Mary Walsh may have won the Governor-General's Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement last year, but the 60-year-old comedian from St. John's has not retired from being funny or furious. She's back on stage this month with Dancing with Rage, a solo show based on "princess warrior" Marg Delahunty – a character who has hilariously harassed politicians, from former prime minister Kim Campbell to current Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, on CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes for almost 20 years.
This winter, Walsh's play – in which Marg goes on a quest to find the Expo 67 love child she gave up for adoption as a teen – will travel to Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria, before spending three weeks as part of the new Off-Mirvish season in Toronto; she spoke with The Globe and Mail before heading off on tour.
Marg Delahunty came out of retirement to do her Rob Ford interview in 2011 – the one that ended with a 911 call. Did widespread interest in that segment inspire Dancing with Rage?
No, I was already working on [it] by the time I'd ambushed Ford – we'd already had two workshops.
Marg's always been a sketch character – did you have any concerns about her carrying a whole show?
It's not just Marg. I'm in it, and there's also The Little Girl Who Grew Up Next Door to Her Family, and Dakey Dunn. Marg is the star of the show, like Mary Tyler Moore, but the Betty Whites end up getting the funnier material.
Who is The Little Girl Who Grew Up Next Door to Her Family?
I grew up next door to my family. My mother and father and my seven brothers and sisters lived at No. 7 Carters' Hill [in St. John's] and I lived at No. 9 with my two maiden aunts and an uncle. And so, in a way, that's my story – but it's like Marg has macular degeneration and I have macular degeneration. It's easier to write about what you know.
Did you create characters to deal with that personal material, rather than talking about it as yourself?
Characters are just the way I've worked from the beginning [with sketch troupe CODCO]. Being a young woman is entirely a bad place to be as a comedian, because as a young woman, you're expected to look good and shut up. So you create characters – older women, men – so that you can speak. If you're just 18-year-old Mary Walsh, a lot of your interest is: How do I look? Is my hair all right? Is buddy in the audience gonna look at me? But if you're playing Nan in Cod on a Stick, you are allowed to have an opinion.
Is that changing?
You'll have to ask an 18-year-old. I don't think it's changing too much: 18-year-old girls are often spending a lot of time – from what you can hear in the news – having their punanis waxed down at, you know, the Brazilian thing. When do they have time to be talking? They say, "Ow, ow, ow!"
There does seem to be an ongoing discomfort about women in comedy. Even someone like Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a lot of smart articles, wrote that one about how women aren't as funny as men.
But he wrote a lot of ridiculous stuff, let's face it. That's what I really hate – it's like, people are dead and all of a sudden, he was brilliant. He was a curmudgeon is what he was. Lucille Ball created the three-camera sitcom, you can't be much more iconic than that. There have always been funny women – because we're 53 per cent of the population.
Is it frustrating to hear this same discussion over and over again – whether it was you and Cathy Jones, or now Tina Fey or Bridesmaids breaking new ground.
Some 18 th– century wag said – men and women have very little in common, but one thing is they all hate women. There is a heartbreaking truth to that in some way. There's such a struggle and the struggle is ongoing.
Dancing with Rage was supposed to come to Toronto last year, but you got sick.
I did a run in St. John's, then I caught pneumonia and ended up in the hospital, then I sort of got better. In June, I came up to Toronto to visit my son – guy on a bike, tore right through a stop, knocked me down, broke three of my ribs. Then I was laid up again, then I got pneumonia again, because you can't breathe properly with your ribs broken because it's so painful. It was an annus horribilis.
So, you have that in common with your nemesis Rob Ford at least – your opinion of Toronto cyclists.
[As] I was over in the Toronto General, I for the first time felt some sympathy – just some sympathy; I don't agree with him – with his take on cyclists.