Interview: Mark Farrell of Seed, Corner Gas, 22 Minutes

Comedian/actor/writer Mark Farrell has been involved with some of Canada’s most successful comedies, on-screen and off, and seems to me to have a clear-eyed view of the ups and downs of the Canadian television industry. The showrunner for Seed, Corner Gas and This Hour Has 22 Minutes agreed to let me pick his brain in an email interview.

Is it true you were the first comic to appear on Comics! ? Or what was your first TV appearance? Was there a life before stand up comedy or was that the beginning of your career?

I think I was in the first episode. I know I was in the first season of Comics; I think there were 13 episodes that season and I think I was the first one aired. It was a big deal for me at the time. I had just been passed over by Yuk Yuks to be in their TV show. They put something like 80 comics on the air and I wasn’t considered good enough I guess.

I was lucky or maybe unlucky that I haven’t had a job outside of comedy since I left university. I was going to go to med school when I went to Dalhousie but then started doing amateur nights at the Yuk Yuks in Halifax and was just unshitty enough and stupid enough to move to Toronto and try to be a comic.

I had day jobs while in university but when I moved to Toronto in summer of 1988 there was more work than comics so since the age of 22, I’ve only had jobs in comedy. I did stand up and was not terrible, but my hook — white guy telling okay jokes — didn’t stand out from the pack of other white guys telling okay jokes. At one point I was worried that I had made a horrible decision and wrote my LSAT, but Ken Finkleman cast me in a show called Married Life and then in The Newsroom and Joe Bodolai put me on Comics so I didn’t go to law school.

Joe hired me to write some award shows and then Michael Donovan and Gerald Lunz hired me to write on 22. CBC really liked a show Rick Mercer had pitched and Rick asked me to write the first six episodes with him. That was Made in Canada and I did that with Rick and Gerald for 5 seasons. And on that show I learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of episodic writing. I have been extremely lucky.

I first became aware of you through The Newsroom, and then your character morphed into Matt Watts, also a comic/actor/writer, for the later resurrection, forever linking you in my mind. 

Matt (Watts) and I did some Second City classes together in the early mid-nineties and I think he was doing spots at this club called the Laugh Resort. He’s a good guy and a funny one and I don’t mind being linked to him in your mind! And he was a better me than me on that show.

What did you learn from working with Ken Finkleman? It seems like you transitioned more to writing for other people after that? Or how did you transition to a more behind the scenes role?

I think I learned a lot about how to write from Ken, though he never taught me specifically. He was/is a phenomenal writer and he showed me early drafts of the Newsroom; I’m not sure why. But I got to see how the scripts changed; how little there was in stage directions, or parenthetical actor direction, or how few exclamation points. He also didn’t bold, or underline dialogue. Anyway, I’m not in his league; he’s fantastic, but I try to copy his style.

As I mentioned I also learned a lot on Made in Canada; in fact the system that Gerald Lunz and Rick Mercer set up on that show I pretty much stole when I set up the system on Corner Gas.

As to why I stopped doing on-camera stuff after Newsroom, that wasn’t my choice, but seemed to be the consensus of the industry.

How did 22 Minutes hone your writing? You worked your way up to showrunner there didn’t you?

What did I learn on 22? That’s it’s hard to write, week in week out. And that you can’t take it personally when your sketches don’t get made (more accurately, you can’t show that you take it personally). I learned a lot from Gerald Lunz, the showrunner when I started, and the original cast. And I owe a tremendous debt to Gerald and Michael Donovan for hiring me to write on the show in the first place. I worked with/for Gerald for 8 years, and Michael for 12.

I became the showrunner on 22 in my third year, the show’s seventh, and lasted to the end of the 17th.

How do you make decisions on hiring writers and how do you mentor them when running a show?

What I did try to do starting on 22 was have a merit policy of hiring writers. I hired on what I perceived to be their talent, not their experience. I gave a lot of people their first job in television especially on 22. I didn’t do that to give people their first job, I gave them their first job because I thought they could write the show. I made some mistakes in both directions. But I was lucky that I had a strong production company that let me hire these writers and that Michael trusted in my ability to evaluate talent.

I feel weird talking about ‘mentoring” people; I guess because it’s not for me to say I mentored them. It would be like a taxi driver bragging about taking people to the address they asked to be taken to. It’s kind of the job.

You helped develop Corner Gas, which is still used as a benchmark as in “why can’t we make another comedy as successful ?” What do you think led to its success?

In my opinion I did more than develop Corner Gas but my credit says that I helped develop it, so I guess I just helped develop it. I co-wrote the first three episodes, and the first two episodes I wrote (along with Brent) were what triggered the series order. (Also, the series was ordered before a production company was involved) and I was the showrunner with Brent in the first year.

I’ve had a lot of people tell me why Corner Gas was successful. Usually it’s disparaging and nonsensical: CTV can make anything a hit; CTV had to spend the money so they made sure people watched it. It was a really shit show and BBM made up the numbers because CTV paid them off, etc etc.

I think I wrote some decent scripts and as mentioned elsewhere Paul Mather and I did a good job of re-writing (there were basically two staff writers in year one, Paul and myself; Kevin White filled in for Paul when Paul left) and we had great actors and the show made sense, and the star was a likeable and funny comedian. Still if we hadn’t had good execs at CTV all the way up the line I don’t think the success would have happened. Our hands-on execs, Louise Clark and Brent Haynes gave excellent notes, and I think it helped that Ivan Fecan understood production. There was great promotion for the premier and we got over a million, and then we held that.

I think when a show is starting the network owes you the first number and then the show has to hold that number. It’s rare, but happens, that a show starts with a low number and then rises (not just comedies, all shows, American or Canadian). Sometimes shows start with a big number and then grow. What often happens though is a show starts with a big number and then that dwindles. In my opinion in that case there is a big chance that the problem is the show itself. If you start low, you’re generally dead (there are exceptions but this rule holds true about 98% of the time). You might get a Canadian TV renewal but that’s often due to other reasons (in my opinion) than an actual belief that the show’s ratings will improve. That’s why they are so ruthless in the US; if a show doesn’t start big, and then hang on it’s gone. (And I’m talking about networks, not cable, etc.)

Anyway, the best time to launch comedies (Canadian) seems to be early January. (Even when I ran 22 Minutes our best numbers were always in January). That way you miss September juggernaut and before February sweeps. You just have to avoid Canadian Junior Hockey championships, but other than that anytime in early January. Your only competition for attention is a few American shows and re-runs. Little Mosque had a good launch, Mr. D had a good launch and so did Corner Gas. They all launched early in January. It’s really the only time to launch comedies. If you want people to watch. If you don’t want people to watch, summer during hockey play-offs is great.

The launch of Corner Gas was successful and the numbers actually grew. Once a show is successful in its first season the battle has pretty much been won. (On any show, U.S. or Canadian, comedy or drama). It’s really hard to change ratings momentum, either positive or negative. So if you do well in first season and the network does a reasonable job and the creative folk on the show do as well, then you should be okay for the next couple of seasons. (Though it also helped that CG started to get almost American size orders, 19 episodes in its later seasons. And Louise and Brent Haynes were around for most of the run, and when Brent left, Michelle Daly, who was and is great too, took over for him.)

So what I would do if I were in charge is I would launch in early January with old fashioned conventional advertising and try to get a big number for my show. I wouldn’t bother producers trying to get them to hire “promotable” guest stars for the middle of the season. I would throw every single resource to launching the show. And if you get lucky and the numbers stay high throughout the run of the first season, you have a hit, and you can do what CTV did with Corner Gas, start airing new seasons in September, and still be the number one comedy in the country, regardless of country of origin.

Also the timelines were very shall I say American. The first meeting I went to with Brent, David Storey, Brent Haynes and Louise was in early September, and 15 months later we were on TV. That’s pretty quick for Canada and I think that helped as well. A lot of good ideas languish in development and while timely when first pitched aren’t timely four years later.

Why hasn’t there been another comedy to come along and take the comedy crown as an indisputable hit?

I don’t know why there hasn’t been another commercial hit (though Corner Gas apparently hasn’t made any money). There have only been about 10 comedies on non pay television since Corner Gas so I don’t know if that sample size is big enough.

It’s hard to comment on shows that I haven’t worked on. I’ve seen ones that I haven’t been involved in and I thought they were as good as Corner Gas but they didn’t get the audience. And I don’t know why. But then I don’t know why the NBC show called Life starring Damian Lewis didn’t get an audience. Sometimes it’s just TV.

At the risk of repeating myself, I think that if we can somehow get a good show to air fairly quickly, and have it start in January, in real prime-time, preferably at the top of the clock, there is a chance that the show will debut well. If the show is any good, or people like it, they will come back. It’s old fashioned thinking, I know, but for the majority of TV shows, American or Canadian, drama or comedy, single or multi, the first number is almost always the biggest (for shows in their first season), and then every other number is a fraction of the first one. If you hold 80-90% of your first number you’re golden (CG held 105%).

Where did the concept for Seed come from and how did you get involved?

I just got a call to read this script and I really liked it. I gave some notes but the script, written by Joseph Raso was really good long before I saw it. Force Four was the production company and the person I dealt with most there was John Ritchie, and he and the company were very supportive of Joseph’s vision (“vision” sounds more grandiose than I want but I can’t think of a better word). Anyway, John and Force Four were great; it was a fun show to work on and though we didn’t have much of an audience in season 1, Rogers gave us another chance for which I’m grateful. I helped Joseph run it, and we shot here in Halifax. It was a really fun cast and a great experience. It’s a drag when a show doesn’t catch on, but I am really proud of being part of it.

As a creator of shows, how much do you worry about ratings? And how much control do you have over them?

I don’t think about ratings as much as I do an audience; what I want the audience to be thinking at this point etc. I can’t really chase ratings especially if I’m shooting in November and we’re airing in March or April.

The only use to me is as a tool to see if I’m going to get renewed. Most of the shows I’ve done have already been edited and delivered and I couldn’t change them if I wanted to based on ratings.

Is it challenging to be based in Halifax and work in TV? Or does that not matter as much in Canada where production is decentralized to some extent?

The Halifax thing didn’t hurt for 22 Minutes or Made in Canada or Seed or even Corner Gas but I should make more of an effort to get to Toronto. But it really only hurts me for stuff shot in Ontario.

Your wife is … I want to say a human rights lawyer but maybe I’m getting you mixed up with George Clooney. Does that maybe help you take the frustrations of the TV industry less seriously?

My wife is a criminal lawyer; it does put things in perspective. As I’ve said many times before, my job is to bring joy and laughter into the world; hers is to make sure the rights of drug dealers are respected. Farrell!