How Mark Critch photobombed the prime minister

Comedian Mark Critch says Justin Trudeau “may have been upset that I got to take my shirt off before he did.”

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Another day, another viral picture featuring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and semi-nudity. This time, however, Trudeau is the innocent bystander. Earlier this month, Canadians (and Trudeau fans around the world) were analyzing and ogling two separate shirtless photos of the Prime Minister: One, an intentional selfie with a young hiker in the Gatineau hills; the second an unintentional photobomb at a wedding in Tofino, B.C.

But on Monday, Prime Minister Trudeau stood fully clothed in front of shirtless This Hour Has 22 Minutes host Mark Critch. Critch tweeted the photo, apologizing for “accidentally” photobombing the Prime Minister’s photo-op. This picture of Trudeau, who was in Critch’s hometown of St. John’s, N.L., as part of his Atlantic Canada tour, has now been liked and retweeted thousands of times.

Maclean’s caught up with the comedian to find out exactly how this half-clothed “mishap” happened.

Q: Are you fielding all of the tweets and replies today?

A: I gave up. I wasn’t expecting that much retweeting and favouriting and liking going on, it was a bit crazy. I was kind of surprised by how quickly it took off there.

Q: Well, now a large portion of the Twitterverse has seen you shirtless, so that’s something.

A: I’ve made the Internet a safer place; a better place. People immediately got back to work. It was a fun day.

Q: How did you find yourself on top of a hill, behind the Prime Minister, bare-chested, being photographed?

A: Well, Signal Hill is a place where I often go hiking and walking and stuff; it’s a beautiful, fantastic spot. I had heard that the Prime Minster was going to pop up there, and fire the noonday gun, which is a tradition here in St. John’s. I had my two sons, Jacob and Will, with me and I thought, ‘This is a very Canadian thing, you guys should come up and meet the Prime Minister.’

So I went up there, and Justin was very nice and spent some time with them and took a photo with them, and we kind of quickly had a little chat. Then, as he’s walking away, after being so nice and gracious, I had that comedy voice go off in my head where I thought: Ah, I know what I should do now! Cause people were taking pictures. I said, ‘Hang on a second.’ I put my hand on him, and he said, ‘What?’ He gave me this look like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ I said, ‘Look, I just gotta do something. You just keep looking forward.’ He says, ‘What are you gonna do?’ ‘Just look forward.’ And I did that, and it was like, click click click. Then I put it back on, and he said, ‘Oh, I knew something was going to happen.’ We had a little chuckle and went on.

I didn’t think people would find it that funny. I just thought, hey, this is kind of a funny thing to stick up on Twitter or Facebook. Here you go, I shirtless photobombed you. The great thing about the picture is that it’s well-composed: There’s Signal Hill in the background, and then you have Seamus kind of giggling like a school child in the front, Seamus O’Regan [Liberal MP, St. John’s South–Mount Pearl], so that kind of makes it more endearing, I guess. Everybody had a good laugh, but I didn’t expect it to go crazy online.

Q: You didn’t prepare Trudeau’s staff, or Trudeau himself, at all for this to happen?

A: Oh no, no, no, no. He was just walking away being very nice. Really sweet. He came over, ‘Oh these are your sons? Hi, hi.’ And, you know, had a chat. Of course, I’ve been with Justin dozens of times over the years, and I just thought, oh, I’ll do this really quickly. They’re used to me. They’ve been pretty easygoing with all the different jokes and stunts I’ve pulled over the years. So they’re kind of used to me, I guess. They weren’t too worried when they saw me. They just laughed at it. And all the cops, I’ve sort of half-met them all before. In the moment it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I mean lots of people walk around with their shirts off in the summer, I thought it would just make for a funny picture. I didn’t realize how many other people were taking pictures.

Q: Have you heard from Trudeau or any of his staffers since?

A: No. No. Gerald Butts I think retweeted it. And a bunch of those folks have retweeted it. I don’t think they minded at all. Justin was laughing about it at the time afterwards. So I don’t think I ruffled any feathers or anything like that. He’s a pretty good sport. He may have been upset that I got to take my shirt off before he did. I assume that must have been the next thing he was going to do. Because he was outdoors, and there were a few tourists around. I assumed that’s when he was going to pop out, go further down the hill and do the same thing himself, by a waterfall or something.

Q: So you got to take the spotlight away from him for a second.

A: Yeah, well, it’s kind of funny, because people say, ‘Oh, is that for 22 Minutes?’ I was like, ‘Nah, nah, just goofing around.’ It wasn’t for the show or anything like that. It was just a Monday. It was fun.

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Q: This isn’t the first time you’ve publicly poked fun at politicians or pulled a stunt like this. How does Trudeau compare to say, Stephen Harper, or Jean Chrétien, or Thomas Mulcair?

A: Chrétien was always up for it. The great thing with Chrétien was you had to calm him down a lot. Like I’d say, ‘Hey, I need you to come over here and I’m going to make fun of you, or whatever.’ And he’s like [in French accent], ‘Do you want me to put on a cowboy hat?’ ‘No, why would you put on a cowboy hat?’ ‘Hey, I’ll go get a lampshade.’ ‘Why are you doing that? Come back.’ He would get very excited. He was like a St. Bernard who had a treat. He was just happy to be out of the office.

Stephen Harper used to be quite funny, because he has a very dry wit. Of all the prime ministers, he’s probably directly the funniest, but no one ever sees that side of him. He’s a very good impressionist. But then when he became prime minister, all bets were off. And the staff were ridiculously stupid and overprotective. Here’s the difference. Justin showed up, kind of unannounced, and walked around with very little security, talking to everybody up on Signal Hill. Just wandering around; let people come up, take pictures, do whatever. During the election, the last Harper stop in Newfoundland, during the election, the public were not allowed to go to it. They bussed in people from other places to come to the photo op and stand behind him. So you weren’t allowed to meet the prime minister last year in Newfoundland. Your public was not invited to a public event.

Even when you make fun of these people, whether it’s Tom Mulcair, he, too, was always very open to it, they’ll kind of stand there and take a ribbing and other people are laughing. When the people around start giggling and laughing it kind of takes any air of awkwardness out of it. Once people start laughing, generally people lighten up and have a good time. But Harper just wouldn’t go for it.

Q: As a comedian, how do you strike that balance  determining who’s the joke? You’re shirtless, up there on the hill, but you’re poking fun at the Prime Minister at the same time. How do you strike that balance?

A: Comedy, sometimes if you think about it too much then it becomes a bit boring. If you start thinking about striking the right balance sometimes it takes the spontaneity out of it. Comedy is best when it’s a reaction to something. When you’re talking about a topic, and when your friend says something funny naturally, that kind of points something out and puts it on its side, or whatever, then everybody laughs. Because it’s unsuspected.

I try to be fair, and I try not to be cruel or mean when I’m interviewing someone. But you have to push a few buttons. When you’re on a roll and you’re making a person laugh, you can say things that are truthful about them, and then they’ll laugh at them as well. Otherwise, it might just sound like you’re attacking them. If you can say something to people that’s maybe a little bit insulting, but they’re kind of giggling as they are hearing it, if you say something to their face without them getting mad at you, I think that’s the right balance. You don’t want to make it uncomfortable, especially for the viewer or the people around either. Sometimes that happens. You’re watching and you’re like, ‘Uh, this is awkward. I don’t want to look!’ But, if everybody’s enjoying it, I think that works. I just try to be fair and truthful. I don’t like to exaggerate what the person has done, or exaggerate for comedic purposes or anything. As long as we’re honest and not mean, it’s all fair game no matter what you say.

Q: Would you say this stunt was a celebration of Trudeau and the past couple weeks, these shirtless pictures of him, or a satire of him?

A: I think it’s a satire of him, but I just wanted to do it, too, because like, ‘Oh god, put your shirt on, too.’ I guess maybe a celebration of him. People like that side of him. Or some people are enraged. You see comments online where some people are like [in accusing voice], ‘Oh, well he should put his shirt on and go back to work.’ And other people are like, ‘Good for him, what a good sport, hahaha.’ Those are the two sides. I think a joke like that, you look at it and decide whether it’s a satire or celebration dependent on what your current views of the person are. So some Conservative folks will look at that and go: ‘He’s always vacationing and he’s always wandering around. He’s a yoga-hippie guy and he should put a shirt on.’ And other people say, ‘Hey, I like having a prime minister who’s approachable and can stand there and take a joke. I thought it was cool that he was in the wedding photo with his shirt off.’ You’re not going to change anyone’s opinion. So people will either see it as: ‘Good for him! He punked that jerk.’ Or people will say, ‘Ah, good for him, he’s a good sport.’ It all depends on what you already think.

A lot of time with comedy stuff, half of the stuff on my feed is [in happy voice]: ‘Haha, good for you!’ ‘Hey, thanks for making my day!’ And the other half is [in angry voice]: ‘Defund the CBC!’ ‘All Newfoundlanders are hoagie-hogs!’ It’s just left and right and there’s never anything in between. The Conservatives will always say we pick on them too much. It was a big thing when they were in power. And it was like: not necessarily. No, you’re in power, so there’s going to be more Stephen Harper jokes. Now, we’ve probably made more Justin Trudeau jokes since he’s been in, than Stephen Harper jokes when Stephen was in. So it’s generally just make fun of whoever’s in charge. There’s not really any big bias or anything like that, it’s just that the government is who you’re generally going to make fun of, not the opposition parties, because they’re not the ones in power.