Mark Critch: Spinning stories about his childhood, his hometown and himself

Mark Critch is seen during an interview at the ALT Hotel, in St. John's on Thursday, August 16, 2018. The Canadian Press/Paul Daly

Walking around St. John’s, Mark Critch treats the city as if it’s a tale to tell.

The comedian, actor – and, as of this week, published memoirist – points out downtown buildings, telling their stories with the wide eyes and opinionated eyebrows so familiar from “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.”

He rattles off the family history of one second-floor office’s tenants, spinning tales of helicopter rescues and near-drownings. He points out Victoria Park, which dates back to 1890 and where he’s working on revitalization efforts. He notes a subdivision has cropped up in the place where his isolated childhood home stood.

He loves this little old historic city – and it seems to love him back.

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On Water Street, the curvy main drag filled with boutiques and eateries, a man in a baseball cap and sunglasses leans out of the passenger window of a grey pickup truck.

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“How are you today, Mr. Critch?”

They banter back and forth, shouting small talk about their work schedules and evening plans; turns out Critch’s loud friend is heading down to the pub later.

When asked if they know each other, he shrugs. It’s nothing out of the ordinary.

“That happens a few times a day.”

While some of the province’s expats who spend their days in larger urban centres like Toronto, Critch has never felt the pull to permanently relocate. He lives in St. John’s for most of the year, when he’s not in Halifax filming 22 Minutes, CBC’s satirical news show.

Mark Critch poses for a portrait on the south side of the harbour in St. John’s on Thursday, August 16, 2018. The Canadian Press/Paul Daly

His first book, “Son of a Critch,” documents his earliest memories here – from almost drowning on the beach to graduating from school and pursuing an acting career.

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He is recognized across the country, but at home in St. John’s, it’s hard to tell if someone recognizes him from TV, if they’re “mom’s cousin” or if they’re just chatty Newfoundlanders.

He can’t think of a bad encounter – but after a pause, he delves into a favourite “weird” recurring public interaction.

“I wear glasses and oftentimes a ball cap. People will come up to you if you’re in the supermarket and go, ‘Oh, incognito today, are ya.’ I say what, what do you mean? ‘You’re incognito today, I won’t say anything.’ What? I’m nearsighted. They go ‘Ah, don’t worry,”‘ Critch mimics a knowing wink.

“I go OK, first of all, nobody here has expressed any interest in me, clearly it’s not an issue. But the word ‘incognito,’ which I would never use … I hear the word ‘incognito’ so much.”

Critch seems to delight in these weird quirks in human nature, a trait that serves him well in supermarket encounters and in interviews with politicians. He credits much of that outlook on life to his upbringing in a small house on the highway leading out of St. John’s.

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He recalls sitting at the kitchen table listening to the stories that were like “soap operas” to him, adults gossiping about larger-than-life politicians Critch compares to “wrestlers” in the province.

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“People talking about politics in Newfoundland is more interesting than people talking about love affairs in Newfoundland,” says Critch.

“That is a gift they gave – and no matter what’s going on, to see the humour in it. I think that’s a Newfoundland trait as well, but it’s definitely something I got from my parents.”

His childhood interest in the political ring prepared him for life covering the Ottawa crowd – as did growing up with a broadcaster father, the late Mike Critch of VOCM radio (for Voice of the Common Man), a dominant force in the province.

Mark Critch poses for a portrait on the south side of the harbour in St. John’s on Thursday, August 16, 2018. The Canadian Press/Paul Daly

He remembers his father would cut out newspaper stories and file them away. When he started working on 22 Minutes, Critch instinctively started doing the same thing, saving clips as fodder for future segments.

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“I realized one day, oh my God, I’m doing exactly what dad does, but instead of writing a news article I’m writing a sketch.”

Years spent closely observing the people he covers have given him a unique perspective on his work, on understanding people’s intentions and figuring out how they tick — like watching Justin Trudeau go from Pierre’s son hanging around Liberal conventions to becoming prime minister himself.

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“You see the arcs and see them come and go and you do get to know them,” Critch says fondly, arching those eyebrows again.

“Almost like pets in a way.”

Critch spends a solid chunk of his time working on local projects “to make the place a little bit better,” like Victoria Park. He’d like to do more educational initiatives, like a documentary he hosted for the anniversary of the battle of Beaumont-Hamel a few years ago.

The province is a great place to find support for those projects, where there’s an “economy of talent and kindness that’s a great bank to draw upon,” he says.

Critch spends his afternoons with his two sons, or he’ll head over for a few hours to a Duckworth Street pub to catch up on the political gab of the day. Aside from the regular friendly and sometimes bizarre greetings, Critch says staying “incognito” is no problem in a town where he’s part of the city’s arc himself.

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“It’s like you’re the Cabot Tower or something. People don’t really care.”

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