CODCO

Canadian Comedy Revue

CODCO, for Cod Company, is a pun on this theatre troupe's origins. Founded as a theatrical revue in the early 1970s in the maritime island-province of Newfoundland, CODCO draws on the province's cultural history of self-deprecating "Newfie" humour, frequently focusing on the cod fishing industry. From these roots, CODCO subsequently developed a half-hour, television comedy program of the same name, for national broadcast, produced in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's regional studio in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and on location in St. John's, Newfoundland.

Over six seasons of production history on the CBC CODCO underwent two marked changes without losing its satirical edge or drive to endure in another form. Original CODCO member Andy Jones left the cast in 1991 to pursue solo theatrical projects. Then, in 1993, just months before Tommy Sexton's death from AIDS-related causes, and Greg Malone's departure, CODCO went off the air. The death of the boyish, talented Sexton was a subject of national news and reflection on the role of humour in the television and cultural life of Canada. The remaining core members of CODCO, Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones, teamed up with two new members, maritime writers-actors Rick Mercer and Greg Thomey, and returned in the 1993-94 season in a half-hour newsmagazine satire, This Hour Has 22 Minutes. This foursome also deftly integrated their wacky 22 Minutes characters to host the Juno Awards (1995), a television special celebrating Canadian popular music.

CODCO's pointed satire takes aim at regional differences, national assumptions, politics, sexism, gender roles, gay codes and television genres. The general format of CODCO's satire is sketch comedy, with sets, costumes and make-up that replicate the sources under attack. The CODCO members' theatrical roots trained them to shape detailed caricatures, with nuances that dismantle not only the conventions of the source personas and genres but also the ideologies of a medium colonized by commercialism. Spun from the collective writing and acting skills of the members, and ably directed by the experienced John Blanchard and David Acomba, the CODCO members' sketches show the tightness of well rehearsed scene studies, rather than the loose burlesque of Saturday Night Live.

All four members cross-dress, and their ability to traverse sex roles plays to CODCO's evident interest in social transgression and critique. Cathy Jones and Mary Walsh portray a variety of males, from macho through wimpy, along with their femme fatales, "loud feminists" and pesky middle-aged, bingo-bent matrons. The sketches featuring the homely, dateless "Friday Night Girls" satirize the isolation of women in Newfoundland's island life. Walsh's Dakey Dunn, "Male Correspondent," replete with gold chain, hairy chest, cigarette and beer, might explain the dilemma of the "Friday Night Girls;" in one monologue, Dakey admits to not completing high school and, in crude English, lays out a machismo view of economic and cultural matters as if himself in command of Newfiedom. Greg Malone's Queen Elizabeth and his and Tommy Sexton's gay queens share an excessive style and gay-rights politics that only satire can contain on broadcast television. In 1992, Sexton an Malone collaborated with musical theater satirist, John Gray, on a CBC special called The National Doubt, which features two mediaeval characters (played by Sexton and Malone) crossing Canada to take the nationalist pulse amid the regional climate that had developed since the Expo' 67 celebrations 25 years earlier in Montreal.

Ivan Fecan, once the CBC's "wunderkind" and former Director of Television Programming, nurtured CODCO into a place on the network, first in a late-night slot and later in prime time. Placed back to back with The Kids in the Hall to comprise an hour of "adult" programming (after 9:00 P.M.), CODCO's satiric authority was enhanced by this yoking with the Kids' misbehavior and, in context, with the juxtaposition to the CBC's flagship national newscast, The National (later renamed Primetime News).

CODCO's transformation into This Hour Has 22 Minutes in the CBC's 1993-94 season brought Mary Walsh into her own as head writer, and actor, working in collaboration with Cathy Jones, Greg Thomey, Rick Mercer and other writers. The newsmagazine format suits the topical satire of 22 Minutes, whose title recalls This Hour Has 7 Days, a landmark CBC public affairs television program of the 1960s. Dinah Christie sang satirical songs on political and social issues of the day, providing an ironic and entertaining context for the interviews by 7 Days' hosts-journalists (including the young Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque). By its very title, This Hour Has 22 Minutes alludes to the shrinkage of content and the prestige of the network since the era of 7 Days. 22 Minutes' parody of up-to-the minute news of Canadian, American and international scope obeys the conventions of the contemporary newscast or newsmagazine, but its inventive satire comes from the members' understanding of the unspoken concerns underlying the news, the CBC, the television medium and the Canadian culture.

As well as playing ever-smiling anchor-journalists, the cast of four portrays a range of continuing and new characters, including obsessive columnists, editorialists of the right and the left, and bizarre interview subjects. Mary Walsh's Marg Delahunty, a self-styled "Commentator" with a tacky sense of dress, rails against the codes and inequities of patriarchal culture. Cathy Jones' Babe Bennet, "Sexual Affairs Correspondent," looks and speaks like a hybrid of the late gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and a classic Hollywood screen star of the 1940s. Wearing a persistent smile, suit, hat and white gloves, the "femme" Babe glides through her mansion and verbally skewers men in power (institutional figures such as judges familiar from news items) for bizarre behavior against women. Rick Mercer and Greg Thomey's "The Right Answer" features a fast-talking pair of right-wing "media pundits," Stewart Steed and Steve Steel, who bang a desk bell to punctuate their spitting exchange of prejudices on social and political issues. The pair mimics the rhetoric of shock-talk radio and television figures, with Mercer's character's trade-mark suspenders specifically suggesting the dress code of the verbose Larry King. As television commentators with licence to pontificate on any subject, Steed and Steel embody media style run amuck.

Television and its cultivation of media personas are under chronic scrutiny in the manic monologues of 22 Minutes, often delivered distortingly close to the camera lens. The pace and bite of the satire are reminiscent of the wild flights of British television's Monty Python's Flying Circus and, later, Spitting Images. The frequently employed "in your face" camera technique literalizes the aggression of tabloid TV, and so confronts the unquestioning television viewer, in the very act of critiquing the broadcast uses of the television medium.

Like CODCO, This Hour Has 22 Minutes is risk-taking television comedy in that it tests its own satiric boundaries and is not guided by social decorum or by television's laugh meter. Nor does it play up or down to its television or studio audiences--or to other, live audiences. (22 Minutes is taped before a studio audience.)

-Joan Nicks

PERFORMERS

Tommy Sexton
Greg Malone
Cathy Jones
Mary Walsh
Andy Jones

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBC
63 Episodes
1987-1994

FURTHER READING

Hluchy, Patricia. "Cold War Of The Sexes." Maclean's (Toronto, Canada), 2 March 1987.

Peters, Helen. "From Salt Cod To Cod Filets." Canadian Theatre Review (Guelph, Ontario, Canada), Fall 1990.

_____________. The Plays Of CODCO. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

 

See also Canadian Programming in English