On December 31st, the party’s over. After 15 years on the air, The Royal Canadian Air Farce is signing off for good. An official announcement was made back on April Fool’s Day
that the longtime sketch comedy troupe, a staple of CBC’s primetime line-up since 1993, would not be producing new shows beyond New Year’s Eve. This means that the program’s sixteenth and final season will be uncharacteristically short. By the end of the year, only 10 shows will have aired. (Normally, 22 episodes make up a full season.)
Without a doubt, they will be missed. They are responsible for producing some of the biggest laughs on Television. But, more importantly, they are the most gracious, easygoing group of Canadians you’d ever want to meet. How do I know this? I was their intern once.
When I was a TV Broadcasting student at Mohawk College, like anybody else enrolled in the program, I needed a co-op placement in order to graduate. However, there were problems. I couldn’t decide where I wanted to go. I wasn’t exactly rolling in dough. I didn’t own a car which greatly limited my choices. (I never did get my licence. Too fearful.) And, most importantly, there wasn’t a lot of time to make things happen. With Christmas 1995 fast approaching, Mom suggested The Air Farce TV show at CBC. Great idea. (We both became fans of the show after stumbling upon it during a fateful channel surf back in ’93.) The program was taped in Toronto, about an hour away from Hamilton, so distance wasn’t an issue. Originally, my Aunt and Uncle, who live in Brampton, agreed to let me stay with them during my work term. But while that gesture was appreciated, it turned out to be unnecessary. I ended up taking the GO Bus to The Big Smoke and back home again every day during my placement.
It took a while but after a couple rounds of phone tag, I finally managed to get a hold of the show’s personable Line Producer Laura Buchanan. (Ken Johnstone, a CBC executive who visited our TV class to do a lecture and answer questions, gave me her number.) I had faxed her an embarrasingly gushy letter hoping the show would take me on temporarily as their intern. (I overemphasized that they didn’t have to pay me.) They were up for it and I was relieved.
On Monday, February 26th, 1996, I began my four-week internship. It marked the first time I’ve ever travelled to Toronto alone. It’s an overwhelming experience being there. You feel like such a tiny speck amongst these massive skyscrapers. The show was expecting me at 10 a.m. but the Toronto Express GO Bus dropped me off at the corner of University and Wellington a little after 9. (I didn’t want to be late on my first day so I made sure to get there ridiculously early.) Not realizing that first day that the CBC building on Front St. was just a couple of blocks away from that first GO Bus stop, I ended up wandering around the city killing time. The CITY-TV studios on Queen St. weren’t that far away and for the second time in my life, I had my say on Speakers Corner. (The first time occurred back in 1991 during a music class trip to see The Phantom Of The Opera at Pantages.) “For two minutes,” I later noted in my five-page report for school, “I praised the movie, Dead Man Walking and complained about it not being nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Also, I talked about my internship at CBC and even raved about the show I was going to work on: the Royal Canadian Air Farce.”. To say I was more than a little excited about all of this goes without saying. By the way, I would love to know if any or all of my Speakers Corner silliness still exists on tape. Who knows for sure if either of my two appearances ever aired or not? I don’t remember ever seeing any of it.
Not too long after that, I made my way to Front St. It was still too early but I had waited long enough.
You know, it’s hard to miss the CBC studios. The twelve-story building, admittedly, not the biggest piece of architecture in Toronto, is distinguishable thanks to all of these red crosses that cover every single window. As I noted in my college report, “I’m sure someone has mistakenly walked in hoping to donate blood.”.
There are three entrances to the building: one on Wellington, another on John and, of course, the Front St. entrance, which is how I made my way inside that sunny morning. “[T]he first thing I noticed,” according to my report, “was this movable, rectangular sign that had the Royal Canadian Air Farce TV logo on it…” Directly on the left were the security team. Straight ahead were steps leading to the atrium which hosted the set of CBC’s 2008 Federal Election Coverage. (TV doesn’t do it justice. It’s an atmospheric location.) There was a little variety store off to the right where I bought four issues of – what else? – Variety Magazine. (I finally read all of them last year and they’ve since been recycled.)
I checked in with security and informed them of why I was there. They asked me to sign my name “in this special book they had”. Then, they gave me a “Visitor/Visiteur” sticker which I could only wear that day. It went right on my sweater. I still have it.
Employees of the Corporation are given these cards that allow them to get in and out of the building without any hassle. They would swipe them on this security device that would let them pass freely through this turnstile. Everybody else had to wait until the security people approved their presence and then manually turn off this security measure that was blocking their way. All I had to do that day was show my pass and there wouldn’t be any problems.
Before they would let me through, I was instructed to take the burgundy elevators up to the eighth floor where the Air Farce offices were located. Lisa Thomson, “one of the Program Co-ordinators who joined the show’s staff during its second season on CBC Television, was there to greet me,” I noted in my college report. She was a short but lovely brunette who was very polite. Only once did she ever have a problem with me. (More on that later.) We made small talk as we headed to the Air Farce offices.
The amazing thing about the staff on the show was their professionalism. There wasn’t much gossiping, very rarely was there any inter-office hostility and no one ever had to be disciplined for troublemaking. (Well, except me. More on that later.) If any of that stuff did happen, I never witnessed it. For a satirical sketch series, there was a lot of warmth and affection. Everyone I met on the show welcomed me aboard. With the exception of this one obnoxious female intern (more on her later), they were all very nice.
When Lisa and I arrived, “the atmosphere…was surprisingly calm”, I wrote later in my report. “Every few minutes or so, I would be introduced to these people and they would ask the usual questions like: ‘How long are you staying?’…’Where are you from?’…’What college are you attending?’…’What are your life ambitions?’…’Could you wash my car this afternoon?'”
I met with Laura Buchanan who handed me the Air Farce “Spring 1996 Calendar”. It listed key events in the second half of the show’s third season. The entry that caught my eye was the first one. Right beside “Mon 26-Feb-96” were two items: “Spring BBM [Bureau of Broadcasting Measurement] sweeps begin.” (They ended on March 23rd, the day after my last day on the show.) and “Intern Dennis Earl begins.” Very cool. Curiously, nowhere on the three-page calendar did it mention when my internship was to be concluded. Maybe they were hoping to keep me on?
My first task that day was to look after the office recycling. Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I grabbed the first blue box, it broke. The sides just snapped off. I laughed it off and went about my business. Of all the tasks I performed during those four weeks, this was the only one I dreaded. You see, on our floor, there was this giant blue box. The moment you lifted the lid, there was this unbelievable stench. Imagine every possible fruit juice flavour rolled into one deadly odour and that’s what it smelled like. It doesn’t sound as unpleasant as the lingering malevolence of a fart but trust me, it was awful. Every week, I recoiled in terror as I lifted that damn lid dumping all these empty water bottles, Diet Coke cans and fruit juice containers into this hideously evil contraption. It was like Fear Factor. Could I do this without hurling? It turned out I could, but it wasn’t easy.
Much less arduous was my next assignment. I was given a binder full of photos (the first of three they had on file) and was asked to label each one on a separate sheet of paper. “In these binders,” I wrote in my report, “are magazine stills of political bigwigs, famous entertainers, sets of CBC shows and even photos of newsmakers like The Bobbitts, The Bernardos, etc.” Because I wanted to make an impression, I spent far too much time writing out each name (there were over 100 in that first binder alone) as neatly as humanly possible. Unfortunately, I misspelled Ron MacLean’s last name. (I wrote “Mc” instead of “Mac”. D’oh!) That aside, everything looked perfect. Looking back, why didn’t I just type out all the names?
It was an auspicious beginning to an enlightening firsthand experience working on a TV show. And it was about to get a whole lot more entertaining.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, October 31, 2008