The Next Chapter

One fateful morning changed Ralph Benmergui's outlook on comedy, family and mortality

Radio and TV personality Ralph Benmergui spoke with Shelagh Rogers about looking back on his life in the memoir, I Thought He Was Dead.

'You can't fake funny. If the audience isn't laughing, they're not laughing'

I Thought He Was Dead is a memoir by Ralph Benmergui. (Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd., Chelsea Smith, Vintage Chic Portrait)

This interview originally aired on Jan. 22, 2022.

Ralph Benmergui has lots of life experience. He's had great career success, harrowing medical diagnoses and an abiding love for his family and faith. He writes about his lows, highs and everything in between in the memoir I Thought He Was Dead. 

Benmergui's family emigrated from Morocco and came to Toronto when Ralph was a child. In I Thought He Was Dead, Ralph traces his early acting and comedy years, his career as a CBC host and the faith that has always been his North Star.

Benmergui talked to The Next Chapter's Shelagh Rogers about why he wrote I Thought He Was Dead.

Accepting turns of fate

"I was just stepping out the door one morning. I wasn't at the CBC anymore. I was doing jazz radio. I had two kids that had just been born a few years apart. I already had two kids who were older, but there I was in my early 50s with these little children in the house, and I was going off to do the morning shift. I walked outside and I took in a breath of air and it hurt. And I thought, 'What is that?'

"I ended up in a cardiologist's office where they said, 'Well, you've got angina.' They gave me all these tests; I failed miserably. Turns out, I had two very blocked arteries. The angina was a bit of a gift because if I hadn't had that pain, I would have had the fate of other people, some of whom I've known, who literally are dead of a heart attack before they hit the ground because you don't feel the constriction until it's too late. 

My face doesn't look the same as it used to, and that was a whole Zen meditation right there — of accepting the impermanence of everything in your life, including how you look.

"They put three stents in and everything changed when that happened. We're all convinced that we're not in that club of people who actually die.

"A year later, I ended up with bizarre things happening in my nose. It turns out that I had cancer, and I was lucky because I got through it. My face doesn't look the same as it used to, and that was a whole Zen meditation right there — of accepting the impermanence of everything in your life, including how you look.

"So I thought it was a good way to start the book because it framed the idea that it's a journey. I'm firmly in the autumn of my life. I think it's important we don't back into that. I think we need to walk into that, and that was part of what this book is about."

Ralph Benmergui with singer and poet Leonard Cohen on his early 1990s CBC-TV variety show Friday Night! with Ralph Benmergui. (Friday Night! with Ralph Benmergui/CBC Archives)

Fathers and sons

"I think I was pretty hard on my dad when we were growing up. I didn't really appreciate the immigrant story — and how difficult it was for him to leave behind a life in Morocco. For hundreds of years, my family had been part of that country, in that culture.

"When he was incapacitated with strokes, I still felt myself going, 'Come on, you have to try a little harder — you're not trying hard enough.' Before I knew it, a few years passed and he died. I thought to myself, 'What did I think I was doing? Why was I deciding I had to be hard on this lovely man?' It gave me a deep appreciation in my 30s of what it really means to be a son, and to be a father.

"I started to become a father myself. It informed the fact that your kids often don't really understand how hard you're trying to be a good dad. 

The night my father died, for the first time — without any doubt in my mind — I felt there is a soul.

"The night my father died, I went in to see him. He'd already been dead for a couple of hours, and I realized I had never looked at someone who was dead before.

"As I looked at him, I looked in his eyes and there was no one there. For the first time, without any doubt in my mind, I felt there is a soul. We have a soul, because the soul has left this man. This [body] is just as Ram Dass called it — just a spacesuit with your name tag on it."

Considering comedy

"Steve Shuster, who was a comic and who had a lot of trouble over his life, had passed away. The Canadian comedy fraternity were all at the funeral. We were all together and realized we're in a club that almost nobody in the world is in. We've been the people who, for unknown reason, decided to stand up in front of people and say, 'Look at me, I'm funny.' 

"You can't fake funny. If the audience isn't laughing, they're not laughing. The language of comedy is very violent. 'I killed; I bombed.' You'd could come off if you had a good set and say, 'I killed.' Howie Mandel would walk off and say, 'I super-killed.' Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, Mike MacDonald, Norm Macdonald, all of these people were popping out of the comedy stratosphere and doing fantastic. It sure was exciting, and you knew that you were in something special.

I always wanted people to know that I come from North Africa. I think that made me want to validate my family name.

"I remember there was a guy who wanted me to change my name from Benmergui to Benson. He said, 'Why don't you call yourself Ralph Benson?' He was a film guy when I was acting. I was doing a comedy special in Vancouver with David Steinberg and he makes fun of my last name in his intro. When we were rehearsing it, I said, 'Can I ask you something? Do you think I should change my last name or should I keep it?'

"He said, 'Look, if you're worth remembering, they'll remember your last name. If you don't become worth remembering, you'll just be some schmuck who actually changed his name for no good reason.' And I always remember that about identity and being a Moroccan. I always kept wanting people to know that I come from North Africa. 

"I think that made me want to validate my family name."

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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