Mary Walsh is a pistol, a loose cannon, a slaughterer of sacred (mad) cows, a burr in the hide of Canadian politicians and the bane of inflated egos from coast to coast to coast. How many coasts does Canada have, anyway?
She's called herself "Marg the Princess Warrior" and "Quinlain Quint Number 1." She, in turn, has been called "immature" and "stupid" and other names we can't print. She takes it all in stride.
Just don't dare call her a "Newfie."
Walsh laughs, "Native people call themselves skins, but you're not going to do it, are you?"
Skins?! Er, of course not.
Laugh at ourselves first
The use of the word "Newfie" that Newfi ... residents of Newfoundland get irate about speaks to the heart of the gist of our topic today: Canadians don't mind if outsiders laugh at us - but only after we've laughed at ourselves. The case in point is Walsh's new comedy, Hatching, Matching & Dispatching, debuting Monday at 9 p.m. on CBC (Cable 4) - a half-hour later in Newfoundland, of course. She was in Edmonton yesterday talking up her new show.
Newfoundland with its squirrely time zone is widely considered to be the funniest province in Canada, which Walsh suggests is the result of a genetic pool "the size of a pudding bowl - so perhaps just the first two people who we all came from happened to be funny. We have the funny gene."
Hatching, Matching & Dispatching follows the fortunes of a family business in Newfoundland that offers wedding, ambulance and funeral services under one roof. "Born, bred and beleaguered" in Newfoundland, Walsh plays the micromanaging family matriarch MamesAnne Furey. The show also stars comedians Mark McKinney and Shaun Majumder. The Furey family is made up. The concept is real.
"In Newfoundland," Walsh says, "it's common for one family to take you right from, as they say, the sperm to the worm. Our fictional family has the funeral parlour, the wedding hall and the ambulance service. Some people in Newfoundland have all that as well as having the school bus service, the old-age home and the crematorium and the snack bar - right next to each other, which is kind of worrisome."
Walsh describes her show as a "sketchuational comedy" - as in "situations of sketch comedy" as opposed to "situation comedy." There's a difference. With the exception of Corner Gas, Canada hasn't had much luck with sitcoms. Skits and sketches, on the other hand, are our forte. Witness the success of SCTV, Kids in the Hall and Walsh's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, not to mention CODCO and the Royal Canadian Air Farce. Must be that Canadian knack for humorous self-deprecation.
So while Hatching, Matching & Dispatching is a half-hour comedy whose characters remain in the same situation, "It's not a sitcom," Walsh says. "I had wanted to write a sitcom, but then it struck me that I'd never written a sitcom before and I didn't even like sitcoms. They really are Brooklyn constructs, they have Brooklyn rhythms and are totally different than what we do. What we've been successful at doing is sketch comedy.
"But what people want in a sketch comedy is to see the same characters again and again. So what I tried to do is write continuing characters in a sketch-based comedy. It seems to work."
Given the "mirth at the mortuary" angle, it's natural to draw comparisons to the already successful series Six Feet Under. Once Walsh got over the initial "devastation" of seeing someone beat her to the punch, she says she realized she might be on to something.
"I guess that the appetite for dealing with death and the big issues has increased somewhat on TV, certainly on cable TV," Walsh says. "I've never been forward thinking enough to cash in on something that's popular. This is something that's been on my mind since I was 11. I obviously have stuff I want to get out there. A lot of people think it's funny. Vicki Gabereau said she thought it was the funniest stuff she ever saw on TV, and that was good, because so many times Vicki Gabereau seems to be in quite a bad mood. And I find it funny."
A lot riding on Walsh
A lot is riding on whether she's right. The CBC is test-marketing three new comedy shows this month. Hatching, Matching & Dispatching is the final one, with Walter Ego seen Jan. 3 and Getting Along Famously airing two days ago. Viewer feedback and ratings will determine which pilot, if any, gets picked up as a weekly series.