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'This Hour Has 22 Minutes' goes south to cover U.S. election under COVID-19 protocols

Last Updated Oct 20, 2020 at 3:08 pm EST

TORONTO — Armed with masks, face shields, a minivan and an “ungodly” amount of hand sanitizer, a small team of producers from the CBC’s “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” is in the U.S. to cover a rather unpredictable presidential election. 

Producer Nik Sexton says he and two others from the weekly Canadian news parody series have motored through several states to interview Americans about next month’s vote and explore the U.S. electoral system.

They’re also doing fun bits, like visiting the deli Hank’s Hoagies in Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Penn., where support for the Democratic presidential nominee is on full display, complete with a cutout of his likeness ready for selfies. 

“In rural towns I’ve gone to I’ve seen a lot of (U.S. President Donald) Trump support, and then in the cities we go to we see a lot of Biden support, so I think it’s really going to come down to the swing states,” Sexton said in a recent phone interview from Scranton.

“It’s a tough one to call.”

Like many news satire shows these days, “22 Minutes” has to not only navigate shooting during COVID-19 but also keep up with rapidly changing headlines surrounding the pandemic, politics and other current affairs.

U.S. President Trump’s whirlwind journey with his COVID-19 diagnosis earlier this month, for instance, threw Sexton’s team in Washington, D.C., a “curveball.”

“You can’t shoot anything too far in advance, because he’ll trump it,” said Mark Critch, who plays the president on the show, which airs Tuesdays.

“I had a Trump sketch ready to go and then it’s like, ‘I’ve got COVID — surprise!’ So now I’m like, ‘Look, I’m not putting on the wig until the day of the show.'” 

Another challenge is striking the right tone on such delicate subject matter, while covering a nation that Sexton surmises has a “big divide” amongst voters.

“We’re not here to put words into people’s mouths. We actually want to hear what people have to say. And if you watch the pieces, they’re more like a documentary,” Sexton said of their U.S.-based segments, which are narrated by actor Graham Greene.

“We don’t try to trick them or do anything like that. We tell them that we’re a satirical show from Canada and then we ask them some questions.”

In September the series came under fire for posting and then deleting a tweet that said: “Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has tested positive for COVID-19, officially making that the most interesting thing about him.”

Critch said he didn’t have anything to do with the tweet and was “disappointed” with it, adding the show “certainly apologizes for that.”

When it comes to such subject matter, he feels “it’s a matter of finding that right moment” for satire.

“Personal health, there’s nothing funny about that,” Critch said.

“Taking a joy ride O.J. (Simpson)-style and putting other people at risk so that you can be Santa in the Santa parade — there’s something funny about that,” he added, referring to Trump arranging a motorcade ride so he could wave to supporters outside the hospital that was treating him for COVID-19.

The new season debuted Oct. 6 and Sexton said he and his team are staying in motels and conducting interviews under COVID-19 safety protocols. 

They plan to return to Canada “after the election, or whenever they deem the next president, which who knows when that could be?” he said.

“I think he would love it if he loses, because he is already planning the: ‘It was stolen from me’ (speech),” jested Critch.

“There’s no bloody way he’s going to say ‘OK, well, you made your choice.’ He’ll be like a stalker boyfriend. Like, ‘Look, Donald, I don’t want to see you anymore.’ And he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, but we can still get together on the weekends.'”

Critch is in Halifax, where the show tapes with a socially distanced audience at a new studio.

The comedy star also played Trump during the 2016 election, when many polls didn’t predict he’d be elected and it all seemed a joke, Critch said. 

The actor pointed to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s famous quote about how being next to the U.S. is like “sleeping with an elephant.”

“Now Trudeau’s son is sleeping next to the elephant — but the elephant is awake, it’s no longer sleeping, it’s wearing a MAGA hat, it just got out of the hospital, it’s high on Regeneron and its trunk is in the air, so there is no sleep anymore,” Critch said. 

“People often say like, ‘Oh, that’s like Trump on steroids.’ Now Trump actually is on steroids. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen — like a fire in a fireworks factory.”

And Critch isn’t ruling out another Trump win.

“Biden isn’t exactly electrifying. He’s kind of like the man in those ads for the chair that lifts you up the stairs or a walk-in bathtub,” he jested.

“He’s very good looking, he’s kind, he doesn’t say that much. He’s healthy for his age, but he might pass soon. It’s not somebody that people rally behind. They’re like, ‘Oh, good. He’s the other choice.’ 

“I think there’s a difference between voting against somebody and voting for someone. And Trump’s followers are voting for him, because they do believe in him. Especially now that he came out of the cave three days after he was crucified. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, look what he can do! He beat COVID!” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2020.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press