For Canada Day: On SCTV: Canada’s Greatest Export

It’s Canada Day today and well past time I should talk about my favorite comedy show of all time, SCTV. I’ve referred to it three dozen times so far on Travalanche, and written about several of its stars, but a post about the entire series has fallen through the cracks, since I normally tie posts to significant dates. But, honestly, there is no better time than Canada Day to celebrate this show, one of the few Canadian TV shows to move the needle in the U.S. Naturally I’ll concern myself primarily with the American years (1981-84). I’ve seen very little of the earlier stuff.

The show was a product of the improv company Second City Toronto, whose alum Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner had earlier made a hit on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. SCTV stands for “Second City Television”. Its organizational frame was a fictional television network, with all of the sketches of two types: a) the programming on the network, all parodies of TV programs, commercials, PSAs and Hollywood movies; and b) the behind-the-scenes at the station itself (though it was a network it seemed to operate out of a single, rather modest television station).

The principal regular characters were: villainous network president Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty), always attired in a white suit and a Panama hat and seated in a wheelchair despite the fact that he could actually walk; tacky, crass station manager Edith Prickly (Andrea Martin); vainglorious, demanding network star Johnny LaRue (John Candy); Floyd Robertson (Flaherty), the alcoholic news anchor who doubled as the horror host Count Floyd; Earl Camembert (Eugene Levy), Floyd’s jealous, ne’er-do-well co-anchor; phony talk show host Sammy Maudlin (Flaherty) and his sycophantic sidekick Willie B. (Candy); hack comedian Bobby Bitman (Levy); beer-drinking rural Canadians Bob and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis), stars of the The Great White North; slutty singer Lola Heatherton (Catherine O’Hara); Gerry Todd (Moranis), a slick-talking v.j.; a mean critic named Bill Needle (Thomas); the polka playing Shmenge Brothers (Candy and Levy), and Dusty Towne, a hokey country star (O’Hara). Later Martin Short would rejoin his old Second City friends, and play his recurring characters Ed Grimley and Jackie Rogers Jr, a sort of mash-up of Vegas performers Jack Jones and Sammy Davis Jr. (Harold Ramis had also been a cast member prior to his success as a screenwriter. He left the show in 1979)

If this all wasn’t hilarious enough (and it was plenty hilarious), most of them excelled at impressions, or at least pulled them off well enough to devise hallucinatory vehicles for them to star in. Dave Thomas was the only person I’ve ever seen who nailed (or even attempted) to do Bob Hope. John Candy played every large or overweight star in every sketch, ranging from Orson Welles to Merlin Olsen. Catherine O’Hara usually played the sex symbols; Andrea Martin played the crazies and crones. Eugene Levy specialized in grotesques.

Above all, I loved the formal discipline of what they did. SCTV came to American television at the most advantageous time. Not only had SNL’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players disbanded, leaving a very mediocre show in its wake, but ABC’s short-lived Fridays was also on the wane by the time SCTV came to NBC in 1981. SCTV had a far stronger cast than either of those shows. It seemed like they could so ANYTHING. They could play ANYONE. Their satire was so much sharper. Their craziness was so much more extravagant. One thing I loved about them was that they had a recognizable house style. Their characters were all in the same world, they interacted with many of the same funny faces and moves. And they were all willing to go very low-brow in the service of a product that was quite sophisticated. They crossed their eyes. They took pratfalls. I might not have been so enthusiastic if they were JUST doing that stuff, but is was the CONTEXT in which they did it that enabled it. They did things like a parody of that cheesy 1966 movie The Oscar. They parodied local used car commercials. They booked musical acts like The Plasmatics and incorporated it into the show.

Naturally even at the height of their success they were at best a cult favorite — far too hip for the masses, apparently. NBC cancelled it in 1983. SCTV had one more season on Cinemax, and then: the diaspora. Each cast member went on to great projects in film, television, and/or live performance. Knowing all of the later work, I love knowing that they were once all on the same show, at the same time. They were a SUPER-GROUP of comedy.

For more on the history of variety entertainment, including TV variety please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.