One day I showed my wife a picture.
It was me performing sound effects for the radio show Dead Dog Café.
“You look a little silly,” she suggested.
She’s probably right. Judge for yourself: that’s the pic at the bottom. That particular picture’s staged, obviously, but it is an accurate representation of the sort of sound effects I was called upon to perform. Just—not usually all at once.
Of all the jobs I ever had to do for CBC radio, the job I hated most was working for the radio show Sunday Morning back in the eighties. There were a couple of jerks on the show at the time (not the host—I liked Mary Lou Finlay).
Performing sound effects came a close second.
At least I got paid for it.
Don’t get me wrong, I had nothing against sound effects per se: I loved sound design, for instance—taking sound effects from different sources and electronically creating worlds out of them that you could fully believe in. But I didn’t like performing sound effects live with actors. It just wasn’t my specialty. We had a couple of guys—Anton Szabo and Matt Willcott—who did specialize in it. They were good at it. Then Matt retired and the rest of us had to divvy up the job. Myself, I preferred being the recording engineer, or producing, or jabbing forks into my eyes. Anything other than perform sound effects live with actors.
So when I was assigned to do sound effects for the Dead Dog Café I was a bit dismayed. I concealed my feelings on the matter from Dead Dog producer Kathleen Flaherty. I really liked her and didn’t want to let her down.
Making matters worse, I had been shipped a Compaq Armada laptop from Edmonton especially for the Dead Dog Café recording sessions that was not making me happy. It had an audio program on it called Dalet, a program I loathed at the time because of what I perceived to be its editing deficiencies. I’d always likened editing on Dalet to “editing with your elbows” when compared to other programs such as ProTools (I would change my mind later when we upgraded to DaletPlus and I received training from Brian Dawes). I was stuck with the laptop because it had been pre-loaded with many of the music and sound effects cues that I would be required to play back during the taping sessions, and I didn’t have time to come up with an alternative. (Eventually I would come to appreciate that someone had actually made my life a lot easier by prepping the laptop for me.)
I went into the first taping session with a sense of dread. I was afraid that I wasn’t adequately prepared, and that everything would go wrong. We were taping on a Sunday morning. Greg DeClute helped me bring some props in on the Go Train. He brought his son Randy’s hockey sticks and I brought some umbrellas belonging to my daughters. In the studio, I wheeled out the Dead Dog Cafe door—the one with the bell attached to it, held together with duct tape and wire—and several other props I would require. The cast arrived. Gracie (Edna Rain), Jasper Friendly Bear (Floyd Favel Starr), and Tom King (playing himself, or a version thereof), along with someone new to the show, a woman named Portia (played by Tara Beagan).
I had prepared my sound effects by reading the scripts and getting a sense of the sounds required. I deleted all the dialogue, leaving me a list of sound cues. Any sound cues that were kind of vague, I referred back to the script to see what the context was. Most sound cues were obvious. Like, say, “plunger.” How many different kinds of plungers are there?
Shortly before our recording session I reviewed my list, a couple of weeks after having created it. Seeing a plunger listed I thought, well, we don’t have any of those kicking around in the studio so I’d better bring one in from home. I found one, disinfected it, stuck it in my bag, and carried it all the way in on the train along with the umbrellas and Greg’s hockey sticks. I placed it close by so that when the script called for it I would be able to grab it easily.
We started recording. The actors read their lines. We got to the sound cue that said, “SFX: Plunger!” I grabbed the plunger and begin vigorously plunging the floor, making “thwocking” sounds that I thought were really quite outstanding.
Producer Kathleen Flaherty immediately called a halt to the proceedings. “Cut! Joe, just what the heck do you think you’re doing?”
“Uh… making plunging sounds. Is it working?”
It was not.
Turned out the cue was actually calling for a plunger to test Tom King’s blood sugar level. It was a medical device. Which was obvious when I took a closer look at the script.
Fortunately the Dead Dog Café was a comedy show. Everyone had an excellent sense of humour. We had a laugh about it and moved on. And I learned to read my scripts more closely.
We had a guest on the show that day—Margaret Atwood. I’d met her years earlier—spent four days at her house, actually, recording her interviewing Victor Levy Beaulieu (and vice versa)—but she didn’t appear to remember me. There was no reason for her to have (it wasn’t like we’d stayed in touch over the years, exchanging Christmas cards). But she was friendly and pleasant, like just about everyone else I’ve worked with at CBC Radio over the years (there really have been precious few exceptions).
The entire Dead Dog Café team was unfailingly friendly. Always interesting, consistently entertaining. Tom King told us stories in between takes. He told us how he’d lost a lot of weight recently, after dramatically adjusting his diet upon learning that he had diabetes, remarking that although he still ate bananas, he took great care to eat only bananas that weren’t particularly ripe. He spoke of writing, of particular interest to me. He was fond, he said, of instructing his students to practise writing passages with no adjectives. And that is why, you will observe, there isn’t a single adjective in this piece.
It was a privilege to be amongst these folk. And yet, as much as I appreciated the experience, I never did really warm up to performing sound effects with them. And not just because I’d made a silly mistake with a plunger.
I just never got comfortable doing it.
Whenever I was assigned to perform sound effects live with actors I almost always felt apart from them. Ill-at-ease. Often, the actors all knew one another. At the very least they could relate to one another. I was a part of the cast in that I had to perform with them, but I was not one of them. I was just this guy off to one side smashing plates and tinkling teacups.
Looking a little silly.