Just like Jock MacBile, John Morgan was fond of a good rant. Even though he was a Welshman, that particular character always struck home. Mr. Morgan would treat his co-writers and fellow cast members of The Royal Canadian Farce to at least one tirade a day.
"It could be something like the leaky metal tea pots in restaurants that would drive him mad," said Don Ferguson, who, like Mr. Morgan, was one of the founding comedians of the long-running CBC show. "He would say 'It's 150 years since the industrial revolution. Can't anyone make a teapot that doesn't spill hot water all over you?' "
John Morgan spent almost 30 years on the Farce, writing and playing characters such as the simpleton savant Canmore Mike. Apart from Air Farce, his other significant contribution to Canadian comedy was co-writing the pilot of the comedy King Of Kensington, starring Al Waxman.
All this from a man who never knew much about Canada until he was almost 30.
John David Morgan hailed from Wales. He trained and worked as a teacher but decided to switch to newspapers when he came to Canada in 1957. His first jobs occurred at a string of Ontario newspapers: He started at the Timmins Press, moved to the Chatham Daily News and finally landed at the Windsor Star, his first major newspaper.
Mr. Morgan was a general-assignment reporter, covering everything from traffic accidents to rummage sales. He was also a bit of an entrepreneur and at one stage set up Windsor's first European-style coffee house. It was popular with young people, but even though the place didn't serve alcohol, the police were suspicious and showed up from time to time to test bottles that proved to contain little more than vanilla extract.
He also founded the Windsor press club.
"Morgan had card number one and I had card number three," remembers Peter Rehak who worked with him at the Windsor Star. "He organized a suite at the old Norton Palmer Hotel. A charming guy, always funny and great to have a drink with."
After Windsor, Mr. Morgan moved to Montreal and another series of journalism jobs, including a stint as the Montreal correspondent for Marketing Magazine. Along the way, he was also editor of a magazine called The Montrealer. That was his last news job.
It was around then that Mr. Morgan's comedy career got off the ground. The story he told of how it all started was that Martin Bronstein, an advertising copywriter with whom he had shared a few laughs, walked into his office at The Montrealer one day and suggested giving it all up for comedy.
The two men began writing comedy sketches, though for a time Mr. Morgan did hang on to his day job.
In 1967, he and Mr. Bronstein, a fellow Brit who later went on to work in the United States, teamed up to write a CBC television comedy series titled Funny You Should Say That. It was soon followed by a program called Comedy Café. At the time, he gave an interview in which he explained his theory of comedy.
"Humour writing is essentially an exercise in logic. Or, more properly, warped logic. You take what is normal and bend it," Mr. Morgan said. "Nobody can tell you what it is and it cannot be harnessed with any degree of predictability."
The genesis of the Royal Canadian Air Farce was a stage show called The Jest Society, a play on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's promise of The Just Society. The comedy opened in Montreal in 1971, with pretty much the same cast that would make up The Royal Canadian Air Farce.
Meanwhile, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Bronstein returned to Britain to write for David Frost. They said the famed talk-show host booted their gags so badly they were happy to head back to Canada.
By then, The Jest Society had transformed itself into the makings of a radio program. It was also when Mr. Morgan transformed from writer to performer.
The Royal Canadian Air Farce, with fellow performers Luba Goy, Roger Abbott and Don Ferguson, went on the Air on the CBC in December of 1973 and has continued on both radio and television ever since. Ms. Goy said John Morgan wrote more than 4,000 sketches for the program, which in 1993 successfully switched to television.
"He preferred radio to television," she said. "Because he could use his imagination, offering him more scope to paint any picture."
He could play men or women, including a takeoff of television Journalist Anne Medina smoking a cigar. Canadian politicians also provided likely material -- not just for Mr. Morgan to write about but also to play. He did Herb Gray, the Liberal deputy Prime Minister, and Deborah Gray, the Reform MP. Mr. Morgan said covering politics as a newspaper reporter had provided useful insights.
"I think any working reporter has found over the years that real-life situations border so consistently on the absurd that the injection of perhaps just one word in a straight interview would topple it easily in the hysterical," he once said.
John Morgan was what you would expect of a comedian: Gregarious, outgoing and funny.
"He was a delightful dinner companion. He could always find the funny side of any situation," remembered Mr. Ferguson.
Three years ago, he suddenly announced his retirement from Air Farce. While his departure was met by regret, his colleagues understood. For the previous eight television seasons, his role as writer-performer meant writing two sketches every weekend, followed by four long days of rehearsals and rewrites with two non-performing writers, Rick Olsen and Gord Holtam, that culminated in a 12-hour studio session every Thursday. It was a gruelling work routine and his well-honed sense of timing said it was time to exit.
His final curtain also sent messages to a public that forever associated him with characters he had portrayed. Dick Richardson of Toronto was inspired to write a letter to the Globe and Mail. "Is the departure of Deborah Grey from the Alliance and the retirement of John Morgan from Air Farce simply a coincidence?" he asked. "Or does the plot thicken?"
Outside of work, Mr. Morgan pursued many interests. He had a pilot's licence and owned two small planes which he kept at Bracebridge north of Toronto. One of the planes was called Air Farce One. He also owned many sports cars, including a Morgan -- natch.
He travelled to his native Wales often and for a while owned a pub there. He liked to zip over to Britain, pick up an old sports car he kept there -- a Scimitar -- and spend the worst of the Canadian winter in southern France or Spain.
John Morgan was born in
Aberdare, Wales, on Sept. 21, 1930. He died of a heart attack
at home in Toronto on Nov. 16, 2004. He was 74. He is survived
by his son Christopher and daughter Sarah. He was predeceased by his wife Ena.
FAREWELL TO A ROYAL WIT
In June, 2001, when John Morgan retired from Royal Canadian Air Farce, his collaborators Roger Abbott and Don Ferguson composed a special tribute for Globe Review. What follows is an excerpt:
Not all the laughs at an Air Farce taping came from the audience. Up until the moment we started taping each show, particularly in radio, John's attention was fully occupied by Morgan The Writer. Endless rewrites, edits, changes, and much-needed punchlines kept him focused on the written word all through the rehearsal process. It was only at taping time, too late for rewrites, that Morgan The Performer would emerge. And suddenly Morgan The Performer would see a line written by Morgan The Writer and be barely able to contain himself. He'd practically giggle aloud -- you could hear little snuffles and squeaks on the broadcast -- completely surprised and amused by what he was obliged to say, according to the script in front of him.
And that's when it was dangerous to make eye-contact with him. As soon as one of us met the glee in his eyes with a sparkle in our own, he'd sputter into the microphone and begin the losing battle to suppress his laughter. Soon we'd start ad-libbing, trying to rescue the breakup, until he, then all of us, lost it. We'd be hooting, and the audience howling.
Eventually we'd find our way back to the script, always to find that nothing could top the lunacy of a breakup.
The most dangerous breakup scenes involved a notorious Morgan radio character, the lascivious Amy De La Pompa, whom he performed in a gutteral falsetto. She was lewd yet insightful, and prompted much use of the P.F.F.I.T.S.I. note. ("I've just come back from Thailand," she'd announce. "Bangkok?" we'd ask. "No, just a little tennis.")
When we made the move to weekly television in 1993, audiences loved Mike From Canmore in his Calgary Flames cap and goofy grin from his first appearance.
As played by John, he was totally charming and unthreatening, yet from his simple mind came many remarkable observations. Commenting on media-merger mania: "I heard Time Warner is merging with A-Hole." "I believe that's A.O.L.," came the correction. "That's not what I heard," he shot back, and the audience howled.
Special to The Globe and Mail; with files from Globe archives and staff