Throughout his career, Gavin Crawford has created some of the most memorable characters in Canadian comedy history. There’s Nicky, the lipstick-wearing mechanic, and Verna, the lovable librarian (both staples of his early indie-scene work). And who can forget the pimply adolescent reporter Mark Jackson, or a drop-dead impression of political journalist Chantal Hébert (from his lengthy stint on This Hour Has 22 Minutes)?
Now, in Let’s Not Be Kidding, his seven-part CBC podcast about his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, he’s revealing his most intimate and honest character of all: himself.
“This is full-on me – a far cry from hiding behind a character, and it’s only taken 25 years,” he says on a recent Zoom call from Toronto’s CBC building, where he tapes his long-running improvised Because News radio show. The overhead lighting is so garish he describes himself as looking like “a combination of Norma Desmond and Armond from Season 1 of The White Lotus.”
That quip is classic Crawford. Besides the on-point pop-culture reference and classic gay signifier, he’s attempting to get laughs from an awkward yet deeply relatable situation. Which, in a way, is one of the motivating forces behind this podcast.
Let’s Not Be Kidding follows Crawford as he tells the story of losing his mother to dementia, from his first realization, while Christmas shopping with her at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, that she was confused and disoriented, to dealing with the “looping phase” (his mom’s constant repetition of questions), her desire to keep driving and eventually putting her in a home.
Over the years, Crawford kept notes about what he and his family – his father, Keith; his sister Regan; and his husband, Kyle Tingley, are also voices in the podcast – were going through. In one story, he describes his mother believing Kyle had invented the concept of the Christmas tree, which was sad but also absurd and funny.
But Crawford wondered: What to do with stories like that?
“I didn’t know if it was a play or a book or a stand-up set,” he says. “I was too lazy to write a book, and stand-up is really hard because you’ve got to prepare the audience to not be overly sympathetic or you won’t get the laughs. Once you say, ‘Oh, my mom’s going through dementia right now,’ you feel them going, ‘Awww,’ and it’s really hard to pull them back, even though you want to say, ‘No, no, I’m about to tell you a really funny story!’”
That’s the thing about this podcast. Despite the heartbreaking scenarios – witnessing a loved one’s fear and loneliness while saying goodbye to them, for instance – there are moments that are extremely funny.
It helps that Crawford has included talks with some of his entertainment-industry friends going through similar experiences, such as The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson, whose mother would flirt and come on to him, and author Rachel Matlow, whose father took to collecting and wearing spandex tights, often sans shorts.
Everyone he asked – Baroness von Sketch Show’s Aurora Browne, singer/songwriter Jann Arden and others – agreed to appear on the podcast.
“They all wanted to talk about this person that they cared about so deeply, and all the crazy stuff that was going on,” Crawford says. “It felt like a safe space, which was important because of the nature of what we do for a living, where our brains go and how dark we can sometimes get.”
As Crawford demonstrates in the podcast, his Second City improv training helped a lot in dealing with his mother’s condition. When she confused him with someone else, he would go with it – follow the “Yes, and …” directive – rather than resist and try to correct her.
“There would be times when I would be her 14-year-old best friend,” he says. “Or I’d realize I was a lady at a coffee club. So that’s just who I’d have to be.”
Some of the most revealing sections include excerpts from her journals, which gave him insight into her younger life but also shed light on the special relationship he had forged with her as an arts-loving gay kid growing up in Alberta. (His mom was also an artist but was discouraged from pursuing that and became a teacher instead.)
As research, he went through some of his early performances and has included a hilarious, tuneful and prescient song about a gay Texas cowboy who’s disappointed his mother.
“I look back and think, wow, this was 1999 and I was gaying it up all over TV. I’d get lynched for that now. It shows how far we actually haven’t come.”
A day after our Zoom interview, Crawford DMs me and, away from that glaring overhead light and the Zoom cameras, reveals a bit more.
“I’ve been thinking a bit further about why I made this podcast and it may have something to do with what’s happening in the world right now,” he writes.
“I grew up in a religious society in the ’70s and ’80s and my mother is the only reason I am still here. I had many people who said they loved me yet made it very clear that given the choice between being gay and not being here at all, not being here at all was the better option. My mom never made me feel that way and it was her support and care that saw me through. So in a way I feel the need to pay tribute to that, and to reiterate to anyone out there being told their existence is a problem, that sticking around and doing your thing is the most important thing you can do.”
During the production of the podcast, Crawford’s mother passed away, and so he and his producers decided to add another episode – “A bonus episode!” he mockingly says in the series – which involves her ashes, Sweeney Todd and a graveyard scene that is equal parts comedy and tragedy.
What would his mother, if she were alive and in good health, think of this podcast?
“I think she would secretly be quite pleased about it,” he says. “I think publicly she would say, ‘Well, I think you’re great in it, but did you have to put me in there? Nobody needs to know that.’ But she’d have a little secret smile. Luckily, I’m never going to know.”
Let’s Not Be Kidding is available on CBC podcasts, with weekly episodes dropping Mondays until June 12. The full series is available to binge for Apple CBC Stories subscribers and CBC Listen members.