Dionne Brand

Mary Walsh: Queen Of Comedy Stands Up For The Disenfranchised

by Monica Kidd

Herizons: Historian Shane O’Dea said of you that: “Ms. Walsh has an agenda of speaking for the marginalia, those people consigned by power elites to burial in the footnotes of history. To these, Marg Delahunty gives voice.” What do you make of that?

Herizons: Historian Shane O’Dea said of you that: “Ms. Walsh has an agenda of speaking for the marginalia, those people consigned by power elites to burial in the footnotes of history. To these, Marg Delahunty gives voice.” What do you make of that?

Mary Walsh: I suppose it’s like when we did the Codco TV series. We were very, very popular in Montreal with the Anglo Montreal population because we are always fairly popular with the disenfranchised, being from the edge—off the edge, I guess. But that is what comedy is, anyway. Who are comedians speaking for? Comedians aren’t speaking for the king. That’s what satire is all about. So I guess if we weren’t doing that, I wouldn’t be doing my job.

When did you make your first television appearance?

Mary Walsh: I worked in TV in 1972 on [CBC Newfoundland’s suppertime news hour] Here and Now. I was a researcher and did a couple of pieces on-air…And then we did the Codco TV series. And I did Up at Ours. Like my friend Christian says, I’ve had a television series since birth.

What drew you to satire?

Mary Walsh: When we started Codco, we were just making fun of the way people perceived Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders. We were making fun of the perception of Newfoundlanders as the salt-of-the-earth-horny-handed-fisherfolk that was very popular then with National Film Board documentaries. And we thought we were going to have a great effect. Of course, the very funny thing is that it’s 2006, and we haven’t really made that big an impact. I suppose that’s the kind of take that most Newfoundlanders have anyway, a kind of satiric sense of punching the balloon of pomposity and the established order. The first Codco [theatre] show, Cod on a Stick, was in Toronto in 1973, and it was in response to how Newfoundlanders were perceived in Toronto, and the general public as we saw it.

And how was it received in Newfoundland?

Mary Walsh: Really well. We did a big tour of the island and then we started to write a new show called Sickness, Death and Beyond the Grave. We broke up officially in 1976 as a comedy troupe, but we continued to work together in different go arounds. We never really officially got back together again until 1986, when we went out to Expo 86 in Vancouver.

Were there any predecessors to Codco in Newfoundland? Or did you invent something?

Mary Walsh: There wasn’t exactly a thriving theatrical [scene]; neither was there a comedy thing. There was nothing. I mean, people in Newfoundland have been funny for 500 years—we didn’t invent that particular point of view, that outsider’s point of view.

Still, there had to be predecessors, because where did we come from? We didn’t just spring from the head of Zeus; we were born of Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders. It all came to a head sometime in the ‘70s, [in what] Sandra Gwynn called The Newfoundland Renaissance: us, Figgy Duff, The Mummers. There was a people’s movement afoot, where music and stories and comedy and troupes were all moving. There was an excitement about everything that was Canadian, and there was likewise an excitement here about everything that was Newfoundland.

And it wasn’t just in Canada; it was going on over in England. There was a movement of the people to take over the arts, to blow the cobwebs out of the attics of the grand arts, and to put the people back on stage. We didn’t have any attics to blow the cobwebs out of. We were inventing right from the start. We got together and made fun of what we thought other people thought of us. But all of this is—I mean, I’d be more than willing to talk about what I’m doing now and get through that—but if I have to put together the whole history of the whole island of Newfoundland and theatre, you know, I just don’t have time. You get me, do you?

Tell me about the project that you’re working on now.

Mary Walsh: I’m working on Young Triffie’s been Made Away With, which is a movie starring AndreaMartin and Fred Ewanuick. It’s a murder mysterycomedy set in 1947 in Newfoundland, based on aplay written by Ray Guy in 1985 and performed allover the place over the last 20 years or so. Thescreenplay was written by me, Ray Guy andChristian Murray, and it’s being produced byCinemaginaire, the Quebec company that produced The Barbarian Invasions and won the Oscar two yearsago for best foreign-language film. I’m in theprocess of editing it now, and it’s very difficultbecause it is a very delicate balance between a murdermystery and a comedy.

What’s been your experience working on it?

Mary Walsh: I really enjoyed directing it. Extremely. Exceptionally. I think it was the best time I’ve had, work-wise, in a long time…[snip]