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January 18, 2004

  • Radio Days
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    Possibly the most unoriginal thing I could say in my career as a fledgling columnist would be that the Royal Canadian Air Farce is not funny. The entire planet I think assumes this as a part of their existence, like the laws of gravity and thermodynamics. For crying out loud, they’ve even joked about Air Farce’s predictability on Train 48. It’s a wholly unoriginal observation. As unoriginal as…well, as unoriginal as Air Farce itself.

    I watched an episode of Air Farce while waiting for CBC-TV’s new Monday night lineup (which can be described as: Rick Mercer does all his bits from 22 Minutes without the distraction of Gregg Thomey and the others, followed by more of the same from Ken Finkleman, and then please God, let it be better than the pilot because lusting after Cara Pifko will not keep me watching this). With Air Farce, it’s fascinating to watch the dialectic between the writers who obviously have some funny ideas and the performers who studiously avoid any comic potential. The Air Farce Way is to go for the obvious joke as opposed to a good laugh.

    This week’s episode saw comedienne Jessica Holmes joining the troupe full time, which I presume is a move to circumvent Luba Goy, who is too old to be playing any of the ingĂ©nues in pop culture, and too unfunny to make any of them work. Holmes has a great repertoire of characters, as evidenced by her CTV show last season, but as evidenced by her CTV show last season she appears to have no decent judgment in terms of material. I smiled at her manic portrayal of Liza Minelli; but the sketch she was stuck in made me cringe.

    Again, this is hardly original criticism. And yet, I remember a day when I thought Air Farce was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. My loyalty to the Farce was so great that I used to tape them and buy their records and watched their TV specials.

    It was 1983. The troupe was ten years old and performed exclusively on CBC Radio back in the days when the distinction between CBC radio networks was CBC Radio (AM) and CBC Stereo (FM). The Air Farce did the occasional TV special and tried doing a TV series in 1981 but it didn’t get off the ground. The line-up then included Roger Abbott, Dave Broadfoot, Don Ferguson, Luba Goy and John Morgan (Broadfoot left just as they started the new TV series; Morgan left two seasons ago). I was 13 years old, and I was their biggest fan.

    CBC’s Life and Times documentary on Air Farce treats their radio days with peculiar disdain: at best they were a supporting act to Dave Broadfoot and at worst it was some kind of 15 year audition for the TV series. The truth of the matter is that neither was true. Air Farce was a hugely popular show for CBC Radio, and Broadfoot, while a Canadian comedy star in his own right, was a fully integrated member of the cast, although he was permitted the occasional in-character monologue.

    Oh, and there’s another thing about Air Farce back then: They were funny.

    I say this not out of some glorious, memory-cheating, retrospect. I was geekish enough that I faithfully taped Air Farce on audiocassette back in the day, and I still have quite a few of the tapes. 20 years on, they still hold up really well.

    My favourite of the lot has to be their 13 minute sketch on the patriation of the Canadian constitution from April, 1982. Pierre Trudeau (played with a bang-on-target impersonation by Don Ferguson, who caricatured the Prime Minister as the effete, arrogant tyrant everyone thought him to be the early eighties) is visited by the ghost of John A. MacDonald (Broadfoot). Asks Trudeau: “Have you come to give me political guidance?” “No, to raid your liquor cabinet.” replies Sir John A. The two cook up a scheme to bring home the constitution. (Trudeau: “‘Pierre Trudeau: Mr. Canada’. That sounds much better than ‘Ruthless Prime Minister Invokes War Measures Act’.” MacDonald: “Aye, or ‘Old Fool Marries Dippy Tart’.”)

    The comedy stays within the safe shores of familiar political satire (at the reception, someone says to Trudeau they’ve run out of wine to which Trudeau says “Have someone bring the water jug and I’ll do that trick again.”) and verbal humour (Jean Chretien brings the Constitution to the House of Lords who note that it’s actually a copy of the Globe and Mail. At which point Jean Chretien says “Oh no. What’d I wrap my lunch in?”) but it does so with a mastery of the field. Back then they went for the good laugh and the obvious joke.

    Every so often I would convince my Dad to accompany me into Toronto to watch Air Farce do a live taping at CBC Radio AM 740’s studios in Cabbagetown. I remember one sketch—I still have it on tape—which featured a number of swishy literary types all fired from their jobs at the Canada Council. In desperation, they decide to rob a bank, and the sketch is consumed with their attempt write a note to give to a bank teller. Every clause is pedantically deconstructed and replaced with more ‘literary’ phrasings, such that it begins: “A hold up commences. Speak not…” I don’t think I’ve laughed more at live comedy in my life.

    The breadth of characters was much richer than on the modern-day TV series. My favourite was Dave Broadfoot’s delightful narratives as Sgt. Renfrew of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (“I was sitting in my lonely log cabin, on the fourteenth floor of Mountie headquarters…”). Another was John Morgan as Hector Bagley, the owner of Bagley’s Funeral Home and Pizzeria. Morgan played the opportunistic mortician with deadpan aplomb: “Bagley’s is proud to host its annual Golden Ager’s Ski Jumping Tournament, Jousting Competition and Shark-Wrestling Contest. Details at all Bagley’s outlets.”  Sketches like that had a Goon Show surrealness that worked precisely because they were on radio. You suspended disbelief more readily and entered the loopy world they were in without reservation.

    My romance with Air Farce didn’t last long. By the time I was 15 we had moved into the Mulroney government and I had the sense that I had come to the limits of the breadth of their satire. To this day, Air Farce’s political agenda can be summarized thus: It would be better if we didn’t have anyone governing at all. It was safely non-partisan, populist, and very Canadian. But it left me wanting more, even as a teenager.

    When they switched to TV in the last decade, I think Air Farce’s biggest mistake they abandoned the Goon Show element and ramped up the populist agenda. John Morgan replaced Hector Bagley with the guy from Canmore. There were more sketches of people in donut shops making jokes about how great it would be if we didn’t have anyone governing at all.

    Of course, the irony is their ratings are ten times better than they ever were on radio, so what do I know?

    The Royal Canadian Air Farce was always a sort of satirical comfort food for Canadians. Nothing too spicy, nothing too varied, but it’s enjoyable, and it still seems to have appeal. However, these days it’s more like the bargain no-name brand of macaroni and cheese, whereas twenty years ago it was primo Kraft Dinner.

    But perhaps I’m typically Canadian in this attitude. As Dave Broadfoot once said in one radio sketch: “Some say, ‘Cast your bread on the water, and it will be returned to you one-hundred fold.’ A Canadian says, ‘What am I going to do with a hundred loaves of wet bread?’”

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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