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Rick Cousins: Radio

james hörner

rick Cousins is an independent radio writer, producer, and performer, based in Deep River, Ontario. This year marks the 10th anniversary of his college-station cult comedy series "Vasco da Gama", which got his foot in the door at the CBC. Since then, he's been a sort of "culture vulture" who circles the CBC's ivory towers, swooping down with the occasional humour-inflected piece on history and/or the arts. In the brief moments when he's not wisecracking, Rick is the President and Chair of the Canadian Society for Independent Radio Production. Photo by Ross Birdwise.

i'll jump right to the heart of it - why radio?

Rick Cousins. Photo by Ross Birdwise

Rick Cousins
The simplest answer is that where I grew up, we could only pull in one television channel, and the reception was often erratic. I'd sound like a fogey and say "this was in the days before cable, when men were men, and Peter Mansbridge still had hair", but I think it had as much to do as anything with the fact that Deep River, Ont. was (and still is) in a kind of time bubble, sheltered from the effects of events as they play out in the real world. It's a town created for the benefit of a crown corporation, and populated with physicists and mathematicians and so forth. You get the government and scientists working hand in hand, and you're well on the road to some hard-core reality avoidance.

So, the radio was the link to the outside world that was always there, and always reliable. Of course, given that it was the CBC, the link to the here and now wasn't always as strong as you might hope for. That might have something to do with personal tastes as well--it seemed as though everything I liked was out of date in some way. There was one of those 'accidents of history' at work here, too--when the TV reception was strongest, it seemed like what was on was in syndication and/or by people who were already dead and/or out of whack with some key component of the everyday world. My tastes were formed by old cartoons (back when they played old cartoons on Saturday morning), 'Get Smart' reruns, The Friendly Giant, and old Bob and Ray sketches on 'Gilmour's Albums'. Aside from the Bob and Ray sketches, which WERE radio, all the rest have elements in common with the type of programming which was prevalent on radio right on through into the 1950s. Even the Friendly Giant--once you'd bought into the premise, you could close your eyes, and still get most of what was going on. You'd think the puppets would need the visuals to come across, but really, their personalities were so strongly formed by the voices that it didn't matter. Remember, Edgar Bergen became a star on radio as a ventriloquist--or rather, Charlie McCarthy became a star on radio as Edgar Bergen's dummy. At some point as a kid, I remember my life's ambition was to be some combination of Rod Coneybeare (the voice of both Rusty and Jerome on 'The Friendly Giant') and Mel Blanc. Either that, or to actually become a cartoon character, or, failing that, at least a puppet. My take on the whole 'growing up' deal was that Pinocchio never knew how good he had it in the first place.

My desire to make radio, and radio comedy in particular, was crystallized by three things during the early-to-mid 1980s. The first was The Goon Show, which an old friend of my dad's introduced me to. The second was The Frantics on CBC Radio, which captured a lot of the same free-wheeling anarchy in its approach (if you can ever capture anarchy, that is). The third was that show the Frantics did for 13 excruciating episodes a couple of years later on CBC TV. Absolutely NONE of what made them such a brilliantly funny team on radio translated to a visual medium--or at least, nobody connected with that particular show knew how to translate it. Based on subsequent television efforts by individual members of the group, I suspect the answer is a combination of the two. In any case, the lesson I got from watching that show (which is an experience I still connect in my mind with that scene in 'A Clockwork Orange' where Malcolm McDowell is strapped down, with his eyelids forced open) was that if you have a medium you're comfortable expressing yourself in, and which allows you to express yourself at the fullest, you're a fool to go messing elsewhere.

Just thinking about 'Four on the Floor' (that Frantics TV show) is giving me a headache, so I'll stop for now. The only thing I can think of to add to this is that, because all the old cartoons were on Saturday mornings, I was never exposed to the Air Farce...until, now that I think of it, I started listening to the Frantics. It followed 'Frantic Times' (I think that was the name of the show), and among the crowd I ran with, it became known as 'The Royal Canadian Air F--', because that's how much of it we ever heard before turning the radio off and talking about what the Frantics had just done. If you think that's bad, you should hear what the guy who used to produce the Air Farce on radio has to say about them...(!)

i'd definitely pay to listen to a rod coneybeare/mel blanc bastard child - rusty the chicken with adhd. who do you turn to for good laughs these days?

Rick Cousins
You mean, other than Paul Martin? I mean, what was that performance today all about: "I wouldn't know anything about how the government spent its money--I was only Finance Minister then..." ? If that doesn't get this year's Leacock Medal, I don't know what will.

But seriously, folks...the thing that turns my crank these days (among new stuff, anyway) is SpongeBob. The writing's really sharp, and it just nicely strikes the balance between being smart and literate and being unapologetically juvenile and sophomoric. I haven't seen animation that was so unafraid to break the 'fourth wall' since I first saw the cartoons of Tex Avery.

Really, though, I still find myself watching and listening to old stuff. In the past few years, my tastes have reached farther and farther back into the past, as I've amassed a library of tapes of silent comedies...Chaplin, Keaton, and so forth. To give you a sense of how dedicated I've become in my pursuit of this hobby, I once paid to see a Harry Langdon retrospective on a Sunday afternoon. THAT'S dedication, I can tell you. One thing I wish would pop up somewhere are the old Laurel and Hardy silents. The CBC put them out years and years ago--they got around the CanCon regulations by putting in a piano accompaniment by the guy who used to play the organ at Maple Leaf Gardens.

I don't think any short film, live action or cartoon, has topped "Big Business"--the one where Laurel and Hardy progressively destroy someone's house while he progressively destroys their car--for sheer unadulterated knockabout laughs.

Things like "Doctor Strangelove", and the Ealing comedies with Alec Guinness--"The Man in the White Suit"; "The Lavender Hill Mob"; and so on--also stick with me. And, for some reason (although I know they're done to a formula) the 'Wolf and Sheepdog' ("Morning, Sam"; "Morning, Ralph") cartoons by Chuck Jones. There's as much sociology in any six minutes of these as there is in all of Noam Chomsky or Erving Goffman...and much more violence.

Very little of what I see on TV that's done in the way of comedy keeps my attention. I'll find myself watching an old sitcom like "Barney Miller", which I liked for its measured pace and drollery, and marvel at how fast it moves along, compared to "Friends" or "Seinfeld". (They always said "Seinfeld" was a show about nothing, and I think it was very much of a piece with its time--the 90's were a decade about nothing...looking back, it felt like nothing so much as a 10-year post-game wrap-up for the 20th Century.)

Standup seems to be a dying art form as well. The ones I like are all veterans--Steven Wright, Emo Phillips, Margaret Smith...I've always liked Lorne Elliott as well, but he's a different breed of comedy animal--more a troubadour and raconteur than a pure bang-bang joke/joke/joke standup. For some reason, that got me thinking about Flanders and Swann (long since gone), and Tom Lehrer...nothing to do with standup, of course, but funny all the same. The current breed of stage comedy performer doesn't seem to have the breadth of interests outside of showbiz that their predecessors (well, some of them, at least) were willing to develop. It's all "when do I get my sitcom deal?" with them, it seems.

I can tell you a desperately unfunny experience that you should never on any account subject yourself to: an evening out, in the company of aspiring comedians. The only thing less entertaining is an evening out in the company of anyone who's in any way connected with improv. All I have to say (that's fit for mixed company) about improv is that it's a refuge for bad habits--especially laziness. If improv weren't lazy, it'd add an 'e' to the end of its name, and realize what it has to do to keep from stagnating even further.

But what do I know...I'm the only person I know who laughed at "Gerald McBoing Boing"...or even knows who he is.

i wish more people would take comedy as seriously as you. it's a healthy obsession. do you ever do standup in front of a non-radio audience?

Rick Cousins
A funny thing happened on my way to doing that sort of thing...I kept getting sidetracked into 'legitimate' theatre. A good deal of it was experimental and off the beaten path--stuff that originated in the 60's ,where you'd have to read a shelf full of books of theory before tackling a half- page scenario that you tried to stretch out into a couple of hours...assuming everybody hadn't gotten bored, and gone home long before then. When I wasn't mixed up with that sort of thing, I was doing (and here it comes again, folks...wait for it...) stuff by people who died long before I was even born. From both sides of the whole experience, I quickly learned that there is nothing new under the sun. Shaw wrote some short plays that would do Monty Python proud; the same with Chekhov. I once took a stab at directing some entremeses by Lope de Rueda, a 16th Century Spanish playwright. Entremeses are essentially comedy sketches--very broad, with a lot of slapstick--which were put on between acts of blood-and-guts tragedies by folks like Calderon de la Barca and Lope de Vega (no relation). Imagine them doing that nowadays..."we'll be right back to 'Law and Order'; but first, here's 20 minutes of Abbott and Costello...!" To show you how much what goes around, comes around, one of the first things I was in as a college kid was a Restoration Comedy...lots of innuendo and chasing around from one bed to another (never my character's...story of my life), with a sprinkling of highly jaded wit. That sort of stuff was huge in England in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries--it was all part of a reaction against an earlier, literally puritanical age. Gradually, the pendulum of prevailing mores swung back away from permissiveness, towards prudishness, and priggishness, and various form of real and implied all this starting to sound familiar...? (In the years immediately following the return of Charles II, fashion trends got so that women were coming out of their tops more than Janet ca change, plus c'est la meme chose...)

This isn't really answering the question, is it? In fact, it sounds more like I'm evading it. Wonder if Martin needs a new spin's good money, and, as I understand it, only available for a little while longer. Now...where was I again? Oh, yeah...I guess I was always a little intimidated by the thought of having to top the likes of Bob Newhart, so I shied away from standup. If only I'd known then that Newhart's first album was practically his first live solo performance, and that a lot of his famous routines are actually adaptations of two-handers from a comedy team he was part of that had recently broken up... so, zero marks to me in the area of 'gutting it out' on that one. The most fun I've had performing comedy live was organizing performances that looked like ordinary comedy/variety shows, but which fell to bits (mostly on purpose) in front of the audience's eyes. (This is what I get for watching 'The Muppet Show' at an impressionable age--it's actually fun to be Fozzie Bear, or Gonzo, bomb horribly, bomb on purpose, know you're bombing, and gradually see all of that dawn on an audience as well. There's a great comedy tradition of laughing at someone who just can't tell a joke to save themselves. It's even in 'Hamlet'...Polonius is a failed raconteur who never gets to the punch line without forgetting the set-up; Rosencrantz and Gulidenstern are a third-rate double act who keep stepping on each other's cues...gee, I guess you can tell by now that I also read a bit of Tom Stoppard at an impressionable age.)

One of these days (and this is a total tangent, but it ties in somehow) one of the things I'd like to take a flying leap at is some of the Dada plays--particularly Tristan Tzara's...not because they're the height of art, but just because there's a need for some form of expression that doesn't give a damn, and doesn't care who knows it. I've also got this stupid dream of turning this novella by Sinclair Lewis, called 'The Man Who Knew Coolidge', into a one-man show for somebody. It's a great character study in monologue of The Ugly American by one of American literature's classic portrayers of Ugly Americans. Maybe a better sell for Canada is an updating of the theme--say, something like 'The Man Who Knew Mike Harris'...although Canadians aren't usually comfortable with that kind of mirror. When we see Americans out the window, we're not really sure if were looking through two-way glass.

So, basically, to sum up, I'm a gutless wonder who likes too much structure for his own good, and takes a perverse delight in demolishing that structure while other people watch. No wonder I could never make a decent sand castle at the beach.

what keeps you busy when you're not in front of the microphone?

Rick Cousins
Cartooning (surprise, surprise)...also painting, a little bit of music (for my own pleasure...I can't speak for anybody who may hear me running through old jazz tunes on the bass clarinet), and (at this time of year) lots of hockey. Lately what's been keeping me jumping is a new set of responsibilities, as president of the Canadian Society for Independent Radio Production. We organize conferences and events to show people the ins and outs of small-budget radio production, as well as sound art. There was a bit of a lull in the administrative duties this weekend, so I finally got back to some very rudimentary animation I'd promised to do for someone's website. Now it appears to have sped up again--the copy for the CSIRP newsletter has just come back for me to look over. Back to the old grindstone...I hope my nose holds out.

any recommendations for those wanting to get involved in either working behind the scenes or in front of the mike in radio?

Rick Cousins
In light of what just hit the fan at Jazz-FM down your way, my flippant answer would be "never accept a SAAB as a kickback...they're too conspicuous".

Honestly, though, my first instinct is to say "find a college or community station that does the sort of stuff you want to do--and if they don't, ask them if they'll let you be the one to try it". The broadcast schools are good, too--especially if you're more interested in a 'career', rather than a calling. Not everybody feels they have the luxury to give their lives to what they love, and hey, you gotta eat.

The great thing about just jumping into a station, though, is you get goal-directed training--either of a formal kind or the old 'sink-or-swim' method. At the end of the rainbow, you can see (or rather, hear) that show of yours on the air: your friends can listen to it, perfect strangers can listen to it, and as long as you don't curse like a sailor or say anything actionable, your success or failure doesn't ride on the assessment, and prejudices, of one individual. Really, it's the thrill of what my high school Latin teacher used to call "a cheap success experience". You learn; you don't shell out thousands of dollars to do so (or go up to your ears in student-loan debt); you don't spend any time on any tasks or exercises that don't relate to what you want to do; and you don't do it all for the joy and glory of being a joyless, glorified gofer for upwards of half a decade until the people who sign your paycheques deign to listen to your ideas before dismissing them.

Speaking of the CBC...I was talking to the associate producer of "Madly Off in All Directions" (I won't name names; listen to the credits and come to your own conclusions), and she once again bemoaned the fact that "there's no more comedy development at the network". I had to choke back my instinctual response, which (if I'd given voice to it) would have been something along the lines of "Why--are the studios cordoned off by armed guards after 5 PM these days?" Frankly, hers is not an argument I buy. This is the same CBC where Glenn Gould came in at all hours of the night, with moonlighting techs, to conduct experiments in documentary and sound art that still haven't been surpassed on Canadian airwaves. The pettifogging of narrow bureaucratic minds aside, the ability to do any single solitary thing is conditioned by the will to do so. If there "isn't" this, that, or the other thing at the CBC, it's because there isn't the desire to find out if it can be done, much less do it. Seriously, if you were a CBC insider, and you wanted to take a flyer on an idea you had, at your own expense, after hours, who could stop you? Think the security people would report you to Robert Rabinovitch if they had to check in some unexpected visitors to do voices, or foley sound effects? I'd imagine he's got better things to worry his pretty little head about. And--God forbid--Great Almighty Jove in the most far-flung reaches of Elysium forfend--that you, from your years of working in the medium of radio, and being paid out of the common purse to do so, should develop even the passing interest in your chosen profession that might lead you to tarry long enough during the course of any given coffee-break-filled day to let the thought pass idly through even your subconscious--and then only to ask directions to your id-- that you could, by some wild serendipitous happenstance, obtain the necessary funds and equipment to PUT A RUDIMENTARY STUDIO IN YOUR OWN HOME AND TRY OUT A FEW THINGS ON YOUR OWN.

Sorry about the ill-concealed (and Blackadderish) rancour; it's just that I've talked to one too many CBC 'lifers' who bitch about what a sorry state the Corporation is in, and don't realize that their attitude is a BIG part of the problem. People don't want to sign up on this sinking ship anymore because they see how low morale is, and they have the feeling that the morale started sinking long before the ship did...and may be what caused the ship to start sinking in the first place. When you walk in the door (and this is at any CBC studio or office I've been to) you just don't get the sense of "to you from failing hands we throw the torch" that a healthy organization is supposed to give off. Instead there are all these "Not My Department" and "I'm All Right, Jack" vibes. There simply isn't any excuse for this, either, because the technology available at the CBC is more than enough to circumvent any amount of bureaucratic inertia. With all the mini-disc and hand-held DAT players at their disposal for recording basic vocals, and the new computer sound programs that let a ten-thumbed Pleistocene-epoch retread like myself do a passable job of editing, the task of 'development', at least as far as making demos of promising ideas goes, could be handled by one person in a cubicle. And before anybody says, "yeah, but"--I produced an entire holiday special at the CBC under exactly those conditions. In college and community radio, you don't have a lot of the CBC's luxuries--but you also don't have the roadblocks and excuses which are the foundation of the CBC's institutional culture. If a college station were as badly run from the ground floor up as the CBC is right now, it'd lose its license...and the one I know of personally where they tried to run things that way goddamn well nearly did.

Again, I apologize for what must sound like self-righteous hyperbole (there's a good reason for that: it is). I've just seen one studio too many lying dormant, while someone tells me "it can't be done" before they even know what "it" is. I guess, to sum up, my advice to anyone would be to find something you'd be proud to go broke or half-mad doing because you love it so much it doesn't really matter what happens to you. If you happen to make your fortune doing it, then you're twice blessed. Along the way, stick with people who have the same passion you do, respect the fact that their passions will not all be the same as yours, and maybe along the way you'll find new and interesting things to be passionate about as well.

And while we're at it, if there's ever a mob forming to storm the barricades of the CBC, and make it worthy once again of the public's trust and taxes, let me know, and I'll be right there in the thick of it. In the meantime, I'll be looking for a back door to kick in, to make it easier for all of us.

so what are your own dream radio projects?

Rick Cousins
Strangely enough, the first thing that popped into my mind is an adaptation of Conrad's "The Secret Sharer". It's probably been done half a zillion times by now, but it just seems to lend itself nicely to the's got that claustrophobic feel that really good radio drama can produce so well. There's also the extensive use of interior monologue, and the ambiguity about the relationship between the narrator and the fugitive he's harbouring--are they one and the same person?--both of those play out much better when all you've got to tell your story is sound. So much of the story happens in the dark, or in half-light, that it comes off the page like something out of "Inner Sanctum" or some other old radio mystery series.

A lot of my dreams lately seem to involve cartoons, though. I've got a couple of projects I've been working on where I've put my long-neglected skills as a doodler to use again, so now I find what I turn my hand to on my own time has an animation angle to it. It's a challenge to learn to 'under-write' again...where before, when I wanted to get even the most cartoony point across on radio, I'd find that a line or two of dialogue was necessary to explain a pure sight gag. Naturally, if you just hear a sound effect, you don't automatically know what made that sound. So, I'd wind up having to 'back-announce' the effect with a sequence of repartee like: "That's the first time I've ever heard the illustration plates in a book shatter quite like that"; "Well, it WAS a catalogue of china patterns"...or some such lame old thing.

As far as radio dreams go...this is very vague, but--I'd like to make something that had the same impact in Britain (and the rest of the Commonwealth) that "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" had over here. It would be quite boost to Canadian pride to hear that we could do something with our own resources, and on our own terms, that measured up to the best the world had to offer, without a by-your-leave from either the U.S. or the U.K. We've always been a net exporter of individual talent, but rarely has English Canada been known as a source of well-made cultural finished products for export. In that sense, we've got a lot to learn from Quebec--they had that generation of artists and writers who went to Paris, saw how far behind their provincial (in both senses of the word) education had left them, and ran like hell to catch up to the 20th Century. (I should add filmmakers, too, in the light of Denys Arcand's Oscar.) There was a brief period during the '60s where it looked as though the likes of the Painters Eleven were going to make that breakthrough in the visual arts, but they kind of fell between two stools. To the New York crowd, they always seemed to be one step behind the avant-garde; back home, it was "where are the nice rocks and trees like the Group of Seven used to paint?" And, of course, this is the same Group of Seven who got crapped on by every Canadian critic until some Brits who'd seen a piece of modern art or two started praising them to the skies. Is it any wonder we get a name around the world for being a little out of step? It's a real eye-opener to mention any Canadian cultural figure of note to anyone who's not from Canada, and get these wide-eyed stares of total non-recognition. And I'm talking about Famous Dead Canadians, not the current crowd. For any non-Canadian that even knows that such a thing exists, it's like CanLit ended with Stephen Leacock...and began with him, for that matter.

As for today...well, sometimes, when I look at our current Canadian 'cultural elite', I'm reminded of the kids who used to sit in the far corner of the school cafeteria at lunchtime, debating the relative merits of members of the Fantastic Four (or, worse, the Famous Five). There was a lot of stuff during that "Canada Reads" week (or during any edition of Mary Walsh's "Please Keep Paying My Bills After '22 Minutes' Runs Out of Steam" book club) that wouldn't have sounded out of place coming from the Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons". As Squidward might say, "talk about 'out of it', huh SpongeBob?". And what's worse, any time we hear anything from the rest of the world that we don't want to hear about what a bunch of out-and-out nerdlingers we can be, we turn inward and try to re-define 'The Canadian Identity' for the umpteenth time. For a nation that likes to fish for compliments on its famous sense of humour, we have a remarkably thin skin.

Man, it must sound like I'm channeling Mordecai Richler. (Well, somebody has to. From what I've seen, it's not likely to be a blood relative of his.) I'll throw Earle Birney at you as well. He wrote a poem years ago ("Canada: Case History") in which he compared Canada to a pre-adolescent. I'll take that one step further: we may have grown up a little since then, but in the process we've started to display some disturbingly autistic tendencies. English Canada is turning into Rain Man while anybody with the stomach for it watches. Maybe 'autistic' is the wrong word--the English Canadian cultural experience is showing a lot of the warning signs of adult-onset schizophrenia. There's a lot of dissociative and self-perpetuatingly delusional thinking that seems to govern our behaviour now...and we have these catatonic episodes of non-communication with the outside world that I really find disturbing. Back to Earle Birney's poem: "schizophrenia not excluded" is, I believe, the second-last line.

How I got here from "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is anybody's guess. Sometimes, though, I do think the Vogons have a better sense of their place in the grand scheme of all things artistic than we Canadians do. If we could come up with something even half as horrifyingly bad and far beneath the dignity of any consideration of merit as Vogon poetry, and let it loose on the rest of the planet, we'd at least get some respect as a force for cultural terror to be reckoned with.

...oh, wait--I think I just described Tom Green.

Honestly, though, my dream right now is to be a Canadian version of Jay Ward and/or Bill Scott, get together a staff of really good animation people so I can concentrate on story, character design, and voices, and whip up something that out-sillies even "George of the Jungle" (the cartoon series, not the Disney live-action movie based on it).

Of course, tomorrow my dream may be to be the first goalie since Gump Worsley to play without a mask. I never can keep track of all these dreams of mine...

how about your favourite radio memories so far?

Rick Cousins
Here's one I bet you'd never expect to hear from anyone...paddling my bare feet on the toe-numbingly cold hallway of an otherwise abandoned radio station at 3 in the morning. This requires more than a little explanation: I was working on a comedy show which needed a fast, silly sound for a streaker running past. I knew it was going to be a two-part effect--a manic whoop combined with the sound of running feet. The whoop was easy enough, but getting something that zipped by in a couple of seconds, while saying 'naked guy running' went from a five-minute job to a half-hour job, to an hour's worth of fruitless work. The obvious choice--running in bare feet--sounded slow and methodical...and no matter how many times I ran down the hall, the end result didn't sound like any form of locomotion common to bipeds. It was just a drunken baby elephant with leg cramps stumbling down a darkened flight of stairs. It finally dawned on me that, in order to convey the impression of bare feet on a hard surface, I had to slap down hard on my entire sole with every step. Well, the first few times I tried that, it slowed things RIGHT down. Now it sounded like a drunken baby PENGUIN. Finally, after a lot of trial and error, and I don't know how many takes, I came up with sort of a fast slap-shuffle, where my feet never really left the ground. Pitched up, played back at a slightly higher speed than it had been recorded, and stereo-panned so it went from one channel to the other before disappearing, it sounded like what I vaguely remembered I'd been aiming for what seemed like half a lifetime ago. Listening to it afterwards, I was pleased that I'd gotten it to sound as cartoony as it needed to be. It also clued me into just how much auditory shorthand has to be employed to create a desired impression, rather than just document things. Listen to a cartoon character running sometime--if the sound effect is...well, effective, you're liable to hear more footfalls than the entire field for any given year's Kentucky Derby makes. Caricature as an art form is truly a law unto itself.

what's one question you've always wanted to be asked?

Rick Cousins
"Would you like your million dollars in a lump-sum payment, or in an annuity?" Seriously...wait--that IS what I mean seriously. Let's try something that paints me in a better light..."My daughter needs to be married by sundown in order to inherit a substantial fortune. What are you doing this afternoon?"

Nope...that's even worse. Basically, any question other than "excuse me--do you work here?" or "would you like to buy this bridge I've got for sale in Brooklyn?" which pretty much sum up my private and professional life, respectively.

james hörner edits canadian content.

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