Comedy·CBC TV

We keep going and going and going: Royal Canadian Air Farce turns 45

It’s two days before the live taping of the Royal Canadian Air Farce’s annual New Year’s Eve special and the chaos of television production is underway.
From left to right: Darryl Hinds, Isabel Kanaan, Don Ferguson, Luba Goy, Craig Lauzon, Jessica Holmes, Chris Wilson. (Photo by Rodney Dawe)

It's two days before the live taping of the Royal Canadian Air Farce's annual New Year's Eve special and the chaos of television production is underway. Backstage in CBC Toronto's Studio 40, wigs are being processed and costumes are being fitted while a door — intended for cast member Craig Lauzon to maniacally break out of — is being re-drilled into the wall.

As associate director Gim Ardal guides the rolling flats of sets and actors to their first positions, he remarks, "It's a well-oiled machine… a well-oiled machine that comes out of the garage once a year."

The hatches are literally being battened down in preparation for the troupe's flagship sketch show that will take on everything from the legalization of cannabis to the #MeToo movement. Special guest appearances include Tommy Chong, Frankie Drake Mysteries' Lauren Lee Smith, and Canadian Olympian Natalie Spooner.

This year, the Royal Canadian Air Farce celebrates its 45th anniversary. 

A look at the classic cast from 1994 in the donut shop.

The troupe originally formed as The Jest Society in Montreal in 1970 and morphed into the Air Farce with comedians Don Ferguson, John Morgan, Roger Abbott, Dave Broadfoot and Luba Goy in 1973, in what would become a grand comedic legacy project.

First was a theatrical revue, followed by a national radio show broadcast on the CBC from 1973 to 1997. Then from 1993 to 2008, a comedy sketch show titled The Royal Canadian Air Farce ran on the national broadcaster every week to critical acclaim and high ratings.

Today Air Farce continues an annual beloved New Year's special satirizing the biggest Canadian news stories of the year, a tradition which first began in 1992.

Over the years, the troupe has performed internationally, featured guest appearances from the likes of Margaret Atwood and Justin Trudeau and received a Governor General's Performing Arts Award for their historic contribution to the landscape of Canadian comedy in 1998. But despite all that success, it hasn't always been easy.

"It was like having a family with five spouses because somebody was always in the dog house," reflects Ferguson on the early years.

"[Alliances] were always shifting, not because we were ganging up on each other, but the members of a comedy group aren't always going to be golden all the time. We laughed that Air Farce outlasted everybody's marriages," remarks Ferguson from where he sits backstage.

Goy, while preparing her impersonation of the Queen in her dressing room, adds: "We've gone through marriages, divorces, children, and had our parents die. 45 years is really quite exceptional to be so fortunate. Air Farce is the Energizer Bunny of Canadian Comedy. We just keep going and going and going because the government keeps giving and giving and giving!"

While Goy and Ferguson represent the baby boomer contingent, five other cast members on 2018's New Year's special respectively stand in for Generation X and Y.

Craig Lauzon and Jessica Holmes joined the cast in the early aughts and the newest recruits include Toronto comedians Darryl Hinds, Chris Wilson and Isabel Kanaan.

Behind the scenes at rehearsal for the Air Farce special. (Chanel Klein / CBC)
​Kanaan, a brilliant 27-year-old with SNL-worthy impersonations of Meghan Markle and Cardi B., immigrated to Canada from the Philippines at 16.

"When I came to Canada in my last year of high school, I just knew that Canada was like a nicer and a colder America," remarks Kanaan.

"English was my second language and when it came out, I spoke it slowly, with a thick Filipino accent."

According to Kanaan, being in Air Farce has been a crash course in Canadian culture.

"The first year, I was brought on for the 'Canada 150' special and I loved that so much because I got to learn the history," says Kanaan.

"A lot of people, like my mom, who come from other countries and decide to stay here, don't necessarily breathe Canadiana. One of the first characters I got to play was Anne of Green Gables and I loved that because they didn't look at my colour, they just liked my youthful energy."

A long way from the early days

Goy, known in the troupe's infancy simply as "The Girl," is now recognized as Canada's preeminent Ukrainian-Canadian comedienne. However, she recalls that shattering the glass ceiling wasn't easy.

"In the early days when John Morgan wrote me parts, it was always as 'the secretary' or 'the wife,'" says Goy.

"They were all very funny and very clever and I just never felt like I could be as funny or as clever as them."

Air Farce is the Energizer Bunny of Canadian Comedy. We just keep going and going and going because the government keeps giving and giving and giving!- Luba Goy

Today, Air Farce trades in the comedic talents of women and people of colour. Many of the special's funniest bits come from starring turns from its youngest cast members.

Hinds is exceptional as Queer Eye's Karamo Brown, while Holmes steals many scenes thanks to her boundless talent for physical comedy.

The pre-taped short films include a Black Panther sketch co-written by Hinds in which he plays Black Panther. In the sketch, Black Panther teams up with Colin Kaepernick (played by Nigel Downer) and Childish Gambino (played by Kevin Vidal) to confront the alt-right.

"We always said the goal of satire is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," says Ferguson.

As for the longevity of Air Farce, Ferguson adds "The fact that we created something that would last is just unbelievable to me. I mean, how many things in your life can you say you've done for 45 years? Breathe, maybe."

Watch Air Farce New Year's Eve on CBC on December 31st at 8pm (8:30NT) and stream on CBC Gem.

Justin has been accused of apologizing too much. He's sorry you feel that way. 3:01

About the Author

Chandler Levack is an award-winning writer, journalist and filmmaker. In 2017, her short film We Forgot to Break Up premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and SXSW. She is currently working on her first feature Anglophone.