I always wanted to be Roger Abbott.
The man had the best job in the world, the guiding hand (together with Don Ferguson) behind the Royal Canadian Air Farce. He was a major reason why that comedy troupe got Canadians where they lived: in the doughnut shops, at the hockey rinks, and in the polling booth.
Abbott, who died over the weekend at 64 after a 14-year battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, made people laugh for a living and was damned good at it.
What elevated his showmanship was that he loved comedy, the craft of it, the performance, the camaraderie, the people in it, even the business. Attending a live studio performance of "Air Farce" was like watching a hockey game. There were times when they misfired, but when they scored, you felt the rush — and you never felt more Canadian.
Abbott was the bald-headed guy at the door of the Canadian comedy club. He knew and respected all the old members — Wayne & Shuster, Don Harron, occasional fellow trouper Dave Broadfoot — and graciously held the door for the new kids coming up.
Together with Ferguson, he brought "Air Farce" to a higher level. He seemed to relish being part of a company — the late John Morgan, Luba Goy, newcomers Jessica Holmes, Craig Lauzon, Alan Park and Penelope Corrin; longtime writers Gord Holtam and Rick Olsen; director Perry Rosemond.
That they bridged radio, television and survived into the YouTube age is admirable. How well they connected with Canadians was too often overlooked when assessing the troupe.
Abbott and Ferguson especially made sure there were jokes in every show for fans in places like Saskatchewan and St. John's. This came from years of playing to theatres and festivals across the country.
Born in England and raised in Montreal, Abbott knew there was more to Canada than the 15 blocks surrounding the CBC broadcast centre in downtown Toronto. "Air Farce" played to every corner of Canada, a very big room.
|Brioux, Abbott and Brioux|
A request to bring him along for a table read (where the cast goes through that week's script) was, in a typically quiet act of kindness, welcomed by Abbott. At that point, Abbott and Ferguson had generously surrendered much of the limelight to the younger members of the troupe. Still, they debated words and inflections in order to hammer home a joke. They never stopped going for the funny.
And Abbott knew from funny. He could work Bob & Ray, Monty Python, Morecambe & Wise, Laurel & Hardy, Wayne & Shuster and "Saturday Night Live" into any conversation. He ranged from screwball to the absurd. He had survived in a tough business to become a comedy elder, but he and Ferguson were once the new kids in this troupe and came of age at a great time of awakening for all of Canada.
Like Wayne & Shuster, Abbott and Ferguson were university guys. That blend of college humour and Music Hall slapstick helped define Canada's comedy tradition. An Australian once told me a Canadian was somebody who could sneak in a jab while buying you a beer. That was Roger, playful and mischievous and still the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet.
|Abbott with stage director Pat McDonald|
He loved numbers. The guy knew exactly how many women over 35 east of Winnipeg were watching his show. He parsed the weekly ratings data like he was playing a lottery. It was a language we both spoke and I'll miss keeping score.
Roger was all about that blend of pride and modesty that defines Canadians. Friends, of whom he had many, often came back to one word to describe him: integrity. He was who we all wanted to be.
He'd want this tribute to end here, before things got too sappy. He'd want Wally Ballou to take over at this point; Roger was always slipping into the mannered voice of the clueless Bob & Ray radio character.
Wally Ballou would stand out on an air field, look to the clear blue skies, point heavenward and report that the Royal Canadian Air Farce was missing its captain. This is Wally Ballou reporting.
Royal Canadian Air Farce Special: A Tribute to Roger Abbott will air Tuesday night at 9 p.m. on CBC. The special will highlight some of Abbott's most memorable characters and impersonations, including Peter Mansbridge, Jean Chretien and Leonard Cohen.
For more reflection on Abbott, check out the CBC Q radio interview posted at the Air Farce site, featuring great memories from Don Ferguson, Luba Goy and Rick Mercer. Ferguson quotes Roger saying, "What we do is not put down, it's send up," which pretty much sums up the guy's whole classy approach, not just to comedy, but to life.