Canada's about to turn 150 years old, and let's face it, a national celebration as big as this wouldn't be the same without the cast of Air Farce.
Fortunately, the iconic sketch comedy troupe is assembling for its first-ever Canada Day special on CBC. Air Farce Canada 150 not only parodies current events, but also mines Canada's past for laughs.
We thought this would be a perfect time to reflect on the past, present and future of the now 44-year-old Air Farce ensemble.
As one of the original cast members, Don Ferguson, 71, is certainly the person for the job.
We asked Ferguson about the troupe's formative days, the many cast changes (Air Farce Canada 150 welcomes two new cast members: Chris Wilson and Isabel Kanaan) and the key to Air Farce's longevity. (It's not hard to imagine Air Farce celebrating its own sesquicentennial one day.)
When Air Farce formed back in 1973, what were the ambitions of the troupe in the beginning?
Don FergusonNever in our wildest imaginings did we ever dream Air Farce would last as long as it has. Like a lot of young comedy troupes, in our early days, when called ourselves The Jest Society — the group that morphed into Air Farce in 1973 — we were only concerned about getting the next gig. Because there were very few comedy troupes, fewer still doing improvisational shows, and none doing topical humour, we created our own niche. The way the stage show worked was straightforward: in May 1970 after starting from scratch with material we created, we added to the show by asking audiences for suggestions at the end of the first act, then took a 25-minute intermission during which we came up with sketches based on the suggestions. Both we and the theatregoers loved long intermissions because it meant the audience had time to buy drinks. The second act was entirely improvised sketches.
Audiences kept asking for sketches about things they'd read about in newspapers or had seen on television, so we did a lot of topical material. If an improv really clicked, we moved it into the first act, which served two purposes: we performed a sketch on a subject that audiences were interested in and at intermission they stopped asking for the subject because it was now in the show. Over time it worked out well – we asked audiences what they wanted and gave it to them, and in that way we kept renewing the show.
Within a year we got a chance to do sketches for a CBC Radio show called The Entertainers. It was nice to get an extra source of income, but doing sketches in an empty studio was not our thing. Luckily, in 1973, we got a chance to do what we wanted — a comedy show in front of a live audience, and most important, we convinced CBC to record the audience so listeners could hear them laughing. Initially CBC gave us a contract for a single taping, out of which we got three half-hours. It was our first gig using the name Royal Canadian Air Farce. The radio audience loved it from the get-go and CBC kept renewing us, one taping at a time. The next season, they gave us a 13-episode contract, followed by another, followed by another. For five years, we never had a contract longer than 13 weeks. But during that time, we became an established hit.
What do you think is the key to Air Farce's longevity?
We've always listened to the audience. What they liked, we did more of. What they didn't like, we stopped doing. We didn't have a mission or a plan or a theory. We wanted to make ourselves laugh and find a way to share what we found funny with other people.
Another key was just pure dumb luck. We did lots of imaginary characters, but because our show developed in response to what audiences were requesting — topical subjects — our most popular characters were always politicians and celebrities and whomever else was in the news. And when audiences stopped being interested in them, we stopped doing them. That's why over the years I did Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin, Lucien Bouchard, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and so on. Our cast of characters kept renewing itself.
Another key is that when the time came, and we looked in the mirror and realized we needed newer, younger performers, we brought those people in. It didn't always work out as well as we wanted it to, but overall it's been one of the things that's kept us in the game. When we started, Luba Goy, Roger Abbott and I were the youngest of six performers — the others were Dave Broadfoot, John Morgan and Martin Bronstein. Now Luba and I are the oldest of eight cast in the Canada Day 150 special.
We enjoy doing specials but we'd love to find a way to do more shows more often, either specials or a series. We've got a great cast, a great writing team, and it's a heck of a lot of fun.
Of course, Canadians await the annual New Year's special — which will also be the 45th anniversary year and your 25th anniversary broadcast. It's a big year for Air Farce! Are you already thinking of ideas?
We start to focus in a serious way on the New Year's show in September and October. We make notes and collect ideas throughout the year but really zero in when the leaves begin to fall. We're at the mercy of national and world events but that's the way it's always been, and the politicians, celebrities, athletes and other public figures who make the news have never let us down — we've never run out of material.
We'll certainly do something in the New Year's show that we deliberately didn't for the Canada 150 Special — mention the name of the American president! See? I'm still not saying it.
Air Farce Canada 150 premieres Saturday, July 1, 2017, at 8:00 PM ET/5:00 PM PT on CBC with an encore broadcast on Monday, July 3 at 8:00 PM (8:30 PM NT)
Watch a sketch from 'Air Farce Canada 150'
About Robert J. Ballantyne
Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.