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.
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Published in: on November 8, 2008 at 2:09 am  Leave a Comment  

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