Mark Leiren-Young remembers the day that Bob Robertson changed his life.
It was Feb. 14, 1990, and Mr. Robertson and Linda Cullen were about to perform their first live-to-air show at a venue in East Vancouver. Double Exposure, their young radio comedy series, had just surpassed the Royal Canadian Air Farce in national ratings and the two were at the top of their game.
Mr. Leiren-Young’s musical comedy duo, Local Anxiety, opened the show, performing a half-hour set before rushing back stage. The fledgling duo had a few parody songs on the radio but had never performed live. They thought the Valentine’s Day gig would be their first and last one.
“There was no intention to ever become a live act,” he said. “Then Bob Robertson comes backstage afterward and says, ‘You should be doing this for a living’ – which sounded very sweet, but then he went beyond that and said, ‘Here’s my agent. He’ll set you up with gigs.’
“We suddenly found ourselves going from a completely unknown, really non-existent act, to having about a 10-year run doing this. Bob basically set us up.”
Following Mr. Robertson’s death last month, friends, family and colleagues are remembering him not only for his decades-long career as a political satirist – whose spot-on impression of figures such as prime ministers Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien brought the humour of Canadian politics into living rooms across the country – but as a man with a big heart and boundless generosity in an industry that is so often cutthroat.
Mr. Robertson died on March 19 at Nanaimo General Hospital. He was 71. He had been diagnosed with breast cancer in January, 2016, and since then, underwent intensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
He leaves his wife, Ms. Cullen; two children from his first marriage, Patrick Robertson and Jennifer Robertson, an actress who stars in the TV show Schitt’s Creek; and three grandchildren.
Bob William Robertson was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, on Sept. 19, 1945, the eldest of four siblings. The family immigrated to Canada in 1952.
In adolescence, Mr. Robertson was a fan of the British stage comedy revue Beyond the Fringe, admiring playwright, author and actor Alan Bennett in particular, for his skill with the English language.
The only job Mr. Robertson ever wanted, straight from high school, was to work in radio, Ms. Cullen said.
“He got his first deejay job at CHUC Cobourg [in Ontario], and he got it because someone else lied for him about his experience,” she recalled. “He really had no idea what he was doing.”
The following years saw Mr. Robertson working his way westward – first to Calgary, then Vancouver Island – taking various radio jobs. His end goal of pursuing comedy ultimately led him to Metro Vancouver.
In the fall of 1979, the then-34-year-old Mr. Roberston took a job at CKNW radio in New Westminster, a suburb east of Vancouver, doing the weather on the morning show with Brian (Frosty) Forst. The weather segment was about five minutes long – two minutes for goofy sketches and three minutes for the weather. Mr. Forst wrote the scripts for both.
Then-prime minister Joe Clark was a character Mr. Robertson would frequently play, Mr. Forst said, now 78.
“Usually I’d be rattling on about something and ‘Joe’ would interrupt me with, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Frosty!’ – kind of stuffily stutter his way on to the air,” Mr. Forst wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Forst, who spent about 40 years at the station before retiring in 2005, remembers Mr. Robertson as a skilled impressionist whose bits resonated with listeners, though he acknowledges they often butted heads over the scripts.
“I can barely remember my address these days so I certainly don’t recall changes he would want to make, but both of us being perfectionists, and ‘comedians,’ we would disagree on what would work,” Mr. Frost wrote.
“I was in charge so he usually would begrudgingly go along with me. Make no mistake, his regular morning appearances worked very well as far as listeners were concerned and often be water cooler talk around town later.”
Ms. Cullen, then 21, worked part-time as a producer at the station while studying at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. She first crossed paths with Mr. Robertson in a small back studio.
Though they wouldn’t date until a decade later, Ms. Cullen remembers an immediate spark.
“It’s kind of corny now, but it’s that moment when people look at each other and have that instant connection, that soul mate kind of thing,” she said in an interview nearly 40 years later.
“It’s just, somebody looks at you, you look into their eyes, and you just go, ‘Oh, jeez. Something just happened.’”
Within a couple of years, the two were working on sketches together for the afternoon drive show, at first with Ms. Cullen as a producer but soon she was in front of a microphone as well.
“It kind of progressed organically, as they say, because he realized that I was sort of a mimic as well,” she said. “That piece of the puzzle was finally there: Now you have a female voice that can do characters and it opened up the world of what you could do.”
With ideas brewing and a desire to do something bigger, the two began writing pilots, pitching two to CBC Radio. In the summer of 1986, the public broadcaster agreed to take six episodes of Double Exposure, but within a couple of weeks, increased it to 13. It took more that fall and again in the winter.
It was challenging at the beginning. Only four people worked on the show and the department at the time didn’t do much live radio. Their technical capabilities were also limited; network variety producer Tod Elvidge recalls having to record sound effects they wanted to use off vinyl records onto a 16-track multitrack recorder: someone going over a waterfall, a volcano erupting, aliens landing.
“Everything was very cumbersome, very slow – none of this shift-click-delete, or control-z,” Mr. Elvidge said.
Mr. Robertson called the final product “theatre of the mind.”
The Double Exposure crew was also testing the waters of political satire in Canada, learning what the show could and couldn’t get away with. A sketch involving Joe Clark being crucified on Easter Day, for example, fell in the latter category.
“That caused a major fracas,” Mr. Elvidge said. “Everybody was mad. The Conservatives were mad, my bosses were mad, the Canadian Jewish Congress was mad. It’s probably the one that lingered the longest and took the most kid-glove handling to get out of.”
In all, the group would end up producing more than 400 episodes over 10 years, amassing an average weekly audience of more than 300,000 listeners. In 1997, Double Exposure moved to television, airing on CTV for three years until the spring of 2000. During that time, it was nominated for six Gemini awards.
On both platforms, Mr. Robertson would deliver spot-on impressions in timely, irreverent sketches – at times cutting, but never mean. Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark and Bill Vander Zalm were among his best impressions; Ms. Cullen’s included the famed American chef Julia Child, television anchor Sandie Rinaldo and Diana, Princess of Wales.
Charlie Demers, a Vancouver-based comedian and author, said Mr. Robertson’s strength was not only in his skillful mimicry, but in the substance of his skits, which drew from his vast knowledge of the Canadian political landscape.
“In comedy, impressions are viewed as potentially cheating because the audience is so taken by the simulated performance of the person that they don’t really pay that much attention to the content,” Mr. Demers said.
“Sometimes people who concentrate mostly on impressions aren’t seen as being particularly great thinking comedians, and Bob is the … major exception to that rule. He brought a sort of sophisticated sense of play that was really concerned with local and national Canadian politics.”
Mr. Demers recalled that Mr. Robertson did a pitch-perfect impression of pollster, pundit and strategist Allan Gregg: “Who has an Allan Gregg impression? You’re developing an impression not even of a Canadian political figure, but of a Canadian pollster. You’re doing that because you care about the political culture in which you actually live. It’s an amazing thing to see.”
Mr. Robertson and Ms. Cullen married on June 3, 2000, at a small ceremony at their Vancouver home. There were about 30 people in attendance.
It rained every day in the week leading up to the wedding, but the clouds parted that day.
“On that day,” Ms. Cullen said, “It was beautiful.”
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