"This Hour Has 22 Minutes" is often billed as Canada’s longest-running scripted entertainment series, but this year it's eager to tout everything that's new — in particular a larger, younger andmore diverse writing staff and cast than ever before.
Five of the CBC comedy's seven performers have joined over the last two seasons and with the departure of Cathy Jones last spring, this will be the first without a founding cast member, notes executive producer Mike Allison.
"It does seem different in an exciting way," says Allison.
"I think the show is staying true to what it has been while also adjusting to what it needs to be in the future."
Premiering in 1993, the Halifax-based sketch comedy made stars out of brash Newfoundlanders Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones, Greg Thomey and Rick Mercer. Turnovers in the cast and writing talent have kept audiences laughing and prime ministers in check into a 29th season.
This year Allison says writers and cast members hail from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Atlantic Canada. With an expanded 24-episode order, the extra hands are welcome.
Allison says he and others looked at more than 160 submissions before being won over by the latest addition of Stacey McGunnigle of Alliston, Ont.
The 35-year-old millennial threw everything she had into her audition and could not believe it when she, as they say in the business, "booked it off the tape."
"I was like completely overwhelmed and excited and shocked," McGunnigle says of joining the cast. "I'm a small-town gal. I didn’t know that this was a possibility for a career, you know?"
Previously, the York University graduate funnelled her comedy energy into improv stage work at The Second City, where she earned a best breakout artist accolade. "The Regulars," a comedy podcast she co-hosted, has topped two million listeners. She’s also performed in Montreal at the Just for Laughs festival and was recently featured on "Roast Battle Canada" on the CTV Comedy Channel.
McGunnigle names Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s preening character Elaine Benes on "Seinfeld" as a considerable influence, as well as sketch performers Gilda Radner from "Saturday Night Live" and Catherine O’Hara from her "SCTV" days.
But she also grew up admiring "22 Minutes" trailblazers Walsh and Jones, calling them each "the Swiss Army knife of comedy," and praises past cast member Susan Kent as "an absolute powerhouse."
Last season, 26-year-old Aba Amuquandoh got a similar call up after starting as a featured player. This year she's one of the main deskers as well as a writer on the show.
She names Wanda Sykes, Whitney Cummings and Cedric the Entertainer as big influences.
"It's important for people on TV to be contributing not only with their face being on screens but also with their opinions and talking about themselves and their cultures," says Amuquandoh, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Brampton, Ont.
"I'm really happy to be here."
Prior to "22 Minutes," Amuquandoh studied with Second City and performed with the award-winning troupe The Sketchersons in Toronto. Later this season she will host the upcoming CBC series "Best in Miniature," a reality series where couples build tiny versions of their dream homes.
The main players join eight other writers on the series, including supervising producer Heidi Brander and head writer Adam Christie. Back in 2003 when Mark Critch was brought in exclusively to write, he was one of only four in the writers’ room.
Counting the four main players who also write, plus three other on-air players, there are now 15 people contributing as writers on the series – the most ever.
The on-camera roster includes Brandon Ash-Mohammed and Leonard Chan, two Toronto-based performer-writers reporting from the field, as well as Chris Wilson, returning from last season.
There are other familiar faces — Trent McClellan, who joined the show as a writer/performer in 2016, and Critch, who, after 18 seasons, is now the second longest-serving cast member ever behind recent retiree Jones.
"I'm the guy in the band who was in the original band," jokes the 47-year-old St. John’s native.
Critch just wrapped the filming of season one of "Son of a Critch," a sitcom based on his memoir which premieres Jan. 4 on CBC. He can afford to moonlight now that new talent has been added to "22 Minutes."
So far, viewers seem to be tuning in, with September's season premiere likely boosted by Canada’s federal election call. According to CBC, viewership among those aged 25 to 54 were higher than they had been since the U.S. presidential election in November 2020.
Still, the "22 Minutes" average over the first four episodes this season is just under 400,000 total viewers – mid-level for the network.
More impressive of late has been the climb in the social media score. A recent introduction on TikTok saw 27 million video views accumulate within the first seven days.
Having a strong presence on social platforms is vital, says Allison, who suggests the show is getting younger as it grows older.
Wilson, too, feels a shift in the show. The Second City main stage veteran worked in Toronto with McGunnigle and knew Amuquandoh from the stand-up comedy scene.
"There’s a fresh energy," he says of the vibe this season.
Helping is the fact more audience members are being allowed into studio tapings as pandemic safety procedures ease.
"People are just very eager to laugh, it feels," he says.
"This Hour Has 22 Minutes" airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. (8:30 NT) on CBC.
— Bill Brioux is a freelance writer living in Brampton, Ont.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.
Bill Brioux, The Canadian Press