Comedy Between the Covers

New books from a venerable sketch troupe and their internet-era successors

Canadians take pride in their sketch comedy. We are good at it and we know it. The tradition stretches back into vaudeville, with companies such as The Marks Brothers and the sensational Eva Tanguay and continues through the First World War soldier-troupe The Dumbells, who were a hit in Canada, Britain and on Broadway. In the 1950s and ’60s, Wayne and Shuster’s literate slapstick helped define comedy on both American and Canadian television. In the 1970s, SCTV’s searing parodies set the standard for sketch.

None of these groups, however, had as long a run or as deep an impact on the Canadian sensibility as the Royal Canadian Air Farce. Over the course of four decades this troupe lampooned our national foibles and was a success on both stage and radio. The Air Farce’s CBC television series, launched in 1992, drew more than one million viewers a week, a huge rating for Canada. The cast, which included Roger Abbott, Don Ferguson, Luba Goy and John Morgan, were topical comedians who skewered national politics and culture.

More than one budding comic has found himself wondering, “How’d they do it?” A new book, Air Farce: 40 Years of Flying by the Seat of Our Pants, answers this question by charting the troupe’s rise from hippie revue to national institution. Commissioned in 2010 by John Wiley and Sons, it is written by Air Farce stars Abbott and Ferguson, who had been friends since they were boys in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grâce neighbourhood.

The Air Farce was a product of the baby boom generation. Its genesis came late in 1969 when a chance meeting brought Ferguson and Abbott into The Jest Society (a play on Trudeau’s promise of a just society), a troupe formed by Brit expatriate John Morgan and acerbic Montreal scribe Martin Bronstein. Prior to this, Abbott had spent the late 1960s trying to carve out a career in radio. Ferguson had been part of the counterculture. He celebrated Canada’s 1967 centennial year by dropping 100 hits of acid. Both had a dramatic streak and feel for the spotlight. The Jest Society dissolved, but Morgan, Ferguson and Abbott soldiered on. They brought in Luba Goy (the only trained actor in the bunch) and adopted the name Royal Canadian Air Farce. By the mid 1970s, Canadian comedian Dave Broadfoot had joined the troupe and the Air Farce became a staple on CBC Radio.

Sadly, Roger Abbott passed away in March 2011 as a result of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Ferguson was faced with what he describes as “a happy walk down a dark corridor.” He was forced to complete the book without his dear friend and creative partner.

While there is a bittersweet undercurrent to Air Farce, this palpable sense of loss does not diminish the playful, at times even giddy, stories recounted in this behind-the-scenes memoir. Among the weird and the wonderful, there is the fact that in the early 1970s, the CBC, which at that time was unwilling to give the Air Farce a series, asked the troupe if it could record Air Farce audiences laughing so they could use the canned laughter to sweeten their moribund programming.

Ferguson, who spends much of his time dissecting Air Farce’s early years, knows comedy. There are few, in Canada or anywhere else, as well liked or respected. Ferguson and Abbott were known for their attempts to foster young comedians. In the mid 1990s, they produced SketchCom, a television series that tried to introduce new comedians to Canadian audiences. During its last five years on television the Air Farce brought in talents such as Alan Park and Jessica Holmes to join the cast.

It is therefore no surprise that Air Farce reads like a tutorial in “How to make it in Canadian Comedy.” Lesson One: Tour. When they got their first rating of over a million viewers, a CBC executive was shocked. Abbott dryly informed him that he was not surprised, since they had personally met every one. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Air Farce were prototype road warriors, who toured the country religiously and developed an ear for the Canadian sense of humour. Observes Ferguson, “in the east, audiences loved to hate Trudeau, whereas in the west they just plain hated him.”

Lesson Two: Listen. Most critics believe the Air Farce chose to be topical as a way of establishing themselves in Canadian broadcasting. In fact, being political and making fun of Canadian news and newsmakers was a reaction to audience demands. Everywhere the troupe went, audiences pushed them to bring a satiric eye to the issues. The Air Farce understood the only way to gain broad popularity was to create comedy that sprang from things the audience shared rather than what kept them apart. From their earliest incarnation they sought to “send up” rather than “put down.” For instance, the Air Farce dealt with calamities in the news not by mocking the victims but by making fun of the way the mainstream media covered them.

While it took the Air Farce 40 years to get their first real book out, the eight-member Halifax sketch troupe Picnicface, which formed in 2006, published a book to coincide with the group’s first season on the Comedy Network. Written by the entire troupe, Picnicface’s Canada is a hardcover collection of sight gags and quick humour presented as a pseudo–high school text book.

The benchmark for this sort of book remains National Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook, written by P.J. O’Rourke and Doug Kenney and published in 1973. It was a razor-sharp parody of high school, with the fictional C. Estes Kefauver High School in Dacron, Ohio, and was so successful it led to the movie Animal House. The comedy was pointed and meticulous. It was often painfully close to the real thing. That is what good print satire does—it presents a more perfect (and therefore ridiculous) version of the target parodied.

Picnicface’s Canada is too broad and tries too hard. The political jokes lack weight: “Canada’s first Prime Minister … was assassinated in the liver by whiskey in 1891.” They have more success with the outright absurd: “In Canada, everything costs money—even childhood fun.” If the pieces were presented online as daily hits of comedy or as a much shorter ebook, the material might work. But at 212 pages, the troupe’s attempts run thin. What works on stage and on screen requires force and exuberance to drive it through. Print is, by its nature, deadpan and requires restraint. All you have is the words.

Still, it is encouraging to see Canadian publishers taking chances on humour. One of the great Canadian mysteries is that a country that produces some of the funniest comedians in the world publishes very little humour. The Americans and the Brits are far more open to publishing writing that is intended to draw laughs rather than tears. It speaks to an almost retro lack of self-assurance. As an editor once told me, “I really like your proposal but it’s very funny.”

Of course, it is easy to define what is tragic—death, disease, suffering. There is safety (and nobility) in tales of woe. Comedy is subjective and therefore risky, but here is a hint. In the hands of the right comedian, it is death, disease and suffering.