Providing a sense of Canadianism
(CBC Still Photo Collection)Royal Canadian Air Farce
won the hearts and minds of Canadians because of their uncanny ability to turn headlines into punchlines and find funny nuggets in everything from national scandals to small-town idiosyncrasies.
For 35 years, millions of Canadians tuned into CBC for their weekly dose of home-grown humour. They flocked to town halls, high-school gyms and charitable benefits the Farce
supported, lined up for the annual Christmas revues at Toronto's Massey Hall and clamoured for tickets to the New Year's Eve tapings.
An instant hit on both radio and television, the Air Farce
ran longer than any other comedy program on CBC.Air Farce
's origins go back to 1970 in Montreal, where John Morgan and Martin Bronstein founded the improvisational theatre revue The Jest Society. The original members were John Morgan, Martin Bronstein, Patrick Conlon, Gay Claitman and Roger Abbott.
Within a few months of forming, the Jest Society moved to Toronto, where Ferguson and Luba Goy joined them and, with the addition of Dave Broadfoot, the troupe would evolve into the Royal Canadian Air Farce
, which made their CBC Radio debut in December. The name was picked after CBC Radio rejected the name Beaver Follies.
Writers Gord Holtam and Rick Olsen joined the crew in 1977 and over a period of 24 years, the group produced more than 600 radio broadcasts.
The show was recorded live for the first few years at the Curtain Club in Richmond Hill, Ont., then at CBC's Cabbagetown studio theatre in Toronto.Listen to a clip:
John Dalton joined Air Farce
as a radio producer in 1981. At the time the show wasn't meant to be strictly topical and many of its episodes were recorded during the summer months.
"The first time we knew that being current was going to be popular was when The Journal
started ... and we taped a show on Friday night - we didn't know it was going to air the next day and it was going to be on in a week or two after that - and we played the theme for The Journal
and then had a sketch where we just made fun of The Journal
. We got such a great reaction, we decided that this as to go on the air tomorrow," Dalton says.
It started a frantic pace for the show. Every Friday night, Dalton would return to the studio after the show taped live and would edit the episode until the wee hours of Saturday morning so it could go on the air that day.
"In those days it was quarter inch tape and a razor blade. That was a challenge," Dalton says. "It was pretty crude editing with that blade, just chopping one piece of audio to the next."
But the topicality of the new format was working, he says.
"That freshness struck a cord with the public and they then began to wait to see what Air Farce would do with that last week's happenings," he says.'It was really representing Canada'
Soon Air Farce
was then traveling to theatres all across Canada and taping live for broadcast across the country on CBC Radio.
"For us it was really representing Canada, one part of Canada to the other," Dalton says. "Instead of being a Toronto-centered show, it really became a show from St. John's to Vancouver, Whitehorse, Yellowknife and all stops in between.
"Each time we'd go to a community there'd be an added excitement," Dalton says. "It was exciting to go on the road. There was the added excitement of getting to know that local area and putting that on the radio for others to hear and it was certainly a winner for the remote audience because they loved hearing their name being mentioned, seeing Air Farce
There was a "sense of Canadianism" around doing the show and traveling between the communities, Dalton says.
"The biggest thrill was seeing people lining up to come in, seeing them take their seats and then seeing the look on t heir faces when they'd see Roger, Don, John Morgan, Luba, Dave Broadfoot - and then to hear that wonderful sound of applause and laughter. There was usually one or two people in the audience who just couldn't stop giggling and that was always fun," he says. "That was the payoff - the laughs and again, this sense of Canadianism."
What was different about Air Farce was that it was Canadians who did comedy about Canada, he says.
"The humour was based in Canada and about Canada and that really connected one Canadian to another."
The cast really kept the show going, Dalton adds, saying there was a drive in them and a youthfulness that made no challenge seem insurmountable.
"They were totally professional. They knew how to get the maximum amount of laughs. It was always good natured laughs. There was never any nastiness to it. They never put down, they always sent up," he says. "They're really good people - good to other people, kind, generous."Decades-long partnership
Ferguson and Abbott were friends since they were 13 years old, first meeting on on the steps of Loyola College High School in Montreal's west end. The meeting would spawn a life-long friendship and a creative and business partnership spanning more than 40 years.
Abbott died in March 2011 at the age of 64, 14 years after being diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Morgan had retired from the show when he died of a heart attack at the age of 74 in 2004.
"There loss - John and Roger - should make us realize how important they were. That's the way it is sometimes with people or shows or things that we love. We love them but when they're gone we know boy did we really love them," Dalton says.
After brief stints on television in the 1980s, Air Farce
eventually took up its permanent place on the CBC-TV roster in 1993.Watch Air Farce's TV debut:
It ran concurrently on radio and television for four seasons before moving exclusively to TV in 1997. In 2003, the show added four new cast members: Jessica Holmes, Craig Lauzon, Alan Park and Penelope Corrin. And in 2007, the show returned to a live format with Air Farce Live
, which ran until New Year's Eve 2008.
"What stands out is their talent and their love of and knowledge of Canada and all that entails - politicians, sports figures, the types of Tim Hortons' doughnuts - everything Canadian," Dalton says. "They were the quintessential Canadians."
You can learn more about Air Farce
from Ferguson's perspective in a previous 75th anniversary blog
. You can also view clips
from an exclusive interview with Ferguson talking about his years on the show and the role Air Farce
has come to play in CBC's history and Canadian culture.
Posted on Oct 31, 2011 11:17:07 AM