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.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, November 30, 2008