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Looking Back: Globe & Mail, June 19, 2001
FAREWELL TO A ROYAL WIT
After writing and performing with the Royal Canadian Air Farce for 34 years, John Morgan's retirement marks the end of a brilliant comedy career, say his colleagues ROGER ABBOTT and DON FERGUSON
Tuesday, June 19, 2001
TORONTO -- The announcement this month that John Morgan is leaving Royal Canadian Air Farce ends a 34-year stretch of comedy output that is likely unequalled anywhere.
Certainly there are comics who have exceeded that milestone as performers -- here in Canada, Dave Broadfoot, Don Harron and Frank Shuster have each clocked 50 years of comic acting and standup -- but John Morgan's achievement is in writing. For 34 years, he has written thousands of comedy sketches for the devouring mouth of weekly radio and television comedy shows.
Morgan's written wit first went national on May 7, 1967, when, according to a CBC Radio release, "a new comedy writing team bows in on the national scene when Funny You Should Say That! , a fast-paced revue, is presented on CBC Showcase ." The new writing team was Martin Bronstein and John Morgan, a pair of Brits who met in Montreal where they worked as journalists. But at heart, Morgan was still a Welsh lad with some funny ideas and a healthy disrespect for authority. In the giddy Montreal of Expo 67, Funny You Should Say That! became an immediate hit. But frustrated with producers who insisted on flying to Los Angeles to import U.S. guests such as Jonathan Winters and Lily Tomlin -- when the whole idea of Funny You Should Say That! was to bring a Canadian sensibility to the airwaves -- Morgan and Bronstein formed and financed an improvisational stage troupe in May, 1970, calling it the Jest Society in parody of Pierre Trudeau's Just Society.
Following a move to Toronto , rave reviews and a couple of cast changes, the troupe evolved into what was to become its permanent form on January 22, 1971. And from that day on, we would be a team -- Don Ferguson, John Morgan, Luba Goy, Roger Abbott -- for just over 30 years.
In late 1973, The Jest Society morphed into Royal Canadian Air Farce -- first on CBC Radio, and 20 years later, on CBC Television. Dave Broadfoot joined us for the first 15 years, while early in the radio run Bronstein dropped out and returned to England . It was an odd makeup for a comedy troupe. Morgan was 43, Welsh, with a print background. Broadfoot was 48, with almost a quarter-century of standup comedy under his belt. Both of us and Goy were in our mid-20s -- media-savvy baby boomers. Two different generations, five distinctive backgrounds, yet a chemistry that clicked -- particularly in front of a live audience.
It was as the head writer of Air Farce in those two decades on radio that Morgan earned his wings as the most prolific comedy-sketch writer on the continent. For 26 episodes a season, he single-handedly wrote half the script for every episode. We taped two shows at a time, and every other Monday, Morgan would arrive at the office, moments before rehearsal, with a thick stack of 60 or more pages, whack it down on the photocopier, and (more often than not) say, "Never mind the quality. Feel the width."
But never mind the width. While the poundage alone was impressive, the pages were laced with imagination and madness, irreverence and outrage. His scripts had the ability to take the blank landscape of radio's "theatre of the mind," and paint it with broad strokes of words, sound effects, music and character voices until the listeners could see a performance that no stage or television screen could ever contain.
Sitting around the rehearsal table, reading aloud a Morgan script for the first time, we would get caught up in the plot, cracking ourselves up with some of the dialogue, building to what was sure to be an amazing finish, only to turn the page and come to a screeching halt at the dreaded handwritten letters "ETC". It looked like "et cetera," but it meant End To Come. "Sorry," he'd blithely offer, "it was 2 o'clock in the morning."
It was a hilarious piece of writing that lead nowhere. At least on Monday. We'd all chip in our thoughts about an ending, and John would nod and make notes. Tuesday would be rewrite day, and on Wednesday we'd reconvene to find that the seven-page, almost-finished sketch now had a nine-page ending. Or not.
"ETC" would often sit stubbornly on the page until perhaps an hour before we started recording. John would happily return from a preshow dinner at a nearby greasy spoon to announce "I've got it!," triumphantly brandishing several pages of handwritten script, with a few food stains for authenticity. We'd barely have time to photocopy it before the show started.
Morgan's scripts sported a variety of instructional acronyms. A line with some sexual innuendo would be followed by "P.F.F.I.T.S.I." in capital letters. This was John's reminder that the cast should "Pause For Filthy Implication To Set In" before rambling on to the next line. The Pause always worked -- especially if accompanied by a raised eyebrow -- and the live audience would roar.
If one of us felt that a particular scene might not be too easy to lift off the page and get the desired laughs, Morgan always had two pieces of performance advice. "It's all in the eyes," he'd say. And the perennial mantra, "G.A.O.T.N.," which was his recipe for guaranteed comedic success: "Go Ape-shit On The Night."
Not all the laughs at an Air Farce taping came from the audience. Up until the moment we started taping each show, particularly in radio, John's attention was fully occupied by Morgan The Writer. Endless rewrites, edits, changes, and much-needed punchlines kept him focused on the written word all through the rehearsal process. It was only at taping time, too late for rewrites, that Morgan The Performer would emerge. And suddenly Morgan The Performer would see a line written by Morgan The Writer and be barely able to contain himself. He'd practically giggle aloud -- you could hear little snuffles and squeaks on the broadcast -- completely surprised and amused by what he was obliged to say, according to the script in front of him. And that's when it was dangerous to make eye-contact with him. As soon as one of us met the glee in his eyes with a sparkle in our own, he'd sputter into the microphone and begin the losing battle to suppress his laughter. Soon we'd start ad-libbing, trying to rescue the breakup, until he, then all of us, lost it. We'd be hooting, and the audience howling. Eventually we'd find our way back to the script, always to find that nothing could top the lunacy of a breakup.
The most dangerous breakup scenes involved a notorious Morgan radio character, the lascivious Amy De La Pompa, whom he performed in a gutteral falsetto. She was lewd yet insightful, and prompted much use of the P.F.F.I.T.S.I. note. ("I've just come back from Thailand," she'd announce. "Bangkok?" we'd ask. "No, just a little tennis.")
While John wrote half the radio show, the other half was written by the prolific team of Gord Holtam and Rick Olsen, who've been a creative engine at Air Farce since first submitting sketches in 1976. Ironically, it was they who conceived what would become John Morgan's best-known and most beloved television character, the idiot savant, Mike From Canmore.
When we made the move to weekly television in 1993, audiences loved Mike From Canmore in his Calgary Flames cap and goofy grin from his first appearance. As played by John, he was totally charming and unthreatening, yet from his simple mind came many remarkable observations. Commenting on media-merger mania: "I heard Time Warner is merging with A-Hole." "I believe that's A.O.L.," came the correction. "That's not what I heard," he shot back, and the audience howled.
Another Morgan favourite was splenetic Scottish editorializer Jock McBile, whose opinions were never very far from Morgan's own. John felt more comfortable sounding off in a kilt than as himself, and also delighted in the irony of a raving Welshman turning himself into a ranting Scot.
Morgan has never been at a loss for words or opinions. A voracious reader, he's informed on an enormous breadth of interests, from the practicality of bringing back transatlantic blimps, to the Canadian origins of the tango, of all things.
From May, 1967, until April, 2001, Morgan's observances of daily life and his endless curiosity, together with his wicked wit and flying fingers, joined forces to produce an awesome treasury of comedy writing ("filling the hopper," as he called it). Over the 34 years, he's probably written 4,000 sketches.
In radio, the writing was always the hard work, and the performing was the reward, the fun part. In television, the writing is just as hard, but the performing is much more rigorous. For the past eight television seasons, John's schedule meant writing two sketches every weekend, followed by four increasingly long days of rehearsals and rewrites that culminated in Thursday's 12-hour studio day. It's a schedule that doesn't leave much time to enjoy life.
When this season ended, John's well-honed sense of comic timing told him it was time to exit.
John turned 70 last fall, but he still has the heart of a Welsh teenager when it comes to things that go fast: He drives a low-slung sports car, flies his own small aircraft, and zooms along a Muskoka river in an old scow that he's restoring. He loves to travel; Australia and New Zealand have been recent favourites. His son, Christopher, runs a successful backpacker's hostel in Toronto, and his daughter, Sarah, is in arts management in New York. This month John sat in Carnegie Hall as Sarah sang on-stage in a choral concert.
Life is good, the only deadlines now are self-imposed and, characteristically, there's no end to the script.
Roger Abbott and Don Ferguson are cast members and producers of Royal Canadian Air Farce on CBC Television.