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Queen of the Rock: Comedian Mary Walsh Retraces Her Comedic Roots in St. John’s

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For nearly 50 years, Mary Walsh has helped carve out Newfoundland’s place on Canada’s cultural map. Now, at 67, she remains every bit the Princess Warrior, embracing aging, shattering barriers and explaining just what makes people from the Rock so darn funny.

 

Mary Walsh has a theory about why Newfoundlanders are so funny. It starts with the fact that only around 500,000 people live on the Rock — “a genetic pool the size of a pudding bowl,” she laughs, quoting local satirist Ray Guy. “So I always think that the first two who came were really funny, and it just went on from there.”

And while Ontario often considers itself Canada’s funny bone — exports include Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Martin Short and John Candy among others — the St. John’s native notes, “It’s not held aloft as something you might want to be: funny. Whereas here, you know, ‘Not much of a fisherman, but f**king funny.’”

The 67-year-old then offers, as an example of the island’s unique wit, a true story about a musician who played a gig in St. Anthony and needed to hire someone to take the gate. When he called the phone number provided, his mother answered and shouted, “Ankles, you’re wanted on the phone.” Later, when the musician asked how the man got his nickname, he discovered that the man had tried to hang himself from the chimney, but the rope was too long so he only managed to break his ankles.

“When you tell that story to people, it sounds cruel, but it just kills Newfoundlanders,” Walsh howls. “Even his mother called him Ankles. So I think that Newfoundland’s sense of humour, like many people in the world, is dark.”

She can’t explain exactly why that is but says comedy is currency on the Rock. “And music. Because I guess we’re an isolated island in the middle of the North Atlantic. We like a laugh and an accordion.”

Walsh is what Newfoundlanders call “best kind,” evidenced by a nearly 50-year career that has earned her the Order of Canada (2000), the Governor General’s Performing Arts Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award (2012) and the Canadian Screen Awards Earle Grey Award, one of the Academy’s highest honours (2019). And she’ll keep you on your toes. One minute she’s explaining how locals have “quite good arses and legs” from climbing the precipitous city streets and the next she’ll drop a line from a 19th-century Sir Walter Scott poem.

For nearly 50 years, Mary Walsh has helped carve out Newfoundland’s place on Canada’s cultural map. Now, at 67, she remains every bit the Princess Warrior, embracing aging, shattering barriers and explaining just what makes people from the Rock so darn funny.

 

Mary Walsh has a theory about why Newfoundlanders are so funny. It starts with the fact that only around 500,000 people live on the Rock — “a genetic pool the size of a pudding bowl,” she laughs, quoting local satirist Ray Guy. “So I always think that the first two who came were really funny, and it just went on from there.”

And while Ontario often considers itself Canada’s funny bone — exports include Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Martin Short and John Candy among others — the St. John’s native notes, “It’s not held aloft as something you might want to be: funny. Whereas here, you know, ‘Not much of a fisherman, but f**king funny.’”

The 67-year-old then offers, as an example of the island’s unique wit, a true story about a musician who played a gig in St. Anthony and needed to hire someone to take the gate. When he called the phone number provided, his mother answered and shouted, “Ankles, you’re wanted on the phone.” Later, when the musician asked how the man got his nickname, he discovered that the man had tried to hang himself from the chimney, but the rope was too long so he only managed to break his ankles.

“When you tell that story to people, it sounds cruel, but it just kills Newfoundlanders,” Walsh howls. “Even his mother called him Ankles. So I think that Newfoundland’s sense of humour, like many people in the world, is dark.”

She can’t explain exactly why that is but says comedy is currency on the Rock. “And music. Because I guess we’re an isolated island in the middle of the North Atlantic. We like a laugh and an accordion.”

Walsh is what Newfoundlanders call “best kind,” evidenced by a nearly 50-year career that has earned her the Order of Canada (2000), the Governor General’s Performing Arts Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award (2012) and the Canadian Screen Awards Earle Grey Award, one of the Academy’s highest honours (2019). And she’ll keep you on your toes. One minute she’s explaining how locals have “quite good arses and legs” from climbing the precipitous city streets and the next she’ll drop a line from a 19th-century Sir Walter Scott poem.

Mary Walsh
Mary Walsh at Emera Innovation Exchange at the Signal Hill Campus of Memorial University in St. John’s, where she filmed a PSA for the ovarian cancer charity Belles with Balls NL. Photo: Gabor Jurina
Mary Walsh
“She makes it easy for us to laugh at ourselves but not to make fun of ourselves,” says Alana Walsh-Giovannini, co-founder of Belles with Balls NL, of Mary Walsh, seen here at Emera Innovation Exchange at the Signal Hill Campus of Memorial University. Photo: Gabor Jurina

Friend and St. John’s-born filmmaker Roger Maunder calls her “the fighting Newfoundlander,” while Alana Walsh-Giovannini, co-founder of the ovarian cancer charity Belles with Balls NL, says, “She makes it easy for us to laugh at ourselves but not to make fun of ourselves … If anything, she’s raised up the perception of Newfoundlanders.”

The charity leader beams from the sidelines as Maunder films Walsh. It’s for a public service announcement at Memorial University’s Signal Hill campus for the St. John’s Lady Ball she’ll host in May in support of ovarian cancer research. Decked out in a red suit and fuchsia shirt, which pop against the snowy St. John’s Harbour and the city in the window behind her, Walsh rhymes off the script with an ease of delivery and comedic timing that delights gathered onlookers.

“She’s been through some difficult and challenging times, as most of us have, but again, perseverance, strength and humour,” Walsh-Giovannini adds. “It’s a Lady Ball, and we figure she had the biggest lady balls that we know.”

Mary Walsh
Mary Walsh, seen here at the Alt Hotel in St. John’s, dreamed of making the city an artistic capital of Canada. Photo: Gabor Jurina

Walsh has been a warrior since birth, landing in the hospital with pneumonia at eight months before being sent by her parents to live with two aunts and an uncle in their supposedly warmer and drier house next door. “I guess they just forgot and kind of left me there,” she laughs, noting she never returned to live at her parents’ home.

She recalls being there, though, a few years later when her six-year-old brother, Greg, threw a bedtime tantrum, putting his fist through a door with the battle cry, “I’m not backing down tonight!” Walsh says it became something of a family motto: “I completely accepted it, that you should never back down.”

And that’s where Mary and Marg intersect. Marg leads by the fists — one clutching a microphone, the other a plastic sword — and verbally pummels the powerful for sport. Members of government are preferred prey, and she cuts to the core of their political essence in the space of a punchline. “If ignorance is bliss, Mr. Martin, then you must always be in seventh heaven,” she once told former Prime Minister Paul Martin. She also planted a smooch on then-prime ministerial hopeful Stephen Harper, declaring, “Not bad, a little cold. Sort of like kissing a stick, really.” She famously sent the late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford scurrying from a driveway encounter back into his house to call 911 and, last year, nabbed Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer ahead of the federal election. “Isn’t it a wonderful time for you to become PM, when all of the racist right-wing nuts have all gone over to Maxime Bernier, and all you’ve got left are the quiet racist right-wing nuts?”

“Mary is excellent at being incredibly bold,” fellow St. John’s native and 22 Minutes comedy partner Cathy Jones says on the phone from Halifax. “I would feel like, ‘No, that’s rude. I shouldn’t really go over to that guy.’ And she was like, ‘F**k it!’”

Mary Walsh
Mary Walsh poses in front of a private home in St. John’s. In an example of Newfoundland hospitality, a resident of the house came to the door during the shoot and quipped that he just wanted to see if Walsh wanted to stay for dinner. Photo: Gabor Jurina

Comedian Rick Mercer, another hometown pal and 22 Minutes alum who went on to host the Rick Mercer Report, says Walsh would never call herself fearless, “but you could certainly convince a jury that she was fearless … and that really resonates with people because I think people often think, ‘I wish I had the courage to say that to that person’s face.’”

Walsh wonders instead if it’s bravery or stupidity. She notes she’s often too impulsive to consider the consequences, “and so it’s later, while I’m waiting to ambush the prime minister or something, and I’ve got that stupid costume on … I’m so full of shame that I just think, ‘Shag it. I might as well just go ahead and do it. What have I got to lose now?’”

Mary Walsh
Mary Walsh as she appeared on the cover of Zoomer’s Spring issue. Photo: Gabor Jurina

Walsh Sowed the seeds of her comedy career in Toronto in the early 1970s. While studying theatre at Ryerson , she and fellow Newfoundlanders Jones, Tommy Sexton, Dyan Olsen, Greg Malone and Paul Sametz founded their groundbreaking CODCO sketch comedy troupe. They returned home to tour the play Cod on a Stick, which poked fun at Newfoundland stereotypes. In 1988, they launched the CODCO sketch show on CBC, satirizing social issues through their unique and sometimes self-deprecating New-foundland lens.

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Mercer says the troupe paved the way for young local entertainers. “When you wanted to work in TV, it didn’t seem like a completely insane notion because there were people doing it, and they were doing it down the street.”

But Walsh had bigger ambitions. In 1979, she and her pals took control of the city’s LSPU Hall, a former longshoreman’s meeting place, converting it into an artist-run theatre, in an effort to make St. John’s an artistic capital of Canada.

“We were really rotted that nobody else thought we were worth anything,” she explains. “We went from being Britain’s doormat to being Canada’s laughingstock because we didn’t join [Confederation] till ’49, and people just pissed their pants laughing at goofy Newfies for years … I think we believed it was [the capital] and that it just needed to be recognized in some way.”

Today Mercer calls LSPU Hall “essentially the national theatre of Newfoundland.” It’s an even more remarkable achievement given Mercer almost burned it to the ground as a teen when he stuck a lit cigarette in a pipe there.

“Flames burst out of the pipe,” he recalls, while Walsh, furious that he could have burned down the 200-year-old wooden building, put it out with her coffee. “And she was like, ‘Oh God, now I have to get another coffee.’ And she left.”

All was forgiven by 1993, when Walsh, at 41, broke new ground by launching the celebrated satirical news program This Hour Has 22 Minutes, which gave Mercer his big television break. The series predated similar news-format-as-comedy franchises like The Daily Show — which made a star out of another Ontario-born comic, Samantha Bee — and introduced the world to Marg Delahunty and other beloved characters. Today, Walsh makes sporadic appearances on the show, but it remained grounded in its Newfoundland comedy tradition as it powered through its 27th season.

For nearly 50 years, Mary Walsh has helped carve out Newfoundland’s place on Canada’s cultural map. Now, at 67, she remains every bit the Princess Warrior, embracing aging, shattering barriers and explaining just what makes people from the Rock so darn funny.

 

Mary Walsh has a theory about why Newfoundlanders are so funny. It starts with the fact that only around 500,000 people live on the Rock — “a genetic pool the size of a pudding bowl,” she laughs, quoting local satirist Ray Guy. “So I always think that the first two who came were really funny, and it just went on from there.”

And while Ontario often considers itself Canada’s funny bone — exports include Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Martin Short and John Candy among others — the St. John’s native notes, “It’s not held aloft as something you might want to be: funny. Whereas here, you know, ‘Not much of a fisherman, but f**king funny.’”

The 67-year-old then offers, as an example of the island’s unique wit, a true story about a musician who played a gig in St. Anthony and needed to hire someone to take the gate. When he called the phone number provided, his mother answered and shouted, “Ankles, you’re wanted on the phone.” Later, when the musician asked how the man got his nickname, he discovered that the man had tried to hang himself from the chimney, but the rope was too long so he only managed to break his ankles.

“When you tell that story to people, it sounds cruel, but it just kills Newfoundlanders,” Walsh howls. “Even his mother called him Ankles. So I think that Newfoundland’s sense of humour, like many people in the world, is dark.”

She can’t explain exactly why that is but says comedy is currency on the Rock. “And music. Because I guess we’re an isolated island in the middle of the North Atlantic. We like a laugh and an accordion.”

Walsh is what Newfoundlanders call “best kind,” evidenced by a nearly 50-year career that has earned her the Order of Canada (2000), the Governor General’s Performing Arts Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award (2012) and the Canadian Screen Awards Earle Grey Award, one of the Academy’s highest honours (2019). And she’ll keep you on your toes. One minute she’s explaining how locals have “quite good arses and legs” from climbing the precipitous city streets and the next she’ll drop a line from a 19th-century Sir Walter Scott poem.

Mary Walsh
Mary Walsh at Emera Innovation Exchange at the Signal Hill Campus of Memorial University in St. John’s, where she filmed a PSA for the ovarian cancer charity Belles with Balls NL. Photo: Gabor Jurina

St. John’s residents beam with pride when they talk about her, though she’s treated less as a celebrity and more like a revered neighbour. One afternoon, as she’s posing for a photo in the doorway of an indigo-blue house wearing a polka-dot coat, a man inside opens the door to investigate. Walsh, naturally, apologizes for the intrusion. “Not to worry,” he smiles, “I just wanted to see if you’re staying for dinner.”

Walsh is also often equated with her most famous character, Marg Delahunty — a.k.a. Marg, Princess Warrior, the bespectacled, gladiatorial This Hour Has 22 Minutes correspondent — whose boldness, no-B.S. attitude and woman-of-the-people aura she embodies.

Mary Walsh
“She makes it easy for us to laugh at ourselves but not to make fun of ourselves,” says Alana Walsh-Giovannini, co-founder of Belles with Balls NL, of Mary Walsh, seen here at Emera Innovation Exchange at the Signal Hill Campus of Memorial University. Photo: Gabor Jurina

 

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