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If there was a time when Nova Scotian actor, writer, and comedian Bette MacDonald wasn’t cracking jokes, no one can remember it. 

“Single digits, for sure,” says MacDonald, now 62. The popular entertainer has now been a professional laugh-maker for more than 25 years, on screen, radio, and stage.

Her husband, Maynard Morrison, at a youthful-looking 72, has been a comedian and actor, as well as a director, for even longer. He was only just into the double digits when he watched the Ed Sullivan Show and was enthralled by the comedy sketches.

“That was it,” Morrison says. “Me and my guy friends started doing sketches, too.” Their audience, made up of beaming mothers wearing half-aprons, gave them their first rounds of applause. By 16, Morrison was singing in a band, which continued for several years, then began his comedic career. In a nutshell, he says, “I loved being on stage.”

What the two of them love more than anything else, is being on stage with each other, making the audience howl with laughter. If their comedy reduces them to helpless tears, so much the better.

“You want them to love you,” says Maynard, “especially that grumpy guy in the front row.”

“I want everyone to laugh for two hours,” agrees Bette. “The world is a challenging place, and we need humour to get by.”

The comedians first began working together in 1987 when the show that Morrison co-founded, the much-loved Cape Breton Summertime Review, was just taking off. A blend of popular music and comedy, the Review was primarily Cape Bretoners celebrating each other, along with the island’s music and culture.

“We were good friends and pals, doing comedy together,” says MacDonald, of those early years. “We became close as time passed.”

Morrison’s first touring show back in 1977 was The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island. Both shows were done with love, respect, and that deep insider’s knowledge, which made for devoted followers. As everyone knows, there is a world of difference between laughing at, and laughing with, the subject of the joke.

“Never underestimate your audience,” says Morrison of their connection with their fans.

“They train you,” agrees MacDonald, “in a lovely way. You have a relationship with your audience.”

“They let you know where the line is—but they want you to step over it, too,” says Morrison. As for subjects of their antics, he says, “We stick close to home. So, we do some political stuff, but more often family and personality stuff. You want to see yourself on stage.”

The two comedians, now married for 28 years, have done thousands of performances together and on their own. MacDonald’s television credits include The Bette Show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and Made in Canada, and for eight years, a recurring role on the hit CBC television series Mr. D. Along with her brother, Ed MacDonald, she also co-writes and stars in ‘Tis the Season, a holiday-themed season stage show, now in its 15th year. Both comedians also performed in two other productions this past year, Made in Cape Breton, and Yours Truly, Cape Breton.

In addition to a 40-year career as a fine arts teacher at Sydney Academy, Morrison is an experienced stage director and a popular event emcee. The gentle-looking man with the occasionally corny, more often witty sense of humour has appeared on radio, television, and stages across Canada.

Both Morrison and MacDonald are masters at the art of ad lib. Typical of Cape Bretoners, they are wary of “big feeling,” or excessive pride.

“Once you get over yourself,” says MacDonald, who has been compared to comedy legend Carol Burnett, “your odds of being a comic are good. But you have to not worry about being silly. And that means parking your ego at the door.”

“With comedy, the timing is huge,” adds Morrison, “and your judgement. You have to be willing to learn.”

Performing at least 70 shows a year, the couple give their all onstage. A good script is crucial, they agree.

“We are serious about comedy,” says Bette. “Nothing is more precious to us. We are always looking for the better joke. And that means a lot of editing. If the joke doesn’t work, take it out.”

“Absolutely,” says Maynard. “We are one hundred per cent for the show. If people are paying hard-earned money, you deliver. You have to respect people’s time and money. You want the show to be great; something to be proud of.”

MacDonald and her brother Ed, an award-winning writer, have been collaborating together for many years.

“I love writing and performing with Ed,” says MacDonald. “We have a kind of shorthand, and we share a sense of humour, which comes in very handy.”

MacDonald and Morrison were both born and raised in Sydney, where they, and their rescue dog, Sadie, now live in an ocean-side area of town known as “The Shipyard.” The two-storey, three-bedroom home features a gracious living room and fireplace, complemented with an adjoining kitchen and dining room.

“It’s a sea captain’s house,” says Morrison, “built in 1936. All the trim around the doorways and windows are gumwood.”

“I took one look at it and said to the realtor, ‘I have to have this house!’” says MacDonald. Happily, Morrison was equally enthusiastic and the deal was done.

The energetic couple loves to celebrate holidays with family.

“At Christmas, it’s all family, all the time,” says MacDonald, who is one of five adult children, all of whom live in Sydney, as does their mother.

Morrison is one of six adult children; two of his siblings live in town. He has three adult children and four grandchildren. For everyone who gathers at the sea captain’s house over the holidays, “It gets crowded and lively when we’re all here together,” laughs MacDonald. “The general rule is, the funniest one wins.”

Comedian Rick Mercer, best-known for his work on the CBC Television comedy shows This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Rick Mercer Report, calls himself a “huge fan of Bette and Maynard.”

“They are lovely people,” he says, “and show-biz legends. Their comedy is pure and comes from a sense of place. It’s authentic, and brilliant.”

Mercer first saw MacDonald and Morrison in The Follies when he was 17 years old. “Singing, dancing, comedy—they had it all,” he says. “It was so professional and such great comedy. I loved it!

“To see their culture displayed like that on stage—it was such a huge influence on me.” On a personal note, Mercer calls them, “the nicest people you could ever spend time with. I’d like to see them come in the door.”

Earlier in 2022, the couple’s home community publicly recognized their gifts. “We were honoured and thrilled to receive honourary doctorates from Cape Breton University this year,” says Morrison. “This island has been very supportive of us.”

Whether you attend their shows to see MacDonald’s gender-bending character Wayne Tomko, the neighbourhood schmuck; or Mary Morrison, the village gossip who’s fond of sexual reverie; or to see Morrison as Martin, the easy-going everyman who gives lessons in how to speak “Cape Bretonese,” you are guaranteed to laugh...perhaps until you cry.

“It seems like there’s a lot of nervousness in the world these days,” says MacDonald. “We have so little control over life. Throw up your hands—let it go.”

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