Mark Critch barely pauses when asked to explain what it is about Newfoundland and Labrador that breeds such creativity and talent on a national scale, from a tiny population perched on the eastern edge of the continent.
“It’s something about the isolation,” the comedian says.
“You had to entertain each other. If you didn’t play accordion or sing a song, or step dance or something, you had to do something. And the only thing left to do, was talk.”
- WATCH: Rosemary Barton’s interview with Mark Critch tonight on CBC Television’s The National or stream it online
Critch is, as usual, talking. It’s what he’s built his career in comedy and acting on, a career that’s taken him to the national spotlight, movie screens, and 14 years on CBC Television’s 22 Minutes.
But this time, he’s talking about himself, as he prepares to release his first book, a memoir of his childhood in 1970s and ’80s St. John’s, Son of a Critch.
It’s a self-professed “love letter” to his home city, which he says helped shape who he is today, and traces its way from his childhood home to his first comedy sets.
“Newfoundlanders are good at talking. If you want to get up in front of a bunch of Newfoundlanders and have them pay you $10 to talk, you better talk, because everybody there can talk better than you.”
Isolation and imagination
Lucky for him — few people can talk better than Critch.
As he replays anecdotes of his past, Critch morphs into mimicry, his face exploding in expressions, and his body alternately hunching over or puffing up. He embodies a colourful cast of characters, from the smoker’s croak of a used car salesman, to the quick, clipped Townie accent of his own father.
“Everybody could do an impression of dad,” he said.
That isn’t hyperbole.
Mike Critch was a legendary broadcaster in St. John’s for the radio station VOCM, his voice well known across the province for covering everything from local moose to Joey Smallwood.
Mike Critch was devoted to the news, so much so his family lived right next door to his work.
“Dad was basically a lighthouse keeper, but his lighthouse was a radio station, and Dad was a journalist,” Critch said.
The Critch’s lighthouse was on Kenmount Road, a busy, highway-like commercial area of St. John’s and an excellent spot for a radio transmitter, but nowhere near other children.
“It’s not a child’s wonderland,” Critch said, standing in the field where his childhood house once stood, traffic whizzing by.
His brother was eight years older, and Critch recalled his early years as both isolated and full of imagination.
“You were very much left to your own devices, and you had to come up with something. Stories, characters, little plays, what have you. That was your whole world, in your head,” he recalled, joking he was clearly destined to become either an entertainer, or a serial killer.
“I had no idea how to interact with more than one child at a time.”
First classes, first jokes
That alone time came to an abrupt end when his mother packed a backpack one day and put Critch on a school bus, with no advance warning of what kindergarten was or what to expect.
Critch was in awe of seeing a few dozen other students on the bus. It was even more overwhelming arriving at school, to encounter even more buses, unloading even more kids.
“I kinda felt like Jane Goodall, watching the apes. Looking around, [going] ‘Look at all these children, oh my God,'” he said.
He called the first day “a hellish experience” — he felt like hiding, his lunch was stolen — and he was even more horrified when he got home and his mother informed him that it would happen all over again … the very next day.
Looking back, Critch said he adapted to school and other kids through observation, honing a skill that would become so handy in his comedy career.
“I was just watching, like, OK — I have to act like I know what I’m doing here,” he said.
His inclination toward comedy came early, and became vital as he encountered his first bully.
“I remember being pushed up against that fence, and the guy was going to hit me, and then making jokes about teachers,” Critch said.
“Eventually, he laughed, and thought, ‘Oh, he’s an alright guy,’ and left me alone. And that whole thing about getting punched in the face, kind of disappeared. And that’s when you realized, oh, you can use humour to get out of a situation.”
Skipping school for standup
From then on, the inner performer in Critch took flight.
He said he got his first laughs before an audience at a school performance. He played “the colour yellow,” mispronounced “pupils” as “poo-pils,” and got a chuckle out of a bishop.
Plays followed, and big stages beckoned. By age 15, Critch was skipping class to head downtown to the LSPU Hall, a popular performance spot that hosted late night standup sets.
While that didn’t exactly earn his parents’ praise, he said his mother and father were constants in the crowd, clutching their hats and purse, their seats surrounded by cigarette smoke and swear words.
“I put them through a lot,” admitted Critch.
Critch said his father tried only once to dissuade him from pursuing a performing career, saying, “It’s a hard life, a very hard life,” but the younger Critch stuck to his guns, and the matter was dropped.
Decades later, after his mother’s death, Critch was helping clean up her possessions and came across the detritus she had saved that showed his parents love and approval.
“Every ticket stub, everything in the paper, every set. Things I never knew existed were there,” he recalled.
“They were very proud.”
‘I’m very grateful’
Turns out, Critch isn’t just able to talk.
He can write as well, as proved by his forthcoming book. Critch said he enjoyed combing through his history, fleshing out his family tree and sifting through microfiche to get the facts.
When the writing process was over, “I missed it,” said Critch.
“I got in a place where you do start to realize who you are, where you came from, the effect of these things. Not just the bad times or the crazy times, but just the small, common kindnesses people do to you over time,” he said.
“That really shapes you, more than a lot of those big events, than you realize. The friendships and the family things, that little guiding hand that puts you on a good path.”
While his childhood home is no longer standing and his old school has been demolished, Critch said, as he revisited his old haunts through memory, he came to realize how lucky and special a childhood he had.
“To be surrounded by great people, in a very strange place, but a very loving place as well,” he said.
“I’m very grateful for it.”
Son of a Critch is to be released Oct. 2.
With files from The National