Wayne and Shuster: Canadian Comedy’s Missing Links

Wayne and Shuster took Ed Sullivan prisoner — apparently offscreen as well as on

Johnny Wayne was born today — not the Duke, whose birthday was a couple of days ago, but the Canadian comedian (1918-1990) whose real name was Louis Weingarten. For over half a century he was part of Canada’s most successful comedy team, along with his partner Frank Shuster (1916-2002).

I first learned about the team because Frank’s daughter Rosie Shuster was one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live and was married to Lorne Michaels for a decade. She wrote many of the classic sketches starring Gilda Radner and was Dan Akroyd’s girlfriend while she still technically married to Michaels. (The Shusters were also cousins of Joe Shuster, co-creator of Superman).

Now, I wouldn’t blame you for finding Rosie far more interesting than her dad, and well, that’s kind of key to this narrative. Nowadays we are accustomed (at least I am) to the idea that Canada produces some of the funniest, most skilled comedians in the world. It’s like some kind of pipeline that fuels American entertainment now. The source of course is Second City Toronto, but none of that really starting breaking until SNL hit in 1975.

Prior to that, Canadian comedy, as far as anyone was concerned was Wayne and Shuster. And that was said, um, with a certain amount of condescension? The nearest American comedians I would compare them to would be Bob and Ray, who are their almost exact contemporaries, and like them, started out in radio, as opposed to being a hit in live theatre or clubs first, as many do. But, being Canadians and all, Wayne and Shuster lack the acerbic, truly satiric edge of Bob and Ray. They were Canadians — a couple of fellows here to provide you with a polite chuckle! That said they were quite good actors in comedy sketches, with surprisingly wide range, and a mix of middle-brow erudition and Borscht Belt sensibility that reminds me a bit of Mad Magazine.

Unlike Bob and Ray, Wayne and Shuster moved beyond radio and conquered television. (Bob and Ray dabbled in tv but never took off there). By contrast, Wayne and Shuster became staples of the CBC starting in the mid 50s and remained such until Wayne’s death (and even afterward, as Shuster presented repackaged versions of their old shows).

They also made appearances on American TV. Ed Sullivan had a well-known weakness for them and booked them for his show no less than 67 times, more than any other act. Since their sketches often ran well over 12 minutes (that is a LOT of television time, particularly on a variety show), many people wondered what the appeal was. Their comedy seemed sort of second-rate, warmed over. Their best known sketch was a Shakespeare-Roman epic-Mickey Spillane mash-up called “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga”. I’ve watched it on Youtube, and it really looks to me like the sort of thing Bob Hope pulled out of his butt for his tv specials year after year. I enjoy it, but as your “A” game, I think a pretty common verdict would be “not quite up to the level of New York.”

The picture at the top of the post illustrates the understandable conundrum Wayne and Shuster no doubt faced in their day. “A Canadian Comedian? What’s that all about? Well, I guess we should do a MOUNTIE routine!” Today, Canadian comedians are second to none in the world and need have no inferiority complex. But Wayne and Shuster, the guys who paved the way for them, deserve a shout-out.