An immodest proposal: Eat a Big Meal

Name three actual music shows on Canadian television today. Any network. (English only to start, please – I’ll have a piece about the French later.)

Give up?

If it is axiomatic that CBC makes the same mistake over and over again, let’s set up the Corpse to make a mistake but have a good time while we wait for it to happen.

Can’t we have a musical variety show? (Another one.)

Why is that ridiculous? Because we’d never get Strombo to host it? He’s the last person, the · last · person, who should.

Musical variety works under two conditions in Canada: The host has to be a bit square and has to be able to join in with some guests on musical numbers. A very intimate, very personal one-hour “sit-down” with Chris Martin of Oldplay doesn’t cut the mustard here. Mustard is a bit too spicy for the kind of host we’re looking for.

Again: Maybe it’s false-memory syndrome, but I remember really loving the Rita MacNeil show, Rita & Friends. Not all the segments on the show, of course. But they put everybody on that program. Sloan (q.v.) doing a bang-up rendition of a song you’d never expect them to play on TV, “Penpals.” The Headstones (H. Dillon again), quite possibly lip-synching.

Book cover The show had catholic tastes and displayed not an iota of snobbery. Eat a Big Meal reminisces thus in her semi-ghostwritten autobiography, On a Personal Note:

A striking blonde woman who commanded attention everywhere she went, Sandra [Faire] had impeccable credits to her name, having done the weekly musical show Ear to the Ground as well as specials with many Canadian singers....

I was provided with a small office in the new CBC building, on the same floor as the production team.... I was treated like a queen at CBC.... If Sandra was not around, then Trisa Dayot made sure that I was well taken care of. The other CBC executives – George Anthony, Ed Robinson, and Phyllis Platt – dropped in from time to time to offer encouragement. [...]

Sandra was hoping for an audience of 600,000 viewers. If there were 800,000 people tuning in, she would be a happy woman. We had a lineup of interesting entertainment for that first show: Acadian Roch Voisine, Calgary’s Jann Arden, RealWorld of Cape Breton, and Southeast Asian funk and rap group Punjabi by Nature.... We got close to two million viewers for that first show [1.7, actually]. [...]

I began to have a little fun with it myself, learning how to write in my own lines when I felt the script didn’t sound like me.... Each detail had to be perfect. [...]

Young performers just getting started would be pacing nervously back and forth. The seasoned performers would be relaxed, old hands at this sort of thing. [...]

The first year was a learning experience for me. I’d never hosted before and so I had to learn how to do it. We also wanted to showcase the talents of newer, obviously gifted musicians.... We had some great performers on that show in the first part of that season, like Michelle Wright, Crash Test Dummies, Prairie Oyster, Susan Aglukark, and a host of Nova Scotia musicians. [And Joni Mitchell.]

Yet a door was closing on Rita & Friends and we all knew it. Sure enough, word of the show’s demise came soon enough from CBC executives. It was a disappointing way to end such an excellent three-year run.... And after all my misgivings about hosting a show on television, I’d been awarded a Gemini for Best Performance in a Variety Program in 1996.

(All this was well after the RCMP spied on her, of course. At least they could have given her a ride home.)

‘Natural lifespan’

I went back and reread all the articles about Rita & Friends and its cancellation. The show was pulling in over 800K viewers a week even after Slawko tried to kill it by running it on Wednesday nights. Slawko kept talking about the natural lifespan of a show. This is the kind of guy who, were he running the Party, would gun down Olympic medallists while they were still on the podium. You don’t kill a show that’s working.

But of course, another mistake CBC makes over and over again is an inability to realize what’s working and what isn’t. Pevere and Dymond claim, in Mondo Canuck, that it’s an issue of urban snobbery: These musical variety shows are too down-home and working-class for their tastes. The result? They fire Rita and hire George.

Now you’ve got jPod viewers who don’t own their own houses and aren’t even watching the show from CBC Television, hence they officially don’t exist, hence the official numbers warrant termination. Even if the numbers had been there, Layfield would have cooked up some other excuse. It’s what Slawko did.

Stursbergian CBC is supposed to be popular. I don’t see how a competently-executed variety show wouldn’t be. It’s an old concept – 40 years old now, really – but so is the situation comedy, and here we are with Sophie still stinking up the place.

The single-artist music specials CBC has been running – intimate, spontaneous showcases of corporate “youth” artists like Avril Lavigne or Simple Plan – are infomercials more suited to a previous incarnation of Much, not a public broadcaster.

All right. But there’s a make-or-break issue. Who the hell’s gonna host it?

It has to be someone who can sing and who’s a bit square. Ideally someone not all that telegenic (another key ingredient). It didn’t take long to come up with a winning name: Jann Arden, come on down!

You’re gagging? Not cool enough? But that’s just what we’re looking for.

How many times has CBC tried the format of the hipster talk show, and how well has that ever worked out? I would trade Jann Arden for the ghosts of Benmurgui, Gzowski, and Ghomeshi any day. Even Mike Bullard couldn’t make that work. Meanwhile, musical variety has always worked every time CBC has ever tried it.