Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor ice could stop me from attending the final ever taping of Air Farce last night in snowy Toronto. Thanks to my neighbors Doug and Roberta, and their trusty, driveway-clearing snow blower and four wheel drive jeep, we made it down to the CBC broadcast centre, where everyone else made the same commitment–the bleachers were packed.
And why not. This was the last dance, the final taping of a show that began on radio 35 years ago to the day, as Roger Abbott told the crowd before the taping.
The seven member troupe went out in style, offering a fast, funny show that will air as an hour-long special Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. on CBC. There were several guest stars, including Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean, who got to fire the chicken cannon at his favorite target (you know who).
MacLean, himself one of the true gentlemen in Canadian television, paid a very heartfelt tribute to the Air Farce, despite the fact that he was covered in guck from stuffing sour grapes, mud, molasses and other junk into the Chicken Cannon. MacLean had been in Montreal the night before covering a game and had tried all the airlines and train routes to get back in time for the taping; somehow he succeeded. He said his parents were more thrilled about him being on Air Farce than they ever were about him being on Hockey Night in Canada (and the way Grapes picks on him, no wonder).
Before the show began, as the cast stood on stage, CBC executive vice president Richard Stursberg read off a list of Farce accomplishments (over 600 radio shows, 332 TV shows, a high water mark of 2.3 million viewers, a 16-year TV average of over a million viewers a week) and then presented a plaque re-dedicating Sound Stage 42 as the Air Farce theatre. It was a nice gesture, but as one of the younger cast members cracked to me later, a better tribute might have been “hey, we made a mistake…”
The show itself has several high points. There is one, final, doughnut shop sketch, with the familiar, iconic meeting place about to go out of business. A special guest arrives to throw all those sugar hoarding hoseheads out, and I’m going to spoil it here so stop reading after the jump if you don’t want to know.
Yes, of course, it’s Dave Broadfoot, there when Farce began 35 years ago, now 83 and still going on and on about Kicking Horse Pass. Abbott took a minute to give Broadfoot a final salute after the sketch, and the comedy legend seized it as ever. They were both taking a bow for someone they missed, deceased Farcer John Morgan, whose name was invoked all night and who is glimpsed in some of the clips from the past packaged into the show. His son was in the house and took a bow for his father.
The bleachers were packed with friends and family. Newcomers, like my neighbors, marveled at the one take pace of the shoot. I could tell that the cast members were actually savoring this last show, taking a few extra seconds here and there. Nobody was in a rush to have it end.
Craig Lauzon broke the ice in the first sketch by crawling through a window as Stephen Harper and half losing his wig. “People think it is kept in a refrigerator anyway,” cracked Abbott, who must read John Doyle at the Globe.
The two guys who provide the music between sketches, Dave Matheson (formerly with Moxy Fruvous) and Maury Lafoy of the Ground Crew, treated the crowd to all the old favorites, including the “I’ve Been Everywhere” song, Canadian version, and “Jesus’ Brother Bob.” I always thought they should have been part of the televised show, but I guess that’s because I was raised on The Smothers Brothers. Attending an Air Farce taping was always such a special treat for me because it was the closest thing I could find to a real, network variety show. The Farce had a personal connection to their studio audience as well as to people who tuned in at home on television. That’s what made them special and that’s what Canadian TV has lost. Abbott thanked the CBC and was grateful to the network for programming three current affairs sketch series on the air at the same time for all these years. Nobody else ever did that, as Abbott pointed out, but then Canadians are obsessed with and terrific at news and comedy. Why not three current affairs sketch shows if they continue to pull strong numbers for the CBC, which they all still do. Comedy is a big part of CBC’s past and present and should be of its future. You have to walk past portraits of Wayne & Shuster, John Candy and the rest of the SCTV cast, The Kids in the Hall, Red Green, Lorne & Hartt, The Frantics, The Royal Canadian Air Farce and many others to get to the Air Farce theatre. The current team of CBC programmers should take that walk more often, and take it in.
Speaking of soapbox, one of the most touching tributes after the show was a gift presented to Luba Goy from new kids Caig Lauzon and Alan Park. The had Goy’s riser–the small wooden box the diminutive comedienne often stood on in sketches opposite Don Ferguson or whoever–painted it gold and had her name inscribed. Nice touch, gentlemen.
Goy certainly went down swinging. When a gigantic cake from Dufflet’s bakery was wheeled on stage for all to enjoy, Goy grabbed the knife and started with the Lorainne Bobbit jokes. George Anthony, who has seen a lot of changes at The Toronto Sun and at CBC over the years, has seen a lot of cakes on this sound stage, too. The Farce always celebrated, the Third year, the fourth year, whatever, said Anthony. The stage hands, the musicians, Gord Holtham, Rick Olsen and the rest of the writers, the costumers, publicist David McCaughna, larconic stage director Pat “Stand by to laugh” McDonald, veteran director Perry Rosemond–as you stood in line with them for cake, you could tell that they all loved what they do, loved each other and that they would all miss all of this very much.
And loved their audience. After the show, Park ventured into the bleachers and handed his final show binder to a couple. He wanted to leave a little souviner something for some real fans and he found them–my neighbors Doug and Roberta.
Some Air Farce VHS tapes were also distributed. “What are these things, books?” even Park asked. Still, the cast signed them and anything else thrust in front of them.
Will there be more Farce? An annual New Year’s Eve special seems like a no brainer, especially when this one draws another million-plus audience when it airs a week from Wednesday. More than one cast member voiced their frustration at missing out on goofing on politics every week just as Canadian’s political leaders turned into the Three, Four and Five Stooges. “What a terrible time to stop doing this!” said Lauzon after the show. He’ll miss being robotic Harper. Park, too, has emerged as quite a political impressionist. His Obama is better than Fred Armisen’s on SNL, and his Dion is scary good. (The Dion skit on the New Year’s Eve closer is a scream, it drew cheers from last night’s crowd even though we only saw it off the monitor.) Last night he even got to glue on those crazy Michael Ignatieff eyebrows.
I guess it will be up to Roger and Don, who, as MacLean said, are two of the nicest people you could ever meet in or out of the business. Maybe after a break they’ll have an itch to get back, maybe they’ll take their act elsewhere. As Abbott said to me at the after party, maybe CTV’s Canadian Idol has the best word for it after all. “Rested,” said Abbott. “I wish I’d thought of that.”