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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