Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Air Farce with Don Ferguson

Imagine you had a friend for most of your life-some 50 years and for 40 of those years you worked closely with the same friend. Your careers were largely on radio, television and stage. You decide, the two of you, to write the story of your time together but before it can be completed your friend becomes gravely ill and dies. Such is story behind the story of the recently published Air Farce, 40 Years of Flying By the Seat of our Pants. The friends are Don Ferguson and Roger Abbott , who were members of Air Farce, the comedy troupe that was a success on radio and then television in Canada for almost four decades.


Barbara Budd introduced Ferguson. Barbara is no stranger to those of us who listened to As It Happens on CBC Radio One during the 17 years she worked there. Barbara read a testimonial by Rick Mercer about the Air Farce. Barbara had been a guest star with Air Farce over the years and was able to add ‘colour commentary’ as well as interview Ferguson at the end of the reading.


Before Ferguson read from the book he told us of the saying “there is no better place to have fun on a rainy day than in a bookstore” and by extension, in Ottawa on a rainy day, there’s likely no better place to have fun than a Presbyterian Church (the location of the reading).


Ferguson and Abbott signed the contract to write the book in November 2010 and delivered the first “batch” in March 2011 just before Roger Abbott went to the hospital. Roger Abbott died later that month. Ferguson spoke about Abbott with great fondness and respect. Ultimately Ferguson had to finish the book and he said he decided to do it sooner rather than later and in some way felt that the writing helped in his grieving.


Ferguson read excerpts from the book to an appreciative audience. He knit the segments together starting from the earliest days of the Jest Society, through Air Farce on radio, Air Farce on television and up to the eventual loss of original members and replacement with new members. There are contributions from friends and collaborators in the book as well as from Ferguson and Abbott. When reading a segment contributed by his friend Roger Abbott, Ferguson’s emotions were close to the surface. It was a testimony to their partnership and friendship and the fact the book’s success belongs to them both.

The initial members of Air Farce were Roger Abbott, Don Ferguson, John Morgan, Luba Goy and Dave Broadfoot. We heard about the early years when times were lean and John Morgan became a partner in a pub back home in Wales. He made the investment as he thought the work at Air Farce would not provide a sustainable income. Abbott and Ferguson spent time at the pub. Abbott worked at the pub on occasion, waiting tables. And from that experience came the character, Pierre, waiter at the House of Commons.


Equally enjoyable were the stories of talented Luba Goy who was “lovely and late, always late”. She always had reasons-one was an account of how her cat ate her bird and all that was left was the head. The story goes on….you need to read the book to get the whole picture. On a personal note, Luba Goy was on the same train as me a number of years ago. She worked the car for most of the trip Ottawa to Toronto much to everyone’s delight. She may possess the best Donald Duck voice!


And finally Ferguson gave us the history of the TV segment known at The Chicken Cannon. It started as a casual conversation with the special effects people at CBC where they said they shot a rubber chicken across the shop every once in a while when they felt like letting off steam. And the rest, as they say, is history.


The interview portion of the reading was interesting. Budd asked how the troupe, with its very different characters and backgrounds and age differences was able to work together so well. Ferguson talked about how there were differences and someone was “always in the doghouse” but they worked through things and moved on.


Ferguson talked about the successes, the challenges, the good and not so good of working in the Air Farce collaboration for those many decades. That is what you will find in the book-along with a lot of great pictures. His presentation at the book reading was sincere; the interview with Budd was friendly and engaging. Ferguson was hoping to take questions from the audience but time ran out as another Writers Festival Event was setting up.


If you want an opportunity to get up close to people who have written or performed on the Canadian scene, the Ottawa International Writers Festival is the place to do it. A great venue and in this case to hear about the inner workings of the Air Farce that Ferguson said was once described as “brilliant political satire followed by a fart joke”.