White-haired white man in black shirt
"Best of all, I have love. And that's what Jesus brought into the world. You can't beat it" (Photo by Hugh Wesley)

Topics: Society | Interview

Comedy and religion go together for Don Harron and his alter-ego

He says he's not an atheist and is still searching to understand how religion fits into his life. But his character Charlie Farquharson has written a book about the Old Testament


Don Harron is an author, humorist, United Church member and a member of the Order of Canada. Charlie Farquharson, his alter ego, is a farmer from Parry Sound, Ont. Charlie’s latest book will be released in October. Don (and Charlie) spoke to Ken Gallinger in Toronto.

KEN GALLINGER: You’ve said that for your whole life you’ve had an ambivalent attitude toward religion. Can you talk about that?

DON HARRON: I was baptized in the Methodist Church in 1924; after church union in 1925, Bathurst Street United was my church. It is now a dramatic academy, and I went there to see a performance of my adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. It was wonderful. But I’m not quite a believer. I’m certainly not an atheist, but I’m still searching around.

KG: Who was your greatest religious influence?

DH: My great mentor was Northrop Frye. I did his Old Testament course, and it was fascinating. Frye gave me the joke I use to end Charlie’s Old Testament. He told me the prophets all say the same thing: they get up on a high place, look down on the people and say, “Yer doin’ it wrong.” But Frye himself said, “We’re not sure Jesus even existed. If he did, he was a communist. We’re not sure he was the Son of God.” But it doesn’t diminish his importance as a political force today. What Jesus stands for is something that groups like the Tea Party don’t seem to realize.

KG: You’re 86. What are some of the religious questions important to you today?

DH: Is there anything after you clock out? I can’t really bring myself to believe that there’s an afterlife. But I glom onto thinkers and talkers about Christianity. And I worry about the Muslim faith — all these jihads and fatwas. It doesn’t seem to me that was Muhammad’s idea. They’ve corrupted it, just as the church was corrupted during the Inquisition.

KG: You had Charlie write a version of the Old Testament called Olde Charlie Farquharson’s Testament. Why did you do that?

DH: I wanted to make the Old Testament available to people in simple terms. It’s a great storybook. I took that course from Norrie Frye, and I just got so excited about it. I once went to Jamaica and laid on the beach, and I didn’t use any sunblock. I got burned so bad I couldn’t go back on the beach. But there was a Gideon Bible in the room, and I kept reading it and thinking, “Ah, how would Charlie say this?”

KG: But Charlie, the Bible’s not meant to be laughed at. The Bible’s sacred, man.

DH [as Charlie]: My boy Orville, he loves yer rotten roll music, and he don’t go to church. We can’t git ‘im there. He’s got his computer, and him and his girlfriend, they jus’ sit an’ have text with each other all day. But I want him to know about these durn good Bible stories.

KG: Don, did anyone ever say it was wrong to treat the Bible that way?

DH: Oh, yeah. I remember a woman telling me I was in danger of hellfire. I said, “I’m just trying to make it easier for young people to read.” And it’s been a huge seller. I remember people lining up around the block to get it. And it’s just been re-released, for the second time, in paperback.

KG: I want to ask about the way you use humour. Are there things Charlie can get away with saying that Don can’t?

DH: Oh yeah. When I was on CBC’s Morningside, I would occasionally do a couple of jokes that Charlie had done. I would get hate letters! Charlie never got a hate letter in his life. But the mask had fallen, and I needed that mask. The mask liberates you.

KG: Charlie, what’s your favourite kind of humour?

DH [as Charlie]: Makin’ fun o’ the guvernmint. I wunce did a gig for Pee-air True-doh! I said, “The wife and former sweetheart, she was one of them Trudio-maniacs. Ya came to yer Parry Sound with yer ass-caught around yer neck, and yer bear feet and yer scandals, ye took all that off and did a backflip into the pool, and all the wimmen in Parry Sound did a back flip for you at the ballot box. But she’s not gonna vote fur ya this time. When ya said ya was gonna give dem homeo-sexuals free abortions, that was goin’ too far.” [As Don] Trudeau almost fell off his chair. See, I couldn’t have done that without the mask. Charlie doesn’t threaten anybody. He’s a farmer.

KG: I want to ask you about your advocacy for seniors. Why is that important to you?

DH: It started when Whipper Billy Watson, the wrestler, let me beat him in an arm-wrestling competition in Parry Sound. It was for Easter Seals. He let me win, and I said that anyone as corrupt as that was my kind of people. So I’ve been working for the disabled ever since then, and that’s 35 years. I’ve been involved in Special Olympics, done a production of Anne of Disabled, all kinds of stuff. So my interest in seniors grows from that.

KG: What’s the main problem with growing old?

DH: Robertson Davies, when he had just turned 80, told me the greatest problem was “frequent urination and an inability to remember names.” A month later, I had lunch in Nashville with Roy Acuff, the king of country music, and asked what he did to celebrate his 85th. He said, “Sat on the toilet and tried to remember names.”

KG: Charlie, you’re getting older, too. What are some of your complaints?

DH [as Charlie]: I can’t retire. I can’t afford to. My boy Orville doesn’t want to be a farmer; he wants to play with the sock market, and he’s doin’ gud at it. But there’s nuthin’ real about it; it’s nuthin’ but paper — not cattle or pigs or nuthin’ like that. I hired a firm of chartable accountants, Toilet and Douche, and they told me to put my money into Continental Can, Intercontinental Water and Consuming Gas. I did alright, cuz they said to sit tight on my can, let go my water and hold on to the gas. But fergit yer freedom 55. I’m holdin’ fer freedom 85.

KG: Does Charlie even have a pension to live on?

DH: No. Just a government pension, and that’s nothing. Charlie’s a farmer, and that’s an honour without profit in our own country. No one cares about them. Smartest farmer ever was, was Noah — went out of farming to run a couples-only tour boat. Only farmer could float a loan while the rest of the world was on liquidation.

KG: Don, what’s on your bucket list? What’s left to do?

DH: Watch my grandchildren grow up. Have my lady, who’s the greatest cook in the world. Pet the cat. Swim to keep my health up. Watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

KG: Would you call yourself a happy guy these days?

DH: Yeah. Charlie’s neuralgic — always thinking about the past. But me, I’m really happy. I was a workaholic for 40 years — but now other things interest me. I’ve done all the cruises, visited foreign countries. All of that. But not anymore. I have a quiet life. And I love it. Best of all, I have love. And that’s what Jesus brought to the world. Love. You can’t beat it.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s July/August 2010 issue with the title “‘Charlie’s neuralgic — always thinking about the past. but me, I’m happy.’”


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