Queen of Comedy
By Jennifer Wood
Cover Photograph by Lisa MacIntosh
Mary Walsh, creator of one of Canada’s most successful and longest-running comedy series to date, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, recently added national best-selling author to her enviable list of talents and accomplishments. (Her debut novel, Crying for the Moon, was published in 2017.) She was also the creator, writer and producer of the award-winning Hatching, Matching and Dispatching, and has made regular appearances in Republic of Doyle, Rookie Blue and Sensitive Skin. She has played roles in 15 films, including A Christmas Fury, a hilarious comedy she also wrote. The Maritime Edit’s Senior Editor, Jennifer Wood, met with her to get the lowdown on staying at the top of your game over three decades in show business.
It wasn’t an easy start for Walsh, who grew up in an unpredictable environment marred by rampant alcoholism. The second youngest of eight children, at the age of one year she was sent to live with her two aunts and one uncle in an upstairs apartment while the rest of her family continued to live downstairs. Her aunts and uncle, specifically her aunt Mae, provided her with a loving and supportive foundation that she would have received from her parents. However, the decision to send her away while the rest of her family continued to live together left an indelible mark on Walsh, who later overcame her own struggles with alcoholism. At 19, she joined Newfoundland comedy troupe, CODCO, and when the company disbanded in 1992 she created the multi-award-winning This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Original cast members of that show included fellow Newfoundlanders Rick Mercer, Cathy Jones (whom she had worked with at CODCO) and Greg Thorney. It was there that, among other characters, Walsh created the legendary Marg Delahunty — later transformed to the Marg! Princess Warrior character who rose to stardom for her ability to brazenly approach national icons and ask them questions and give them advice (in her signature grandmotherly tone) about contentious, often political issues. One of Marg! Princess Warrior’s most notable and hilarious encounters included a sloppy make-out session with former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Princess Warrior quickly described the experience as “like kissing a stick!”
This exceptional actress, comedian, director and social activist has enjoyed a career that has made her one of the most recognizable celebrities in Canada. Her awards and honours, too many to list in their entirety, include 18 Gemini Awards, a Canadian Comedy Icon Award, and a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement. As a philanthropist and activist, she has served as a spokesperson for OXFAM Canada’s human rights campaign and received their prestigious Spirit of Change Award for her dedication to eradicating poverty and ensuring access to public services. She is also the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Laws from Trent University and an honorary Doctor of Letters from McGill University.
But amidst all her achievements, it is her debut novel that she is most proud of.
Set in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Crying for The Moon chronicles the adventures, mishaps and aspirations of its heroine, Maureen Brennan, who dreams of a bigger, fuller life in Montreal. It was written in a style that Walsh knows best — full of dark humour, insight and intrigue and teeming with heartwarming and laugh-out-loud moments.
The Maritime Edit’s Senior Editor, Jennifer Wood, met with Mary to discuss her new novel and other aspects of her life’s work and achievements, including the genius behind some of her most iconic characters, pushing through criticism, dealing with life’s darker moments and how she manages to stay centred through it all.
THE MARITIME EDIT: As the seventh of eight children you must have some experiences that shaped who you are today. What was your childhood like growing up around such a large family?
MARY WALSH: I didn’t experience the large-family dynamic until I was about 11, and it was a shock to me because I had been the focus of three adults for such a long time. My mother had a very simple four-bedroom house, and there was one summer that there were 19 people living in it, and my sister was in a trailer in the backyard with her four children. The paradox of this experience was that it was horrendous and yet so exciting. I mean sometimes I wouldn’t get anything to eat! And nobody cared! I could not f***ing believe it! When I was at the other house with my aunts and uncle, it was so quiet and there was a constant air of sickness and looming doom. My uncle had nine strokes, so the priest was often there offering viaticum [last rites], so you can imagine what that experience was like. Whereas at the other house I was often incredibly excited and overjoyed to be around everyone. It was all very strange and exciting in so many ways.
THE MARITIME EDIT: You once said that all comedians are dark depressives. Was this a difficult thing to accept about yourself?
MARY WALSH: Our happiness is U-shaped, and in the middle of the U lies our unhappiness. For me, the beginning and the middle of my life were unhappy. But my latter years have been the happiest. I have a dark and depressive nature for sure, and it can be easy for me to get back into that pattern. But I have a way out of that now. You know, it is hard for me to talk about the darkness because I’m no longer there. One of the things that depressives often do, which is too bad, is they drink, and as we know [alcohol is] a depressant. When I was drinking I was depressed for sure, but I haven’t had a drink in 26 years. You know, not drinking 26 ounces of a depressant four or five times a week — that helps!
THE MARITIME EDIT: The entertainment industry is never short of criticism even though your accolades are numerous and your vast talent is so highly regarded. How have you handled criticism in your profession?
MARY WALSH: I did this one-woman show called Dancing with Rage, and I got devastating reviews. The critics said I should stick to ambushing people. It was interesting because all the naysayers were male critics, and yet the female audience responded really well to the show. So many critics in Toronto are male. I got really great reviews across the country but terrible ones in Toronto: the aspects that I loved about the show they hated. I learned that getting a great review is less wonderful than getting a bad one is devastating. But there it is. You put your whole gut, your heart, your soul out on the line, and when someone thinks it’s sh*t there is nothing you can do — except cry and rebel against the unfairness of the universe. You just need to get through it.
THE MARITIME EDIT: This Hour Has 22 Minutes is so brilliant and has remained a constant on the CBC. As the show’s creator, can you tell us what your early experiences were like?
MARY WALSH: It was heart-stopping terrifying! We started every Monday with nothing, and we had to leap off the edge of a cliff with the belief that we would be ready with our material and do a live show for a Halifax audience on Friday night so that the show could be ready for airing on Monday. It was incredibly scary for the first 12 years. I continue to make guest appearances on the show 26 years later, which I love.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Do you miss any of the characters you play?
MARY WALSH: Cathy Jones and I have been producing a web series called Broad Appeal, which stars the Mrs. E.’s, the old ladies who walk in the park. I also do a show called An Evening with Mary Walsh, where I open with Mrs. E. and I do a little bit of Marg and other characters, so I haven’t entirely abandoned them.
THE MARITIME EDIT: How on earth did you muster courage to show up unannounced as Marg! Princess Warrior?
MARY WALSH: It was always difficult. I think the only thing that allowed me to do it was that I was so worn down with shame wearing that ridiculous costume. I thought, “I am already at the bottom, so what is there to lose, really?” I always walked away thinking of some way the interaction could have been better, funnier, but of course you couldn’t get a do-over. I especially enjoyed doing the set-ups with former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in his office. He was just so naturally funny.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Congratulations on making the national bestseller list for Crying for the Moon! Can you tell us about your experience of writing a novel?
MARY WALSH: Thank you so much! Writing the book was the culmination of my life’s ambition. Like any author I did avoid writing it from time to time, but I am also a working actor, a keynote speaker, a screenplay writer, you name it — I was working on so many other projects at that time so there wasn’t really the pressure to complete it. Sometimes, even when you are given the opportunity to do what you’ve always wanted, you can experience an internal push back because you doubt your abilities. But when I finished the book it was the most satisfaction I have ever had in my whole life. Including sex! But I am Irish Catholic, so whenever I do have sex there is usually a big crowd in the room — God the Father, God the Holy Ghost, and they are very disapproving! In all seriousness, though, when the book came out I was so pleased with having done it that I didn’t care if anyone read it. And in some ways, I still stand by that. The feeling of finishing it was fantastic, but it didn’t last of course. My ambition and greed meant that I wanted to win the Gillar Prize and the Governor General’s Award — any prizes at all!
THE MARITIME EDIT: You are so incredibly busy. How do you unwind?
MARY WALSH: I am an avid reader, hiker and gardener. Gardening is a huge thrill for me. I worked furiously at it for years in that OCD kind of way. I would start at 8 a.m. and finish at 6 p.m. and spend the day relentlessly digging and weeding. If I go out and I do five minutes of weeding, I have done something. Every single minute you put into it you get out of it. I think it is the same with life — except you can’t see it as easily. Gardening is so satisfying. I used to be so overwhelmed by it all. I would start one thing and then start another. But now I am old, and I can’t do that anymore!
THE MARITIME EDIT: You wear so many hats — author, director, actress, comedian, keynote speaker, social activist. What are you currently working on?
MARY WALSH: I am working on my new book, Come Home Here, and a TED Talk. I am completing some work for the CBC, and I am editing some digital material for Little Dog. My son, Jesse, and I are heading to Iqaluit for a three-day festival, and we are considering making a film for the National Film Board about our experiences.
From a personal perspective, this year I am going to work on believing in myself and following my own path. You know, the most successful projects I have ever done have stemmed from me doing things in my own haphazard way — without knowing that there was any formula to follow. The projects that haven’t worked out as well for me are the ones where I was trying to follow a formula, fit into a mould, or be something or someone that I am not. I am going to try to believe in myself more. Maybe that is why we do get happier as we age. We realize that it is alright. Say, for example, I got more bad reviews. Well, I have already experienced and lived through that, and I could do it again if I had to. So you might as well do what you want — at least for the last couple of years of your life anyway…
Crying for the Moon by Mary Walsh is available now.
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here.