Canada Today: Remembering Double Exposure’s Bob Robertson

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For some unknown reason, Canada has consistently produced some of the world’s best vocal impressionists over the past half-century. Whether it’s a solo act like Rich Little or Andre-Philippe Gagnon, or the collective impostors’ clubs known as SCTV, Codco, This Hour Has 22 Minutes or Royal Canadian Air Farce, we’ve had ample opportunity to experience the joy of hearing a famous voice placed in absolutely preposterous situations.

From where I sit, few did it better than the husband-and-wife comedy team of Bob Robertson and Linda Cullen, better known for the past three decades as Double Exposure. Which is why I was heartbroken to discover last night that Robertson had passed away on Sunday at the age of 71.

By the time I discovered them, just before turning 15 and entering the tenth grade in September of 1987, Bob and Linda had already been exceeding expectations in their first forays into radio comedy. Their cameo appearances on another of my favourite CBC series, The Radio Show with “Captain” Jack Farr, convinced the Mother Corp to give the Vancouver-based duo a 13-episode tryout. Before that brief run had even wrapped up, the CBC was convinced to go to a full-season order, launching an 11-year run for Double Exposure on the public broadcaster’s Saturday-morning schedule.

Having received a taste of Canadian political comedy via the Air Farce‘s radio incarnation, the early caricatures of legendary Nova Scotia cartoonist Bruce MacKinnon and the topical monologues of General John Cabot Trail, I thought I might enjoy Double Exposure but I wasn’t prepared for how quickly and completely Bob and Linda’s antics reeled me in. It’s one thing to suggest that there were no shortage of parody targets within the Mulroney-Reagan era; it’s quite another to hear these political figures and their specific speaking styles so smartly mixed together in such a potent comedy cocktail. Sharp, breezy, irreverent, timely, and unquestionably Canadian – Double Exposure had it all.

(Above: Bob and Linda with two of their most frequent targets, PC cabinet minister John Crosbie and former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who asked Double Exposure to perform at his 1993 retirement party.)

Among the many things Double Exposure had: The voices. Linda nailed the most prominent female public figures of the era, from politicos Margaret Thatcher, Sheila Copps, Sharon Carstairs, Kim Campbell, Barbara MacDougall, Pat Carney and Audrey MacLaughlin to PTL weeper Tammy Faye Bakker, CBC radio mainstays Shelagh Rogers and (in her pre-Governor-General days) Adrienne Clarkson, and even MuchMusic VJ Erica Ehm.

Meanwhile, Bob’s staggering stable of notable voices from across Canada and around the world (he recently admitted that he never had a specific count) included seven Prime Ministers, over a dozen provincial premiers, countless cabinet ministers (from two different parties), a whack of Canadian and American media personalities, and sports figures ranging from Howie Meeker to Ben Johnson. In one of my all-time favourite sketches, depicting doomed-to-fail Liberal Leader John Turner’s attempt to pick a cabinet during a brief period when it looked like he might win the 1988 federal election, Bob also portrayed several Liberal “candidates” including Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Sesame Street’s Grover, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. 

Strangely, even though Double Exposure was obviously designed to skewer our provincial, national and world leaders, I found that the accuracy of Bob and Linda’s impersonations gave them a human touch. Even in my teen and young-adult years, when I was terrified that Brian Mulroney was going to drive Canada off a cliff on the last remaining VIA Rail train, the show somehow found a way to inspire sympathy for several of Mulroney’s Tory co-conspirators, particularly former leadership rival Joe Clark, who took a lead role in many of the radio series’ sketches. (As you’ll read in this blog later this week, I inwardly freaked out a little bit when I met and interviewed Clark during the 1997 federal election campaign, and discovered that his voice so clearly mirrored Bob’s impression of him, right down to the throaty laugh.)

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(Above: The Double Exposure radio production team: Producer Tod Elvidge, Linda Cullen, technical operator Gary Heald, and Bob Robertson. I met Elvidge at a Charlottetown bed-and-breakfast during the 2001 East Coast Music Awards; shortly before leaving, I discovered his identity and probably surprised him with how excited I was to meet anybody connected to Double Exposure.)

Another aspect of Double Exposure that hooked me immediately: Bob and Linda had great singing voices, even within the guise of their various characters, so the show was sprinkled with terrific song parodies. No genre was left unturned, from pop hits (John Crosbie crooning “Fish” to George Michael’s “Faith” or promoting free trade by dropping beats with Run-DMC) to Broadway (Pierre Trudeau as “The Phantom of the Ottawa” and plugging his 1993 book with the Cats pastiche “Memoirs”) and even Gilbert and Sullivan (Jean Chretien warbles his way through The Mikado’s “I’ve Got A Little List” to outline his first round of proposed budget cuts). Rhyming and verse-driven satire also showed up with the 1988 Robert W. Service homage “The Shooting Off Of Clancy’s Mouth” and the previous year’s “The Meech Lake Accord-ing To Double Exposure,” a deep-voiced tut-tutting to Mulroney’s attempts at constitutional reform that seems equally beholden to the 1971 Les Crane recording of Max Erhmann’s “Desiderata” and the National Lampoon parody “Deteriorata.”

I still have copies of “The Meech Lake Accord-ing To Double Exposure” (written in exquisite calligraphy on parchment paper) and “The Shooting Off Of Clancy’s Mouth,” along with a door sign promoting the show and a beautifully-rendered “Double Exposure Family Portrait,” which featured veteran Vancouver political cartoonist Bob Krieger’s caricatures of Bob, Linda, and several of their most frequent political targets. These free giveaways were but one sign of the show’s devotion to its fans; Linda herself took the time to write hand-written replies to a number of fan letters I sent Double Exposure in my high school years.

By the late ’80s, Double Exposure had gained such notoriety that when the legendary British satirical puppet series Spitting Image created exclusively-Canadian content for the show’s prime-time broadcasts on CBC-TV, Bob and Linda were tapped to provide the voices for these segments’ targets. Seriously, it’s true – check out this YouTube clip of Mulroney, Turner and NDP Leader Ed Broadbent in pre-election debate mode, as well as a bickering Prince Charles and Princess Diana. 

With their CBC Radio show still humming along in the mid-’90s, I was pleased to see Bob and Linda get a couple of opportunities to test the TV waters for a pair of “Swift Kick In The Year-End” holiday specials. (Here’s the 1994 show, and here’s the 1995 follow-up.) However, when the duo made a pitch to bring Double Exposure to CBC-TV on a full-time basis, the Mother Corp inexplicably balked, leading the pair to end their radio efforts and relocate to rival CTV from 1997 to 2000. (Their last radio show, in mid-1997, included a sketch in which they attempted to debunk rumours that Double Exposure had “officially applied to NATO,” a thinly-veiled reference to Baton Broadcasting, which had purchased CTV earlier in the year.)

I’ll be honest and admit that I found the CTV edition of Double Exposure somewhat uneven, with its odd blend of voice impersonations dubbed over news footage of political figures, occasionally-too-long comedy monologues in front of a studio audience, and sketches involving Bob and Linda’s characters. But I still enjoyed several portions of the program, including live-action versions of Bob’s take on Don Cherry, Linda’s interpretation of art critic Sister Wendy, as well as the end-times televangelists Jack and Rexella Van Impe (authors of such helpful books as Bats Fly Out Your Butt and Can You Smell Your Own End?).

If nothing else, the Double Exposure CTV series proved a critical success, receiving six Gemini Award nominations – including a nod for the Chrysler Canada People’s Choice Award as one of the six highest-rated Canadian TV programs of the season – and won the U.S. International Film and Video Festival’s Gold Camera Award as well as the Saskatoon Film and Video Festival’s Golden Sheaf Award. More importantly, it provided continuity for Bob and Linda and sparked them to continue a wide variety of projects over the following fifteen years, ranging from CBC radio and television specials to theatrical revues to the animated Web series Gross National ProductIn 2009 they launched the Double Exposure Radio blog and podcast – even as I deal with the sadness of losing Bob, I’m astounded and delighted to see that the duo produced so much original comedy during the Stephen Harper/Dubya-Obama era, to say nothing of the hours of vintage Double Exposure CBC content still available on the site as well.

For me, however, no discussion of Double Exposure and especially Bob Robertson can happen without drawing attention to a 1996 radio monologue that starts as a basic slam on Quebec separatism and evolves into a Valentine to Canada. It came after the swearing-in of Lucien Bouchard as Quebec Premier and leader of the ruling Parti Quebecois. Bouchard, a former Mulroney cabinet minister who ditched the Tories in the dying days of the Meech Lake debacle and later led the separatist Bloc Quebecois to Official Opposition status, championed the “Oui” side in the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum. Only a few months later, in one of his first statements as premier, Bouchard boasted that it would not take much longer to establish an independent Quebec because “Canada is not a real country.”

A lot of Canadians got mad; Bob Robertson and Double Exposure got even, with the one-man sketch “Canada Is Not A Real Country.” It drew such a huge reaction from listeners that the show re-ran it a week later, with announcer Bob Sharples urging listeners to “get your tape recorders ready.” Years later, it remained in Double Exposure’s live performances; if you can deal with some over-the-top music and slightly jingoistic imagery, you really should do yourself a favour and click here for a YouTube adaptation of the original sketch.

It starts as a bit of silliness, with Robertson-as-Bouchard suggesting that Canada doesn’t have “real” football, hockey, TV or radio. But then, slowly, the piece takes on a more subliminal, slightly darker tone: Canada also doesn’t have “real” soldiers (“They spend their whole time acting like friendly policemen – they never fire at anybody!”), uses for nuclear power, or guns. The faux Bouchard then decries Canada’s free healthcare system, the country’s lack of capital punishment, and the idea that its leaders would appear in public to defend their policies. At this point, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Bouchard believes in any of these things – but it matters whether the listener believes in these things. These extremely Canadian things, essential to our national identity.

The final minute opens with a joke: “You see, my friends, I want to live in a real country – not a country where the winters are always cold.” But then, despite its repeated use of negative pronouns, it describes Canada at its best and paints a picture of my country that makes me stand up and cheer (metaphorically, anyway) every time I hear it:

“Not a country where the airports are always filled with thousands of people who want to move here! Not a country where they force you to pay people at least a minimum wage! Not a country where natives are going to get their land back from the government! Not a country where English and French are accepted everywhere! Not a country where people of all ethnic backgrounds are respected! Not a country where the poor places are helped out by the rich places! 

These things don’t happen in a real country. They only happen in Canada. And I find that very sad. And that’s why I tell you today, I’m going to have my own country. I couldn’t live in Canada. Canada is not a real country.”

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Epilogue: Lucien Bouchard left politics in 2001. Sixteen years later, support for Quebec separatism is at an all-time low, inside and outside of the province. And while many of Bob Robertson’s political targets have now outlived him, his wit, talent and national pride will live forever.

Thank you for everything, Bob. Much love to Linda and the entire Robertson family today.

2 thoughts on “Canada Today: Remembering Double Exposure’s Bob Robertson

  1. Wasn’t sure how you could do a whole blog about him, but now you’ve brought me back to missing Saturday’s CBC Radio’s Saturday morning line up in my late 20/early30s, including laughing away to Double Exposure as I got ready to go to the Fredericton Farmers Market with friends. I wasn’t impressed with their TV show but will always think fondly of their radio show.

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