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Shaun Majumder, the object of her affection, agrees that she can, indeed. He's in the middle of taping a sketch in which he plays a veteran South American union organizer who is helping the guys who play the Bonhomme character at the Quebec Winter Carnival.

He throws out his arms, the woman hurries over to him and they engage in an enthusiastic embrace. She goes back to her seat, cackling with delight. The audience cheers.

If you watch This Hour Has 22 Minutes every Friday on CBC -- and about 900,000 people do every week -- you know it's taped in Halifax with a live audience. But until I attended a taping last Thursday, I hadn't realized what a disarmingly casual atmosphere it takes place in, with Majumder trading quips at one point with two vocal guys from the audience, and Cathy Jones wandering into the crowd during a break to hug her little daughter. There's an air of frolic, spiked with lots of banter with the audience. It's part of what keeps 22 Minutes fresh and going strong.

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The show is now in its 12th season and it has been revitalized by new cast members, writers and by the enormous attention it received when then-Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish agreed to stomp on a George W. Bush doll for the show in November and promptly got herself fired from the government.

This was always going to be a key season for the show. Rick Mercer is gone and has established his own series, Made in Canada. Mary Walsh is taking the year off to work on other projects. (Her CBC comedy pilot, Hatching, Matching & Dispatching, airs on Monday.) Often, on Friday nights, Cathy Jones is the only remaining cast member from the early and memorable seasons.

In her office, Jones says she wondered what it would be like without Walsh this year. Then she goes straight into joke mode: "I've put on weight. If people asked me what happened to Mary, I decided to tell them I swallowed her."

Jones is also aware that, as she's often the sole member of the old cast appearing this season (Greg Thomey appears occasionally, but not every week), there might be a perception that's she stuck in a rut.

"I feel like taking out a full-page ad in The Globe and Mail to say, "Yes, I'd Like To Do Another Show!" How much would that cost? Probably $45,000, and I don't have that kind of money. Maybe a smaller ad, just to let people know."

Jones's characters Mrs. Enid and Babe Bennett are integral to 22 Minutes, and Jones has her own master plan for what to do with the many and distinctive characters that have emerged on the show.

"There should be a movie," she says. " A Canadian movie that's all about these characters, Babe Bennett, Raj Binder, Mrs. Enid, Marg Delahunty, Mark Jackson. Make them big; put them up there on the big screen.

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"It happens all the time in the States."

Over in Mark Critch's office, he's still shaking his head about the Parrish fuss. "It was just a playful piece," he says. "We were going to do an ambush of her, but then she agreed to play along with us. It was supposed to be a funny bit about her doing a kiss-and-make-up with George Bush. It was satire, yes. And then we asked her to do this promo where she'd stomp on the Bush doll, and that was something that somebody around here happened to have. She did it and it was funny.

"I'm told that she even talked to [Prime Minister]Paul Martin about it and he approved. Even gave her a hug, I heard. It's just that she didn't tell him the part about stomping on the doll. Suddenly, all of the big, big news outlets from the States are calling here. It was insane. Parrish got fired. But all the people who were upset about it hadn't even seen the whole piece. It was all over by the time the piece aired a few days later.

"We do a parody of the news here and suddenly we were part of this news frenzy. It was a really useful lesson in how the media works."

But Critch, who graduated from writer to performer on the show, is pleased the Parrish piece brought such attention. "It kind of clarified who is doing the show this year. Sometimes, here in Halifax, I'd get in a cab and when the driver knew I was on 22 Minutes, he'd ask, 'What's it like working with Rick Mercer?' Now people know about this bunch of performers."

One of the show's strengths this season is the material mocking certain CBC celebrities. Critch does a wickedly funny and uncanny Rex Murphy. Majumder does Ian Hanomansing and Gavin Crawford can do an eerie, hilarious Stuart McLean.

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According to Crawford, now a permanent part of the 22 Minutes team, after a year of regular appearances, his impression of McLean, host of CBC's Vinyl Cafe, brings by far the most response from viewers. "There's an incredible reaction. People think it's so funny to make fun of him." Crawford's own favourite created character is Mark Jackson, the insanely excited teenage reporter who does breathless interviews with celebrities. In a recent bit about the Gemini Awards, Jackson promptly fainted while talking to Tara Spencer-Nairn from Corner Gas.

The Alberta-born Crawford has thrived on 22 Minutes, creating a plethora of characters and writing.

Thursday, Crawford is playing an aging, emaciated English pop star called Sir Jimmy Lane, who has done a fundraising song for the tsunami victims. In a bored British drawl, he's explaining that he and his fellow rock stars feel really, really close to the victims in Thailand.

Sir Jimmy explains the victims of the tsunami in Thailand have served drinks to rock stars and "shagged" them. But at the last minute, supervising producer Mark Farrell decides "shagged" has to go. The sketch is done all over again.

According to Farrell, there have been few problems over the years, but it's good that 22 Minutes is now delivered on Friday afternoon to CBC in Toronto, just a few hours before broadcast. It gives the head-office bosses less time to fuss. Then he shows me what he says is the only entire sketch ever cut from the show by CBC. It was done a few years ago, when Colin Mochrie was part of the team.

The sketch features Mochrie issuing an elaborate apology for a 22 Minutes item about a family in Manitoba who had died by falling through the ice on their Skidoos. It's a brilliant blend of fake sincerity and mockery of people who are dumb enough to use vehicles on barely frozen lakes. Of course, 22 Minutes had never done such a news item, so the apology is an utter joke. CBC was unnerved and had it removed. You can, however, catch it when 22 Minutes is in repeats on the Showcase channel.

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Farrell, also a supervising producer of CTV's Corner Gas, says the show benefits from being based in Halifax. "It's a creative environment here. And it's an advantage to be outside of Toronto whenever there is a big media frenzy that grips the city of Toronto.

"The disadvantage is mostly logistical. Generally, to ambush a celebrity or politician means someone is getting on an airplane from here. And there are generally more politicians and celebrities in Toronto."

The physical environment for 22 Minutes here at CBC in Halifax -- the grandly named "North West Wing" -- is a bit ramshackle, a bunch of temporary additions to the CBC building that have been strung together. The grubby, anarchic writers' room is a jumble of trestle tables, laptop computers and an endless pile of newspapers. I note that of the four writers working there last week, only one, Jennifer Whalen, is a woman.

" "As a woman, I contribute a slightly higher standard of grooming," Whalen jokes later. "As a writer, I contribute funny, funny jokes.

"My experience as a woman working with a group of guys? Whenever something new enters the writers' room, it's always a bit distracting until you get used to it. The guys are pretty used to the right one by now and I figure by the spring they'll have forgotten about the left one too."

This season, the show, lacking Mary Walsh, does have a more definite male feel to it. Last week, with the news dominated by the tsunami disaster, there was less domestic political fodder for 22 Minutes than usual, so the show displayed some of its emerging non-political characters. Along with Sir Jimmy was the surreal sketch in which Majumder played the tiny-voiced union organizer working on behalf of the apparently dissatisfied guys dressed as snowmen.

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Majumder also played an idiotic U.S. TV reporter in Iraq. But he wasn't only busy at 22 Minutes last week. Majumder is a comedian and writer with many projects. Since he was part of the Fox show Cedric the Entertainer Presents a couple of years ago, he's kept an apartment in Los Angeles. He's completed a pilot for NBC, and up here he's also starring in Walsh's Hatching, Matching & Dispatching.

If he goes to the U.S., many would be sorry. He's created an outstanding 22 Minutes character in Raj Binder, the nerdy, perspiring South Asian sports reporter. "Raj is my favourite," he says. "He's so sweet and at the same time it's so sad, because he's sweating all the time, and he can't stop."

By the end of the taping, a bit after 10 p.m., there's a blizzard blowing outside and the audience members leave, huddled against the cold but delighted with the fun they've had. The cast and writers are enjoying a beer or a glass of champagne. They deserve it. This parody of the news business that was startling when it first aired has become familiar to every Canadian, but has managed to stay breezy, smart and very funny.

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