By Tara Bradbury
Photographs by Aaron McKenzie Fraser
Mark Critch reckons that by the time he got to kindergarten he was like a well-lived 65-year-old man. A five-year-old with old-guy sensibilities, he says. When everyone else was wearing sneakers, he was wearing sensible Hush Puppies for the arch support.
“I didn’t match up with anybody,” he says. “When a kid wanted to fight me, I remember going, What? This actually happens? My God, you want to duel, sir? This is not how you conduct yourself! And then I was learning to mask myself by looking at other people’s behaviour.”
That ability to observe and copy and mock the intricacies of human interaction may have been the beginning of Critch’s successful career since, as an actor and comedian best known for his work on CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, he hasn’t ever given it up. He’s just replaced impressions of the nuns at his Catholic elementary school with impressions of Justin Trudeau. “It’s the same thing. They are people in power, and you’re trying to speak to the common people about how the people in power are wrong,” he explains.
Critch, 44, grew up in St. John’s in an area that was and still mostly is — not residential. His family had a house on Kenmount Road, not far from the mall and next door to radio station VOCM, where his father was a celebrated news reporter. His only playmates were his brother (who was eight years older), his Nan (almost 80 years older) and the car salesmen from the nearby dealerships. The area was home to everything from a restaurant that was secretly fronting a massive gambling ring to woods that reportedly housed both fairies and dead bodies.
It made for a weird childhood, Critch says, except he never really knew it was weird until the day his mom put him on a school bus, cola and chips in his lunchbox, and sent him to kindergarten. “I had no play experience whatsoever,” Critch says. “And I had never seen as many kids as I did on that school bus or that playground. Obviously, me being a nerd and them being bullies, I became a song-and-dance man pretty fast. ‘Hey fellas! Oh, that’s a good punch you gave that fella there. Hey, have you ever noticed the principal sounds like this?’ A little razzle-dazzle up against the fence.”
Critch channelled his quick wit into humour, forming sketch-comedy group Catfud at age 15, skipping school to book and rehearse shows at the LSPU Hall. These days he’s one of the country’s most recognized and accomplished comic performers. His CV includes appearances at numerous comedy festivals, including televised performances at Just For Laughs; roles in film and TV projects like The Grand Seduction and Republic of Doyle; several Canadian Screen Awards and Canadian Comedy Awards; and his role on 22 Minutes, for which he also writes. Critch has photobombed the Prime Minister while shirtless, offered Baywatch star Pamela Anderson a million dollars to give up acting for good, and gotten into a Twitter spat with Happy Days actor Scott Baio over Baio’s support of U.S. President Donald Trump (Baio later made an appearance on 22 Minutes, where Critch and he buried the hatchet).
A couple of years ago, when Penguin Random House Canada approached Critch about writing a book, he was going to write about those kinds of things: he pitched a memoir of his career, a book about his escapades and behind-the-scene moments on 22 Minutes. When he included a bit about his formative years in a synopsis, the publishers were captivated and focused on that part of his life instead. Critch wrote a test chapter, and they liked it and wanted the full book.
Critch says writing the book was a challenge at first. He told himself that if he wasn’t able to come up with something good, he’d just not cash the publisher’s cheque. Once he got going, though, it became a labour of true love for a number of reasons.
A history buff, Critch has an impressive knowledge of historical Newfoundland trivia, but he hadn’t previously known much about his own family’s past. Delving into it saw him taking up genealogy, searching archives and old newspaper clippings and finding out bits of information about his ancestors, whom his parents had never spoken about. It was fascinating, Critch says, and felt anchoring.
“Dad always said people spend all this money trying to find out where they came from, and then they spend twice as much trying to cover it back up again. I think he didn’t really want to look to the past because it didn’t have much happiness for him. His father died of tuberculosis when he was five, his grandfather drowned, he had to support his mom through the Depression and the war. He didn’t have a connection to the past. For me, to have that history is just fascinating.”
There was also a sort of cathartic aspect to writing about his eccentric childhood. “It must be what people who are in therapy go through, when memories trigger other memories,” Critch explains. “The deeper you go, the more you’re like, oh yeah, that guy. Oh right, I remember that.”
The finished book, Son of a Critch: A Childish Newfoundland Memoir, was released across the country in early October. On the cover Critch recreates his kindergarten photo, complete with sweater vest and open collar and a classic wooden wheel as a prop. He’s holding the original 40-year-old photo in his hand, and you’d still recognize him even if you didn’t know it was him.
Everything in the book is true, Critch says, though a few names have been changed. He writes of making his classmates cry on the first day of school when he told them there was no such thing as Santa Claus. Of getting the leather strap across his hands when he was falsely accused of saying “dickie bird” during the Act of Contrition one morning. Of winning over bullies and buying weed and having an awkward conversation during which he told his dad he was serious about a career in acting. “It can be a hell of a hard life,” his dad replied, unable to look at him. “It can be filled with a lot of disappointment, a lot of heartache. I don’t want that for you.”
Critch writes in his book of performing in a production of Tomorrow Will Be Sunday, a play based on a novel by Harold Horwood, at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre. A coming-of-age story of an outport boy, the play saw Critch on stage naked in front of an audience of 1,200 — and his parents evicted from the theatre.
Critch’s parents hadn’t realized he’d be nude in the play. “Mom, never one to see something happening and not comment, started shouting as if she’d been stationed in the crow’s nest of the Titanic,” he writes in the book. “My father, never one to make a scene, started shouting at her to be quiet. At that moment, someone sitting behind them said, ‘Look at buddy, every fella downtown is gonna want to have a squeeze of his arse tonight.’ My mother stood up and turned to face him. ‘And That They’re Not! And That They’re Not! Nobody Is Going To Go Anywhere Near His Arse! Now You Take That Back!’ And on it went until all hands were removed by the ushers.”
Critch’s parents are central characters in the book. His dad, Mike, was a no-nonsense newsman; his mom, Mary, a fast-talking and chatty “news-gathering machine.” Mike Critch passed away in 2015, while Mary Critch died late last year, before the book was finished.
“I think Mom would say, ‘Oh my God, I don’t talk like that at all sure that’s not the way I am my God that’s shocking,’” Critch says in a breath, then chuckles. “I don’t think she’d be upset by any of it. I think she’d be curious to see what people thought of it. I think she’d be a bit proud, maybe a slight bit embarrassed, and I think she’d be the best salesperson I ever had. Dad would say, ‘Good God, why the hell did you have to get into all of that, hey? You didn’t mention that the steps were always very freshly painted. And why didn’t you mention Brother Angel — he was a damn good man. Dragging him down into this smut, this is the height of ignorance,’ he might say. ‘The height of ignorance’ was Dad’s big thing whenever he was rolling his eyes at something I’d done. But he was a great supporter and I think he’d be impressed that I’d written a book.”
There’s an audio version of Son of a Critch, (in case there are readers who don’t already hear Critch’s voice when they read the book), directed by renowned Newfoundland actor and writer Greg Malone. The process of having to read every word aloud, in front of people who were paid to be there to record it, was a good test of the material, Critch says, even if it came too late to make any changes. The sound techs, like the crew on 22 Minutes, have seen and recorded it all so making them laugh was a sign to Critch that he had done something right. “I think the most useful tool for any writer is to sit there with people who don’t care about your writing and read it out loud and they have to stay there,” he says. “You can tell just by their body language how you’re doing.”
Critch partnered with the A Dollar A Day Foundation, a new charity established by Newfoundland musician Alan Doyle, pediatric surgeon Andrew Furey and businessman Brendan Paddick. The foundation funds mental-health and addictions programs, and Critch gave an autographed copy of his book to everyone who signed up to donate to the organization in October.
Throwing the book out into the world has been daunting, Critch admits. He’s more used to delivering his material on stage than setting it in stone, and he had never written anything so personal. He wondered how the book would be accepted and how long before it would end up in the bargain bin. So far so good, however, and he’s been thinking about what to do for his second book. It might be a sequel, he says, or maybe a book of essays, depending on how things go.
“To try and write a book like this, you’re just trying to be as honest as you can, as interesting as you can, yet still have people talk to you at Sobeys. That was my key.”
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here.
Son of a Critch: A Childish Newfoundland Memoir
by Mark Critch is available now.
Published by Viking Canada