ill Casselman is a veteran of print, radio and television, working for the CBC (radio & TV), Maclean's, the Vancouver Courier, among others. He's been a writer, editor, and broadcaster in various capacities. And a sometime actor. As Bill notes, "The curriculum of my vitae zigzags in a most uncool pattern." Over the past decade he's turned books on language into a cottage industry, with various texts on Canadian sayings finding a wide audience. Bill began the interview with a warning: "I give terse answers. So you'll need lots questions." He's either a liar or thankfully doesn't know the meaning of terse. Bill currently lives in Ontario, when he's not in Italy. Learn more about him and his books on his website.
what was it exactly about language that fascinated you as a child?
I was good at it. I dropped the basketball, but when the full court press was a word-charge, I kicked ass.
As a school kid I was a geek. In grade 9, the sadistic, failed-Argonaut phys. ed. instructor, after testing the whole Grade 9 class, branded me a "motor moron." We clumsy geeks had to stand up at the beginning of every gym class and attest to our clumsiness. That gym Nazi was a real bastard. If I ever meet him again, I'm going to tie him to a vaulting horse and have retired Argonauts land on him. He claimed that if one could not plop a basketball into a hoop, one was not a person and would falter along the path of life. He threatened to fail me when I skipped his S&M gym classes. My straight A's in Grade 9 language classes shut that little fascist pipsqueak dwarf failed-Argonaut up quickly. I also enjoyed making more money in my life than that little puke ever saw.
The other important linguistic event in our house was much more important. My father was a constant reader and loved words too. But when my brother Ron and I would ask him about a new word, Dad would never define it for us. He sent us to a whole series of dictionaries: junior level, picture, right up to the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. He sent us to the dictionary from the nanosecond of our very first word question. Once I had stuck my nose in the O.E.D.--well, I have never really pulled that nose out.
My father began my love of the great word hoard of English. The scope and glory of English words are what bound me forever to my native tongue.
you spent 1967-1987, on and off, with various freelance contracts for a wide variety of programs at cbc radio. what did those years teach you?
Essentially, to obey the great "life" dictum of mythographer, writer, and one of my personal heroes, Joseph Campbell: "follow your bliss."
Do what you know is best for you. When others thwart you, fuck 'em!
During my time at CBC, CBC Radio teemed with talent behind and in front of the microphone. The main problem, then as now at CBC Radio, was timid, incompetent management who would not permit the talented people to make fresh vital programs.
There were layers and layers of ass-kissing, time-serving executives, 78 vice-presidents, and at the same time, shabby old studios and not enough microphones.
The total void in leadership ability was startling. During most of those years, CBC Radio managers in general were a perspirant squad of cringing, lickspittle toadies, terrified of innovation or challenging programs. I was lucky enough to work briefly for a true visionary and leader. I worked with Alec Frame and about ten other bright people and together we created "This Country in The Morning" with host Peter Gzowski. That was my golden time at CBC Radio. Frame knew how to inspire. He let us innovate and he kept management away from us, so we could make a good program. It sounds simple. But CBC, alas, has not had a great record of being able to do that frequently.
What most of the abject butt-surfers who passed for CBC management wanted was peace, no trouble, no angry letters from listeners; everything bland and pallid and acceptable to the mouth-breathers and brainstems at CBC HQ in Ottawa. That's why even today CBC middle executives love comedic tapioca like that truly dreadful, awful Stuart McLean. The Vinyl Cafe! With one of Stuart's trenchant satires on his wife's new hat!
McLean is going to be the first male to go through menopause. To me he is lukewarm blancmange, a tepid tit-suck, a preposterously strutting symbol of the decline of CBC Radio into drippy, goopy, sentimental humour.
Mclean is a moist wuss licking the listeners' shoes, instead of using humour to brighten the mind and to expand political and social awareness. He is safe and tame and quite dead, like so much of the programming since Peter Gzowski died and Mark Starowicz went to television to create eventually one of the most numbingly soporific Canadian history lessons in the entire span of Canadian broadcasting: Mark's Canadian History or Prozac 101.
What did I learn at CBC Radio?: Shoot low, sheriff, the mental midgets are in charge and they are riding Shetlands.
I also learned that listeners enjoyed my material about Canadian words, but that I would have to leave the CBC and have it published, because the CBC was afraid of my outspoken approach and would never let me broadcast it.
So that's what I did too. Twelve books later, I see that I took a correct path.
Most really talented, vital, scrappy people have to leave the CBC.
Patrick Watson said it best: "The CBC is the only place on earth where the milk rises to the top."
Be it noted: Patrick Watson became for a time President of the CBC. A bad one too! An ineffective, butt-bussing yes-man.
and then you tried your hand at television - how was that transition?
How was that transition? They don't get any bumpier or more poisonous.
I had already performed on a CBC TV noontime talk program, The Bob McLean Show, as "The Plant Nut," offering cockeyed horticultural advice to the petunia-lorn and hosta-bereft. I found out that under the shy nerd I had been in high-school was a loud comedian waiting to get out and fulfill the motto of all true baggypants tummlers: "A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants."
When I left CBC Radio, it was over a minor scandal. We had hired Judy LaMarsh, a Liberal cabinet member in the Pearson government, but kicked out by Trudeau because she was such a hard-to-get-along-with bitch. Now Judy LaMarsh was the woman who had done such a great job of supervising Canada's wonderful celebrations for the centennial at EXPO in 1967 and indeed all around the country.
After leaving politics in a bitter expulsion, Judy had tried a phone-in radio gig in Vancouver and done reasonably well. To our shock, when Judy showed up at CBC Radio in Toronto to be the host of 3 hours of live, national, current-affairs radio every weekday morning, she was a querulous, obscenely overweight, miserable, sour drunk with a lot of health and psychological problems. There is a term in newspaper copy editing, MEGO. When a piece is getting too long or too boring, the copy editor used to jot this acronym in the margin of the offending copy. MEGO stands for "my eyes glazed over." That is basically what happened to Judy LaMarsh whenever anyone else was saying anything interesting on our radio show. She was only really interested in herself and what she thought. With other people, Judy's eyes glazed over. By the way, Judy LaMarsh died almost alone, disowned by almost every single member of her family. Read on and you'll see why.
We did our best to put her on the radio every weekday morning, but she was a tiresome handful indeed, perhaps the meanest, most foul-tempered human being I ever worked with. She was an old political Liberal hack, of course, and Judy would shit on anyone in a subservient position who could do her no good at the CBC. After months and months of her drunken, slovenly, hung-over, piggish behaviour to underlings and people whom she deemed to be "of no consequence," finally I blew up at her one morning while we were live on the air in Studio E at the old CBC Radio studios on Jarvis Street. And I was instantly fired.
I was the in-studio producer that morning. I had hired a wonderful old gentleman named Horace Lapp to come in and play silent movie music on the piano, and to discuss how silent films were scored on the run in an old three-piece pit band at early Toronto movie theatres. Mr. Lapp had done this several times and was a very entertaining and kindly gent with a huge stock of old showbiz stories from the early days of Canadian movie palaces.
In the radio studio, Judy LaMarsh had her own special chair, a strange oval contraption that she stuffed her sweaty bulk into each morning and then stayed stuck there, like a lethargic old toad, during the entire three-hour program.
That morning, when Mr. Lapp showed up--remember he was an elderly man of 76--he had a slight hearing problem. The piano in Studio E was at the far end of the studio from where Judy LaMarsh sat in her toad chair. We had a note rehearsal, a music run-through, about 7:30 that morning, before we broadcast live to Halifax at about ten minutes past eight.
We ran through the gist of the interview, with Judy asking questions that were also music cues, so that Mr. Lapp could then play, for example, the theme from the silent version of "Ben Hur." All the way through the rehearsal, Mr. Lapp politely kept asking Judy to speak louder because he couldn't hear, due to a temporary hearing loss.
It was quite touching. Mr. Lapp would plead, "Miss LaMarsh, may I ask you to speak just a bit louder. I can't hear your questions or the music cues." We put a pair of headphones on Mr. Lapp and turned up the volume. But still he could not hear.
Finally, the lady relative who had brought him to the studio early that morning whispered in my ear that his hearing was very bad, BUT he could lip-read quite well. We were now nearing the start of the live broadcast. So I asked Judy if she would mind terribly if we moved her chair close to the piano, so Mr. Lapp could lip-read her questions and music cues, and, you know, then the interview would probably go quite well. You have to make little fix-it decisions like this all the time in live radio and live TV. Most people understand the infirmities of old age and have sympathy for elderly persons still trying to perform what is closest to their heart. What I was asking of Judy LaMarsh was that she move maybe ten feet across a studio and sit beside Mr. Lapp's piano.
Judy snapped at me: "No, I won't move my chair one inch. That old son-of-a-bitch should have had his hearing fixed before he came on my show."
Charming. Mother Teresa, LaMarsh was not.
So, we went on the air, live to Halifax. The interview ran about ten minutes, and all the way through poor old Horace Lapp whispered softly, pleadingly, "I'm sorry, I can't hear you. Shall I play the music from "Wings" now?"
"Play whatever you like. If you don't know what to play, I certainly don't," snaps Judy.
Am I making this dialogue up? No. I have a tape of that interview that I saved.
Everybody in the radio control room is appalled at Judy LaMarsh's mean, vicious behaviour. Finally, mercifully, the interview comes to an end. I go in during a news break at 8:30 to help poor old Mr. Lapp up from the piano bench and out of the studio. As I go through the large, sound-proof studio door, I apologize to him for the behaviour of Judy LaMarsh.
Judy hears me and screams, "Don't you apologize for me, Casselman."
I say back to Judy, "I'll apologize every time you behave like a selfish pig to an old person. You should be ashamed of yourself, LaMarsh. Ashamed!"
"You're finished at CBC, Casselman. I'll have your ass for talking to me that way."
At 11 am I went upstairs to our production offices. The usually lively office was quiet as death. The executive producer called me into her office and fired me on the spot.
I was flabbergasted. I was not offered a chance to apologize to LaMarsh. I would not have done so.
I went into my little cubbyhole, packed my few meagre personal things into my leather satchel, and went home. To contemplate my future.
A few hours later, my former executive producer telephoned me at home in my apartment on Davisville Avenue. I lived in one of those giant Greenwin buildings on Davisville a few blocks east of Yonge Street. My boss invited me to have a cocktail with her "to discuss events" across from the old CBC Radio building on Jarvis Street at the bar in the Four Seasons Hotel.
When I showed up, the producer told me that the entire staff of 22 people who worked on the show had resigned to protest my firing and would not return to the show until I had been rehired. Judy LaMarsh had screamed at the executive producer, "If that shit Casselman ever walks back in this office, I quit!" Her bellowing was heard all the way down the hall in the offices where "As It Happens" was produced.
The next morning I returned to work and Judy LaMarsh quit, effective at the end of her contract in the middle of June. It was early May now.
That night, unbeknownst to me, a fellow worker on the show telephoned the Globe & Mail and spilled the story to the Globe's excellent television reporter Blake Kirby. The next morning I was, for the only time in my life, on the front page of the Globe and Mail under a headline like "LaMarsh Quits CBC Radio." The Liberal Toronto Star and several other papers covered the story and slanted it in favour of Liberal Judy LaMarsh. The Star reporter was not even interested in why the incident had occurred. Blake Kirby told what actually happened, including my side and that of poor Mr. Lapp.
I was summoned to the upper offices of the director of Current Affairs, or whatever they called it in those days, to be scolded furiously by a tiny little lady named Margaret Lyons. I'll have some choice stories to tell you about her---after she is dead. She took Judy LaMarsh's side totally and completely. I was told it was a producer's job to take huge doses of shit from on-air talent, including the abuse of elderly piano players. Margaret Lyons was not the least interested in my gallantry in the face of LaMarsh's persistently swinish shenanigans.
Mrs. Lyons was consequently a trifle mystified by the fact that the entire staff of the program had resigned in support of me and NOT Judy LaMarsh. Margaret Lyons could not understand why anyone might take a moral stand and support a fellow worker, when it was more than obvious that any wise CBC lifer, i.e. a hack like Margaret Lyons, would of course support the CBC and kiss corporate ass until their lips wore off. Hers did.
Through the good offices of David Acomba, a friend who was a rising television producer and director, I learned that Jack MacAndrew, head of the CBC TV Variety department was looking for a new executive producer for a noontime talk show they broadcast. They wanted to try to take the Bob McLean Show in a new direction and thought I might be just the guy to do it. Jack called me for an interview at the suggestion of David Acomba.
Jack MacAndrew seemed to think I had done precisely the correct thing with a selfish pig like Judy LaMarsh, that is, kicked her, figuratively speaking, in her fat ass. He wanted me to come on board at CBC TV immediately. I told him I had a contract with the LaMarsh show. Jack said, "What LaMarsh Show? Everybody in the business read Blake Kirby's piece and they know now what Judy LaMarsh is. Judy's next job in radio will be doing the weather in Labrador."
Back in the gloomy production offices of CBC Radio, I was again called into Margaret Lyon's offices. Her squinty little eyes glinting like cubic zirconium, the petite one informed me that my contract would be renewed for next September (the production year then ran from September to June, with the summer off when repeats were broadcast) but that they had "special plans" for me. I would never again be allowed to produce a radio show. I was going to be made "special assistant" to one of the deeply moronic CBC vice-presidents and would move to Bronson Avenue in Ottawa, well away from the centre of radio production in Toronto.
I was pleased indeed that day to be able to tell Margaret Lyons to take her plans for me and to stuff them up her tiny but no doubt exquisitely sphinctered anus.
"But, Bill, my goodness, you have a contract you must fulfill. It runs until June 30. This is only May 2!"
"I quit, Lyons. I'm NOT taking the fall for the fact that Judy LaMarsh is a selfish, bloated sow. Fuck your plans to remove me from studio work where I am exceptional. As a matter of fact, Margie-Wargie, fuck you too! Fuck CBC Radio! Fuck your contract. Don't like it? Fuckin' sue me!"
So saying, I ended an almost totally delightful 4 years at CBC Radio.
The next day I signed a contract as the executive producer of The Bob McLean Show.
At three times my CBC Radio salary.
although your resume covers primarily non-fiction tv and radio work, you did a bit of acting for Ken Finkleman's "The Newsroom" (first series). how was that experience? can you see yourself doing some more acting?
Before "The Newsroom," I wrote and performed in comic skits during my years at CBC Radio in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, I did some funny radio comedy bits with Ken Finkleman and Rick Moranis when they had a comedy show on CBC Radio. Later I also directed comedy skits and satirical items when Gary Michael Dault was producing Don Harron's glum stint as host during the interregnum at CBC Radio, between "This Country in the Morning" with Peter Gzowski and the time when Gzowski returned to triumph again on "Morningside."
Writing, directing, and acting in the comedy skits was simply the best fun a boy can have and get paid for it.
That was the good part. The bad part was having to deal with Don Harron's ego. Don begged to be hired as the host. He was even given as his radio executive producer the single most intelligent person ever hired in the history of CBC Radio, Gary Michael Dault. Within a few months Don Harron had reduced Dault to sitting in the office and pulling his hair out, follicle by follicle. Of course, I speak metaphorically. Don simply was not interested in interviewing other people. Harron's eyes glazed over whenever the topic of conversation strayed too far from Don Harron. If we had been able to contrive a program in which Don spent three hours every morning interviewing himself, we would have satisfied Don Harron completely. How entertaining this might have been for our listeners is, naturally, quite another question.
I used to sum it up to Gary this way: "Don's problem with this radio show is: 'Guests aren't me.' " Typical of Don, he blamed Dault for the faltering show, instead of Harron's own lack of interest in other people and their problems. Don was temperamentally unsuited to do public affairs interviews. Remember, this is a man so terrified of his own memories of his own life, that his daughter had to finish writing Don Harron's autobiography. True.
Don had a problem with the comedy skits I wrote and directed too. We used to open the show with a skit on Mondays. In planning the program during the previous season, before we went on the air with Harron, Don had said he most definitely did not want to act in the skits. Many times he repeated this vow. So Harron was not included at his own request. But when the skits started to get good mail and some positive newspaper reviews, at the same time that reviewers were beginning to detect Harron's massive lack of concern for other people's stories, well, guess what? Did the Harron nose get out of joint? You betcha! Harron began to campaign at story meetings to get the skits cancelled. Gary resisted at first, because we were garnering good press. But, of course, the skits were not about Harron. He was not featured on them. Even though we eventually offered to have Don star in the skits. But no, they had to go. So the satire skits were cancelled and Don's tepid, mild, non-offensive slop was allowed on in their place. Hey, the star is the star.
The skits were biting satire, tough stuff poking fun at real issues of the day. This horrified Don and his little squad of chum/advisors. Because, of course, Don's idea of satire was a Charlie Farquarson cheap pun, or rather 200 puns in a row about outhouses. Harron was always trying to censor the skits. He demanded and got editorial censorship rights. Eventually I had to submit each script to Don and his red pencil went through everything that was funny and topical and pointed.
There would be no one else being funny on a show hosted by Don Harron.
Like all really egotistical performers, Don did not have a generous soul that I ever saw in one full year of working closely with him. But of course like many showbiz types, he was in favour of public acts of clearly identifiable charity. It was good for his image and business and his eventual Order of Canada medal. I always thought that in Don's case, it should have been the Ordure of Canada medal.
So Don liked to appear on telethons for kiddies with no legs, as long as he was featured up front on the telethon.
My line about Harron: "Don wears his telethon on his sleeve."
Later in the season, Harron proceeded to get Gary Michael Dault fired as executive producer of his show. The failure of that show was 100% the fault of Don Harron's ego. Period. I have the testimony of friends who worked for Harron and they know what happened. For firing Gary Michael Dault, I will never forgive Harron. You fuck with my friends, you get the shit pie square in the kisser.
The "acting" I did on "The Newsroom" was minimal. I enjoyed watching my friend Ken Finkleman work. But my presence was not acting. It was a bit appearance only. Fun, but merely a break from the two books I was writing when the first series was produced.
I have written elsewhere of my respect for Ken Finkleman's talent and drive. It still stands. Finkleman is real talent, not mindless, dick-wagging swagger like Don Harron.
Ken Finkleman is multi-talented, hard-working, and has a brain so sharp it could picnic on a razor blade.
there's always ongoing debate about the function and future of the cbc. what's your perspective?
The CBC is being starved to death. In my opinion, this death-by-slow-cuts is a deliberate long-term ploy of the Liberal Party, possibly begun by that childishly vindictive nincompoop, Jean Chretien or Frog One as I call him. I use the disparagement "Frog" only in reference to this slobbering, gate-mouthed Quebec fool who, over the years, has done so much to destroy the CBC and sully Canadian artists' attempt to create a distinctive culture.
Under the Frog-watch, the CRTC toadies have sat idly by and permitted 47% of our airwaves to be owned by foreigners.
Canadian drama has virtually disappeared from our tv screens, while CTV and Global pepper the night with cheap U.S. content. At the same time Global and the CTV crew have the nerve to whine that they are "whipping boys." No, you are smash-and-grab men who make obscene profits and give back nothing to Canadian culture. That's who you are.
If ever we rid ourselves of the ass-kissing Liberals or the creepy capitalist-sucking Reform-Alliance-Conservatives, we should disband the CRTC and set up stringent, punitive new rules that force these giant media conglomerates to support Canadian culture. The CBC does so on the public tit. CTV and Global should be forced by law to return some of their boodle to viewers in the form of Canadian programs, other than timid cop shows and their usual low-budget Canuck-trash shows.
U.S. culture is drowning us. Canadian artists of all kinds need long-term stable funding. Subsidies! The dread word.
But if you are like the average Canuck melonhead and give not a tinker's fart whether Canadian books or stories are ever told or heard or seen on screen, then you shall reap precisely what you deserve: eternal re-runs of "I Love Lucy."
A wise man once uttered the most frightening sentence about American television ever spoken when he said, "Everything that has been on television will always be on television." When this was said in the 1980s, many laughed. Now we have these boutique cable channels and they re-run ten year old ordinary hockey games and the morons stay glued to the glass tit, eyes like peach-pits as they slug back the suds. Ah, evolution!
Yes. Canada needs the CBC more than ever, whatever its current minor faults.
you've cornered the market on books about language in canada - any ambition to finish off one of those novels in your drawer?
Yes, I'm working on a novel and a collection of short funny pieces hopefully to be published in 2005.