Three cheers today for a very important figure in modern comedy history, the great Joe Flaherty (b. 1941). Among his SCTV cohorts (John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas), Flaherty has enjoyed perhaps the least spectacular subsequent career and degree of fame, which is ironic, because in many ways, he was the most important guy on the show. He was the elder statesman, not just because he was a little older, but also because he had literally discovered several of the others at Second City Toronto in the early to mid ’70s. By the same token, it suprises no one, I’m sure, among his friends and fans, that he didn’t go on to become a major film, TV or stage star, because he’s a humble, workaday kind of guy, not one of those grasping, striving ambitious Hollywood types. He loves making people laugh and is thrilled to be able to do it as a job and asks no more than that.
The son of an Irish father and an Italian mother, Flaherty grew up in Pittsburgh, where his father worked at the Westinghouse plant. He did four years in the U.S. Air Force, then worked for a while as a draftsman. He took some drama classes in New York before getting hired by the original Second City troupe in Chicago as a stage manager. While there, he took classes, and eventually got to perform in sketches on the mainstage. After seven years in Chicago he was assigned to help set-up the new branch in Toronto, which is where he hired Candy, O’Hara, Martin, and Levy as well as Dan Aykroyd, Valri Bromfield (then Aykroyd’s comedy partner), Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis and others. Work there for years led to the famous TV iteration that started out in Canada and then made its way to NBC.
One of the interesting things about Flaherty on SCTV is that, unlike most of his cohorts, he didn’t really excel at impressions. His strength was comic acting. Most of his characters were original creations with a strong element of his own personality. And these were hugely memorable, some of the best characters on the show: the shifty station manager Guy Caballero who pretended to need a wheelchair, the phony talk show host Sammy Maudlin, and the alcoholic news anchor Floyd Robertson who doubled as the horror host Count Floyd. When he was called on to do an impression (two examples that spring to mind are times when he did Kirk Douglas and Gavin MacLeod), he didn’t try to nail the impersonation but instead made a bold comic choice and focused on an action — a very strong lesson for professional actors.
In movies, unlike nearly all of his cohorts, Flaherty was mostly a bit player, albeit a valued one. You can see him 1941 (1979), Used Cars (1980), Stripes (1981), Heavy Metal (1981), Going Berzerk (1983), Johnny Dangerously (1984), Club Paradise (1986), Innerspace (1987), Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989), Back to the Future Part II (1989), Stuart Saves His Family (1994), and Happy Gilmore (1996), among other things. His best post-SCTV job was his role as the dad on the seminal Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000). He was the voice of Jeb the Goat in the animated film Home on the Range (2004) and has done voices on Family Guy and American Dad. I highly recommend this interview with John Candy’s daughter Jen, in which Flaherty talks in great detail about those early Second City years. You will learn much of value.
For more on the history of variety entertainment, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.