Comedy writers Mike Allison and Heidi Brander take a break from creating sketches for This Hour Has 22 Minutes in Halifax. Their strong Maritime connections allow them to add regional insight to the show. Brander grew up on P.E.I. while Mike spent his summers at Sunset Campground and later worked as an actor/director with Feast Dinner Theatres.
Comedy writing is no laughing matter for Heidi Brander and Mike Allison.
It’s something they take very seriously.
These P.E.I.-rooted comedy writers are constantly sourcing and mining raw materials, hoping to turn their findings into laughter-generating gems for the award-winning CBC comedy show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The show airs Tuesdays on CBC-TV.
“I pore over the Internet to see what’s in the news. Usually if my friends see an interesting news story they’ll forward it to me,” says Brander, a newcomer who is adding her voice to the show this season.
When one of her Island contacts emailed her a story about the P.E.I. government investing $140,000 in bingo, she and Allison quickly transformed it into a sidesplitting sketch, the inside scoop on the Island government’s controversial bingo enhancement program, which led to lots of laughter.
“That was the greatest gift she could have ever given me. Other times ideas come from real life. I had a terrible Air Canada experience over Christmas, so I wrote a sketch about it that made it on the show. It was pretty cool revenge.
“I have no idea what sketches of mine will be on in the future, but I can guarantee that any (pun-filled) desk joke that is punctuated by slide whistle is usually mine,” says Brander with a laugh.
After collecting ideas, the writers decide how they’re going to create the sketches, using commercial parodies, monologues, interviews or songs.
“The ideas are pitched at a meeting Tuesday morning and we have until Wednesday at noon to write four to six sketches,” says Brander who enjoys the adrenalin-filled creative process.
“We write all night long. I’ll usually start by mapping out the structure of the sketch, figuring out where I want to go with it and then I’ll just start writing whatever pops into my head.
“I’ve learned that if you get too picky about what you put down on paper then you’ll never write anything down. It’s easier to edit later than to self-edit while you write. After the sketch is written, I’ll usually have a glass of wine and punch everything up with more jokes,” she says.
The next day the sketches are pored over by the creative team.
“They have to be chosen from a table and read by the actors, with all the production team and crew in attendance. The funny ones move on to the next step. That’s maybe 10 sketches a week,” says Allison who, along with Brander, is one the 15 writers who contribute to the show, including cast members.
“After that point the various departments — hair/makeup, costumes, props, music, graphics — all go to work putting together what we need for when the sketch is taped on Thursday or Friday or sometimes live on Monday night.
“We have an amazing team. The cast is incredible and it’s really an honour to write for them week after week,” says Allison, one of the inventors of the P.E.I. Witness News segment with Albert Howell and Mark Critch, an appropriate project given that his mother is originally from the Island and he spent his summers at Sunset Campground.
The team has also been working on a live version of that sketch that will be taped in Charlottetown this Friday when the cast comes to P.E.I. to film segments for an upcoming broadcast.
“I love those sketches because they come from a loving place, poking fun of small town news .... I (especially) like how all the characters are named Gallant. That’s been a fun running gag to play with. Different versions of those sketches have been running for a couple of years now, but having Heidi (another Prince Edward Islander) around this season has really added a higher level of authenticity to them,” says Allison, adding the cast of 22 Minutes will be welcoming fans of all ages to a public Meet and Greet on March 20 at the Old Triangle Irish Alehouse, second floor, 89 University Ave., Charlottetown, 7-9 p.m.
For Brander, the lessons of laughter started early.
“In junior high, I was really shy and had no friends, so one day I handed in a funny story for my English assignment. The next day I was sick and stayed home.
“But the day after that I came back to school and I had friends. The teacher had read my story to the class while I was absent, and people kept coming up to me all day to tell me they thought it was hilarious. So, basically, I chose a career in comedy because overwise I would have no friends,” she says, with a laugh.
In high school it became a natural way to fit in.
“My friends were always on board to let me dress them up in wigs and film them acting out different scripts I had written,” says the Charlottetown native, who took creative writing and visual communications among her classes at Colonel Gray High School.
“My teachers let me turn in totally ridiculous projects and still gave me good marks. If they didn’t have such a great sense of humour, I probably would
have looked at (the) least bad mark on my report card and
pursued a career in gym,” says Brander, with a laugh.
This classroom experiences with Ms. Bovaird and Mr. Holton, as well the stash of old joke books that her grandfather, George Brander, kept in basement fueled her funny fire.
“He had everything — 101 Dog Jokes, 101 Monster Jokes, 101 Elephant Jokes. These (were filled with) really great, cheesy jokes like, ‘what do sea monsters eat? fish and ships.’
“The jokes I write now are just as cheesy, so my Grampie’s collection has obviously influenced me,” says Brander who went on to study television scripting, sketch writing and film at George Brown College, The Second City and Queens University, respectively.
Similarly, Allison’s pursuit of laughter started at an early age.
“I was a class clown in high school, but a mean one. I got a lot of laughs at other people’s expense, which I thought was cool at the time. I’d like to think I’ve grown since then but there’s still a bit of that side of me that comes out now that I’m writing for a political comedy show,” says the comedian who studied at Acadia and Mount Allison universities
“I’d much rather write things to make other people look good than to make myself look funny. Maybe that’s me atoning for being a jerk in high school.”
IF YOU GO
This Hour Has 22 Minutes
The cast and crew of This Hour has 22 Minutes will be on P.E.I. on Friday, March 21, filming two sketches outside in downtown Charlottetown for the show’s March 25 broadcast. That includes Cathy Jones, Mark Critch, Shaun Majumder and Susan Kent.
“We’re delighted to coming to Charlottetown to film segments for our upcoming broadcast,” says Terri McCulloch, 22 Minutes publicist, “We have a huge base of very keen fans on the Island and our cast is very excited to meet many them at our evening fan event.”
The cast of 22 Minutes will also be welcoming fans of all ages to a meet and greet on Thursday, March 20, 7-9 p.m., at The Old Triangle Irish Alehouse (second floor), 89 University Ave., Charlottetown. There will be a chance to meet cast members and take some pictures. Admission is free, but donations to the Upper Room Food Bank will be accepted.
Website: Go to www.cbc.ca/22minutes.
AT A GLANCE
Up close and personal with Heidi Brander
Cats or dogs: Dogs.
Favourite vacation destination: A tie between New York City and the Frosty Treat.
Favourite book read: I Don’t Care About Your Band by Julie Klausner.
Favourite mentors: Mike Allison, Peter McBain, and Don Brander.
Favourite saying: “You better work,” RuPaul.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Up close and personal with Mike Allison.
Cats or dogs: Dogs. (He cites his mini Aussi shepherd, born in Dunstaffnage, as proof).
Favourite survival strategy: Always stick close to a friend who doesn’t run as fast as you do in case you get chased by something.
Funniest moment: Nothing comes to mind but I’m really bad for laughing at funerals.
Favourite saying: “Just do it.”
Favourite movie: Wet Hot American Summer.