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Dave Broadfoot, shown in this 1993 file photo dressed as his character Staff Sgt. Renfrew of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (CP)
Dave Broadfoot, shown in this 1993 file photo dressed as his character Staff Sgt. Renfrew of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (CP)

Comedian Dave Broadfoot made Canada laugh at itself Add to ...

Dave Broadfoot, an earnest and bespectacled humourist whose uber-Canadian characters gave the country a folksy, lampoonable sense of identity, who doggedly blazed a new trail of stand-up venues across the nation, and whose sharper-than-you-think satire was presented with a smirk and not a snarl, died on Nov. 1. He was 90.

He knew about people, and he knew about Canada. And if one listened to him, one could learn.

“Whether you’re a comedian or not, if you’ve had misfortune and laughed at yourself,” Mr. Broadfoot told The Globe and Mail in 1966, “you’ve known the highest form of comedy there is.”

In the same interview, Mr. Broadfoot, who began his performing career in 1947 when he joined the North Vancouver Community Players, spoke about the evolution of Canadian audiences when it came to comedy. “We have achieved, to some degree, the ability to laugh at ourselves.”

Mr. Broadfoot seized on the collective self-deprecation and furthered it. He became nationally prominent from his stint with the CBC radio and television comedy troupe the Royal Canadian Air Farce from 1973 to 1988.

To the Farce he brought with him three memorable comedic characters, each maple-blooded and often confused: Big Bobby Clobber, the ineloquent hockey player; Sergeant Renfrew of the RCMP, who never got his man; and the Honourable Member for Kicking Horse Pass, a rambling politician who had a passionate way with nonsense. “How many of you are sitting here tonight with no arms because of Canadian sharks,” Mr. Broadfoot ranted, as the well-meaning but distracted parliamentarian, in 2002. “How many? Let’s have a show of hands.”

Among his peers, Mr. Broadfoot was appreciated not just for his comic gifts, but for his professionalism, his humanity and his sociability. “He was a great dinner companion,” Don Ferguson, a fellow farceur with the Royal Canadian Air Farce, told The Globe. “He had a great sense of what I call ‘the human comedy,’ which was an appreciation for how absurd life could be and how silly people could look and how ridiculous they could behave in the normal course of events. These were things you wouldn’t notice yourself, but when Dave would point them out, you’d think, ‘He’s absolutely right.’ ”

Mr. Broadfoot worked with a high level of topicality, cleverness and human decency – he avidly argued for gender equality and women’s rights, for example – that contributed to his authority and relevancy. “He believed comedy should be about something,” said Mr. Ferguson. “He hated the kind of dirty-joke comedy that a lot of people did. He believed comedy should have some redeeming social value.”

In his 1966 interview with The Globe, Mr. Broadfoot, in the heat of the civil rights movement in the United States, took a swipe at the “ultra-hip” comedians who used a derogatory word for African-Americans in their jokes. “They’re forgetting the cost of that word in human life.”

Paul Soles, the veteran actor and television personality, cited Mr. Broadfoot’s astuteness and propriety. “He worked clean. I don’t ever recall him saying a blue word,” said Mr. Soles, longtime co-host of the CBC television program Take 30. “He had a lovely, mature arc of wisdom that allowed us to be amused with [people in] positions of importance, whether it was a member of Parliament or an RCMP officer.”

A then-fledgling Canadian comedian Ron James first met Mr. Broadfoot some 20 years ago at a comedy festival in Gravenhurst, in Ontario’s cottage country. “I watched this man do an hour and a half,” Mr. James told The Globe. “He was almost 70, and he was pugnacious and he was preaching, brother. He used the whole stage. The cat was 6-foot-2 and he engaged the audience.”

Mr. James watched gobsmacked from the wings, where sneering members of a hot Toronto comedy troupe also took in Mr. Broadfoot’s act. “They were passing judgment,” Mr. James remembered. “I turned to them and told them that if they could do that at 70, they will have won.”

Born in North Vancouver on Dec. 5, 1925, young Dave was raised in a home where religion was the centre of life and where “fun was not a priority.” His upbringing was a strictly Protestant one. His three older sisters would all end up as missionaries, one in Thailand, one in Bolivia and one in Malaysia. Speaking about them later, when he was a professional comedian and a self-described humanist, Mr. Broadfoot cracked that his scripture-following siblings had “better writers.”

In an interview with The Globe in 1999, Mr. Broadfoot described his childhood as “very strange.” On Sundays, he went to church three times. “It took me a long time to rebel and it was why I had so much difficulty at school. I was separated culturally.”

Young Dave wanted to go to the movies and attend dances and parties, but, not wishing to displease his family, he refrained.

A failure academically, he quit school at 16, lied about his age and joined the merchant marine.

He spent the war years evading German U-boat fire. He was in Sydney, Australia, when the Japanese surrendered. (Mr. Broadfoot later would entertain Canadian troops in Japan, Korea, the Middle East, Germany and the Balkans, and was named an officer of the Order of Canada.)

Upon his return home, Mr. Broadfoot eventually found a job at a Woodward’s department store. One night he went to see a talent contest at Vancouver’s since-demolished Denman Auditorium, where a neighbour performed a soliloquy from Richard III. “It was so impressive,” Mr. Broadfoot told The Globe. “The audience was completely silent. I thought if he could do it, maybe I could, too."

It took a year for him to work up the courage to join a theatre company, and he always remembered the laughs he got on his first stage entrance. “It was an amazing experience. I felt like I had come home. For the first time in my life, I did not feel like a misfit.” Soon he was acting in three companies simultaneously. “Unconsciously,” he said, “I was making up for lost time.”

Mr. Broadfoot decided he wanted to be the best English-speaking comedian in the country. “I never thought about New York or Los Angeles at all,” he wrote in his 2002 autobiography Old Enough to Say What I Want. “My focus was Canada.”

In early September, 1952, he boarded a bus with $100 in his pocket and headed east. Four days he later, he landed in Toronto, where he found a “gloomy room” near the bus terminal. “What have I done?” he asked himself.

Mr. Broadfoot had done the right thing. He arrived in Toronto mere days before CBC television first went to air. He took a job selling suits at another department store, Simpson’s, and started hanging around at the CBC buildings. Eventually, he earned an audition for producer Mavor Moore, who cast him in Spring Thaw, an annual stage revue of dance, satirical songs and topical comedic skits, predominantly on Canadian subjects.

He was on his way, and he never stopped.

After a nerve-racking (but well-received) appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955, Mr. Broadfoot began landing spots on The Wayne and Shuster Show. In 1959, he married the vivacious comedian Jean Templeton. For a time, they performed as comedy duo, on a radio show and on their own daily children’s television show (Junior Roundup). In the evenings, it was banquets, conventions and the sketch show Well Rehearsed Ad Libs in a room above the popular Italian restaurant Old Angelo’s.

That show included a satirical solo piece, involving Mr. Broadfoot as an aboriginal public relations man. “As the revelations of injustices toward native peoples mounted,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I wondered how a comedian could comment on the situation.”

Wearing a headband and stuffing a peace pipe with tobacco, the character would speak to the audience, calling them “you white people.” The bit ended with a native rhythm and a variation of a Woody Guthrie song:

This land was my land

And now it’s your land

This land they stole

For you, from me

Mr. Broadfoot’s marriage broke down when his wife moved to New York to further her career. He would later marry Diane Simard, a CBC producer he met in Montreal. The couple had a daughter, Valérie, born in 1970.

Over the rest of his career, Mr. Broadfoot took various incarnations of his shows across the country and around the world. He once performed for Queen Elizabeth II, who asked him “Where do you get your ideas?”

He got them by observing. Once during a break while taping at the CBC theatre, in a sketchy downtown area of Toronto, Mr. Broadfoot came upon a conversation in a nearby convenience store. A customer, the comedian wrote in his autobiography, was upset because the store was out of Aqua-Velva aftershave. When the clerk told him all he had left was Mennen, the customer sneered, “I wouldn’t drink that stuff if you paid me.”

When Mr. Broadfoot began, there was no established Canadian circuit for comedians. “He carved a trail, long before any Canadian had a clue what a stand-up comedian was,” said Mr. James, winner of the Dave Broadfoot Comedic Genius Award. “And he had to do it one kilometre at a time.”

Mr. James saw Mr. Broadfoot not long ago, at a taping of the topical CBC Radio comedy show Because News. “He was still interested,” Mr. James said. “He was still a student of the form.”

Indeed, at his 90th birthday party, Mr. Broadfoot was more interested in telling new jokes than he was in blowing out candles. “He was still writing every day, on current events,” Mr. Ferguson said.

Long before he reached the end of his life, Mr. Broadfoot’s decision to concentrate on a made-in-Canada career paid off for him. He offered a national perspective; he embraced people and place.

“He changed something here,” Mr. James said. “He brought his words to the paying public, on the cold winter nights. And trust me, when you pull into a theatre in a blizzard on a Tuesday night in February, a thousand people laughing sounds exactly the same here as it does in Los Angeles.”

Dave Broadfoot leaves his wife, Diane Simard Broadfoot, and daughter, Valérie.

With files from Michael Posner

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