It seems like Rick Green has always been making us laugh. His career started at the Ontario Science Centre in 1975 where, for four years, "I did the demonstrations for the tourists from Detroit." A founding father of the ultra-clever the Frantics, he wrote and performed with the comedy troupe from 1979 to 1986. From 1987 to 1994, he wrote and hosted the sci-fi news show Prisoners of Gravity, cast as Commander Rick. And now he returns to his old stamping grounds on History Television with History Bites The Separatists, which he wrote, directed and produced:
Q. Whatever happened to History Bites? It used to be on all the time.
A. It ran initially on History TV from 1998 to 2003 for a total of 102 episodes. We all had a ball doing it, but eventually just plain ran out of steam; we were tired!
Q. But now History Bites is back in hour specials? Why?
A. The half-hours were on individuals. This way we can get right into a subject. So the Sunday night special is on separatism. History Bites The Separatists, we're calling it. The more I studied it, I realized the Quebec situation was only part of the story.
Q. Your theme seems to be separatists are everywhere.
A. It's a proud Canadian tradition. You feel the federal government isn't giving you enough, why not threaten to separate? Yes, there was Louis Riel, which we deal with. But there was also William Mackenzie right here in Upper Canada and Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia. People are always using separatism as a threat.
Q. Your hour certainly looks expensive, but I'm told shooting was very brief, just eight days of filming.
A. My co-writer (Duncan McKenzie), we just love to overwrite. We write it all out to the most minute details. We also double shoot. There are scenes in Quebec and Hollywood, and we utilize these locations as well for our next special, which is on (gulp) Céline Dion. Our key actors have been with us forever. When Duncan and I are directing, sure, they'll toss something in and go for it. You have to do that. I don't know if Joseph Howe spoke with that Elmer Fudd voice given to him by Bob Bainborough, but he certainly does here.
Q. You're right in saying the cast seems familiar.
A. Ron Pardo, brilliant. Janet Van De Graaf, I'd seen her do one thing and just had to hire her. Bob Bainborough, he was in Red Green and can do it all. We added Peter Oldring, Rosa Laborde – do you know how hard it was to get through a skit with these characters trying to break me up? But it all worked because I refuse to take this separatism thing seriously.
Q. Still, the pace seems dizzying.
A. I got used to it on Red Green. Had to. As far as improv, we'd be all ready to start a skit, and Steve Smith would come in and nephew Harold (Pat McKenna) had stuck a fish net on his head and couldn't get untangled. Steve's ability not to crack up was supreme. We had to be equally stone-faced because a second take would take too long.
Q. I sort of miss your characters.
A. I'm there as the fractured narrator and sometimes I wished I was right in there flailing away. But I got such enjoyment at watching the cast play with the scenes, I really didn't miss it after a while.
Q. How did History Bites start? As a part of the Frantics?
A. One Frantics skit I wrote parodied the contemporary conversion of everything to metric. Only I had a Roman senator saying he knew the food cost III drachmas. And when he added XX and VII he knew he got XXVII but where do they get that 27 from, all that, he'll never understand that. Then I realized how history could be parodied because everything comes back. Separatism always comes back.
Q. You're merciless in showing Mackenzie as an old bore who'll spout something and the guy actually running the press finishes the line for him because he's heard it all before. And there are those FLQ terrorists plotting in their parents' basements.
A. And going off to that workers' paradise, Cuba, then coming back 15 years later and winding up as government civil servants.
Q. With Riel, you say you can't afford to restage the battles ...
A. We use hand puppets! History was being made as we filmed this – Stéphane Dion suddenly became head of the Liberals as we were finishing this. I loved our James Bond parody with Trudeau as Bond as played by Peter Wildman, an old Frantic.
Q. People just assumed the Frantics were dead and then there was this fantastic reunion last year. The response was overwhelming.
A. Many fans knew our old skits better than we did. Like when Monty Python reunited and up onstage John Cleese forgot lines, and the audience shouted them at him. We got even more pleasure doing new stuff, that was the real fun for us. It was great getting together again and being so appreciated.
Q. So what's next?
A. For the Frantics, it's a show July 10 at the Diesel Theatre. For History Bites, it's a Céline Dion special about when she left for Vegas and what that all means for Canadian culture. I think it's very funny, and it goes right back to the days when Lorne Greene would leave for Hollywood. Me, I'm glad I stayed, although I sometimes wondered how I'd do with a bigger budget, a wider scale. But I couldn't do History Bites there, that's for sure.
History Bites The Separatists, tomorrow at 7 p.m. on History Television
History Bites The Separatists