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  

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