CBC reworks Air Farce

After 14 years on TV, the comedy mainstay is going live, looking to spruce up its ratings and to make the laughs more topical. 'If we make a mistake, you'll see it,' says Don Ferguson

CBC’s Royal Canadian Air Farce is injecting adrenaline into its upcoming 15th season by going live — not least to spruce up the comedy series’ ratings and make its comedy more topical.

For its first 14 seasons, Air Farce was shot in front of a live studio audience on Wednesday nights, tape delayed for a Friday telecast. Actors fluffed their lines or corpsed? Wardrobe malfunction? No problem. It was all fixed in the edit. But there will be no safety net when a seven-strong cast performs in real time for Air Farce Live, starting Friday at 8 p.m.

‘Once the train leaves the station, there’s no turning back,’ says Anton Leo, the network’s creative head of comedy. ‘We will deal with what comes.’

Well, almost. Like Don Cherry, the Air Farce troupe will have a seven-second delay.

‘From time to time, people might forget that they’re on TV. That’s why you have a delay. Everyone’s out on the tightrope,’ Leo explains.

But there’s lots of potential upside, including making the CBC’s evergreen comedy more topical and immediate than ever. That should make it easier for the troupe to spin headlines into punchlines. Ideally, TV viewers will also enjoy the immediacy of live theater, the chance to share in the energy of realtime performances.

‘Now, every viewer in the country will have exactly the same experience as the live studio audience. This year, if we make a mistake, you’ll see it at home,’ says series coproducer Don Ferguson, adding, ‘Did I say ‘if’? I mean ‘when.”

Warts and all, that’s the beauty of live TV, Leo adds.

Going live also aims to super-charge Air Farce‘s ratings, which have slipped from their former heights in recent years. The show last year drew an average 641,000 viewers on Fridays at 8 p.m. in the 2+ demo, and 233,000 among the 25 to 54s. There was a better showing last New Year’s Eve when Air Farce drew 1.17 million and 539,000 viewers, respectively. This season it faces Friday Night Lights on Global and CTV’s Ghost Whisperer.

Air Farce had a successful dry run going live with its 14th season finale on March 30. That outing included special guests including cast from another CBC comedy, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and Corner Gas‘ Fred Ewanuick. Air Farce promises special guests during the upcoming 15th season as well.

Because the comedy will continue to be shot in HD, viewers will see no difference in production values. They will notice, however, a different configuration and running order for the sketch comedy series this season. In the past, veteran cast members like Roger Abbott, Luba Goy and Ferguson could appear in successive skits. With live TV, they’ll race off to makeup after a skit ends, while fellow cast members perform the next scheduled routine.

Of course, veteran troupe members Goy, Abbott and Ferguson cut their teeth in improvisational theater in front of live audiences before they helped found the Royal Canadian Air Farce on CBC Radio in 1973.

The addition of comic Penelope Corrin, together with returning cast members Alan Park, Craig Lauzon and Jessica Holmes should help make skit and scene changes in a live telecast easier.

Leo insists TV viewers will see the difference: ‘We believe that the energy that surrounds a live show is palpable. We believe that if you’ve doing a live show, it affects the cast, the crew and it affects the audiences.’