Update: the CBC will be airing a tribute to Abbott tomorrow (Tuesday, March 29) at 9 p.m.
I was very sad to read about the death of Roger Abbott, one of the founding members of the Royal Canadian Air Farce. He was only 64, and had been suffering from leukemia (which he did not make public) for 14 years. Airfarce.com has a tribute to him, and the CBC has collected some of the reader comments about him and his work.
I recall hearing the Air Farce radio show a few times before the troupe became a regular presence on television, and thinking it was quite funny. Because of that, I thought their TV work didn’t always represent them fairly: like many radio comics, I felt like their work was both looser and sharper when it was unencumbered by props or make-up. (In Canada this goes as far back as Wayne and Shuster, whose work on CBC radio — as well as an LP containing four of their best routines — represented them better than their television performances.) Of course different performers adapted with different degrees of success.
Not that the TV version doesn’t deserve some credit too. It was 1992 when they went into TV full-time, in an era when it was assumed (as now) that Canadians don’t want to watch television about Canada, and that North American viewers in general didn’t want political humour. The TV Farce and This Hour Has 22 Minutes (launched the same year) were among the shows that helped disprove that, and put us a bit out in front of U.S. television, which — with the exception of the occasional Mark Russell special — was pretty reluctant to do political humour on a regular basis until Jon Stewart came along.
SCTV and Kids in the Hall may represent the best of Canadian sketch comedy, but they are very international in style; SCTV’s performers and writers didn’t have much interest in Canadian material and weren’t going to pretend to (Bob and Doug were, famously, introduced as a take-that to demands for more Canadian content: two caricatures of what Americans think Canadians are). Abbott and the other Air Farce members brought specific Canadian material — political jokes and, as he said in the above clip, jokes based on the differences between one Canadian region and another in this large country — to a national audience, and while they weren’t the only ones to do this, I think they helped take some of the “curse” off Canadian comedy that’s actually about Canada.