Memories Of A Royal Canadian Air Farce Intern (Part Eight)

After four weeks, my time was up.
 
On the morning of Friday, March 22nd, 1996, I arrived at the CBC building on Front Street.  After flashing my “Staff Pass” to security, I passed through the turnstile to catch an elevator to the eighth floor. 
 
It had become a comforting routine:  waking up at home in Hamilton, getting a bite to eat, taking public transit downtown, catching the GO Bus to Toronto, getting off at University Avenue, and walking just a couple of blocks to the Broadcast Centre.  Then, upon entering The Royal Canadian Air Farce offices, it was time to work:  recycling, answering emails, delivering complimentary tickets to CBC employees within the building, labelling and organizing photos, dubbing past shows on VHS, shopping on the show’s behalf in the underground mall (being given money to buy supplies at Grand & Toy, dropping off film at Black’s and picking up the developed photos later), buying lunches, running errands, assisting Rob Lindsay and Sheila the caterer, keeping the printer and Xerox machines stocked with blank paper and most importantly, observing. 
 
Early on, as far as food was concerned, the plan was to eat a homemade lunch and then, particularly on Wednesdays and Thursdays, buy something for supper.  Unfortunately, the underground mall closed early.  I remember trying to open this revolving glass door one time and it wouldn’t budge.  It was late afternoon, around 5 or 6.  It was completely unexpected and scary.  Thankfully, a couple of hours later, when the GO Bus returned to downtown Hamilton that night, I bought a couple of burgers and an order of fries at McDonald’s before bussing it home.  After that experience, I always bought my lunch (a slice or two of pizza, Wendy’s plain chicken sandwich, muffins, burgers and fries) and ate sandwiches during dinner breaks.  On the occasions when I came home early or was still hungry, Mom would kindly prepare something for me.  Ultimately, it was not a particularly healthy period.  I didn’t get sick, thankfully, but let’s just say if I were to do it all over again, I’d eat more appropriate meals.  Far too much fast food in such a short period of time is not a good thing.  It’s no wonder I don’t eat any of that stuff any longer.  Haven’t for years, actually.
 
It was during lunch breaks that I would explore the city.  I would walk endlessly through the underground mall not realizing how far I had travelled.  Back then, there was a huge Towers Records store which I discovered accidentally after rising overground one time.  It was there I purchased several discounted Billboard Magazines for 4 bucks an issue.  (I still have them, too.)  There were two or three floors filled with CDs, magazines and books.  Looking back, I wished I bought more stuff. 
 
It was a lot of fun walking around the city during those downtimes just browsing and shopping.  The only negative involved strange guys either wanting to talk to you or beg for your money.  This being Canada, though, when I turned the beggars down again and again, they always said, “thank you” and went on their way.  (It usually happened when I was waiting for the GO Bus.)  One guy (not a beggar) really, really wanted to ask me something one afternoon but I ignored him and kept walking.  He got really upset and started to walk after me, shouting the whole time.  That inspired me to move a little quicker.  When I wouldn’t reply to him, he gave up.  He looked menacing and I wanted nothing to do with him.  That was about as intense as it ever got.
 
My last day as a Royal Canadian Air Farce intern was fairly breezy, as Fridays tended to be.  The most important task was to look after Director Perry Rosemond, Assistant Director Linda Bain, Tom Wood (the sound effects guy) and Editor Grant Ducsharm from time to time as they put together that week’s episode in the edit suite.  First thing in the morning, I supplied them with drinks from the Air Farce’s boardroom refrigerator (the tiniest one I’d ever seen) and a few hours later, I looked after their lunch orders.   They spent anywhere from 6 to 8 hours editing two tapings from the previous night into one 22-minute program that would air later that evening.  I never understood why it took so long.
 
As the day was coming to a close, Don Ferguson and Roger Abbott graciously agreed to a photo-op.  I wore my red sweater with my CBC Staff Pass coldly wrapped around my sensitive neck as I stood in between them.  After it was later framed and displayed in the family living room, it went missing.  It is around here somewhere.  As far as I know, it wasn’t thrown away.  It’s been quite a long time since I last looked at it.  It’s a really nice photo.
 
My mom had taken it upon herself to buy a container of coffee so that I would have something to give to the show as a thank you gift.  But I was uncomfortable with such a gesture.  It’s not that I didn’t appreciate everything they did for me during my four-week stint on the show.  It just felt a little “ass-kissy” to me.  I worried that they would perceive it as a manipulative move on my part to try to convince them to hire me as a paid employee.  Furthermore, I didn’t remember what brand of coffee they preferred so ultimately, the well-intentioned idea was abandoned.  Mom understood.
 
After saying my good-byes to the staff who were there that afternoon, I left the office, headed to the burgundy elevators which took me to the ground floor and went through the turnstile.  As I proceeded toward the Front St. doors, Lisa Thomson, one of the show’s Program Co-ordinators, spotted me:
 
“Dennis!  Where are you going?”
 
She was returning from her lunch break and wouldn’t let me leave without giving me a parting gift.  So, off we went, back through the turnstile, chatting as we made our way to the elevator.  In a matter of minutes, we were back in the office.  She led me to the supply room where all the bottled water, fruit juice, Diet Coke and Air Farce merchandise was stored.  I had no idea what I was going to receive from her.  Foolishly, I thought maybe it would be a video.  In the end, she handed me a very nice Air Farce mug.  And yes, I still have it.  It has never been used.
 
Clearly, the brief moment of tension between us had long subsided.  Grateful for the memento, I thanked her.  After parting the office for the last time, I repeated the same steps I had taken just moments before.  This time, I made it out of the building.
 
It was still early and I wasn’t ready to leave the city just yet.  Throughout those four weeks, I desperately wanted to see a movie, something that wasn’t playing in Hamilton.  During my many walks through the underground mall I found a movie theatre.  Unfortunately, until that last day in Toronto, there was never any time to screen anything.  In the end, not too long after leaving the Air Farce offices, I plunked down money to see The Birdcage, the popular remake of La Cage Aux Folles, at The Sheraton Centre.  (I don’t think the theatre exists anymore.)  The uneven comedy disappointed me but it was cool seeing a film in Toronto, nonetheless.  When it ended, I made my way back to University Ave.  Darkness had fallen and amidst the snow and sludge, I crossed the street to where the bus stop was located.  Not too long after that, the GO Bus appeared.  It was time to go home for good.  
 
 
 
On April 19th, I sent Line Producer Laura Buchanan a fax.  I had just finished the sixth and final semester of my TV Broadcasting program at Mohawk College.  Graduation was another month away.  Besides including my five-page report on my time with the show, I included a letter that expressed my deep appreciation for the experience.  I also plugged The Andy Awards which were airing on CHCH-TV the following evening.  The bit that I wrote for the cast which was subsequently recorded in one take was saved for the end of the show.  “It killed during the taping,” I wrote.
 
I ended the letter on a hopeful note, pushing for a possible job for next season.
 
To this day, I have no idea if anyone read the letter and/or the report.  I never heard any feedback.  When the summer arrived, with some encouragement from Mom, I made a phone call to Laura.  Much to my surprise, she was no longer working for The Air Farce.  The timing was bad, too.  She was on a movie set, if my memory is good, and wasn’t in any mood to chat.  Needless to say, I never did secure employment with the show.  It’s probably a good thing, in retrospect.  The next several years would be rough.  Panic attacks, periods of depression, no paying jobs, a dwindling bank account and, beyond the Internet chatrooms, a dead social life.  Looking back, all of this heavy stuff would’ve eventually interfered with any possible Air Farce duties.  I saved the show a lot of drama.
 
However, during my internship, two opportunites did pop up.  My college classmate, Sheileen Kew, a giant redhead I used to jump on all the time, was interning at Country Music Television.  She told me that the station was looking for someone to appear in promo spots.  Sounded like fun.  One day, she drove me to the station to audition.  After The Fire’s version of Der Kommissar was playing on her stereo.  We went into this room where a CMT representative interviewed me.  Then, I had to take this cardboard box, pretend it was a Television set and do goofy things with it trying to make this guy laugh.  It was incredibly strange.  The whole process felt forced and unnatural.  In the end, I wasn’t hired.  While waiting in the room, I overheard the CMT guy tell Sheileen I was funny but not what they were looking for.
 
Back at the Air Farce, a very nice prop lady pulled me aside one afternoon in the studio where they tape the show.  She told me about a prop job for some independent production.  She wondered if I would be interested in coming aboard to do it.  There was no pay, unfortunately, and I didn’t know how I was going to travel to and from this location (I don’t drive) so I told her, “I’ll let you know.”.  She smiled politely probably realizing that I wasn’t going to get back to her and that “I’ll let you know” meant “no”.  I wish I had learned more about the job before dismissing her like that.  I also wish that I handled that situation better.  It’s best to hear the full pitch before making a final decision.  Because I was more interested in writing than being a prop guy, that also weighed heavily on my turning down her offer.  Through the years I’ve thought about that opportunity and wondered if I did the right thing.  My life might’ve turned out differently.  Then again, maybe not.
 
 
 
In just a short period of time, I learned firsthand why The Royal Canadian Air Farce have enjoyed such longevity.  This is truly a collaborative effort.  The writing, the directing (including floor directing), the production design (sets, props, graphics), the hiring of extras, the costuming (outfits, wigs, make-up), the camera work, the music and the editing are all equally as important as the performances.  Roger Abbott, Don Ferguson and Luba Goy would all be the first to admit that.  The amount of work they put into each week’s episode pays off during the tapings and the eventual airings and re-airings.
 
Besides appreciating the many talents of the cast and crew during my internship, it was heartening to know how kind and thoughtful they are as people off the air.  There have been many horror stories about what’s happened behind the scenes on a show like Saturday Night Live.  To the contrary, The Air Farce are all about unity.  Every member of the team is highly valued and supported.  Egos are checked at the door.  It’s all about putting on the funniest show possible every week.  It’s never easy.  They just make it look that way, for the most part.  Even today, with the inclusion of a new generation of sketch comedians, the show still works. 
 
The writers always tried to balance out the casting of roles.  That way, everybody had plenty to do and lots of punch lines to nail.  Not once did I hear any of the performers complain about what they had to do each week.  They always looked forward to doing the show.  It was very much a smooth operation in 1996.  I’m willing to bet it still is.
 
Losing John Morgan a few years ago was a sad moment.  When I wasn’t in the boardroom or using someone’s computer to answer email or just observing rehearsals, I was in his office.  He was the only member of the troupe who didn’t use a computer.  A typewriter was all he required.
 
John was almost never in that office and very graciously allowed me to work in there.  It was very low-key, much like the man himself.  There was just a desk with that typewriter (I think it was electric), a small trash can, a bulletin board and a blue recycling box.  During the first week, I looked into that recycling box and spotted something.  It was a crumpled thank you note from Pamela Wallin.  The Air Farce had recently appeared on her talk show, Pamela Wallin Live, and she had personally taken the time to write John to thank him for doing the show.  In that moment, I was very tempted to take that note and keep it as a memento.  Ultimately, it got recycled.
 
Sometimes, John would pop in to check on me and ask how I was doing.  He was very warm and reminded me of my godfather.  I regret not having my picture taken with him.  (He wasn’t there on my last day.)  And I wish there was time to get to know him better.  Not only was he was hilarious and charmingly eccentric, he was quite personable.  I never once saw him get angry.  Like most people who worked on the show, he was very even-tempered.
 
Luba Goy was the only member of the cast with just one job to do:  be funny.  (Don and Roger were also producers and John also contributed sketches.)  The pride of Ukranian-Canadians everywhere, she told me about her son who is about the same age as me.  Like John, she would chat me up on occasion, ask how things were going.  She has a warm personality and a tremendous sense of humour.  I regret not getting my picture taken with her, as well.
 
While doing my recycling rounds one day, I found a two-page letter in her bin.  It was a response to some questions posed by a Catholic high school student.  The second page proved beneficial to me.  The student had asked Luba about the early days of The Farce.  Because I had to write this five-page report on my internship (which needed to include some history about the CBC and Air Farce), her written answer was the source material for that aspect of my paper.
 
Although it was next to impossible to have the same kinds of brief conversations with Don Ferguson and Roger Abbott – they were simply too busy – they, too, were very friendly and easygoing.  Thanks to that memorable conversation with Roger in the bathroom, the Andy Awards bit we did became a reality.  He has no idea how much that all meant to me.
 
I’m eternally grateful to Laura Buchanan who made it possible for me to do this internship in the first place.  She made sure I had plenty to do every day and evaluated me fairly and honestly.  My interactions with her, even when I got into trouble (which was rare), were always pleasant and comfortable.  (It was through her that I learned that every Air Farce script had to be approved by lawyers.)  I always wondered why she wasn’t on the show beyond the third season.  I hope it wasn’t because she played Solitaire all the time in her office.
 
During the course of this series, memories of this period of my life have come flooding to the surface.  Not that they ever left me.  From time to time, I still think about all the memorable moments that happened.  Like the time the entire CBC building had to be evacuated because of a possible fire.  (There was a convention centre across the street and we all filled the foyer yakking and waiting for the emergency to be over.  I can’t recall what the actual problem was and where it originated from.  Whatever it was, it wasn’t serious.  We all returned to work within 20 minutes or so.)  Or the time myself, Rob Lindsay, Wayne Testori and Gord & Rick (two of the writers) nearly appeared on an episode of Jonovision, actor/comedian Jonathan Torrens’ kid-friendly talk show.  (A representative of the program came into our office requesting extras for some bit they wanted to do.  As we made our way to the hallway where things were being set up, it turned out we weren’t needed after all.  Torrens thanked everybody for helping out, nonetheless.)  Or the quick conversation I had with weatherman Bill Lawrence.  (He was about to do a live report out on the roof one cool evening.  He hosted Tiny Talent Time, a staple of Canadian TV for years.  My mom, a dancer, made frequent appearances.  I’m not exactly clear on what we talked about but surely, my mom came up.)
 
Then, there was my one moment of chivalry.  A pretty blond was walking past me outside when she dropped something.  It was a ring.  I picked it up and immediately gave it back to her.  She was most appreciative.  I think this happened outside the Broadcast Centre one afternoon.  When she exited the building a few minutes later, she thanked me once again.  I was far too shy to carry on any kind of intimate conversation, unfortunately.  (No, it wasn’t a wedding band, if that’s what you’re thinking.)
 
Finally, there was the music library.  This place was incredible.  It was crammed with so many CDs, all properly organized by genre and year, that I secretly dreamed about being locked inside it so I could listen to everything undisturbed.  I tried to get a job in there.  I remember having a conversation with one of the librarians when I was distracted by something on his desk.  It was a Mr. Fuji wrestling figure.  Sadly, when I pointed this out to the burly librarian, he had no clue what I was talking about.  Needless to say, I wasn’t hired.
 
With exactly one month to go before the show signs off for good, this is our last chance to see a living Canadian institution in action.  The Royal Canadian Air Farce’s legacy of comic consistency is impressive and more than worthy of respect.  It was a privilege to be their intern.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, November 30, 2008
12:58 a.m.
Published in: on November 30, 2008 at 12:59 am  Leave a Comment  

Memories Of A Royal Canadian Air Farce Intern (Part Seven)

Back in 1996, The Royal Canadian Air Farce aired new episodes on CBC on Fridays at 7:30 p.m.  On Mondays, the first day of the production week, while the first draft of the sketches for the next edition were being scrutinized for the first time, a private “post-mortem” involving the cast, writers, producers and director took place in the boardroom.  It allowed everyone in the room their say on what worked and what didn’t work regarding the show that had just aired.  Then, came Tuesdays.
 
On my second day as an intern, Tuesday, February 27th, there was much hustle and bustle in the office.  There was a very good reason for this.  Sometime that afternoon, the official rating for the show’s most recent episode would be officially released and posted on the Farce’s bulletin board.  Before the estimated figure was unveiled, Air Farce employees bet on what that number would be.  Here’s how it worked.  You paid two dollars for a tiny strip of paper.  (The more money you gambled, the greater your chances of winning the pot.)  On that strip of paper would be a range of numbers.  Example:   1,000,001 to 1,100,000.  (If memory serves, the lowest possibility was “less than 750,000″ and the highest was “more than 2,500,000″.)  If the rating fell within your range, you won Lotto Farço (pronounced farso).
 
I would be unlucky the first week after purchasing one strip of paper.  Weeks two and three were just as disappointing.  (On one of those occasions, I gambled eight bucks to no avail.)  Would my last week on the show be any different?
 
To prepare for my internship, I had taken out 400 dollars from my bank account.  The money went to food, drinks, magazines (Variety, Billboard, Rolling Stone), a Guns N’ Roses CD (The Spaghetti Incident was on sale), and bus fare.  By the fourth and final week, I was going broke.  I didn’t have an ATM card at the time so that option wasn’t open to me.  And, if I remember correctly, my bank wasn’t open on Saturdays.  My parents were no help, either.  I needed a miracle.
 
On March 19th, as I had done before on two of the three previous Tuesdays, I plunked down two bucks and selected a random strip of paper.  Then, around 11 a.m., I left the office to explore the city and have some lunch.  Two hours later, I returned to the eighth floor of the CBC building.  Someone told me to see Abby Robins, the Audience Co-ordinator for the show.  She had a smile on her face when I arrived at her office. 
 
“Congratulations, Dennis.  You won.”  She handed me an envelope with all the money in the pot:  $76.  My money worries were over. 
 
For the life of me, I can’t remember what the rating was that week.  (I didn’t keep the lucky strip, unfortunately.)  What I do recall is that all four episodes that aired between March 1st and March 22nd, 1996 were each viewed by over a million Canadians.  Although the numbers have declined a bit in recent years, the show endures as a popular comedic showcase for what is now two generations of Air Farce comedians.  Too bad it all ends in less than two months.
 
 
 
 
Some familiar characters were scripted to return for episode 19 of the third season.   Mike From Canmore was going to have brain surgery, Preston Manning had an album of Reform-friendly songs to sell and Lucien Bouchard was scheduled to pop up in two sketches, one of which was a quick cameo in a fake newscast.
 
During my first week at the show, Roger Abbott and Don Ferguson played the respective Jimmy & Shamus O’Toole, two Newfie anchorman in rain gear.  They reprised these characters for yet another News From Away sketch in week four.  At the end of every skit, they would break into song, the same melody with different lyrics.  During the previous sketch, they goofed on the low sperm count of Scotsmen.  For this one, it was a cursing separatist.  At least, that was the original plan.
 
In the first draft, Shamus talks about a Bloc Quebecois MP (Jean-Marc Jacob, who was the subject of another skit in the same show) getting into hot water “for using the ‘F’ word”. 
 
Jimmy replies, “You don’t mean…”
 
“Yep.  Federalism,” zings Shamus.
 
Then Jimmy introduces Neddie O’Toole, their mother (Luba Goy).  Like her sons, she was scripted to dress in a rain slicker and hat.  In her commentary, she proceeds to curse up a storm while criticizing Jacob for doing the exact same thing.  Every “bad” word she says is bleeped.  In the original script, she was scheduled to be censored no less than thirteen times.  (No curse words were actually written out in the script, only “bleep”, “bleeps”, “bleepers” and “bleeping”.)
 
After that, Jimmy & Shamus were to break into this song:
 
“Ohhhhhhh…../They’s cursing in the Commons right some good/They’s cursing in the Commons right some good/It looks like Bloc Quebeckers/Is a bunch of foul-mouthed peckers-s-s-s-s-s/Oh, they’s cursing in the Commons right some good.”
 
It was rather amusing that the writers had rhymed “Quebecers” with “peckers”.  Quite cheeky.  I remember saying out loud during the first rehearsal in Studio 61 on Tuesday, March 19th that I hoped it would make it to air.  Both John Morgan and Don Ferguson were delighted by this.  They playfully reassured me that afternoon, and periodically during the week, that they would make sure that happened, just for me. 
 
When the second draft of the script was released, not a word of the song had been changed.  A good sign.  However, there was a significant character alteration.  Neddie O’Toole was transformed into a nun named Sister Bertille.  Luba’s original opening line as Neddie, “How’s she going, my love?” was substituted with “Greetings, fellow parishoners”.  Also, a number of jokes were replaced.
 
My memory is that the song remained intact for draft number three on Wednesday the 20th.  However, Luba’s new nun character would get a name change.  She would end up being called Sister Bonaventure.
 
Everything was looking good for “peckers”.  Too good, it turned out.  On Thursday (or possibly Wednesday, if my remembrance is wrong), The Mandelas broke up.  Winnie and Nelson had been married for decades and suddenly called it quits.  As a result, the writers dropped the Quebecers song altogether and quickly wrote one about The Mandelas.  It was heartbreaking.  Curiously, all the other jokes that led up to the original tune were kept in.  When Luba pre-taped her nun monologue, she tried two different approaches to the curses.  First, she said “funny” instead of “fuck” and all its variants.  When it was played back, it worked really well.  You really believed she was cursing all the way through it.  Unfortunately, this approach was dropped in favour of something less funny.  I believe she ended up saying “bleep” instead.  It was a bad decision.
 
More than making up for my disappointment about the “peckers” debacle was a script by John Morgan.  The previous week, a sketch he had written concerning shenanigans in a bathroom was deemed unfilmable.  He rebounded remarkably with one of the funniest ad parodies in the show’s history.
 
For years, Canadian TV stations, including the CBC, had been airing this Preparation H spot.  It featured a guy with a curly white man’s afro, a sweater and a bit of a lisp extolling the virtues of the product.  John thought it would be funny to do a goof on it.  It was a big hit with the cast and crew.
 
He renamed the product “Hemo-Blaster”.  Roger Abbott was cast as the sufferer making the pitch.
 
In the original commercial, the unknown actor asks the audience, “Ever suffer from the itch and pain of hemorrhoids?  I have.”  John kept that for the parody.
 
But for the rest of the bit, it was one hilarious joke after another:
 
“I’m not just an actor pretending to have hemorrhoids,” Roger was scripted to say.  “I really do have them.  Really big juicy ones, that itch like crazy.”
 
It gets better:
 
Hemo-Blaster “blows those unsightly hemorrhoids right off your butt.  Not only does it relieve the itch and pain, your pants will fit better.”
 
John then had Don read this tagline as a voiceover:
 
“Hemo-Blaster.  Piles of relief.”
 
Afterwards, the scene pauses and out comes John as Keith Spicer, who at that time was the head of the CRTC.  (John played him again in the Head On sketch during that same episode.)  He quips, “Ever suffer from the itch and pain of hemorrhoid commercials?  I have.”  Then, he proposes a V-chip specifically designed for blocking these types of ads.  “Also available… the Feminine Hygiene Chip,” he helpfully concludes.  In the second draft, that line was dropped in favour of the “Mini Pad Light Day Chip”, “The Vagisil Chip”, “The Yeast Infection Chip” and “The 2000 Flushes Chip”.  I don’t remember if any of these changes ended up in the actual episode.
 
John pulled me aside one day during the production week to marvel at what had happened over the past fortnight.  He couldn’t believe that he had gotten away with this Hemo-Blaster business after his bathroom sketch had been rejected.  The whole thing left him confused.  Having Roger talk about his “big, juicy” piles was more acceptable than setting a scene in a men’s washroom.
 
Of all the memories I have from my internship, watching Roger try to get through this scene on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 20th in Studio 42 ranks at the top.  He was fitted with this rather large curly-haired wig and wore the exact same outfit as the actor in the original Preparation H ad.  Like the McDonald’s ad parody that featured Luba as a baby, Perry Rosemond and his production designer looked at the original commercial again and again to get the look of everything just right.  Their meticulousness was absolutely crucial in making the bit work as well as it did.
 
It took 3 takes for Roger to get through the damn thing without laughing.  All three times I had tears in my eyes as I watched in one of the audience seats.  (I had to do this quietly so as not to disturb the actual taping.  It wasn’t easy.)  You had to be there.  It was unbelievably hilarious.  The best part might be the moment just before John comes on to do the V-chip jokes.  (He did that during the actual taping, by the way.)  After Don’s voiceover, Roger says, “And it really works.  Just ask me, the Hemorrhoid Guy.”  (That last line was a second draft addition.  I think it might’ve been tinkered with one or two more times before Wednesday when it was taped.)  Then, as noted in John’s script, “…The Hemorrhoid Guy in obvious crippling discomfort, slowly start[s] to exit taking very short steps.”.  Like I said, you had to be there.
 
Without question, the most popular sketch of episode 19 was a fake ad for The Preston Manning Songbook.  Manning, one of Don’s most memorable characters, was then the leader of The Reform Party, a right-wing alternative to the Progressive Conservatives.  The writers came up with this idea of Manning doing brief song parodies related to Canadian politics.  Originally, after doing a short goof on I Shot The Sheriff, he was supposed to do six lines to the tune of I’m Too Sexy.  That was dropped in the second draft for Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?, erroneously titled “If You Think I’m Sexy” in the script.  All the other song parodies, New York New York, Tequila (“Reform!”), The Macarena and Y.M.C.A., remained in every draft.  It was one of the rare scripts that required very little revision.
 
When the sketch was performed in front of an audience, it got big laughs and unexpected participation.  When Preston sang “I Love Reform”, in the style of Y.M.C.A, at the end, the audience actually sang along with him.  It was a big triumph for Don who struggled at times during rehearsals trying to get the rhythm of the lines right.  The Macarena, in particular, was very tough because there were so many words to deal with.  It wasn’t perfect, but the bit was a major success.  Watching him rehearse it the afternoon before the taping was a lot of fun.  Glenn Morely, the music director, always played a major role in sketches like this.
 
Despite appearing in at least two drafts of that week’s script, “Mike From Canmore – Brain Surgery” was ultimately scrapped in favour of a Videopinion (a Speaker’s Corner parody) on Karla Homolka’s plea bargain.  The Hockey Mom sketch, which originally appeared in the script for episode 18, was revived with a casting change.  Originally, John Morgan was to play the guy who can’t get a word in with Luba Goy’s demonstrative, overbearing character.  Because Don Ferguson was only scheduled to appear in three sketches that week, he took over the role.  While it was being taped in front of the first audience on Thursday, March 21st, Director Perry Rosemond became annoyed with an extra who was trying to upstage both Luba and Don with his incessant mugging.  He wasn’t subtle at all with his bugged out eyes and wide open mouth.  Perry let it be known in the control booth that he wanted that guy to calm down for the second taping.  (I don’t remember if he did or not.)  It sure didn’t sound like the show was eager to hire him again after that display of overt scene stealing.
 
Coming up, more memories and my last day on the show.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, November 14, 2008
2:10 a.m.
Published in: on November 14, 2008 at 2:11 am  Leave a Comment  

Memories Of A Royal Canadian Air Farce Intern (Part Six)

On Thursday evening, March 14th, 1996, the eighteenth episode of the third season was taped in front of two separate audiences in Studio 42.  During my internship, I only stayed for the early tapings because I didn’t want to miss catching the GO Bus as it departed Toronto for Hamilton.  (It doesn’t run 24 hours a day.)  I’m glad I did it that way because by the time each of the four episodes had been edited and premiered on CBC, they would be made up of mostly sketches recorded during the second taping.  How do I know this?  You could tell by the laughter, usually.  The second audience laughed louder than the first one.  Plus, there were subtle differences in the performances, not to mention different jokes that were quietly inserted into the final taping.  If a joke in the first taping stiffed, the writers would feverishly throw in something better for the next go-round.  Ultimately, audiences were very receptive to their comedy.
 
It was neat sitting in the control booth watching Director Perry Rosemond and his crew put the show together.  He was all business on show night.  When he wanted a camera cut, he snapped his fingers authoritatively.  If something irked him, he didn’t keep quiet about it.
 
For The Chicken Cannon News sketch, Don Ferguson, Ralph Brown (the special effects guy), and John Morgan were supposed to march on the spot behind this scrim which would then be raised.  Then, they would continue marching until they got to the right spot on set to do their thing.  Unfortunately, it was taking a bit longer than usual for the scrim to go up.  It seemed an eternity for Perry who loudly complained about it.  As he wondered aloud what was taking so long, it finally rose and everything went fine for the rest of the sketch.  By the way, because loading the Chicken Cannon can be time consuming, some ingredients were pre-loaded by Ralph.
 
While the show was being taped, I would sit as far away from the action as possible so no one would be disturbed.  Line Producer Laura Buchanan insisted on it.  I was always right near the back of the control room.  In front of my eyes were several rows of TV monitors and lots of blinking lights.  To Perry’s right was Assistant Director Linda Bain who looked after timing.  (She always had a stopwatch in her hand.) To his left was the cute graphics operator (the person who flashs words on the screen), Shanna Manning.  Like myself, she was a big Friends fan.  There was a TV in a cramped area separate from the control room where we would catch the show during a break in the action.
 
Right beside me in the back of the control room were a couple of steps that led up to a back row filled with chairs and a table.  This is where Laura and a few other people sat, drank (usually bottled water) and watched the proceedings from on high.  There were phones on the table, too.
 
I was amazed when Air Farce decided to do the entire fifteenth season live.  Back in the third season, there was no chance in hell of that happening.  Here’s why.  First, the audience would file in.  Then, either Don or Roger would greet them and maybe say something funny.  They would roll the original theme (which was written and performed by The Barenaked Ladies) which the audience would be instructed to watch on their monitors and then there would be a bit of a wait.  The cast members needed for the first sketch would be in costume and make-up and the appropriate set would be wheeled out for them, if it wasn’t already out there.  Floor Director Pat McDonald, the man who never smiled despite being extremely personable, would explain to the audience what was happening.  Sometimes, the cast members would talk to them, too, maybe make an off-the-cuff remark.  Then, they would shoot the sketch.  Sometimes, someone would flub a line and they’d have to redo the whole thing, or simply find a place to continue from.  (It didn’t happen often.)  Perry would speak over the intercom when this happened to give direction.  (He would pipe in on other occasions, too.) Once completed, they would strike the set and the whole process would start over again with the next set-up.  Then, there would be a delay that would last anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes before tape would resume rolling.
 
To keep the audience awake during these seemingly long breaks, The Symphony would come out and play some music.  In truth, they were a low-key duo.  Joe Macerollo played the accordian and Scott Irvine played the tuba.  Incredibly, the audience loved them.  They were a little too old-fashioned for me.
 
Other times, if there was a pre-taped bit that could be played in between in-studio sketches, the audience would be instructed to watch their monitors accordingly.
 
Among the standout sketches that night was one that featured CTV News anchor Lloyd Robertson (Don) interviewing Yoko Ono (Luba) and Yassar Arafat (Roger) who were in bed together.  (One of the running gags of the show involved Arafat being routinely mistaken for Ringo Starr.)  Don stole the show by making fun of Robertson’s mannerisms, like his tendency to move up and down in his chair for no apparent reason and overemphasizing random words for needlessly dramatic effect.  Even just reading his dialogue and stage directions in the second draft of the script years later still tickles the funny bone.
 
Jock McBile (John) returned to rail against NAFTA and Senator Jesse Helms; Prime Minister Jean Chretien (Roger) had second thoughts about returning to Canada after a heart-to-heart with Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps (Luba); and The Queen (Luba) and The Queen Mother (Roger in drag) were interviewed.
 
Because John Morgan’s bathroom skit was excised early on in the production week and another one called Hockey Mom was just not ready in time for the tapings (more on that later), episode 18 was running short on time.  Thankfully, there was an easy solution.  Insert The Separatists Antiques Road Show sketch which had been taped two weeks earlier.  It wasn’t dated, it was funny and it had the right running time.  I don’t remember who initially suggested the idea but I do remember being a strong supporter of its inclusion.  I was disappointed when it was dropped from episode 16 and was thrilled that it was being given a second chance.  The McDonald’s ad parody, a separate bit within the original Road Show sketch which had already aired in episode 17, would achieve a rare feat:  a second airing.  It was the only bit to get sampled on two shows during my four-week internship.  (It aired a third time during an “Instant Classics” compilation show, which featured the best bits of the season, on April 12th, 1996.)
 
Coming up, my final week as a Royal Canadian Air Farce intern.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, November 8, 2008
9:55 p.m.
Published in: on November 8, 2008 at 9:57 pm  Comments (1)  

Memories Of A Royal Canadian Air Farce Intern (Part Five)

Halfway through my internship with The Royal Canadian Air Farce, I was acclimating nicely to the show’s work ethic.  My start times everyday were more than reasonable:  10 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays; Noon on Wednesdays and 11 a.m. on Thursdays.  I allowed myself plenty of time for the daily commute from Hamilton to Toronto so that lateness would never become a chronic problem.  And because there was always something that needed to be done, it was rarely boring.
 
Back on my first day, Monday, February 26th, 1996, I was given a Visitor’s Pass by security which was supposed to be confiscated at the end of the day.  (It’s been kept with all my other Air Farce momentos for years.)  On February 27th, I was given another Visitor’s Pass which was taken back.  If memory serves, I was supposed to receive a security clearance card, given to all CBC employees, which would allow me to get in and out of the CBC building without having to deal with security.  There was a turnstile right beside the security desk which would only allow you to pass if you swiped this card on the actual device correctly.  Some people had a hell of a time making the damn thing work.
 
It was supposed to be ready on either my first or second day as an intern but ultimately, this didn’t happen, much to my annoyance.  Instead, on the 27th, I was given a “Staff Pass”.  It listed my name: “EARL:  DENNIS”, just like that, and my Job Title: “TV Arts”.  (That’s a job title?)  The pass was to expire on March 31st, nine days after my last day at the show.  After adding my signature, the cardboard, credit card size pass was laminated.  A small, multi-balled chain was attached so I could wear it at all times.  It was rather cold so I didn’t always wear it.  Whenever I needed to get in and out of the building, I would have to show this pass to the front desk.  Once security had looked it over, they would manually override the turnstile and I would continue on my way.
 
Getting rather perturbed about this arrangement, I thought it might be possible to circumvent the system.  On every floor of the building, there are stairways as well as elevators.  One day, not feeling like going through the “show me your pass, I’ll let ya through” routine, I decided instead to use the stairway on the bottom floor.  The very second I pushed the door open, there was this piercing scream of an alarm echoing throughout the atrium.  I rushed to security to let them know that I was the idiot who accidentally set off the alarm and to express my immediate, deep regret.  In a matter of seconds, a security guard or two came around wondering what the hell was going on.  (I was impressed by their speedy response to this non-emergency.) Once I explained what had happened, everybody was satisfied.  The alarm, which seemed to go on forever, had finally gone silent and peace returned to the CBC building.  It was the most embarrasing moment of my internship.  From that point on, I realized that showing my pass everyday wasn’t such a nuisance after all.
 
That wasn’t the only trouble I got into.
 
One of the most popular bits on the show involved this device called The Chicken Cannon.  Ralph Brown was the special effects guy responsible for it.  Sometimes, he would be thrown into these recurring sketches purely to operate it.  (During on-set rehearsal downtimes, he would load it with a rubber chicken and sometimes aim it at the bleachers where some of the staff, including myself, would be seated.  It would wake you up if you were in a daze.)
 
Near the end of every sketch, Col. Teresa Stacy (Don Ferguson) would ask viewers to email their suggestions for Chicken Cannon targets so they could blast their pictures with the most disgusting items they could find.  (The lucky few who got picked would win an Air Farce VHS tape.)  These were almost always people in the public eye, specifically politicians and entertainers, who the audience were greatly annoyed by.
 
As one of the show’s interns in early 1996, I was asked to respond to the many emails (which had already been printed off and perused) sent in by fans hoping their preferred targets would be selected.  They would also suggest appropriate ingredients for The Chicken Cannon.  The grosser, the funnier.
 
Anyway, in my replies to these messages, I was, shall we say, rather casual.  For instance I would open with “Hi Gail.  What’s the word on the street?” or “Hi Bob.  How’s it hangin’?”  The rest of each message was generic, you know, thanks for writing, we appreciate your support, blah blah blah.  After my name, I would write “The Intern From Hell”, the ironic nickname I gave myself, just to be an ass.
 
There was this other intern, a transparent asskiss of a woman desperate to move up the ranks, who caught wind of my silliness and ratted me out.  (She also answered Chicken Cannon emails.)  As you can imagine, I wasn’t happy about it.  Line Producer Laura Buchanan called me into her office to go over my weekly evaluation for college.  She told me that the show wasn’t terribly impressed with the way I was answering these emails.  (It should be noted that she did this in a firm but gentle manner.  She wasn’t a yeller.)  From that point on, there would be no more casual greetings.  Oh, and at the end of every message, after my name, I was to write simply “Air Farce” or “Air Farce Staff”, something like that.  No more “Intern From Hell” business.  Needless to say, this rather minor incident prevented me from earning a perfect evaluation.
 
Responding to emails generically wasn’t terribly exciting, hence my harmless goofiness, but one time, I did get the opportunity to offer feedback to an aspiring writer.  This guy had submitted a sketch that had no chance in hell of being accepted.  (The show frowned upon the idea of outside contributors.) I don’t remember what it was about but it wasn’t funny.  I decided to write him back and offer him some advice.  I recommended he check out Barton Fink and The Player, two excellent examples of cinematic satire, and to keep plugging away.  From time to time, I think about him and wondered where he ended up in life.
 
Since I wasn’t given my own computer to answer these Chicken Cannon messages, I had to borrow someone else’s all the time.  Normally, I used Assistant Director Linda Bain’s desktop while she was busy working with Director Perry Rosemond.  But on one memorable day, I was stuck.  The only person who had a free computer was Don Ferguson.  I made the mistake of asking Program Co-ordinator Lisa Thomson if I could use it.  She said no.  Undeterred, I spotted Don going over a script in the boardroom.  He graciously allowed me to go into his office and do my job.  As I walked out, for some dumb reason, I made a face at Lisa as I passed her desk which infuriated her.  Within seconds, she stormed into Don’s office and closed the door.  She proceeded to explain to me in no uncertain terms that I had no right to go over her head like that to get what I wanted.  I defended myself by saying that I really needed to use his computer since I had all these emails to answer and there was nothing else available.  She had only raised her voice a little (she was a very soft spoken person) but it was alarming nonetheless.  She told me that Don is a very nice guy who would never say no to such a request, one that I shouldn’t have made in the first place.  After we both came to terms with what happened (I was sorry I upset her but I really needed to use Don’s computer), her normal tone of voice returned.  Thankfully, she allowed me to stay in his office.  She quickly opened the door and went back to her desk.  We never had a problem with each other after that.  Looking back, if I had just asked Don directly the first time, all of this unpleasantness would’ve been avoided.
 
During my third week on the show, there was a Chicken Cannon News sketch in the script, one of nine ideas proposed for episode 18 of the third season.  By the second draft, it was but a skeleton waiting to be fleshed out.  All the news stories that Don was going to goof on as Col. Stacy had yet to be inserted.  However, everything would be relatively ready for Wednesday’s on-set rehearsal.  (Generally speaking, jokes would be constantly tweaked right up until the second taping on Thursday night, if necessary.)
 
Only one sketch would be scrapped for the taping.  John Morgan had written a bizarre one set in a bathroom that received little support.  (It was nowhere to be found in the second draft.)  I regret not keeping it.  All I remember is that the general consensus was that it was in poor taste and just not funny.  John, understandably, was disappointed.
 
Before I started my internship in late February, Frank Plastino asked me a favour.  He was the producer of Mohawk College’s upcoming Andy Awards.  Third year students in the TV Broadcasting program are assigned the task of putting this show together for CHCH-TV, a longtime station based in Hamilton.  Filmed in The Mohawk College Theatre, it was taped for a later airing.  (After being shot live-to-tape in April, it was eventually broadcast in May.) The actual awards, named after deceased media studies professor Agnes M. Anderson, honour the best students in TV, Radio, Advertising and Broadcast Journalism.
 
Knowing I was interning with the Farce, Frank pulled me aside one day to request that I get the troupe to do something for the show, just a ten-second bit was all he needed.  Hesitant to be bold in my first two weeks at CBC, I waited until early on in the third week to make my move.  Unfortunately, it happened in the bathroom.  Roger Abbott had just come in to take a whiz at the urinal.  (Funny, he struck me as a stall man.)  Knowing he was in a vulnerable position and figuring there would be no better opportunity, I suddenly got brave.  However, I was nervous.  I accidentally asked him if the cast would do 10 minutes for The Andys, to which he replied, “What???”  Instantly, I corrected myself by saying 10 seconds.  This was more acceptable to him.  He told me to write a script and talk to Laura Buchanan.  Thankfully, she was amenable to the idea, as well.
 
After writing a draft, I was told to format it the way Air Farce sketches are done, basically one column down the middle with numbers on the side.  (The numbers were a helpful way of drawing attention to problem areas during production week.)  After typing it and formatting it in this matter, it was submitted to the cast.  Only a couple of changes were made.  I wanted all kinds of close-ups and quick cuts.  Perry Rosemond decided instead to just have a medium shot on all four comedians with no cuts.  The other change involved a shameless plug.  After giving some helpful advice to the media studies students, (“Be positive”, “stay focused” “set goals for yourself”), Roger Abbott was also scripted to remind the audience to “watch Air Farce every Friday night at 7:30 on CBC”.  Everything else I wrote remained in place.
 
With the script all settled, it was time to shoot.  It was the last item to be dealt with on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 13th, the first day of on-set rehearsals for that week’s episode.  Originally, the only cast member not playing himself was John Morgan who was going to be Mike From Canmore.  But because Don Ferguson was still in his Col. Stacy outfit (for the Chicken Cannon News rehearsal) and Luba Goy had remained in her Sheila Copps get-up (for a runthrough of another sketch), rather than change into their regular clothing, which would’ve taken too long, they decided to stay in their costumes and use the voices of their characters.  (However, they did introduce themselves to the audience as Don Ferguson and Luba Goy.)  Roger was the only one in street attire.
 
They all stood in front of the stationary fireplace set and nailed it in one take.  Luba comfortably transitioned into her Sheila shriek mode (“DO YOU HEAR ME?  I SAID CONGRATULATIONS!!!”) which gave her something funny to say.  (Stupid me, I forgot to give her a scripted joke.)  All in all, it was really cool watching them bringing my words to life.  The ad-libbing made it even better.  (While talking about Mohawk College graduates being future “broadcasters”, “advertisers” and “broadcast journalists”, Don paused before throwing in “deputy prime ministers” in reference to Sheila, her then-cabinet position in Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s first administration.)  After Perry remarked over the in-studio intercom, “Good.  Thanks, guys,”, Don said to no one in particular, “Thank you very much.  Thank you very much.  It’s wonderful that we’re allowed to do that.”  At least, that’s what I think he said.  He muttered the last part so quickly it’s hard to know for sure.  Nonetheless, his words were appreciated.  Afterwards, I was handed the tape (which was later given to Frank the minute I saw him at Mohawk) and before my internship was through, I made sure to dub a copy onto VHS for myself.  When The Andy Awards aired, I taped the whole show just for the Air Farce segment.  It was nice hearing some laughs underneath a couple of my scripted jokes.  (They were actually louder in the theatre during the taping.)  The biggest reception was for a line given to Don:  “If you wanted to work at CBC, sorry, we can’t afford you.”  Because I had the gang all say “Good night!” at the end, it was saved for the end of the show.  During my internship, I had hoped to write at least one sketch, just to see if I could do it.  But I could never come up with a decent enough concept.  That’s why I treasure this silly little Andys bit.  It remains the only time I’ve written comedy for professionals.
 
Next, more memories about the making of episode 18.  Plus, my final week at the show.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, November 8, 2008
2:07 a.m.
Published in: on November 8, 2008 at 2:09 am  Leave a Comment  

The Utter Uselessness Of Certain Toronto Sun Columnists

 
“On this election day, a couple of factors seem valid. Judging from the length of the campaign, stretching back into the primaries, and judging from the four-to-one ratio in money raised and spent by the Obama campaign, any American who claims to be still undecided is probably going to vote for McCain. If he or she votes, that is.”
 
 
“The [Sarah] Palin factor has proved an enormous boon to McCain. Even more than bringing in additional voters, it has energized and invigorated the conservative base of the Republican party — key if they hope to win.
 
[snip]
 
“Charges that she’s a religious nut (Pentecostal) and ruthlessly conservative are unlikely to hurt her. The dye seems set. She’s already a star, and unlikely to wane unless she fumbles badly against Biden, who is a bit of a motor-mouth and hardly symbolic of radical change in Washington.”
 
 
“The deeper one looks into what makes Obama tick, and who his role models and mentors were from teenage to adulthood, it’s hard to escape his radical background.”
 
 
“A review of records of the schools project and interviews with a dozen people who know both men, suggest that Mr. Obama, 47, has played down his contacts with Mr. [William] Ayers, 63. But the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers, whom he has called ‘somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.’”
 
 
“The phenomenon of Sarah Palin is the intensity of her popularity.
 
[snip]
 
“And every time Democrats criticize her – her popularity grows.
 
[snip]
 
“Palin has re-energized the Republican campaign as no one — not even John McCain — could have expected. The conservative base, which is essential if McCain is to win the White House, now seems onside and raring to go.

“Reports are that instead of Obama being something like 8% ahead of McCain with female voters, McCain is now up to 20% ahead of Obama in women backing him.

[snip]

“The CBC’s Heather Mallick [a former Toronto Sun columnist] was highlighted on FoxNews attacking Palin, whom she says looks like a ‘porn actress’ and whose pregnant daughter is a ‘pramface.’

“More votes for the Republicans.

“Meanwhile, Democratic efforts to get Hillary Clinton to join the assault on Palin seem doomed. Hillary has even complimented Palin, and is probably now looking forward to being the Democratic nominee in the 2012 election. Hillary’s revenge.

“As for Obama — no more lipstick quips from him.”

From Salim Mansur’s November 1 column:

“This weekend across the great republic, especially in Middle America, families and friends will gather to discuss one final time the seriousness and consequences of their votes for the man they elect as president.

“Middle America is the last indomitable frontier of freedom. Here American exceptionalism is lived in the daily routine of family and church. Here patriotism and honour are worn proudly in the spirit of Andrew Jackson, the victorious commander of the Union forces at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and the seventh president of the republic.

[snip]

“There are economic troubles and political discontent within America. There is a gathering storm beyond America’s shores. But Middle America has lived the history of freedom and discord and recognizes of the two candidates the one who will protect, unapologetically, American values. He is Senator John Sidney McCain III.

“Across Middle America men and women will head out to vote their individual conscience. And their votes will indicate to the world how strong remains the idea of American exceptionalism and love of freedom across the United States.”

From Salim Mansur’s October 25 column:

“Polls have piled up like falling autumn leaves informing American voters the election is practically over and only the matter of procedure remains for Sen. Barack Hussein Obama to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

“The mainstream media and the big establishment it represents have worked hard to generate the impression of inevitability on behalf of Obama for a year now.

“But like the shoe that pinches, the awkward reality for media and the big establishment remains the uncertainty of the actual vote count. Any attentive student of human affairs will remain skeptical of those predicting the future with certainty.

“The only thing certain about the 2008 election, as with previous ones, is its close finish and the vote from Middle America again will be decisive.

[snip]

“It is far fetched and illogical to expect Middle America to deceive itself to vote a candidate into the White House whose worldview acknowledges at a minimum the validity of Karl Marx’s destructive ideology.

During primaries Democrats waged a contest between gender and race with race trumping gender, leaving a whole segment of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s supporters miffed. It is also Democrats and their media friends, in raising the spectre of racism in this election, who have projected their guilt on their opponents.

Hence, the culminating irony will be Democrats breaking ranks against their party ticket to put Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate, over the top when the proverbial fat lady steps forth to sing.”

This is a sampling of the wit and wisdom of just two regular Toronto Sun columnists; one, a founding editor and the other, a professor.  Life is too short to pull out other embarrassing quotes from their equally impressive colleagues.

Instead, let’s rejoice in the fact that despite every smear, distortion, unfair criticism and outright lie directed at the campaign of the Democratic nominee for President, hope won.  Despite false, desperate suggestions that the Democratic nominee “wasn’t black enough”, “palled around with terrorists”, is a “closet radical Muslim”, has a radical anti-American wife, is really a socialist and a Communist, and doesn’t represent the “Real America”, hope won. 

Senator Barack Obama has made history tonight.  He is the first African-American man to win the United States Presidency.  In a landslide, no less.  (As of this writing, he leads Senate John McCain 338 to 156 in the Electoral College.) In two months, he will be the most powerful man in the free world with stronger majorities in The House Of Representatives and The Senate.  As he noted tonight in his terrific victory speech, this is just the first step in a long climb for progress.

 
Progress.  It’s a powerful word.  A powerful concept.  Too bad it’s beyond the comprehension of these utterly useless Toronto Sun columnists.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
1:50 a.m.
Published in: on November 5, 2008 at 1:51 am  Leave a Comment  

Memories Of A Royal Canadian Air Farce Intern (Part Four)

At the start of my second week interning for The Royal Canadian Air Farce TV show at CBC, Line Producer Laura Buchanan handed me two sheets of paper.  One laid out my daily duties, and the other, my general tasks for the rest of my placement.  Besides continuing to recycle everybody’s blue boxes, keeping the two Xerox machines and the printer well stocked with paper, labelling and organizing photos, dubbing past shows onto VHS, handing CBC employees VIP tickets for taping days on Wednesdays, wheeling in and out all those chairs for Tuesday’s production meeting, and getting drinks and lunches for the people in the edit suite on Fridays, there was even more for me to do.
 
There was a tiny refrigerator in the boardroom which always needed to be filled with drinks.  In the supply room, there were tons of fruit juice, bottled water and Diet Coke just waiting to get cool.  It was a fairly straightforward job.  Grab what you need, move the cold stuff already in the fridge to the front, and put the new stuff at the back.  Gord Holtam & Rick Olsen, two of the writers, complained about their precious Diet Coke being moved to the boardroom fridge but nobody told me beforehand that it was theirs.  After they griped, I never touched their stuff again.
 
On Thursdays, Program Assistant Rob Lindsay (who looked like Jay Sherman and sounded like Michael Andretti) asked me to help him out with a couple of things.  First, we needed to set up a “ticket pick-up” area in CBC’s atrium where the audience could receive their free, reserved tickets for the tapings.  There was this Air Farce sign on wheels that we simply moved to an appropriate spot.  (This was the first thing I saw upon my arrival at the CBC building back on February 26th.)  On Fridays, we moved it back to its normal location.
 
Finally, there was Sheila the caterer.  Rob and I would help her wheel in all the food that the cast and crew were going to eat during taping days.  There were about two or three of these carts that were just loaded with food.  We used the service elevator since there was a lot more room.
 
I’ll never forget what happened on one such Thursday.  Rob and I were at the service elevator when we both realized that it wasn’t turned on.  You needed to use a special key to get it to run.  Rob told me to wait right there while he went to grab a security guy.  As I waited, Daniel Richler walked by me.  If you ever watched The New Music, which aired on CITY-TV in the old days, you’ll remember that he used to be a journalist on the show.  (He’s also the son of the late, celebrated author Mordecai Richler.)  At some point during my college days, I discovered that I could do a silly trumpet impression.  It just so happened that the original theme for The New Music was a song called Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag by this band Pigbag.  (They were a one-hit wonder.)  Anyway, that song is an instrumental that features, you guessed it, trumpets.  So, as he passes me by, I start trumpeting Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag.  He didn’t stop, he didn’t look at me, he didn’t say a word.  He just kept walking.  Either he couldn’t hear what I was doing (I wasn’t trumpeting softly) or he did hear and simply chose to ignore me.  How I would love to know what he was thinking in that moment.
 
It was during that second week that the cast and crew were busy preparing the sketches for episode 17.  I don’t remember how many there were in the first draft.  But what I do remember is that there were fewer taped for this show than for the previous one.  One such sketch features a mistake that has bothered me for over a decade.
 
In 1996, CBC Newsworld’s technical workers walked off the job which meant CBC talent wouldn’t cross the picket line.  That inspired a very funny sketch entitled “Screwed Up Newsworld”.  John Morgan was cast as a very nervous Newsworld executive trying to conduct interviews with three guests simultaneously.  The running gag of the bit was very simple.  He would ask a question that would be directed to the wrong person.  Roger Abbott played Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Don Ferguson was Prince Charles and Luba Goy portrayed Nora Frumley, “a leading authority in the field of the dissemination of sperm”, according to the second draft of the script.  This was the second week in a row that an Air Farce sketch featured a sperm gag, by the way.
 
At some point during that week I got a call from Wayne Testori, one of the Program Co-ordinators.  The writers wanted to make a joke about the recent settlement Princess Diana received from her soon-to-be-ex-husband Prince Charles.  (They announced their separation in 1992 and would be officially divorced later that August.) Wayne told me that they weren’t sure what the actual amount was so he asked me to make a trip to the print library, find out the right number and call him back.
 
Shortly thereafter, I found the answer in a Globe & Mail article:  $50 million American dollars.  I dutifully gave Wayne the answer over the phone and went back to my regular duties.
 
Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication.  He thought I said 15 million.  (At least, that’s what I think happened.)  According to my copy of the second draft of that sketch, however, that number was already in there.  I’m not certain now what day it was that I was asked to look up the settlement number.  All I remember is that when I saw the show air on CBC on Friday, March 8, I was mortified.  (I must not have noticed the error on taping day.)  Whether I misspoke and said 15 by accident or they mistook 50 for 15, who knows.  What I do know is that every time I see the sketch, I’m reminded of the mistake and it bothers me.
 
That being said, it did inspire one of the biggest laughs of that episode.  John is asking Prince Charles about the settlement.  When he tells him how much she got, John replies, “Fifteen million.  That is quite a load isn’t it?”  Unfortunately, Charles doesn’t get a chance to answer.  It’s Nora the sperm scientist who responds, “Well no.  That’s below average.  It’s usually about 30 million.”
 
Gilbert Smythe Bite-Me was Roger at his most acerbic.  Because the Juno Awards were coming up, his Critic-At-Large character offered his picks and pans for the upcoming ceremony.  At the time, the actual Juno Award wasn’t all that glamourous.  Gilbert quipped that it was a “big plastic spike”.  (It really was.)  I wonder now if this had any bearing on the trophy eventually being changed.  That would be hilarious if that were the case.
 
Particularly amusing was this comedic dart:  “This year, the awards are being hosted in the one city that epitomizes the artistic and creative brilliance of this country, Hamilton, Ontario.  They were going to hold it in Guelph, but they didn’t want to conflict with the annual Cow Show.”  It still makes me laugh.
 
In between Gilbert’s harsh but funny criticisms were quick cameo appearances by Luba (Margaret Atwood and Rita MacNeil), Roger (Blind Willy Feldman) and Don (Neil Young).  All of them had to be taped on Wednesday, March 7th (that meant lots of tricky cutting between Gilbert on set and all those pre-tape segments on show day), including another cameo featuring the Three Tenors.
 
In the original script, Luciano Pavarotti (Roger) and Placido Domingo (Don), in that order, sing “Hallelujah Hallelujah” one at a time from the Hallelujah chorus.  As soon as Don finishes singing, John Morgan says, “I’m Mike from Canmore.”  Before they taped the segment on the 7th, Director Perry Rosemond came out to the set to witness a rehearsal before they rolled tape.  During the singing part of the bit, Roger does his line, then Don.  Then, without warning, John decided to sing “I’m Mike from Canmore!”.  Perry cracked up over it (as did I; I was sitting in the bleachers watching at the time) and insisted John do it like that again for the real take.  Because it was so unexpected, it was never funnier than in that moment.  When I watched the finished show on CBC, it just wasn’t the same.  It was neat seeing an ad-lib like that live and in person the first time.
 
Also on that show was Dave Broadfoot, one of the founding members of The Farce who came back from time to time to do some stand-up.  (He was the only guest star who appeared on the show during my internship.)  I didn’t get much of a chance to speak with him but he seemed like a nice man.  No one ever spoke ill of him or anything.
 
During a rehearsal for a skit featuring the recurring character, Roy Earle, The Inept Carpenter, I learned that acting with a patch over your eye can be tricky.  Don Ferguson complained that it was messing with his depth perception.  He was a trooper, though.  He managed not to hurt himself during the sketch.
 
In Part Three of this series I talked about The Separatists Antiques Road Show sketch which was rejected for the March 1st episode.  Within the sketch was a parody of a McDonald’s ad that featured Luba Goy as a baby freaking out whenever she sees Lucian Bouchard’s head on a stick just outside her window.  It was decided that the bit was strong enough on its own to get aired on March 8th.  It would not be the only time it aired, either.
 
Coming up, a look at episodes 18 and 19 of the third season.  Plus, how not to respond to email and how I annoyed one of the Program Co-ordinators.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
7:54 p.m.
Published in: on November 4, 2008 at 7:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Memories Of A Royal Canadian Air Farce Intern (Part Three)

Between February 26th and March 22nd, 1996, The Royal Canadian Air Farce produced four original shows for CBC Television.  For the record, these were episodes 16, 17, 18 and 19 of the third season.  Let’s begin with episode 16 which debuted on Friday, March 1st at 7:30 p.m.
 
On Monday, February 26th, there were ten proposed sketches in the original script.  By Tuesday the 27th, there were nine.  (Sadly, I don’t remember what was cut.)  Of the remaining sketches still in contention, eight required varying degrees of revision.  In fact, even more changes were made for the third draft.
 
One sketch would be filmed in front of two live audiences on Thursday the 29th (Leap Day) but was ultimately deleted from the episode.  It was called The Separatists Antiques Road Show, a goof on the original British series.  John Morgan was cast as Tarquin Snavelly (what a name), a “know-it-all” antiques expert who’s terribly clumsy.  Early on, there’s a gag involving an extremely valuable vase that “the King of France presented to Samuel de Champlain before his historic voyage to establish a colony in the New World”.  Unsurprisingly, but humourously, he drops the damn thing while explaining its importance.  During an on-set rehearsal on Wednesday, February 28th, I learned that the cheap prop that John was planning to drop wouldn’t break.  That was on purpose.  All that was needed was a well-timed effect to re-create the sound of breaking glass.  It didn’t take long to get the timing right for taping day.  I wonder if anyone in the audience noticed that it didn’t actually break.
 
Immediately afterwards, John announces a commercial break.  What followed was quite brilliant.
 
Around that time, McDonald’s had this ad involving a baby rocking in a swing of some sort by a window.  One moment, the kid would be giggling and smiling, the next, there would be tears.  What’s the problem?  Those damn Golden Arches which the baby can only see briefly.  Seeing them brings out those joyful feelings.  The tag line at the end was “You deserve a break today.”, a famous slogan that’s long since been discarded.
 
For the parody that was inserted into the Road Show sketch, Luba Goy was cast as the baby.  (Luba really does have a babyface so it was inspired casting.  The outfit she wore for the bit was too much.) An adult size swing was made as well as a set that resembled the one in the real commercial.  I remember walking into the boardroom as Director Perry Rosemond and some of his crew were going through the McDonald’s ad that had been taped on VHS.  They were concerned about getting the look and the camera angles just right.  They would go back and forth watching the ad until they were satisfied.  (By the way, in the second draft of the script, there was an alternate idea to superimpose Luba’s face onto “existing footage” of a real baby but that was never attempted.)
 
The fake ad was filmed on Wednesday, February 28th for one important reason.  Luba was actually playing another character in the Road Show portion of the skit.  Plus, because it can take several minutes to change sets before taping resumes on show day, the comic momentum would be instantaneously lost.  Not good.
 
Instead of crying over not seeing the Golden Arches in the distance outside her window, Luba was crying about seeing then-Bloc Quebecois Leader Lucien Bouchard’s head on a stick.  (It was the real guy’s face, probably cut out from a magazine, not Don Ferguson’s.  He imitated him quite frequently on the show.)  In the second draft of the script, Don was going to sing this tag line at the end:  “Canada, don’t you have your break today.”, which wasn’t the original joke.  That was later scrapped in favour of Roger Abbott saying simply, “Canada, you don’t deserve a break today.”.  Get it?
 
Why was The Separatists Antiques Road Show sketch dropped from episode 16?  The show was running long and it was cut purely for time.  (More on this later.)
 
One of the more popular recurring skits on the show is News From Away with Jimmy & Seamus O’Toole, featuring Roger and Don as two Newfie anchormen in rain gear.  At the end of every sketch they would do a song based on their last news item.  They would always sing the same tune but with different lyrics each time, naturally.  On the March 1st show, they did a riff on the declining sperm count of Scottish men:
 
“Ohhhhhh, the…Scots’ sperm count is dropping right some good.  The Scots’ sperm count is dropping right some good.  There’s trouble way down there/’Cause they’s gots tight underwear-r-r-r-r.  Oh, the Scots’ sperm count is dropping right some good.”
 
Lines three and four were a second draft revision.
 
Other memorable sketches included a goof on Sally Struthers (“There’s nothing sadder than an inspector who is denied the right to inspect his meat.”), John Morgan’s Scottish ranter, Jock McBile, sounding off on the government screwing around with pensions (“Och, get stuffed!”) and Saddam Hussein (Roger) holding a press conference denying his culpability regarding the assassinations of two of his sons-in-law (“As for the way they were gunned down – we intend to search for their killers and we have invited O.J. Simpson to come and help us.”).
 
And there was also this.  Preston Manning’s Reform Party and Michel Gauthier’s Bloc Quebecois both had 52 seats in the House of Commons in 1996.  (The latter had initially won 54 in the 1993 election.)  The writers came up with a bit where Manning (Don doing one of his best characters) tries to take the seat of Gauthier (Roger), The Leader Of The Opposition.  It was the only sketch that week that didn’t require any changes.  Incredible.
 
During the first rehearsal in Studio 42 on Wednesday the 28th, where the show is taped, I was sitting in the bleachers admiring the Parliament set when I was suddenly asked to be an extra.  Two visitors to the set, a guy and a gal, also sat in while Don and Roger did their thing.  We were told to just pretend we were MPs quietly observing the shenangians between Manning and Gauthier.  This gave Director Perry Richmond a sense of how the scene was going to play during the taping.  (Real extras were hired for show night.)
 
At some point, Don did something very cool.  He got someone to take Polaroids of all five of us sitting there on the set.  If memory serves, three pics were snapped, one for each of the visitors (who I never saw again) and one for me.  As you can see, both Don and I have the exact same expression on our faces.  I like to think of it as two comedic geniuses sharing a moment of synchronicity.  It’s one of my treasured possessions from my internship.
 
 
 
 
 
 
The day episode 16 aired (Friday, March 1st), Gord Holtam, Rick Olsen and John Morgan were already busy working on the next batch of sketches for episode 17.  Over a million people watched the first airing, a routine occurrence during my internship.  Everything went fairly smoothly for that program.  Despite the constant tinkering, the show was funny. 
 
Coming up, the mistake that haunts me to this day.
 
(Special thanks to Rob Kerr.)
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, November 3, 2008
7:31 p.m.
 
Published in: on November 3, 2008 at 7:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Memories Of A Royal Canadian Air Farce Intern (Part Two)

The Royal Canadian Air Farce is a well-oiled comedy machine.  During my four-week internship with the program in 1996, I would learn why.
 
The process begins on Friday.  During the third season, The Farce had just three writers:  Gord Holtam, John Morgan and Rick Olsen.  Gord and Rick were like Lennon and McCartney without the dysfunction.  As a team, they wrote the vast majority of sketches together, let’s say anywhere from 75 to 85% of the material each week.  John, who was also part of the onscreen ensemble, was like George Harrison.  He would have only a few bits to offer.  Usually, he would write solo pieces for himself.  All three men had been with the troupe since the 1970s (The Air Farce was originally The Jest Society, a goof on Pierre Trudeau’s Just Society) so there was a lot of history there and a lot of comedic comfortability.  The writers’ jokes generally killed coming out of the mouths of the performers so it was a very good relationship.  There was never any tension between the two sides.
 
For the entire weekend, the proposed sketches for the next episode of Air Farce would be completed.  By Monday morning, they would all be properly formatted into the computer and copies would be printed off for everybody, the cast, the crew, and yes, even interns.  There was a “Colour Wheel” system for drafts of the sketches.  The first one was white, then came pink, followed by blue, green and finally yellow.  During my month-long stay at the show, I don’t remember there ever being a green or yellow draft of any single episode that was worked on between February 26 and March 22.  That being said, sketches were constantly being tweaked right up to the first show taping and even before the second taping.  (More on that later.)
 
Two hours after I arrived on Monday, February 26, my first day, a private meeting took place between the cast, Director Perry Rosemond, Gord & Rick, Line Producer Laura Buchanan, and a few other key production people in the boardroom.  (One of them, P.J. Wilson, who looks like Nicolas Cage, inspired a recurring nerdy character on the show named P.J. Nosliw, played by Roger Abbott.)  I never attended any of these weekly meetings nor did anybody else outside the inner creative circle.  They were called “post-mordems”.  The gathered parties would discuss last week’s program, what worked, what didn’t work, etc.  I would have loved to been inside one of these sessions just to learn how they perceived their own comedy but I wasn’t allowed.
 
For most of the afternoon, the writers, the director and the cast would privately read through the first draft of the script.  On the cover page, you could see the season number, the show number, office information, a number of prominent credits, the list of sketches (which never aired in the order they appeared here), and numerous Xs under the initials of the four cast members which represented the number of skits they were expected to do which the writers decided on.  (It was fairly balanced and very rarely were all four in the same sketch.)  According to my Production Week Schedule, this was expected to take no more than three and a half hours.  This was the first chance for the sketches to be properly scrutinized.  Any changes that needed to be made would be fixed in time for the following morning.  (The alterations would be noted on the cover page of the second draft.)  Afterwards, Don Ferguson and Roger Abbott (who were also the producers of the show), Rosemond and Production Designer Paul Chiasson would have a Pre-Production Meeting.
 
This was the day I rarely saw any of the cast.  They were so busy getting prepared for the upcoming show that it was difficult to really get to know them on a personal level.  There just wasn’t enough time for small talk.
 
Tuesday was always an interesting day.  One of my duties was to wheel in from around the offices fifteen chairs which had to be temporarily relocated to the boardroom.  (When the meeting was over, they would all be returned to their rightful owners.)  This was the big Production Meeting which everyone attended.  There were about 20 to 30 people in attendance.  It was very quick, very efficient and exceedingly professional.  We all had our pink copies of the script and we followed along has Perry Rosemond went over areas that needed to be discussed.
 
There was this mantra he had about the comedy:  “Can we sell this joke?”  When he talked about a line he was unsure of, he frequently asked that question out loud.  If it couldn’t be defended, the writers would try to come up with something funnier later on.  They usually did.  (Remember, The Air Farce is not The Daily Show, The Howard Stern Show or any of the late night chat shows, for that matter.  They have never been savage satirists nor do they specialize in raunchy, adult humour.  If they did, it would limit their appeal to families, their target audience.  They’ve always wanted to make the young and the old laugh at the same time.  A difficult task but they’re very good at it.  Although they’ve occasionally gone edgy (personally, I wish they took more chances like that), for the most part they’re a broad-based comedy team specializing in political ribbing.)  Recurring sketches didn’t require much discussion.  Those sets were all ready to go as were the costumes, wigs and, for the most part, the comedy.  Anything graphic oriented, like a fake CD cover, was the sole terrain of the show’s brilliant Graphic Designer Duncan Aitken.  He was a wizard at coming up with great visuals on short notice.  He got great compliments for his work, too.  Any music concerns were directed to Glenn Morley who handled all the parodies.  Paul and Perry would often talk about the kind of sets required for one-off sketches.
 
About an hour after the meeting, the first rehearsal would take place in Studio 61, which was really just a small-scale gymnasium.  (Gord, Rick, Program Assistant (now writer) Rob Lindsay, Program Co-ordinator Wayne Testori (also promoted to writer) and I played floor hockey one night after work in there or a studio of a similiar size.  When Rick made a bad shot, I quipped, “You shoot like a writer.”.  Dead silence.)  Perry and the cast would run through the sketches working on the blocking and physical gestures.  During one of the few times I sat in to watch them, Luba Goy wanted to leave early to do some shopping.  Don Ferguson was not terribly happy about it and wasn’t shy about saying so.  He felt they weren’t done rehearsing with her.  She left anyway and Don soon forgot about it.  That was about as intense as it ever got behind the scenes.  Damn Canadians.  Even they fight politely.
 
Without question, the most entertaining days were Wednesday and Thursday.  In between my normal duties (among them, making sure the printer and two Xerox machines had enough paper; delivering V.I.P. tickets to CBC employees so they could attend the show tapings; dubbing past episodes onto VHS; keeping the boardroom clean; the dreaded recycling), I would witness the remaining rehearsals in Studio 42, where the audience sees the final result.  It would be a long day for the cast.  In the morning, they would head to wardrobe.  In the afternoon, they would run through the sketches.  Any voiceovers that needed to be recorded would be done that same day.  Any pre-taped bits, stuff that wouldn’t be performed live-to-tape during show days, would also be shot.  Any remaining creative concerns were also dealt with like blocking, timing and jokes.  Like many in the film industry, they use storyboards for certain sketches.  (I don’t think they used them for the recurring ones.)  Perry pulled me aside during one such rehearsal, gave me the keys to his office and told me to pick up one such storyboard he left on his desk so they could settle something they were worried about.  Also, sort of like Saturday Night Live, if the cast forgets a line they can refer to the electronic autocue (SNL uses old-fashioned cue cards) which only they could see directly under each camera.  Any time an important stage direction or revised joke was needed, someone would inevitably say, “Add that to the autocue.”.
 
They would rehearse until 7 in the evening and then afterwards, have another meeting to see how things were progressing for the week.  It was always the longest day, about 12 hours which included only one half hour break.
 
Then, came Thursday.  There would be a full dress rehearsal during the afternoon and finally, two tapings at night with two different audiences.  If anything fell flat during the first one, jokes would be tweaked for the second.  No two audiences each taping day would see the exact same show.  There was always something that had to be changed.  Gord and Rick were constantly making sure their comedy was as timely and funny as they could make it on such short notice.  Perry and the cast insisted on it.  They usually delivered the goods.  They made it look really easy, actually.  Talented bastards.
 
Because I was commuting via the GO Bus, I only watched the first taping which no one had a problem with.  (The bus service doesn’t run all night and I wasn’t about to bug someone about a ride home.)
 
On Friday morning, Perry, Assistant Director Linda Bain (who looked after the timing of the sketches), Tom Wood (the sound effects guy) and Editor Grant Ducsharm would lock themselves into an edit suite and spend anywhere from six to eight hours editing the two tapings into a 22-minute program.  For the most part, and this was typical for the four shows they made during my internship, the programs were dominated by the second tapings.  (I know because when I watched the finished shows I didn’t recognize the audience’s reaction.  It wasn’t the same as the first taping.  Plus, there were subtle differences in the performances and writing.)  For some reason, the audiences were better at 9:30 than they were at 7, which was odd considering that the show aired at 7:30 every Friday.
 
Because they were on deadline to have a finished show ready to hand in to CBC at 4:30, three hours before it was scheduled to air, it was up to me to look after their throats and stomachs.  Shortly after arriving at 10 a.m, I would go to the boardroom at the office, open the door to the tiniest fridge I have ever seen, grab four bottles of juice and two bottles of water, and deliver them to the hardworking and undoubtedly parched editing team.  “Around noon,” I noted later in my five-page college report, “I would get their lunches from Casa Manna or Pumpernickel’s or some other takeout place in the underground mall.”  Yes, in Toronto, they shop like mole men.
 
Sometime in the afternoon, my duties would no longer be required and I would catch the GO Bus home to see the show as it aired on CBC.  At some point that day, the process would start all over again and the following Monday (after taking the weekend off), the first draft of next week’s sketches would be in the hands of every employee of the show.
 
In the next installment, I’ll begin to look back at the four episodes that were made during my internship.  And later, a mistake made in one sketch that haunts me to this day.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, November 1, 2008
11:50 p.m.
Published in: on November 1, 2008 at 11:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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