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July 18, 2004

  • Paul Moth’s Triumphant Re-Entry
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    “Sunny Days is back at the Laurier Reservoir. My name is Paul Moth. I’m joined now by Barry Miller, celebrated local historian, past president of the Hundred Lakes Historical Society and you’ve written a book about the Watershed.”
    “It’s a brochure.”
    “Great. A brochure. Brochures are good…ah…Reading my notes, I was surprised how incredibly popular your segments on local history have been over the years.”
    “I do have something of a following on the show.”
    “Very commendable. In my experience as a radio host these local history bits are just…well, understandably so, given the obscure, really trivial, nature of local history, especially as done by amateurs. But not so yours…”

    Paul Moth has returned to Canadian airwaves, and I for one can hardly contain my excitement. I have been a fan of his since CBC Radio began airing nationally the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland’s cultural magazine show, The Great Eastern back in the mid-1990s. Paul was the affable host of a freewheeling arts and current affairs show which explored the offbeat underside of townie life in St. John’s and showcased the breadth of programming being offered on the BCN (Newfoundland’s public broadcaster, whose existence precedes Newfoundland confederation).

    As host of this Rock-based cornucopia of sound, Paul Moth, was a figure as legendary as Peter Gzowski. Like Gzowski, he had an extensive career leading up to his time in broadcasting—in Paul’s case it included work in Mexican cinema (and merited a Cahiers De Cinema cover in the 1980s), writing a sitcom for Shirley Jones, and documenting his own spiralling addiction (which led to an armed standoff in LA in 1989) in the book The Rocky Road to Recovery, which is still a hot seller on eBay.

    Carriage of The Great Eastern on the Canadian public broadcaster ended in 1999, and little has been heard from Paul Moth until recently when Paul took over Sunny Days and Nights a local show heard in the Hundred Lakes region on CBC Trans-Canada Network affiliate CBNR. The program was apparently about to be aired nationally (Saturdays at 11 on CBC Radio One) for its silver jubilee when its regular host, Frank “Sunny” Day became indicted. (Rather like Martha Stewart, it was for a white-collar crime; rather unlike Stewart, Frank simply disappeared under cover of playing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on air). Paul has taken to the world of regional CBC radio like the pro he is: insulting guests, outing sexually confused listeners, infecting his “antipodes” with nasty parasitic mites, making nonsense seem sensible, and exposing himself and others to his curious brand of arrogant, self-important, shoe-fetishing, self-unaware bumbling.

    Paul Moth is, of course, not a real person. And we should be grateful for that, I suppose. But Paul Moth is one of the funniest characters ever invented on radio, and I am grateful that he’s finally back. It’s been way too long.

    Paul Moth and the world he inhabits is the creation of writers Glen Tilley, Mack Furlong, Steven Palmer and Ed Riche. (Furlong provides the voice of Moth). As it was with The Great Eastern, the foursome are uncredited on Sunny Days and Nights. The conceit of both programmes is that they, and the universes they inhabit, well, actually exist. At a cursory listen, Sunny Days and Nights doesn’t sound all that different from CBC Ontario’s own Weekend programme for the middle-aged and bucholic, Fresh Air. There are interviews with “local” personalities, documentaries done on “location” and even music. But that’s what’s so subversive about the work of Tilley, Furlong, Riche and Palmer: it sounds so much like any other CBC current affairs show that it’s only when you listen more carefully you discover that it’s an insanely funny comedy.

    Take last weekend’s episode, where Paul and his producer Julie Secord drive along the highway to the Laurier Reservoir (“Take the six-sixty six onto the two-twenty two”). Somewhere in the middle of this, Paul interviews a road works crew foreman about the machines they’re using: It sounds just like a location documentary you’ve heard a dozen times except here the foreman is saying over an enormous racket, “Mostly, though, this machine makes noise and pollutes. It uses up billable hours against our bid, and it eats up huge portions of the budget in fuel and leasing costs…it holds up traffic and creates the impression that more is being done than actually is the case.”

    Back when The Great Eastern aired (and, surprisingly, the CBC aired it for five seasons, two of them in the regular line-up), the makers of the program let this conceit run rampant. The Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland had its own massive backstory (its most popular programme was Interred, a series about death hosted by a local mortician) and history (my favourite was the host in 1940 who incorrectly announced the Germans were invading Newfoundland and welcomed the would-be conquerors on-air). It was a richly detailed world (aided at the time by a cunning website that built on that world) full of characters that were more elastically depicted and yet sounded totally natural. Seemingly innocuous interviews were actually Python-esque lunges into the absurd (“Wow. What exactly does this apparatus do?” “It measures chocolate behaviour—confection currents, mousse viscosity, cocoa spectra and so forth.”).  Routine community announcements (read in straight-laced fashion by “Rita Malloy”, who was in actuality a CBC St. John’s announcer!) departed from our reality altogether (“The Status of Women’s Council are holding a Dead Beat Dad round-up.  Join the angry mob as it beats the bushes to flush out louts and lay-abouts alike. ‘Pay-up Pops’ is the message, a mass of muscular Moms, the means! Rendezvous at City Hall at 2:30 and please come equipped.”). Off-hand concepts (like the Newfoundland colony of Ooogobamba, or the bizarre cult of Economology) snowballed over the course of several episodes until they became full-fledged stories.

    And somewhere in the mix was Paul Moth. The genius of Mack Furlong is that he makes Paul sound like any number of middle-aged golden-throated hosts that populate Canadian radio. Every inflection, every query, every offhand remark sounds totally natural. It completely effaces the fact that Paul has a substance abuse problem, a scary shoe-fetish, egomania the size of Labrador and pretension to match. He’s the sort of guy still lives with his mother while waxing rhapsodic about his career as an auteur directing the Mexican version of Benji. He’s a perfect parody of Michael Enright, Avril Benoit, Andy Barrie, Mary Lou Findlay and any other Radio One personality you’d care to name: self-righteous, pretentious and oblivious to a state of zen-like perfection.

    But The Great Eastern, while having a passionate fan base was perhaps a little too much for the CBC. “Too foreground” was apparently their complaint. The collective voice behind the series put it this way when the series was cancelled, “The Radio service’s programming is intended to be benign, a ‘companion’ to the listener.” What they wanted was something more like Air Farce and Double Exposure. For me the turning point where my interest in CBC radio finally waned was when they cancelled The Great Eastern in 1999 and replaced it with the combination of repeating of Dead Dog Cafe and extending Basic Black by fifteen minutes. I knew that they didn’t want radio comedy that was intelligent. In fact, they didn’t seem to want radio comedy at all.

    People clamoured for more of Paul Moth. (The CBC Radio website for years had to include a “why did you cancel The Great Eastern?” question in its FAQ). In 2001 we briefly got our wish when The Great Eastern returned with a special in 2001 for the 100th anniversary of Marconi’s first transatlantic transmission. In 2003, we finally saw Paul Moth for the first time in a failed pilot for TV called TownBeat—an updating of The Great Eastern format, this time set in the cable station in a fictitious Newfoundland town. Hope abounded that one day we might see Paul back on the airwaves.

    Sunny Days and Nights is the culmination of that hope. And, in some ways it’s a bit of a disappointment. I can’t help but think the CBC won the concessions they demanded in 1999: the show is a little less “foreground” and it’s slightly more obvious. There’s less backstory. While Paul on The Great Eastern was the leader of an ensemble, Sunny Days is clearly his own show—the cast of characters has been hemmed back considerably, which is a shame I think.

    But at the same time, the satire of Furlong, Tilley, Riche and Palmer is, as always, pitch-perfect. They completely get the patronizing tone that regional radio has on CBC: the banal cheerleading, the inane small-talk interviews, the tedious minutae of local events. And in creating the world of the Hundred Lakes, they make some great potshots at summer cottage life: the useless reading, the addiction to Tim Horton’s, the soul-crushing conformity masquerading as banal activities. Sunny Days and Nights may lack the scope of The Great Eastern but it’s still very funny.

    Who knows whether or not Paul Moth will stay with CBNR. Though I quietly hold out hope against hope that the BCN would hire him again, I would certainly hope that he keeps at least this job, and I hope the CBC will continue networking Sunny Days and Nights over future summers (and perhaps even autumns and winters?) It’s good that he’s back on Canadian radio to stir us from our complacency as listeners. And I’m really curious to learn if we’ll find out anything more about his affair with Shirley Jones in the 1970s.

    “We’ve had a wonderful time during the past week in the picturesque town of Gorgemont. The weather was glorious and I apologize to the citizenry of that fine burg for my actions—it just seemed like fun at the time. And I must say—and this is in no way an endorsement—thank you, thank you, thank you again to Herb and Jerry over at Stubbs Animal Control. You guys arrived just in the nick of time. Very discreet—unmarked vans—and efficient service. Off-air, I’d recommend you to anybody.”

    • If you want to find some more about The Great Eastern, try googling it. There are sites out there that still have episodes in MP3 format.


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