Mary Walsh (Profile)

It is a slow news week. While politicians bicker over the divisibility of Quebec, the big story is the weather, a cold snap that has the country frozen in a grimace of national unity from sea to shivering sea.

Walsh, Mary (Profile)

It is a slow news week. While politicians bicker over the divisibility of Quebec, the big story is the weather, a cold snap that has the country frozen in a grimace of national unity from sea to shivering sea. And on the first night of February, during the most frigid week of the winter, Mary Walsh is preparing to turn the weather into hard news - while swimming. It is close to midnight in Halifax. The CBC crew from This Hour Has 22 Minutes is running into overtime. Clad in a purple swimsuit, Walsh sits on the ladder of a hotel's indoor pool, her legs dangling in the water. She is in character, as the flagrantly outspoken Marg Delahunty, and she looks like a Zellers nightmare: violet eyeshadow, orange lipstick, big glasses, gold-plate jewelry and a bathing cap barnacled with flowers. The director calls for quiet. Walsh asks for a moment to wipe the fog off her glasses, using the skirt of her old-fashioned swimsuit. Finally, the camera rolls.

"It's February in the frozen north," she says, lunging into the water, "and everybody and their dog's got faces on them the length of a wet Sunday in Red Deer." While the camera follows her on a dolly, Walsh performs a talking breaststroke, her voice booming around the pool. By the time she reaches the shallow end, her winter-of-discontent rant has segued from February depression to financial hysteria. "We've got all our credit cards maxed out on bust - 60.5-billion spondoolicks on MasterCard and Visa alone," she brays, now staring into the camera, inches from the lens. "Whoo! How much is that each? Or is 60.5 billion so high a number that, like Quebec, it is not divisible?" Spitting out the figures, she shifts into high rant mode - "Nineteen-per-cent interest on every one of those 60.5-billion bucks. The banksters are delirious! They're dancing a mad merengue down at the Royal Bank all the way back to the vault with their 1.25-billion-dollar profit!"

Mary Walsh means business. As the woman who dreamed up This Hour Has 22 Minutes and its most visible star, the 43-year-old performer from St. John's, Nfld., is the bitch goddess of Canadian political satire. And in a country running out of serious alternatives, political satire has become Canada's unofficial opposition. People cannot seem to get enough of it. On Monday nights at 9 p.m., an average of 1.2 million viewers tune in to 22 Minutes - a mock newscast that often scores higher ratings than the CBC's real news, The National, an hour later. The network's Royal Canadian Air Farce does even better on Friday night, drawing an average 1.5 million viewers with its antic political caricatures. Double Exposure offers yet another popular forum for lampooning politicians, on CBC Radio.

Satire is the most vital sign of life at the ailing CBC. And 22 Minutes - which swept the comedy categories in last season's Gemini Awards (winning best series, writing and performance) - is on the cutting edge. Although Air Farce gets better ratings, it has been building an audience on CBC Radio for 22 years and employs a much broader style. While Air Farce does burlesque impressions of politicians, 22 Minutes delivers stinging editorials through an affectionately drawn repertoire of original characters. Like the CBC's This Hour Has Seven Days - the controversial 1960s show that inspired its title - it mixes humor with trenchant political commentary.

Comedy, of course, is a national sport, with a list of all-star players that includes Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Leslie Nielsen, the SCTV gang and the Kids in the Hall. What seems to give Canadians the edge is that they are on the edge - a nation of observers who watch America through the one-way mirror of the 49th parallel. Comedy requires a passion for detached observation. And no part of the country is more detached than the island of Newfoundland - which the entire cast of 22 Minutes calls home.

All four are gifted writer-performers. Greg Thomey, 33, a versatile physical comedian, has also done dramatic acting (The Boys of St. Vincent) and written several plays. Rick Mercer, 26, and Cathy Jones, 40, have toured nationally with popular solo stage shows that they wrote and produced. Jones, a superb character comedian, also spent 20 years performing with Walsh in Newfoundland's Codco troupe, including its seven-year run on CBC TV. Together, the 22 Minutes cast achieves a remarkable four-part comic harmony. But it is Walsh who makes the most formidable impression, both on and off the show.

When the producers of the Genies needed someone to inject some spunk into their revamped awards show last month, they hired Walsh to host it - giving her the thankless job of embroidering an advertorial for Canadian film with stabs of satire. And when PEN Canada, an organization that defends jailed and tortured writers, wanted to blow the cobwebs out of its stuffy image, it hired Walsh to co-host a gala benefit in Toronto last year.

PEN got more than it bargained for. Appearing as Marg Delahunty, in slippers and a housecoat, Walsh shattered the usual PEN solemnity and unleashed a comic diatribe against a leading neoconservative author. "Speaking of torturing writers," she said, "how about David Frum? He makes Barbara Amiel look like Tommy Douglas." Calling Frum "an ingrate," she added that "his poor mother [broadcaster Barbara Frum] must be spinning in her grave." The comment triggered a right-wing protest against PEN that ricocheted through the media for weeks. But even Linda Frum, David's sister, who organized the protest, acknowledges Walsh's brilliance. "I admire her," she says. "She's a really talented and intelligent woman. My quarrel was not with her but with PEN for not distancing themselves from her remarks. Mary Walsh can say whatever she likes, but there's a context and a place for it."

Subverting context, however, is what Walsh is all about. On 22 Minutes, she keeps breaking taboos, defying the notion that "you can't do that on television." With a courage unrivalled on prime-time TV, she flaunts her un-svelte body and speaks her untamed mind through a gallery of outrageous characters - personalities so strong it seems they could bust through the screen at any moment. The best known is Marg Delahunty, the maverick aunt with no shame who dares to say what everyone is thinking. Others include sniggering Connie Bloor, the doughnut-shop hick who snorts about "the Yanks" from behind her copy of USA Today; the swaggering Dakey Dunn, a macho blowhard whose chest hair has gone to his head; and the hectoring Genoa Hellerstein, a butch lesbian who trashes neo-feminist Camille Paglia as a "lipstick lezzie" parvenu.

But Walsh is not just a satirist. She is an exceptional writer, director and dramatic actor. She has directed more than a dozen plays, often co-writing them with the actors. In 1988, Toronto's Factory Theatre produced Hockey Wives, her play based on interviews with NHL players' wives. In 1993, at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., she won glowing reviews for her passionate performance as Josie, the tragic lead of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten. And she is dying to play Lady Macbeth. "Mary's unique," says 22 Minutes creative producer Gerald Lunz. "When you watch her live, she literally transforms. You feel anything is possible. And as with all great comedians, there is a brilliant tragedian there."

In Walsh's past, the comedy and tragedy have been inextricably mixed. Her life is a story of strong women and strong drinks, and a series of rough roads that all lead back to the Rock. Walsh still spends summers in her birthplace of St. John's, where she owns a 162-year-old house. But during the TV season, she lives on a tree-lined street in Halifax, in a modest pink frame house rented for her by the show's local producer, Salter Street Films. After recently ending a 13-year relationship with a pewtersmith named Ray Cox, Walsh lives alone with their adopted six-year-old boy, Jesse, and a blue merle collie named Train.

Sitting with a mug of coffee in her living-room, Walsh is dressed in fuzzy slippers and a long sweater-dress over a white nightgown - an outfit that would not look out of place on Marg Delahunty. But unlike Marg, she wears no makeup. Walsh does not really look like any of her characters. She has a handsome face with intelligent eyes and a vivacious warmth. The actor was once turned down for a movie role because she looked too "patrician," she recalls. "I kind of liked that. All my features are squat in the middle of my face. That's what I see when I look in the mirror. I look like years and years of longshoremen and ironworkers."

Walsh is the seventh of eight children (three sisters and four brothers) born to Leo and Mary Walsh. Her father spent most of his life at sea, working in ships' boiler rooms. "Then he retired and went to bed for 13 years," says Walsh. "Dad read a lot and drank a lot, as everybody in the family did." Her mother, who "controlled the house so totally she should have been running IBM," came from a family of ironworkers - Walsh's maternal grandfather helped build the Empire State Building. "There was a huge tension in the family," recalls Walsh, "about what was the more manly pursuit, to go to sea or be an ironworker."

Walsh did not grow up with her parents. At eight months, she was sent to live with relatives next door and never moved back - apparently because she had pneumonia and her parents' house was too damp. "That's what they always said," she laughs. "Some pathetic explanation. It was odd, because my mom and dad lived next door until I was 11 and then they moved to the country." Her parents are now deceased, and Walsh never did get to the bottom of why they gave her away. "Now, I feel it was really funny," she says, "but it didn't feel anything but tragic until a few years ago." Then she adds with a guffaw: "Of course, that is the piece of sand that has made me the, uh, pearl that I am today."

The product of a matriarchy, Walsh was raised by her father's sister, Aunt Mae, who lived with her stroke-afflicted brother, Jack, and their stepsister, Josephine. "Uncle Jack used to drink until he fell asleep, then he'd wake up and drink again," she recalls. "Dad would just drink and never go to sleep, which was heartbreaking for everyone." Having a sense of humor was essential. "It was worth a lot to be funny in the family, and being funny in a mean way was worth even more. You could do anything as far as Mom was concerned if you were funny. And all Aunt Mae's friends were funny."

Fearlessness is another family trait that seems to have rubbed off on Walsh. Aunt Mae (Mary Ellen Waddleton), who worked as a civil servant, lost a leg as a child. "She was truly heroic," says Walsh. "She got her first wooden leg when she was 7 and jumped off a building into the snow and smashed it to smithereens. She was always doing things like that, constantly proving that nothing could stop her." (Now 89, Waddleton lives in a nursing home in St. John's, and Walsh phones her every day.)

By the time she reached high school, Walsh herself was becoming an unstoppable force. Schooled by nuns, she rebelled against strict Roman Catholic discipline by becoming a hell-raiser. She smoked and kept a bottle of liquor in her locker. "I was in a constant rage," she recalls. "I spent my entire youth smashing things. At 12 or 13, I lost my religion because I was shoplifting so much I couldn't pay it back - I couldn't get complete absolution."

But there were already signs of the emerging actor. "We thought she was quite the character," says Cathy Jones, who knew her when they were teens. "She had this total British accent. It was so fake. We thought she was kinda weird, but we hung out with her." Walsh even affected a Brooklyn accent at one point. Now, she says, her voice is an amalgam - "it's a completely made-up accent from all the people I tried to be over the years. Actually, I'm fram dawntawn St. Jahn's and I prabably should sound a lot flatter like that."

Like many Newfoundlanders, Walsh felt she had no future. At 17, she got engaged to an American serviceman and followed him to Colorado. She was homesick and had a miserable time. She remembers staging a sobbing tantrum when his family tried to convince her the Americans had won the War of 1812. They broke up and she returned home, getting a job at Rags Murphy's five-and-dime arcade. "It was the most embarrassing store in St. John's," she says. "It was better to be a Woolworth's girl - you would look up to the crowd at Woolworth's."

Walsh's first foray into show business, when she was 18, was inauspicious. Casually responding to a TV advertisement, she landed a job as a summer replacement host on the local CBC radio station. "I was horrible," she recalls - but a local stage director liked her voice and cast her in an amateur play. Soon she was touring the province for $30 a week with the Newfoundland Travelling Theatre Company, a troupe of young actors who included Tommy Sexton, Greg Malone, Robert Joy, Dyan Olsen, Cathy Jones and her brother Andy - the future Codco.

At 20, Walsh went to Toronto to take acting classes, but dropped out to join her Newfoundland comrades in a play at the city's Theatre Passe Muraille. Cod on a Stick, Codco's first production, was an act of satirical revenge against generations of Newfie jokes. It was a hit. And Walsh went on to create a vivid repertoire of women - such as the landlady Mrs. Budgell, one in a long line of dear old bats who have been reincarnated under various guises on 22 Minutes.

Codco was a cauldron of creative activity. But over the years, the collective turned into a dysfunctional family, with an incestuous tangle of personal relations. "Codco wasn't a company, it was a life," says Walsh. "Only a young person would ever decide to create a horrible mess like that - 'Oh yeah, this will be good. I'll sleep with this person.' "

They were wild times. At the end of a party one night, Walsh tackled a friend, writer Ray Guy, who was trying to leave at 3 a.m., and broke his leg. "We picked him up and he just fell down again," she recalls. "We thought he was just really, really drunk. But when he came to in the morning, he had five fractures." Andy Jones, who was Walsh's live-in companion for eight years, says that "we were all drinking constantly. When I look back on those days, it seems our lives were bracketed by alcohol."

Life and art became a blur. Jones would always be borrowing their furniture for stage sets. "Finally," he recalls, "Mary put her foot down and said we got to keep our own stuff in our own house. But then she was directing a show, and I came home to find the fridge and stove gone. They were onstage."

After its acclaimed seven-year run on CBC TV, Codco broke up in 1992. Then, Walsh hatched her idea for a news parody show and found support from executive producer Michael Donovan of Salter Street Films in Halifax. She assembled the cast, inviting Andy Jones to be a part of it, but he declined, somewhat perversely. "I was into my personal freedom at the time," says Jones, now acting and writing in Toronto. "Do I regret it? Sometimes. But I regret everything - that's the way I am." Cathy Jones, meanwhile, was shocked when she was invited to join the show, because she has so little interest in politics. "But since I'm uniquely unfamiliar with these things," she suggests, "I always get a fresh take on them." As for Mercer and Thomey, Walsh had followed their work for several years. Mercer remembers their first encounter, at a St. John's community hall where she was directing a show. "I put a cigarette down a pipe in one of the bleachers. And that's how I met Mary. She tore my head off for almost burning the building down."

After coming up with the idea for 22 Minutes, Walsh had to watch it take shape from the sidelines - she required back surgery when it debuted in 1993. And the show did not turn out quite as she had imagined. "The basic problem," she says, "is that my original conception didn't have five hairy-assed producers making all the decisions. I'm happy with the show, but it's a boys' club." Jones, however, is relieved that the cast is not in charge. "It's healthy," she says. "That's what killed Codco - all the power we had."

As Codco's female alumni, Walsh and Jones are like sisters. Although they perform together with seamless timing, the relationship has frayed over the years. According to Walsh, "we feel differently about everything." Now at least, they have sobriety in common. Walsh quit drinking three years ago. Jones, who quit last year, is a practising Buddhist, a vegetarian and the mother of a four-month-old girl - whose breast-feeding is the only addiction that plays havoc with the show's schedule.

Each Monday, the cast members come in with ideas and divvy up the news. "Rick and Greg will show up with 25 or 30 ideas," sighs Jones. "And I'll come in with two or three." Editorial producer Geoff D'Eon, a 13-year veteran of CBC TV news, digs up clips for them. "It's highly competitive," says Walsh. "There's only so much news." As stories unfold, people put their dibs on the footage. "Sometimes it's just a question of getting into work early," says Mercer. "The biggest nightmare is that nothing's happening. Some weeks, it's all suicide bombings and tainted blood, things you don't want to joke about."

There is a natural balance in the cast. Walsh and Mercer do the hard-edged political satire; Jones and Thomey do a softer, warmer style of comedy. As the hands-on producer, Gerald Lunz referees the players. Calling himself "the snake handler," he tries to achieve symmetry among the performers and pre-censor anything that would not fly with the "suits" at Salter Street and the CBC. Says Lunz, 42, who has worked with Walsh and Jones for a decade: "Mary comes in with all guns blazing. When she's up for a fight, she goes full bore. Every time Mary is not involved with a decision, she feels she's losing."

It is Thursday morning - the day before 22 Minutes is taped before a studio audience. In the show's makeshift production offices, located in a warren of AVCO trailers behind the CBC building in Halifax, Lunz scans a wall of index cards representing items for the show. "Our trailer park keeps our feet on the ground," he says. "There's no showbiz glamor around here." The show, he adds, is a bargain at less than $100,000 an episode. "We are theatre people," he says. "We do everything fast. It's a six-days-a-week job with one day to do your laundry."

Thursday afternoon. On a residential sidewalk, the crew tapes Jones and Walsh as Enid and Eulilia, two old ladies gabbing about the French from France - their cream sauces and nuclear tests and bandy-legged furniture. It is bitterly cold. Under their stockings, the women wear thermals. Their blue-rinse banter clicks beautifully, but then they have being doing it in various forms for two decades. They are natural-born biddies. "We've been playing old bags from the beginning," says Walsh, warming up in a car between shots. Jones concurs: "We were old bags when we were 19."

Thursday night. Walsh prepares to do Marg Delahunty in the pool. For Marg, she insists on doing her own makeup and using cheap drugstore cosmetics. It helps her get into character. She slathers on the foundation, scrubbing it into her face with a vengeance. "This is how my mother put on her makeup," she explains. Then with scary efficiency, she paints on the eyeliner, the rouge and the orange lipstick. Walsh nails her swimming monologue on the second take. But the director wants another one. Ten takes later, she finally gets out of the pool - at 1:15 a.m.

Friday night, 7 p.m. The cast sits down at the 22 Minutes newsdesk and runs through the show. At 9 p.m., they do it again for an audience, 100 fans packed into bleachers ringed around the cramped studio. The show starts late. The audience has been kept waiting too long in the foyer and scarcely touched the free wine. Always a bad sign. The crowd appears enthusiastic, but in relative terms the cast considers it an off night. There are more flubs than usual. While Jones and Mercer do their bits, Walsh and Thomey pass notes back and forth, like kids in class. The show ends with the whole cast playing the Quinlan Quints - four idiot Newfoundland scam artists in identical tuques and plaid shirts. As usual, the Quints bring down the house.

Saturday morning. At home, Walsh is mulling over the previous night. "I don't want to do the f--g Quints again," she says. "I wrote the first Quints sketch. I know they're enjoyable. But four stupid guys from Newfoundland with one of them picking their nose, I feel I'm selling my birthright for a mess of pottage. I don't mean to be snobby about comedy, but there are laugh buttons that aren't being pushed when you're picking your nose. And with some of those buttons, you get a deeper laugh, a kind of - 'Oh that! That's tragically funny.' "

As blasphemous as it sounds, she says she is also sick of Marg Delahunty. "I wouldn't mind being at Marg's funeral. And I'm sick of Dakey and I'm sick of Connie. I'm sick of all my characters really." A rant is brewing. Not a Marg rant, or a Dakey rant. Pure Walsh. "I just don't have much more to say," she insists. "There is nothing new about the news. It's the same news this February as last February. And I feel the same way about it. I'm angered that a rich country like Canada is punishing the poor for fiscal problems we may or may not have." As the rant picks up steam, it is easy to see why Walsh gets hired to give speeches - at such events as the 1994 United Nations Global Conference on Development in New York City. Or PEN.

Now, about torturing David Frum: "I was really shocked when I heard about the big stink," she says, explaining that the joke was intended to poke fun both at PEN's sanctity and Frum's politics. "I'm not finished with David Frum," she warns. "He's always got that half-smile on his face, as if he's just won something. He gives me the jumps." His sister, Linda Frum, still thinks that PEN should have censured Walsh. "When they start making jokes about stringing [left-wing columnist] Rick Salutin by his testicles," she told Maclean's, "let's see how many people laugh then." Who knows? Walsh might be one of them. In defending her PEN speech in The Globe and Mail, Salutin had the nerve to describe Marg Delahunty as "dim." Says Walsh: "I thought, 'Gee whiz, don't let the left take up my cause for me.' "

Walsh cannot seem to resist calling everything into question, including herself. She wonders why she works so hard, often making herself sick - she spent last weekend working on a movie script with Andy Jones, who visited from Toronto. "I'm constantly trying to prove I can do it. But who is it that I'm trying to prove it to?" she asks. "I may go to bed for 13 years like the old man. F-- it. Read the newspaper. Pee in a bottzle. Not come down." A hearty laugh. "Maybe I just need a new character."

The next day, when told of Walsh's despair, Lunz shrugs it off with a laugh: "It sounds like you had a classic postpartum show conversation."

One week later, Walsh has found a new character, fashion editor Marietta Sanders. Dressed in a frumpy outfit she calls the latest thing, she announces "the era of the emerging Woman Nerd." Interrogated by Thomey, she tries to defend her wardrobe until finally, in exasperation, she rips off her clothes. Suddenly she is standing there in a cutoff lime-green lycra top with no bra, her doughy midriff spilling over blue hotpants.

"What are my fashion options?" she pleads, as the audience shrieks hysterically. "You've got to be a prepubescent with a chronic eating disorder. You've got to have the body fat of a car antenna. I am a 43-year-old working mother and there is not anything out there for to me to wear!" Then, declaring that "there's only one road left open to me - don't try and stop me," she covers up with a housedress, an apron and hairnet and mutates into, well, an old bag.

A week ago, Walsh had nowhere to go. In one sketch, she has gone further than ever before. Flaunting her flab, she has delivered a rhetorical thesis on the tyranny of fashion. She has zoomed through three characters - and a lifetime of conformism, rebellion and self-acceptance - in three minutes flat.

You can't do that on television?

Mary Walsh just did.

Maclean's February 26, 1996