shading.”
“I’ve never seen anybody wing it so fast,” Leonard said of Lee. “I’m blown away by every single character she does. By the time they get to me for the hair, they already look like who they’re supposed to be.”
Leonard’s work involves cutting and styling acrylic wigs within hours. In film, she said, it takes months to have a wig especially made.
“It’s not easy, but I love it, and it’s amazing to work with such brilliant comedians; people I’ve watched for so long. I think I work best under pressure, but you really have to throw things together quickly.”
Jones is not surprised the show has lasted this long. Her own place in it, is another story.
Jones was one of the original castmembers of the show — along with Mary Walsh, Greg Thomey and Rick Mercer — back in 1992, when it debuted as “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.”
“We finished Codco and Mary said she wanted to do a political satire, and I said, ‘Not me,’ because that was just not me at all,” Jones told The Telegram. “I was just not interested in politics, but Mary said I had a uniquely kind of naïve view of things that could be irritating but could also be perfect for what she’s looking for. If someone asked me, of the four people, who do you think is going to stay for 19 years, it would have taken me a lot to figure out that it was going to be me.”
A call sheet was handed out to the cast and crew the night before taping, with a detailed schedule of which skit was being filmed when and where. While some cast members were on set, others were in hair and makeup or reading lines, all in a sort of organized chaos.
When it comes to the acting, the script is generally followed, though having a background in improv helps, said actor Geri Hall. Hall, in her fifth season on the show, has experience in children’s television, theatre, TV commercials and movies, with small roles in films like “Shall We Dance” with Richard Gere.
“Sometimes you see the characters and you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I can play a nine-year-old boy,’ but that’s the game of it,” she explained.
“No one’s actually going to be tricked into thinking that a 39-year-old woman is a nine-year-old boy, so once you throw your inhibitions away, it just becomes fun.”
Over the course of filming the Christmas episode, actors Gordon Pinsent and Allan Hawco came to the set to film sketches: Pinsent as a misidentified Santa character in a skit called “There’s Never a Miracle at Zellers;” Hawco as the lead in a parody of “The Tudors” called “The Clauses.” Former castmember Greg Thomey also filmed a couple spots for the episode. Having guests is always exciting, Hall said.
There are a number of recurring characters in the Christmas episode, like Rex Murphy, Jones’ Mrs. Enid, Shaun Majumder’s Raj Binder, and Hall’s Janice Van Sant, anchor for Sun News.
“She’s loosely based on some character we’ve seen on Sun News. I love her, and I find she’s a high-status character, whereas a lot of times I play low status,” Hall said. “Janice is sort of this crazy, high-status, in your face, talking over you all the time kind of person and she’s really fun.”
“I love characters that aren’t necessarily mimicry, but are true, real people,” added Majumder. “Raj has been fun; I really like playing him.”
Besides filming sketches at the Halifax studio, the crew had to fit in road pieces for the Christmas episode, travelling to St. John’s, Ottawa and Toronto to film skits with “Dragon’s Den’s” Kevin O’Leary, Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo, Peter Mansbridge, Jian Ghomeshi and George Stroumboulopoulos of CBC, “Survivorman” Lee Stroud, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Liberal Leader Bob Rae.
While the majority of the work is done, “22 Minutes” Christmas sketches are still being filmed, and will, right up until the show airs, if breaking news happens that just can’t be ignored. After the filming is done, skits must be edited, voiceovers, titles and animations added, and sound mixed.
Like with the weekly episodes, a portion of the Christmas special will be filmed before an audience at the studio tonight. While the pre-taped sketches will be shown to them on a screen, all lead-ins, jokes from behind the desk and two or three new skits will be shot live.
Exactly which sketches end up making the final hour-long cut is yet to be finalized and will be based on the flow of the episode.
The show has seen many controversies over the past two decades — most recently when Toronto Mayor Rob Ford called the police after being ambushed at home by Walsh, who was filming a cameo as Marg Delahunty — and a fair number of changes, too. Mercer left in 2001 and eventually created a similar show, “Rick Mercer Report.” Walsh left in 2004 and Thomey in 2005, to pursue other projects. Gavin Crawford was hired in 2003, and left last year. Majumder and Critch were hired around the same time, while Hall was brought in five years ago.
More changes might be coming: while Majumder, who divides his time between filming the show and NBC’s “The Firm” in Toronto, insists he won’t be leaving “22 Minutes” any time soon, Critch was positive but slightly more reticent.
“I would stay on the show as long as I found it interesting and challenging, and I’ve never found it more interesting or challenging than I have in the last few years,” he said.
Hall has just gotten her green card and is hoping to spend some time in the States, and isn’t sure where that will leave her.
“I love sketch comedy, it’s so satisfying, but I look forward to other stuff, too, so come what may,” she said. “(My husband and I) have got big decisions to make over the next six months or so. I love this show, when the time comes that I do leave, it will be bittersweet because it’s a great show, but I do love all kinds of acting.”
Jones, who’s got plans for a TV drama as well as a novel and maybe a one-woman theatre show, said she can see herself leaving the show while it’s still running, if the right opportunity arises.
“I’m like one of those people who doesn’t want to leave until they have another boyfriend,” she said. “What’s it like for people to see me on the show? Is it like, ‘For God’s sake, is she still there?’
“Different years have been more challenging, but it usually ends up being a lot of fun. I like my job.”
Last year, CBC ordered 13 episodes of “22 Minutes”; this year it wanted 22. Every time there’s a change, it takes some getting used to, Jones said, but when it comes down to it, it’s a show that’s well-supported, well-produced and has had some good people working on it, and that’s all contributed to its longevity.
“It’s funny, it’s perky, it’s got timely stuff and Canadians are interested in what’s going on in their country, plus it’s silly and it’s smart and it’s a great format,” Jones said. “It’s a winner because we’ve had good people on our team, and it works.”
The “22 Minutes” Christmas special airs on CBC TV Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland.
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