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Power and Possibility in Political Satire: 22 Years of ’22 Minutes’

Canada’s hit comedy news program offers a provocative example of the role political satire and popular culture can play in defining and even changing a nation

Every Tuesday evening, millions of Canadians gather around their television sets to share some quality laughs. No, I’m not talking about live broadcasts from the Canadian Parliament (you can giggle to those all week long). Rather, Tuesday night offers the prime time slot allotted to This Hour Has 22 Minutes on the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada’s national public broadcaster).

There are few Canadians who are not familiar with this now iconic program, but for those farther afield it’s a satirical news program featuring a changing cast of some of Canada’s smartest and funniest comedians. The award-winning program (21 Gemini awards, 11 Canadian Comedy Awards, 4 Writers’ Guild of Canada awards) was originally launched in 1993. Its creator, Mary Walsh, was already well known for her previous comedic and acting roles, and many of the other original cast (Cathy Jones, Greg Thomey, Rick Mercer) are now iconic Canadian comedy figures in their own right (Mercer now hosts his own satirical and humorous CBC program, the Rick Mercer Report). Americans might draw analogies with the likes of Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, but the Canadian versions pre-date their American cousins. This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ lineup has changed over the years; its current cast features Mark Critch, Cathy Jones, Shaun Majumder and Susan Kent.

This year marks the 22nd anniversary of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and the event was celebrated in style with a “star-studded gala” (as CBC described it) held at Toronto’s TIFF Theatre on 4 December; excerpts recorded at the event were used in a retrospective special that aired on CBC television the following week. As an anniversary of Canada’s premiere political satire, it offered an opportunity to reflect on the classic moments and uproar that spanned the past two decades of both the show’s comedic programming, and Canadian politics in general. And it offers an equally valuable moment to reflect on what the precise role of political satire is in pop culture, and in today’s society more broadly.

Political Parody: Poking, Prodding and Provoking

The show’s name itself is a parodic spin on the CBC news program This Hour Has Seven Days, which aired in the ’60s. The ‘22 Minutes’, of course, refers to what the viewer gets in an average half-hour of television programming after commercials are accounted for.

This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ tools of trade include many that are now stock techniques in political satire around the world: comedic fake news broadcasts, sketch comedy, parodies of public figures and events, and live ambushes of real politicians. Drawing on all these techniques, the This Hour Has 22 Minutes team casts its own humorous interpretive commentary on the country’s most divisive issues (such as the francophone province of Quebec’s repeated threats to separate from Anglophone Canada, aptly anthropomorphized in this video clip, available to Canadian viewers and those with a Canadian VPN).

They often manage to hit multiple targets at the same time. News skits like the example below manage to poke fun at American politics while also sending potent messages about the clichéd style of contemporary mainstream journalism.

Indeed, some of the show’s most powerful pieces have come from its intelligent and provocative critique of mainstream journalism, as in this response to media depictions of ‘looting’ in Haiti. (Another YouTube video available to Canadian viewers and those with a Canadian VPN.)

At other times, the show’s antics have caused unexpected political crises, both nationally and internationally, as in the infamous episode involving a Canadian Member of Parliament and a George Bush doll. Incidents like these also demonstrate the show’s very real role in defining and expressing sharp cultural and political distinctions between Canada and the US.

There’s no denying the fact this is all very funny, and at times quite powerful. But what exactly does political satire do? What can it – what should it – aim to accomplish? The tragic and horrific murders of the Charlie Hebdo satirists has sparked a renewed debate around the aims and limits of satire; a debate that is quickly becoming politicized in complicated ways. Charlie Hebdo represents an extreme form of satire, and one that we won’t be looking at in any great depth here. However, a broader consideration of the very concept of satire is perhaps more timely now than ever.

The Power and Limits of Political Satire

Not surprisingly, there’s an extensive academic literature on the subject of satire. Lisa Colletta, a literary scholar who has published extensively on the topic of satire, addresses it in an illustrative 2009 article published in the Journal of Popular Culture, “Political Satire and Postmodern Irony in the Age of Stephen Colbert and John Stewart” (October 2009).

Her study explores the meaning of political satire in the postmodern age. Satire, she says, “is defined as a form that holds up human vices and follies to ridicule and scorn.” It is unlike other forms of comedy, whose goal is to simply make people laugh, because it uses derision as a weapon to effect social critique. It’s also a very ancient form: from ancient Greece to the French Revolution, it’s been deployed extensively not just in the West but in every corner of the world, from the Middle East to South America. It’s been described as playing a key role in several recent political upheavals, for example, the Ukraine, Syria, and Egypt. (“Egypt: resistance through sarcasm“, Al Monitor, 22 January 2013)

But satire faces challenges in today’s era. It relies on the audience sharing a basic set of values, which can be drawn upon in revealing the hypocrisies and double standards of those being made fun of. In today’s fragmented and identity-driven world, satire is becoming harder to find. In a sense, the tragic murders of the Charlie Hebdo satirists and the subsequent protests and rallies sparked by their satire reflect the increasingly violent lines drawn between audiences that share differing values and identities. The consequences that ensue when audiences take offense – whether those consequences involve violent reprisals or even just the equanimity with which many progressive newspapers and commentators seem willing to accept the notion that satire like Charlie Hebdo should have its limits – reflect, for better or worse, an escalating sensitivity to the fragmented and identity-driven politics of today’s era.

Satire also relies on a faith that things can change. Without hope, “then the satire exists only to further itself… breaking down faith in the efficacy of any kind of activity other than criticism.”

This is one of the real challenges faced by satire in our postmodern era, Colletta suggests. The postmodern era is one that sees everything in terms of appearances and performed identities. Audiences have become cynics, distrusting the sincerity of politicians and political parties, losing faith in institutional reforms and radical change, hesitant to commit to or believe in anything. In such an environment, it’s hard to produce effective satire. “Traditionally, irony has been a means to expose the space between what is real and what is appearance, or what is meant and what is said,” Colletta writes. But “[t]he irony of postmodernity denies a difference between what is real and what is appearance.” In other words, for those raised with a post-modern mindset, everything is constructed, nothing is real, everything is image. This makes it harder to draw the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘image’ that satire relies upon.

On another level, she suggests, the humor that is so essential to satire is both its strength and its fatal flaw. It makes social critique fun, and enjoyable – and therefore allows the politics of the satirist to resonate with a broader audience than might be possible with a rhetoric-charged angry political agenda. Its appeal is broader, because it’s fun and pleasurable. But that also defines its limits: it doesn’t demand an outcome, beyond the laughter of the audience, and a vague hope that shame might curtail the abuse of power. But unlike a political agenda, it makes no demands.

This is probably what journalist and writer Chris Hedges meant when he said that “satire becomes destroyed, in essence, in the hands of figures like Colbert and Jon Stewart and others. Because they will attack the excesses and the foibles of the system, but they’re never going to expose the system itself. Because they’re all millionaires…” (he does, however, see hope in the likes of Jonathan Swift and George Carlin). (“Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart Have Destroyed Satire“, Popular Resistance, 29 October 2013)

This interpretation suggests satire is a double-edged and ultimately blunt sword. Yet as the history of This Hour Has 22 Minutes shows, satire can serve other political functions; particularly when a show becomes a national pop culture icon.

A Political Equalizing Force

Comedy has very broad applications, and one of the surprising roles it’s played in the Canadian context is that it has wound up serving as something of an equalizer, enabling politically underrepresented provinces to achieve and maintain a presence on the national stage. This Hour Has 22 Minutes is a program that’s been driven preponderantly by comedians and performers from the country’s East Coast, and particularly Newfoundland and Labrador, one of Canada’s most recent and least populous provinces (from which the show’s current main cast members all hail). In a country where population by and large determines national political clout, Newfoundland and Labrador holds only seven seats in the 338-seat federal House of Commons. It has very little ability, in other words, to wield political power at the national level. The country’s larger provinces, such as Ontario and Quebec, dominate the legislature.

Yet through their savvy use of humour the province’s comedians deploy a very socially conscious and politically charged weekly commentary that’s viewed by millions of households across the country, and has a certain power to shape national dialogue and even make or break politicians. A classic example from the year 2000 was the show’s response to the rise of the populist, western-based Canadian Reform Party, a right-wing movement that embraced American-style political reforms such as increased use of public referendums (that could be triggered by petition). Cast member Rick Mercer responded by launching a national petition calling on the party’s leader, Stockwell Day, to change his first name to Doris. The petition received over a million signatures and is still considered one of the show’s great coups, and the general ridicule directed at the Reform Party as a result might indeed have briefly tempered the party’s rise in the polls.

But there’s another dimension to all this. Comedy and satire provide a useful means for the more peripheral and rural hinterlands to keep the populous and politically powerful centre in check. As current cast member Mark Critch observed at the anniversary event, This Hour Has 22 Minutes is a show put off by “a bunch of Newfoundlanders, filmed in Halifax, about Ottawa.” As such, it offers a way for less powerful regions like Newfoundland and Labrador to assert themselves on the national stage, by drawing public attention to their issues and perspectives through comedy and humour. In order to fully understand how this transpired, it’s worth taking a look at the program’s deeper cultural roots.

A Complex Cultural Legacy

What some of its national viewers might not be familiar with is the show’s complex cultural history. This Hour Has 22 Minutes marks the culmination of several interesting historical threads: first, in its style of creation and performance; and second, in its complicated lineage of cultural struggle waged through comedy and performance.

As income inequality grows and regional and cultural differences become more stark, the role of political satire in popular culture is more important than ever. It’s one of a shrinking number of social leveling devices that still work, and the power of humour to hold the powerful accountable remains a potent weapon for the public good.

Many of its precursors in political satire in the ‘70s and ‘80s tapped into the ‘collective creation’ approach to drama, which was formative in Canadian theatre of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The aim was to substitute and reject the hierarchical tradition of domineering playwrights with one of a team of actors sitting around collaboratively developing sketches themselves on an egalitarian and cooperative basis. Paulo Freire’s theories of popular education were influential in this model of theatrical production. As Shelley Scott observed in her 1997 research note on Toronto’s feminist Nightwood Theatre: “Collective creation has come to connote a particular kind of theatre piece: episodic in structure, presentational, and made up of a number of stories that all contribute to some overarching theme or purpose. But collective creation is perhaps more accurately described as a process, a method of working in which authority is shared and each participant contributes in a significant way to the content of the work at hand.” (“Collective Creation and the Changing Mandate of Nightwood Theatre” Vol. 18 No. 2, Fall 1997)

The influence of this collectivist style and method – anti-authoritarian not only in its subject matter but also in its approach to producing content — can be seen in many of the Canadian comedy and satire shows that emerged in the ‘70s and ‘80s (SCTV, Royal Canadian Air Farce, Codco, Four on the Floor, Kids in the Hall), some of which were originally stage or radio performers who later took to television.

Codco in particular demonstrates the other important legacy that fed into This Hour Has 22 Minutes: that of cultural resistance (in this case, from the rural hinterlands). Two of the show’s founding members, Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones, were originally members of Codco. Codco was a remarkable phenomenon that began as a live theatre troupe in 1973, and was comprised of Newfoundlanders living and working in Toronto. The name Codco, short for Cod Company, reflected the theme of the troupe’s material. Through a hilarious form of re-appropriation, they lampooned what they considered bigoted and discriminatory attitudes that central Canadians in large urban centres held toward the rural East Coast fishing culture of Newfoundland. Ubiquitous Canadian stereotypes and ‘Newfie jokes’ depicted Newfoundlanders as backward, lazy, and poor; Codco seized on these stereotypes, using comedy’s extremes to demonstrate how ridiculous the stereotypes were, and deploying humour as a weapon to make fun of urbanite central Canadians (especially those from Toronto) in retaliation.

At the same time, they helped renew a sense of pride in the identity-conflicted province, which had only recently joined Canada in 1949. And Codco wasn’t the first to do this. A similar tradition of satirizing derogatory cultural stereotypes had been deployed in previous decades by Newfoundland theatrical outfits like The Mummers Troupe in the ‘70s, and as far back as the ‘50s by the Newfoundland-based London Theatre Company. Comedy and satire provided a form of resistance, and of cultural defense, for a region that felt its unique cultural identity threatened by the enormous geopolitical entity that is Canada.

When it hit the stage, Codco proved immensely popular, not only on tours of their home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, but across the country, and even in the United States. They also proved controversial, as they expanded the topics they tackled in their skits. As the Canadian Encyclopedia describes, “[f]or CODCO, nothing was sacred; the more untouchable the target, the more savage and swift the attack…The subject matter of their material, frequently irreverent and always biting, was relentless in its attack on a wide variety of social issues.”

Following its initial run from 1973-1976, Codco took a hiatus but reassembled for a reunion tour in 1985, wherein it transitioned to the airwaves of CBC television. During that period it continued to stir controversy. In 1991 cast member Andy Jones quit the program when the television network refused to air a skit (it later relented), and the following year the program ceased production (tragically, not long after another key member, Tommy Sexton, died of AIDS).

Ultimately, Codco served two powerful political functions, which demonstrate the power and potential of political satire. At one level, it was a response against the derogatory cultural depiction of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians at the national level. But at the same time as it retaliated against the belittling of the Newfoundland and Labrador identity, it also offered an opportunity to critique conservative institutions (both within the province, and across the country). In the ‘80s gay and lesbian identity was still stigmatized, and the Catholic Church played a powerful role in combatting progressive efforts to seek equality. Religious institutions still had a particularly powerful grasp on many parts of the country, and they proved a ready target for the fearless comedians and satirists, who held nothing back in their attack on the still sacrosanct institution (as depicted in the following skit from this period).

Codco’s spirit clearly lives on in This Hour Has 22 Minutes. In a National Post article on This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ 22nd anniversary, Cathy Jones’ comments reflect how the different traditions of politically potent satire and short, collectively produced skits came together: “Famously, Mary [Walsh] wanted to do a political satire. I wanted to do a soap, a funny soap. Mary actually wanted me because I didn’t pay attention to the news, and had kind of a fresh, crazy brain. Right from the beginning, we made a decision to make the show move, and move well. Coming off CODCO, we wanted to keep the sketches under two minutes.” (“‘22 years of 22 Minutes: Cathy Jones on the history of Canada’s premiere political satire series, Stephen Harper’s humourlessness and Joe Crow“, 4 December 14)

This Hour Has 22 Minutes marked a natural transition from the work of its founders’ precursors in Codco. It also represented a marked expansion of scale. Now an award-winning program with a steady viewership of millions, it represents in some ways a counter-invasion of the country by the once-threatened small province on its East Coast.

To Boldly Go Where No One Goes Any More

The political role of satire and comedy is changing, too. The cultural valence of programs like The Daily Show or the Colbert Report demonstrate this in the US, but it’s a potent factor in Canada, as well. Canada has faced a highly contentious and monopolistic media conglomeration in recent years, while its public broadcaster and premiere national news agency, the CBC, has faced equally controversial budget cuts that have led to fears of political interference. In a media context characterized by the shrinking presence of fearless and provocative investigative reporting, a growing portion of the responsibility for challenging politicians and power-brokers falls to political satirists. This is also due to the fact that as the political environment becomes increasingly restrictive for journalists – the governing Conservative Party has proven notorious for refusing to answer questions or provide access to journalists – politicians have to tread far more carefully with political satirists.

Inevitably, when faced with someone from This Hour Has 22 Minutes’, instead of calling security the politicians hang their heads and calmly acquiesce to whatever comedic machinations the performers demand. If they don’t, they risk national scorn. When Mary Walsh’s notorious Marg ‘Princess Warrior’ Delahunty character ambushed equally infamous Toronto mayor Rob Ford at his house, instead of playing along he hid in his house and called the police. The threat posed by a 62-year-old woman waving a plastic sword did not add to the mayor’s already embattled reputation. (“Mayor Rob Ford calls police after ambush by 22 Minutes actress Mary Walsh” by Tristan Hopper, National Post, 25 October 2011)

While American politicians often deploy heavy security, in Canada “we like to keep our politicians alive so we can torture them longer,” quipped cast member Mark Critch at the anniversary event. As he pointed out, 22 Minutes has often been dubbed Canada’s official opposition. With good reason: 22 Minutes’ satire continues to serve the time-honoured function of poking fun at the country’s leaders when they start taking themselves too seriously. In response to the current federal Conservative government’s quite un-Canadian efforts to act tough on the world stage, 22 Minutes has never been slow to respond, ready to knock federal egos down a few pegs (as this skit responding to Canada’s closure of its Iranian embassy aptly demonstrates).

Continuity and Change

Of course, a lot has changed in 22 years. The program still struggles to portray itself as a team effort, but its growth in scale, its demanding timetable and its ensconcement within the CBC corporate bureaucracy has undoubtedly had an impact on the egalitarian, anti-authoritarian production style sought by its predecessors.

And then there’s the public reception. It’s come a long way from Codco’s initial performance in a small alternative theatre in downtown Toronto. Now, This Hour Has 22 Minutes is broadcast to millions across Canada and the world. The difference was starkly apparent at the anniversary gala, where a red carpet awkwardly divided the TIFF theatre lobby in half, and hordes of important-looking people in buzzing headsets prevented theatre-goers from inadvertently stepping on the red carpet (itself an uncommon sight in Canada). As the show got underway, former premiers and corporate CEO’s lined the front rows. Let’s not even talk about the oyster bar at the after-party.

Is Colletta right? Is today’s satire more appearance than substance? I doubt it. Red carpets and oyster bars may be out of place for a public broadcaster, but it’s a well-deserved nod to the hard-working satirists in a world where creative producers rarely get the acknowledgement they deserve. More importantly, it’s a reflection of the important role they play in Canadian politics. As income inequality grows and regional and cultural differences become more stark, the role of political satire in popular culture is more important than ever. It’s one of a shrinking number of social leveling devices that still work, and the power of humour to hold the powerful accountable remains a potent weapon for the public good. “We’re here every week because Canadians pay their taxes,” said Mark Critch when he took to the stage at the anniversary party, and his point is well taken. The country’s most powerful political satire is still produced by its admittedly embattled public broadcaster – and not for private profit.

“Satire is a matter of period,” said Evelyn Waugh, and I twist this meaning slightly to say that the political satire we have is often a product of what the times call for. This Hour Has 22 Minutes has reached 22 years on the air, but it draws upon a much lengthier cultural and political heritage, in which political satire has forged a vital relationship with the country that Canada has become. It will be interesting to see what forms the next 22 years of political satire in this country – and elsewhere.

Splash image: 22nd Anniversary promo still of the cast of This Hour Has 22 Minutes