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.

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