Back with the Air Farce: Jessica Holmes is motivated to make comedy

A scene featuring the cast of the Air Farce New Year's Eve show.

Jessica Holmes joined the cast of the Royal Canadian Air Farce after applying to be the company secretary.

“I didn’t get that job, so when they called me in for a guest role, I thought that was incredible.

“Our personalities fit together like a warm glove. I just felt at home right away and I continue to feel at home. Don (Ferguson) and Roger (Abbott) were mentors but I never had a sense that we were in different generations. We had so many common values it was so comfortable to be around them.”

That offer came at a good time for her some 15 years ago. Her TV venture, The Holmes Show, had ended and she was doing a lot of stand-up and a bit of temping, the Ottawa native said. “I was pretty relieved when some acting work came calling.

“To have to call the agency and say ‘I can’t temp this week because I’m gonna do a TV show’ was kind of surreal.

“They went ,’Great now we have to find a replacement’.”

Jessica Holmes

The Farce itself is actually the same age as Holmes. Both are 45.

“It was in the stars.”

The Royal Canadian Air Farce is celebrating 45 years this year with it’s regular New Year’s Eve special on CBC-TV and Holmes will be on the show with the remaining original cast members Don Ferguson and Luba Goy along with Craig LauzonDarryl HindsChris Wilson and Isabel Kanaan. There will be some specials guests too including the legendary stoner comic Tommy Chong, actor Lauren Lee Smith and hockey star Natalie Spooner, who was the first woman in hockey history to win Olympic gold and the Clarkson Cup in the same year.

Holmes credits the longevity of the Farce to some common human values.

“They have a loyalty to their staff that I hadn’t seen in TV up to that point. That was to people behind the camera and in front of the camera, it didn’t matter. It gave me a safe and comfortable feeling.”

That respect wasn’t always very evident in the comedy industry, she said.

“You would leave in the room and you’d know you were the brunt of jokes even at amateur nights. The worst one I ever went to was when the host was throwing rubber chickens at anyone who didn’t get big laughs. I was used to comedy going hand in hand with humiliation and I came to a show where people were raising each other up and wanting each other to do well. If you did fail a bit people didn’t make fun of you it was ‘How can I make you feel your best’.”

Holmes’ journey in comedy began after she left the Mormon church.

“I had been a Mormon missionary before I got involved in comedy. I was in Venezuela for 18 months on a mission and when I came back, I left the church and discovered comedy. Within a few years I was on Air Farce.”

Her chutzpah was evident in that mission.

“None of us knew Spanish when we went to Venezuela. We went to Utah and got five weeks of Spanish and that was it. Within six months I was fluent. I’m still friends with people down there.”

She left the Mormon church within a year of coming home. She says she still respects the church and has strong friendships, but “for me, I got into the acting community. I aligned more with the theatre world and decided it was best to part ways with the church.” (Editors note: She skipped seeing The Book of Mormon because was “I nervous that some lightning would come through the window and get me.”)

This year’s Air Farce special is different from previous ones in that a lot of the cast, including Holmes for the first time, did some writing.

“I feel like they are keeping up with the times. They made a special point to be inclusive in terms of gender and visible minorities. It’s also a more eclectic show this year. To me that means more surprises and more laughs.”

The cast of the New Year’s Eve special all follow their own careers in the rest of the year but in November they get together to start working on the show.

“I feel like this episode is showing the next iteration of Air Farce,” she said.

Writer-producers Wayne Testori and Kevin Wallis ran the production meetings this year.

“They are young and energetic.” she said. “There were no arguments and there was an incredible sense of teamwork but they were absolutely making sure the younger cast members were writing sketches.

“I felt something was brewing when they brought Tommy Chong in. They wanted to do something about cannabis being legalized and I thought it was so cool that they thought big.

“He was so good and so funny, the producers just let him ad lib because he knows drug comedy. It was a great experience with a lot of improv. Usually we don’t improvise on the show.”

These days Holmes does a lot of what she called motivational comedy.

“I go into companies and give a talk that helps employees understand mental health a little.”

The goal is to help create awareness and some understanding about mental health issues, and to also offer some hope.

“I think it is nice for people to know you can come out the other end of a depression and be happy again. I went through a depression and came out of it about four years ago. and when I came out of it. I took awhile to reacquaint myself with happiness and then decided to write the book called Depression The Comedy: A Tale of Perseverance (Sunnybrook Press).”

It was published last May.

She says she wrote the book to provide some validation for other people.

“It was also fun to write about comedy. I have been in the career for almost 25 years now and it was fun to do chapters just based on comedy and explains what the life is like and the ups and downs of it.”

In Canada, you can have five different careers in the performing arts and still not have a full time job, Holmes said.

“I still do some TV work. I was in a pilot last summer. My main joy though is doing motivational comedy.”

She is married to actor Scott Yaphe and has two children aged 10 and 11. The stability of doing motivational comedy suits very well at this time in her life.

She still does some stand-up. For example, she’ll be at two festivals in February, in Burlington and Port Credit.

“I do that to push myself. I feel I can get a little cozy sometimes and I told my agent I wanted to be scared. So he’s sending me out on the road.”

In her stand-up act she jokes about home office life, motherhood, travel and “how with kids you have to live by the comedy golden rule which is ‘Embarrassment plus time equals comedy’.

“If I could snap my fingers and write faster I would but there are so many distractions now it’s hard to get the time to sit and write. Largely I do it on airplanes.”

These days the comedy world, like many the political world, has a hard edge.

“I understood why there was an uproar over Kevin Hart and the Oscars, but I have also seen that we are at a time now in comedy when people are having their work examined under a microscope. I agree with that, but, even in the case of this interview I’m editing as I go.”

The idea that a comic can speak without thinking may be over, she said.

“As artists, we are sociologists allowed to say the emperor has no clothes. The thought of editing anything a comedian says is a bit dangerous for me. That is a type of censorship that can lead to more trouble.”

She is often back in Ottawa visiting family, she says.

“I grew up on Fifth Avenue. It’s refreshing to go to Ottawa be stuck in traffic for five minutes and have people start complaining about it. It’s a treat.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.