Second in a two-part series. To read the first story CLICK HERE.
Nothing says Christmas like Mark Critch in a sequined blouse. Unless it's Cathy Jones as a drunken, burping Queen Elizabeth, Gordon Pinsent as an emphysema-suffering "Bad Santa" type, shopping at Zellers, or Kevin O'Leary in the role he was born to play - Ebenezer Scrooge.
The hour-long "22 Minutes" Christmas special, airing Tuesday on CBC-TV, might be the funniest thing you watch this month - maybe even this year, according to its regular cast members.
"I really think it's our best Christmas special. Better than last year. Sketches on this show are amongst the best '22 Minutes' has ever done," Critch said.
"Some of the sketches made me laugh out loud when I read them by myself, and I'm really excited for it. It's going to be really funny," star Geri Hall told The Telegram during a week of taping for the special.
The Telegram was invited by "22 Minutes" to its Halifax set last month for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Christmas episode.
Along with the usual cast of characters - including Hall's Sun News reporter Janice Van Sant, Jones' Mrs. Enid, Critch's Rex Murphy and Shaun Majumder's Raj Binder - the Christmas show features the stars in a slew of skits parodying popular culture, presenting a satirical look at political and other current events and poking fun at everything from men's gift-wrapping skills to Pot of Gold chocolate to Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime."
Hall's favourite is what she calls "a dark, delicious parody" of the tune "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that ends with the police arresting Critch's Dean Martin character.
Critch's favourite is also a song parody: "Free Beer is Not Enough," a take on the 1985 single "Tears are Not Enough," recorded by a supergroup of Canadian artists under the name Northern Lights, to fundraise for Ethiopia.
Each of the "22 Minutes" cast recreates roles from the actual video - Critch is Anne Murray, Mike Reno, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot, Hall is Joni Mitchell, Jones is Burton Cummings, and Majumder is Ronnie Hawkins and Bryan Adams, among others - in the same costumes.
Critch's Murray outfit features a pair of peach coloured high-waisted pants with straps, a shoulder-padded sequined blouse, and slouchy boots.
Other skits include Christmas with Leonard Cohen, complete with a black Christmas tree; the Queen giving her Christmas message as she gets progressively more drunk on Royal Ale, and animated shorts.
Guest stars who've taped sketches for the episode include O'Leary, Pinsent, Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy, Peter Mansbridge, George Stroumboulopoulos, Jian Ghomeshi, "Survivorman's" Lee Stroud, Great Big Sea, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Liberal Leader Bob Rae, former regular show castmember Greg Thomey and "Republic of Doyle's" Allan Hawco, who plays the open-shirted, high boot- and Santa hat-wearing main character in a "Tudors"-esque parody called "The Clauses."
It's Hawco's first time doing sketch comedy on TV.
"It was cool, because I really like to play around like that, but very nerve-racking. When it comes to getting involved in something like that, though, I do whatever Mark Critch tells me to do," Hawco said, laughing.
"I played it very serious, like Shakespeare. Like 'Richard III.' That intensity. They thought if I just played it straight, it would be funniest, and it is funny."
The show's crew are still writing and taping skits for the Christmas special, which won't get put totally to bed until shortly before it airs, since like the weekly episodes, there's always last-minute news that's just too good to leave out.
This week they taped a skit in which Critch reads "The Night Before Christmas" - only in this story, Defense Minister Peter MacKay commandeers Santa's sleigh for his personal use. The sketch was written in light of recent controversy over MacKay's flight aboard a search and rescue helicopter, which picked him up from a fishing lodge in Gander last year.
Critch is one of the show's writers, and said writing for Christmas specials is particularly easy.
"There are so many topics and things to work off. Family arguing at dinner, not knowing what to do because you only go to church once a year, these kind of things are universal themes and you don't have to be into politics to get them," he explained.
"I think Christmas is so commercialized now, you have to do those things. You can make fun of people going to Mass because that's a social thing, but you can't make fun of what they're saying in church. You can be satirical, but it's a Christmas special, so you want everyone to be warm and fuzzy and having a laugh."
This is the 19th Christmas season for "22 Minutes," which has seen numerous cast and writing team changes over the years. Though the show has had its high and low points, it seems to be on a roll the past couple of years, with CBC ordering 22 episodes, up from 13 last year. It's the only show on the network that has seen an increase in ratings over last year, Critch said, and he credits that to the team taking more risks and being less inhibited when it comes to sketch material.
Majumder, who divides his time between "22 Minutes" and a regular role on NBC's "The Firm," which films in Toronto (and will debut in January), agrees, saying the show has been "on fire" this year.
"The chemistry with this particular cast and this group of writers is some of the best that I've ever experienced, there's no doubt. Sometimes it's like a perfect storm of creativity and it all comes together and synchs up, and it feels like it's doing that right now. There's a little spark to the show that wasn't there before; a little edge to it that wasn't there, and that's exciting.
"People should watch (the Christmas special) because we're excited to shoot it. We're excited to make the show, they should be excited to watch it, and hopefully we'll deliver."
This year's "22 Minutes" Christmas special airs on CBC TV in Newfoundland Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.
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