22 Minutes For High Schticking

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 26 1996

22 Minutes For High Schticking

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 26 1996

The Air Farce Is Flying High

On a February night in a CBC studio in Toronto, Lucien Bouchard is about to lose his head. Some 350 people break into applause as the Royal Canadian Air Farce Chicken Cannon is wheeled

onto the studio set. The weapon, complete with rubber chicken atop, is accompanied by RCAF cast member Don Ferguson, dressed as Col. Stacy. In a brusque, no-nonsense voice, he informs everyone that the Quebec premier has been chosen Target of the Week for two reasons: declaring that Canada is divisible but Quebec is not, and

B.C. salmon, Arctic char,

Prince Edward Island spuds,

Ontario road salt and, in honor of Jacques Parizeau, a Mr. Potato Head—then aims it at a large picture of the Quebec premier. The fuse is lit, the colonel yells “FIRE” and there is a resounding boom as a fusillade of food blows away Bouchard’s head. “What do you know?” says a stonyfaced Stacy. “Looks like Lucien Bouchard is divisible.” The studio audience loves it.

Judging by the show’s ratings, so do a lot of Canadians. Now in its third season, the half-hour Royal Canadian Air Farce is among the network’s top five shows, drawing up to 1.8 million viewers and consistently ranking among the top 20 overall in Canada.

The quartet of Ferguson,

John Morgan, Luba Goy and Roger Abbott has been honing its comedic talents on CBC Radio for 22 years— it returns to its Sunday afternoon half-hour spot in April after a four-month hiatus. But when Air Farce made the switch to television in 1993, with a show

condemning Canadians to another round of god-awful constitutional talks. A sergeant loads the cannon with Canadian specialties—

that is entirely distinct from the national radio version, it was successful to a degree that seems to surprise even the four comics.

Written by Morgan and two Torontonians who have been with the Air Farce for 19 years, Gord Holtam and Rick Olsen, the TV show takes aim at

Bouchard—whom Ferguson impersonates wearing a dark wig and what looks like two dead caterpillars across his brow—is one in a long

politicians, celebrities and newsmakers. Call it The National Vent, a forum where viewers get to see their frustrations about the state of the country expressed, exaggerated and eased by laughter. Says Ferguson, who produces the show with Abbott: “It has been said before, but it’s still true: in the States, if people don’t like their leaders they shoot them. In Canada, we make fun of them.” parade of politicians regularly held up to ridicule. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien (Abbott) turns up frequently to mangle metaphors. Sheila Copps (Goy), another favorite, recently tried out for the feisty, sexually alluring lead role in a new CBC drama called Steeltown Woman. And Ferguson, wearing spectacles and black tights, once por-

trayed the leader of the Reform party as “Batmanning, the Caped Crusader.” There is more silliness than subtlety to many of the skits, and occasionally cast members are taken to task by viewers accusing them of bad taste. “Some people get upset whenever we do the Pope or the Queen,” says Morgan. “But the tone of the letters is usually regretful, as in We always enjoy the show, but did you have to do that skit?’ ” Many of the people mocked on the show have turned up later as wisecracking guests. In the New Year’s Eve Air Farce special, federal Conservative Leader Jean Charest served coffee and doughnuts to the cast and explained, in full whine, how he and Preston Manning might merge their parties to become the “Confo-o-o-o-rr-rm Party.” And last week, Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps turned up in the same doughnut shop in full oratorical flight. When Ferguson’s character tried to speak to her, she screeched at him to leave her alone—only to apologize later and explain that she had mistaken him for Preston Manning.

The 22-year-old act is hotter than ever

The Air Farce members say that more than two decades of recording their radio shows before audiences across the country have taught them what tickles the Canadian funny bone. “People don’t think before they laugh, they just laugh,” says Ferguson, 49. “So audiences teach you what works or doesn’t: you just have to learn to listen.” A former Montrealer who lives in Toronto with his wife and 11-year-old daughter, Ferguson joined the comedy group in 1970 (as did Goy and Abbott), when it was known as The Jest Society. It had been founded earlier that year by Morgan and actor-writer Martin Bronstein. By 1973, they had renamed themselves the Royal Canadian Air Farce and landed a steady gig on CBC Radio. That year, the troupe recruited comedian Dave Broadfoot, who popularized such characters as Sgt. Renfrew and Bobby Clobber before leaving in 1988. Abbott, also a former Montrealer, attributes Air Farce’s longevity to a commitment to delivering “laughs, not attitude.

Basically, we talk about the same sort of topics that you’d talk about at the bus stop with someone.”

Air Farce seems to mirror Everyman’s disgust with the carryingson in business and politics alike.

“In order to reach a broad audience, you’ve got to go more mainstream—you can’t do Black Mass skits,” says Ferguson. Their approach has earned them a loyal following, including many children and teenagers who write in to the show. High-school teachers often request videos to use in classroom discussions of politics. “One kid wrote to say he didn’t know who Preston Manning was until he started watching,” says Abbott, “and now he follows his career.” While playing on the average person’s suspicions about the powerful, Air Farce also lampoons the common man. “Mike from Canmore” (Morgan) is so dimwitted that, in one sketch, Bouchard

Having performed together most of their adult lives, the four comics have developed an astonishingly intense creative relationship. Goy, who lives with her partner of seven years, his two teenage boys and her 21-year-old son, says the group is close, but doesn’t socialize much outside work. “We’re working so much that we’ve gotten selfish about our family time.”

Until December, they were still writing and performing a separate weekly radio show, which regularly attracted about half a million listeners. “It was brutal,” says Morgan. Putting it on hiatus until April 27 means they won’t do radio again until after the last live TV taping. By then, they will be back on their crosscountry performance schedule, taping their shows in cities across Canada. Many of them are staged as fund-raisers, with most of the proceeds going to charities.

All four still seem to relish the connection those appearances give them with their fans. “It keeps us fresh—it’s like a party,” says Morgan. The 65-year-old native of Wales, a widower with a grown son and daughter, exudes energy and a sense of mischief. While clearly enjoying the television show’s success, he seems to hanker for the imaginative freedom of radio. “If you want 150 Highland Pipers coming up over the hill, well in radio, that’s no problem,” he says. “In TV, the first question comes from wardrobe, ‘Well, what kind of tartan should they be wearing?’ You think, ‘Oh, forget it.’ ” But, he adds, television offers its own advantages: “It’s like a big electronic toy box that we’re learning how to use more and more.” Technological wizardry allows them to perform a skit like the one in which he and Abbott, dressed in red bodysuits, appear to be a two-man luge team hurtling down a chute (the rider in back starts making amorous overtures to the one in front).

cites him as one of the reasons Quebec wants to separate.

The TV show’s three writers produce a new script each weekend. It is reworked constantly during meetings and rehearsals, then the show is performed twice in front of an audience in Toronto on Thursday evening. Sometimes the writers and cast amend their jokes or add new material in the hour between the two tapings. When Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Jackson split, for instance, the writers squeezed a joke into the second taping. The better take of each skit makes it into the Friday broadcast.

The live show is also an impressive logistical exercise. Whole sets frequently have to be built between Tuesday and Thursday, and props—such as a large chicken leg that Morgan recently needed for a monologue— procured at the last minute. There are makeshift dressing rooms behind the stage because the actors do not have enough time to get down the hall for costume and makeup changes between skits.

Clothes, props and a mini-hairdressing salon with busts displaying about 15 different wigs are crammed together. Goy finds the frequent wardrobe changes—as many as six per show—nerve-racking. “Sometimes I have to take off every article of clothing,” she explains. “One night, I had to get out of Sheila Copps’s black pantyhose and into Martha Stewart’s light ones to match her pastel outfit. Martha would never wear dark hose with light clothes.” Goy was doing a scene called “Martha Stewart Nightly News,” in which the ubiquitous author, TV host and domestic paragon purports to resolve several global crises, including famine and the Bosnian conflict, with “a few simple items hanging around the house.”

Each show, according to producers Ferguson and Abbott, costs “more than $100,000 and considerably less than $200,000.” George Anthony, CBC creative head of TV arts, music, science and variety, says that, comparatively speaking, “the show is a bargain.” The spectators seem fascinated by the show’s workings, and cast members kibbitz with them easily while scenery is being shifted. Even stage manager Pat McDonald gets into the act. Informally dressed and wearing a headset, McDonald addresses the audience while directing people and props on the floor. “OK,” he tells the audience in a mournful, weary monotone, “get ready to laugh.” They do laugh—and, every week, millions of Canadians join in. □