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Looking back at 25 years of Air Farce on TV

Air Farce founding member Don Ferguson shares the behind-the-scenes story about how the troupe made the leap from radio to TV.

Air Farce's Don Ferguson looks back on 25 New Year's specials.
Air Farce's Don Ferguson looks back on 25 New Year's specials. Rodney Daw / Air Farce Productions Inc.

If you think of New Year’s Eve in Canada, you can’t help but think of Air Farce. The iconic Canadian comedy troupe is celebrating its 25th anniversary on television with 2017’s New Year’s Eve special on Dec. 31. Air Farce will also be celebrating its 45th anniversary in 2018, so we reached out to co-founder Don Ferguson, to share his thoughts about this year’s special and reminisce on the troupe’s beginnings on TV.

Twenty-five years ago, the year 1992 marked the 125th anniversary of Confederation. The federal government made funds available for artists and organizations to celebrate the occasion through what is now known as the Heritage Department in Ottawa. It was similar to what occurred this year for Canada’s 150th.

Air Farce was on radio at the time. Roger Abbott and I had been trying for over a year to get a TV special on the air. It began when a friend, Brian Robertson, pitched the Canada 125 Committee for funds to produce an Air Farce special tied in with Canada 125. He got the money – $150,000 to be exact – which 25 years ago was enough to produce a special. The problem was we couldn’t find a broadcaster. Talk about frustrating.

The money for the TV special had to be spent, and the special had to air by December 31, or the Heritage money would be withdrawn and our dream would go up in smoke. We’d all but stopped hoping, frustrated and disappointed that a broadcaster wouldn’t give us an hour of air time. And it wouldn’t cost them anything — we had the money! Finally, with only six weeks left in the year, CBC said they’d put us on, provided we agreed to cover any cost overruns. We wanted a New Year’s Eve special because Roger and I had long admired an annual Radio-Canada broadcast called Bye-Bye that had generated huge audiences in Quebec for years. We were very lucky to hire the best comedy director in the country, Perry Rosemond, and the race was on.

Talk about flying into TV by the seat of our pants.

We had only three weeks to produce the special, and because our writers insisted on being paid over scale, Roger and I ended up producing the show for free. I can now say that it was the best investment we ever made.

Because the show was tight on time and budget — our set was mainly balloons, and our costumes mainly tops. We shot the special in front of a live audience — there were no pre-tapes or on-location sketches — and edited it in a few days. But we gave TV audiences what it wanted — topical Canadian comedy. To his everlasting credit Ivan Fecan, who was in charge of CBC English television at the time, called Roger at home after seeing a rough edit and said, “Let’s talk about doing more.” The rest is history.

How have things changed?

There’s a lot more topical political comedy now, particularly with internet being so pervasive. And technology has changed the game, too. 25 years ago, on-location shooting was hugely cumbersome and expensive. Now a small crew of four or five people can shoot 4D quality video in available light with a camera the size of a cell phone.

We still have a small staff of writers (the bulk of this year’s special is written by three people, with help from a couple more) because we feel it’s best to concentrate our resources.

The cast has grown bigger. 25 years ago, we were a cast of four, this year we’re a cast of eight. Part of the reason for that is age. Luba and I are definitely the old guard and we’ve been gradually stepping aside to let the new, younger stars shine.

These days we shoot a lot on location. A third or more of the show is now done this way to give us more variety on screen and to enable different looks.

But we all — and that includes Luba and I — get excited and nervous before stepping in front of a live audience in December when, for two nights in studio, when the CBC Broadcast Centre is packed with fans and we record the majority of the show.

The butterflies are definitely one thing that haven’t changed in 25 years.

View a photo gallery of Air Farce from 1971-2017 on our sister site, Artsculture.ca

Air Farce New Year’s Eve airs Sunday, December 31, 2017 at 8:00 PM (8:30 NT) on CBC TV

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