FUBAR’s Terry Cahill. Photo: Ramsay Kunkel.

Still given’r: Reflecting on FUBAR almost 20 years later

What does the cult classic tell us about our time?

Culture

In 2005, I was renting a bungalow in West Hillhurst with four roommates. My monthly share of the rent and utilities, if I remember correctly, was $180. All but one of us were graduate students in the English department at the University of Calgary, so pretty quickly our house became the central hangout for everyone in our program.

We didn’t have parties every weekend, just most of them. They spilled out onto the stoop and the front lawn, which we preferred to the backyard for some reason. We’d carouse late, and our neighbours complained, and the cops came a couple of times. But the only person I felt bad for was Robyn, our one roommate who wasn’t an English student. She was studying engineering and went to bed at nine every night, or tried to.

Another house activity was movie night, fuelled by constant visits to the Blockbuster on 14th St. and 5th Ave. One evening my roommate Andre brought back a pile of DVDs, on the bottom of which was FUBAR. I hadn’t heard of it, but Andre, a long-time Calgarian, knew it well. He just chuckled and said something about “given’r.” So, we assembled on our ramshackle living room furniture, with the stained carpet in the middle, to watch.

Filmed in Calgary, FUBAR is a mockumentary. Fictional student filmmaker Farrel is making a documentary about the “headbanger” subculture, and has chosen our protagonists, Terry and Dean (played by Calgary actors David Lawrence and Paul Spence) as his subjects. With their long hair, leather jackets and rock tees, the duo are revenants from the 1980s.

In an early scene, Terry and Dean shotgun cans of their beloved Pilsner beer, sitting on the stoop of their rented house. It’s one of those 1940s bungalows with bottle-dash stucco you see everywhere in Calgary. The white paint on the wooden door frame is peeling. This could have been our stoop, our house.

The power of the FUBAR franchise lies in its exaggerated but honest depiction of working-class life.

The pleasure of recognition that was watching FUBAR went beyond just seeing a house like ours, the Calgary skyline, or our C-Train station on screen. In one sequence, the boys head to High River, and the actors, still in character, interact with real people. Dean talks to a man (I believe his name is Willy Martin, according to the credits) who is coming back from his job at the meat-processing plant—and this man looks and talks exactly like Dean.

The power of the FUBAR franchise lies in its exaggerated but honest depiction of working-class life. As a bunch of grad students living in a cheap house, we recognized our lifestyle in the FUBAR boys, while also believing, deep down, that this was temporary for us.

In truth, we were more like the art student Farrel than Terry and Dean, and we assumed that we were on our way to a safe, middle-class life. However, FUBAR and its sequels were more prescient of what our lives would become than we knew at the time.

Calgary's own hosers

While the director of the FUBAR series, Michael Dowse, is from London, Ont., David Lawrence and Paul Spence were childhood friends in Calgary and trained at the Loose Moose improv theatre.

In a recent interview, Lawrence (who still lives in Calgary) explained FUBAR as a Calgarian version of the classic Canadian hoser comedy: “I’m not the first one to invent [it]... Bob and Doug, Wayne’s World, Trailer Park Boys... This is Calgary’s own version of that.” Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) first coined the term “hoser” on the legendary Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV in 1980. Hosers are beer-drinking and uncultured Canadians, and importantly, working-class. Perhaps the first hoser duo in Canadian culture are Pete and Joey, protagonists of the 1970 film Goin’ Down the Road, who leave Cape Breton to look for work in Toronto.

While the hoser persona is informed by working-class experiences, it’s also the product of actors, writers and directors. Working-class characters can’t help but be projections, partly, of their middle-class creators, embodying a more authentic lifestyle than the middle class believe they themselves enjoy. Indeed, that’s part of FUBAR’s appeal, but the film is aware of this class dynamic. That’s why Farrel is there to be laughed at, the clueless middle-class filmmaker who is fascinated by the vibrant FUBAR boys.

In FUBAR, Terry and Dean struggle to find their place in the world. Dean plays bass in a metal band but makes no money at it, while he has a child to support. Terry works as a delivery man for a furniture store, but lies in his interview with Farrel, telling us, the viewer, that he is a carpenter who makes the tables himself. Clearly, he yearns for a more meaningful profession. A third friend, Tron (played by Calgary actor Andrew Sparacino), has settled down with his girlfriend and owns a welding business, although in turn he has largely abandoned his friends.

Partly as a way to cope with these various disappointments—and just because it’s fun—Terry and Dean spend their time given’r. “You just go out and give’r,” Dean says. “You work hard.” But given’r isn’t just about work; it’s an expression of pure vitality.

Trouble arises on several fronts. Dean gets testicular cancer, the basis for many jokes of course. He’s unable to come to terms with this unpleasant reality and avoids medical treatment. Farrel dies when he dives into a river, trying to keep up with the intrepid Terry and Dean. But the two friends face tough times together.

FUBAR’s is a kind of existentialist message: To fully give’r, one must appreciate the limits of given’r. These young men must realize the precariousness of their lives to also know their preciousness—and their lives are all the more precarious because they are poor. Also, you can’t help but think Thank goodness for socialized medicine, as there’s no way Dean could have paid for cancer treatment on his own.

Given’r isn’t just about work; it’s an expression of pure vitality.

FUBAR’s cult status simmered for several years, and this growing prestige helped secure the production team a tidy $4 million budget for the 2010 sequel, FUBAR 2: Balls to the Wall. This film drops the mockumentary premise and is more properly a comedy film.

Money is a prevalent theme in the sequel, which opens with the boys’ final party at the house from which they are being evicted. Their buddy Tron shows up with a huge beard and a monstrous pickup. He now works in the oil patch in Fort McMurray (“We’re fuckin’ hard in the Mac!”) and promises his old friends well-paid gigs if they join him. After Dean burns the house down while on a bad acid trip, Terry and Dean have no other option but to drive up to Fort McMurray, the trunk of their car loaded with Pilsner.

'Bring it down more!'

You could say that no place is given’r more than the booming oil sands, but this uncontrolled exuberance comes at a cost. We see the Fort Mac skyline glowing at night, the smokestacks belching, a striking vision rarely depicted on screen. Epic shopping trips to West Edmonton Mall and dangerous snowmobile play can’t make up for the difficulty of the job. Tron suffers from addiction, and Dean gets depressed.

Meanwhile, there’s no safety in this volatile economy. Terry moves in with a waitress named Trish (played by the terrific Terra Hazelton) and they’re barely able to pay the bills on their house and truck. Filling up at the gas station, Terry watches a man lowering the price of gas on the overhead display, and smiles, “Right on. Bring it down more!” In the next scene, his foreman lays Terry and all his coworkers off.

Economic problems threaten lives and relationships, but again, the FUBAR friends come together. Dean snaps out of his depression when he sings a karaoke rendition of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” at Terry’s Christmas party, a truly transcendent experience for both him and the audience. Trish is pregnant, but it turns out that Dean, not Terry, is the father. This complication is the foundation of a FUBAR kind of family, which in a cruel world lends life meaning.

In 2017, FUBAR returned, this time to television, in the eight-part Viceland series, FUBAR: Age of Computer. The show begins with Terry and Dean fleeing the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires (which they actually started, by accident). The two escape back to Calgary where they live in the bunker-style basement of Dean’s conspiracy theory-obsessed cousin, Shank, played by the very funny North Darling.

FUBAR, which began as a comically nostalgic look at headbanger culture,” was a premonition of our future in the working class.

Here, the Fort Mac disaster stands in for the decline of the oil industry overall, and now the FUBAR boys have to resort to the online economy to scrape out a living. From the computer in Shank’s basement, Terry starts a drone weed-delivery service. Then he develops Beerbot, a shoddy Pilsner-opening contraption that actually nets him a few thousand dollars, before he gets scammed by a business partner. Dean’s attempts to make his concept metal album are frustrated by the weirdness of social media marketing.

It turns out that online commerce and self-promotion are even more unreliable employment than the oil industry, and it’s paid much worse. Anyone trying to make a few bucks in the “creator economy” can attest to this, including the actors of FUBAR. It’s been a delight, however, seeing David Lawrence’s social media presence in character as Terry in recent years.

For almost two decades FUBAR has been exploring the struggles of working people in Alberta, and it hasn’t been afraid to mine the darker elements for laughs. I watched FUBAR when I was a low-income grad student living with roommates, but some of us from that house and that grad program are still living the same way today. Some are better off, but some are worse. Stable and livable salaries in the middle-class professions that we trained for have become ever rarer, even for Robyn, my engineer roommate.

It turns out that FUBAR, which began as a comically nostalgic look at “headbanger culture,” was a premonition of our future in the working class.

Aaron Giovannone is a writer and professor based in Calgary. He hosts Sweater Weather, a video and audio podcast about Canadian arts and culture.

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