As a proud, maple-syrup-swilling, Anne Murray-album-owning Canuck who loves being “oot and aboot” in our hockey-mad frozen tundra (please imagine the preceding sentence being read by the dulcet tones of Gordon Pinsent or William Shatner), I’m naturally fascinated by the evolution of Canadian stereotypes.
And I’m especially intrigued by the strange yet undeniable spot that the suffix “eh” has in our Canadian lexicon. I’ll admit that it occasionally slips into my own casual conversation, typically as the linguistic pillow that softens a sentence or command that I might find too serious, even to the point of being harsh, as it escapes my mouth. (“Wow, that truck sure dumped a lot of lobster on the highway, eh?” “Man, that was weird when Justin Bieber said he roots for a whole bunch of hockey teams at once, eh”?)
I’m most astounded, however, to learn that “Take off, eh?” – the catch-phrase that arguably cemented “eh” as a permanent part of Canadiana – and the clueless comedic duo that rode those two and a half words to the heights of pop-culture stardom came about purely by accident in the early ’80s.
See, by the time I first heard “Take off, eh?” – as uttered by teenage participants in a “Hoser Contest” held by the Halifax edition of CBC’s Switchback (see my previous blog post) – I had no idea that “hoser culture,” with its toques (not hats), back bacon, stubby beer bottles and general belligerence, had already taken root in Canada over the previous two years. And I wouldn’t find out until many years later that the characters behind hoser-mania, Bob and Doug McKenzie, were actually a passive-aggressive response to Canadian content regulations imposed on the legendary sketch comedy series SCTV.
Doug McKenzie’s alter-ego, Dave Thomas, has arguably the best recounting of the McKenzies’ creation in his excellent 1996 book SCTV: Behind The Scenes. The show’s first two seasons aired in Canada on private stations run by Global, as well as scattered American syndication markets. When SCTV landed on CBC for its third season, the public broadcaster allowed the show to add two additional minutes to its airtime due to the smaller number of commercials inserted in the Canadian broadcasts as opposed to the U.S. showings. However, according to Thomas, CBC mucky-mucks insisted that these two minutes contain “distinctive Canadian programming.”
Which led to the fateful day that SCTV producer Andrew Alexander delivered the CBC demand to what Thomas describes as the “very mean men and women” in the show’s writing room, including his soon-to-be-McKenzie-brother Rick Moranis:
“When Andrew came in with his mandate, Rick and I railed at him: ‘What do you want us to do? Throw up a map of Canada and sit there wearing toques and parkas?’ Andrew sat back, smiled, and said: ‘Yeah, and if you could have a Mountie in it that would be great too.’ Not long after, we were on the set in front of a Canadian map, wearing toques and parkas, frying up back bacon, with a Mountie mug sitting in front of us, and we improvised these two-minute Bob and Doug sketches.”
Although Moranis suggests that “maybe six” of the fifteen hastily-produced Great White North sketches actually made it to SCTV’s final edits (with the pair “cracking up and falling apart” in three more), he and Thomas wound up launching a cultural phenomenon. Originally designed as a somewhat juvenile nose-thumbing to the CBC suits, the McKenzie Brothers wound up in the show’s NBC broadcasts when SCTV cast member Joe Flaherty inexplicably bolted to Italy late in the third-season production cycle, leaving several holes to fill in the show’s American editions. (To his credit, Flaherty recalls in SCTV: Behind The Scenes that he tried to make amends for this unforeseen departure by filming 45 minutes’ worth of SCTV material – entirely improvised, while playing at least three different characters – when he got back to Canada.)
With the Great White North segments inserted into the American broadcasts as filler, suddenly audiences on both sides of the 49th parallel were tapping into the hoser vibe. Thomas credits the McKenzies’ success to the simple concept that “it is an American tradition to celebrate morons, and Rick and I stumbled into this realization.” Since Bob and Doug were rarely seen without a beer in hand, I suspect they also caught a rebellious-youth audience, in much the same way that Cheech and Chong attracted much of their fan base by virtue of the fact that nobody else in post-1969 pop culture was regularly seen smoking pot.
I’ll admit that, as a non-drinker, I didn’t latch on to the McKenzies through my adolescence and young adulthood because I didn’t like the idea of mining comedy out of two dopey drunks spouting off mildly-inebriated nonsense. (I was also way too young to really get into the adult satire of SCTV during its original run, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post.)
I was somewhat heartened to discover, years later, that Thomas was actually concerned about this aspect of the Bob and Doug phenomenon. While alcohol was definitely present in the recording studio during the largely-improvised development of the McKenzies’ 1981 Great White North album, Thomas chafed at publicity events where Bob and Doug were booked to serve as glorified DJs to “drunks, jocks, and heavy-metal rockers” at clubs in Long Island and California: “They didn’t care what we said. They just wanted us to chug a beer. I wasn’t even a heavy beer drinker.” I’ve played to enough drunken pub crowds during my years as a performing musician to know Thomas’ frustration, which grew to outright horror when the McKenzie Brothers’ label, Anthem Records, got the bright idea to host a “hoser parade” and record-signing in Scarborough, Ontario:
We saw all these kids in cars with six-packs and banners that read, “TAKE OFF, EH, YOU HOSER.” I’m not talking about one or two cars, I’m talking hundreds of cars…All these kids were drinking beer while driving. I was worried for them and I was worried for us – worried that the people might get the idea that Bob and Doug condoned this, or worse, that there might be an accident.
So I shrugged off Bob and Doug for years, but they still managed to tiptoe around my general Canadian consciousness. Most of that was through commercials for everything from Pizza Hut to Molson Gold and Mister Lube. But a few of my friends were McKenzie fans, from the college classmate that convinced me to join him for a Bob and Doug-themed rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” (“And the microphone smells like a beer…Hey, it IS a beer, eh?”) at our campus pub, to two female friends from Western Canada who recorded an estrogen-fueled version of Bob and Doug counting down to midnight on New Year’s Eve for a “cassette-letter” they made for me in the early ’90s.
While visiting one of these friends in 1996, I stumbled on a CD copy of Great White North at a Calgary record shop. A Cape Breton friend of mine had given me his vinyl copy four years earlier, but I didn’t have a record player and wasn’t inclined to find one just to hear 11-year-old McKenzie Brothers shtick. However, by the mid-’90s, having heard and enjoyed the album’s (actual, real) hit single “Take Off” a few times, I was ready for the full Bob and Doug experience.
In a pleasant surprise, much of the album transcends the two-soused-goofs-spouting-gibberish persona that Thomas and Moranis concocted for the characters’ first SCTV appearances. As a former member of a short-lived Halifax-based improv group during my college years, I found a lot to like in the on-the-spot two-hander sketches that, in their initial stages, even seem to catch the characters themselves off guard, particularly the Scientology riff “Elron MacKenzie,” “Peter’s Donuts,” the twisted children’s tale “Ralph The Dog,” and a celebration of Thomas’ ease with sound effects, “Doug’s Mouth.” The overconfidence with which Bob and Doug conduct themselves in nearly every sketch goes into overdrive with the behind-the-scenes music-industry pieces “Black Holes” and “Gimme A Smoke,” in which we learn that the duo’s lawyer has guaranteed that their first recording venture will earn them the princely sum of $10 (“EACH! So we’re not morons,” Doug declares).
And while Bob and Doug may not know much about recording contracts, Thomas and Moranis knew enough about music to create two stubbornly-enduring Canadian classics: a hoser-iffic reworking of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (“Four pounds of back bacon, three French toast, two turtlenecks, and a beer…in a tree”) and the aforementioned “Take Off,” which rode Rush frontman Geddy Lee’s soaring guest vocals all the way to the top of the Canadian charts and the #16 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
The Great White North album itself also topped the Canadian RPM charts – not coincidentally, just before Christmas 1981 – and climbed to #8 on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart in early 1982; it would be the last comedy album to crack the Billboard Top 10 until 2014, when “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Mandatory Fun took the #1 slot. The winner of the 1982 JUNO Award for Comedy Album of the Year and a nominee for the same category at the 1983 Grammys, Great White North is available in its entirety in this YouTube link, including the script that allows you to play along with the “You Are Our Guest” section.
It may have taken awhile, but the McKenzies won me over and continue to do so to this day. So, yeah, I’m “that guy” that rolls down the window on Canada Day, cranks up Great White North, and boisterously sings along to Thomas’ initial “COO-ROO-COO-COO-COO-COO-COO-COO” in the early stages of “Take Off.” (As I researched this blog, I was tickled to discover that Thomas actually devised his “McKenzie Theme Song” as a spoof of the flute music associated for years with the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Hinterland Who’s Who commercials.)
And even though I didn’t see the lone McKenzie Brothers movie, Strange Brew, until nearly two decades after its 1983 release, I was heartbroken to hear that a potential late-’90s sequel, Home Brew, fell through due to a lack of funding. (Strange Brew, while not necessarily the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, is still much better, funnier and more creative than several other comedies of its time – not bad for a movie with a budget of merely $5 million.)
I’m also glad that the retired-from-showbiz Moranis and the still-active Thomas have made peace with the concept that the McKenzie Brothers, by no means the most creative or well-written products of their SCTV output, have become their best-known and most-beloved characters. In SCTV: Behind The Scenes, Thomas describes the friction Bob and Doug’s popularity created within the show’s cast and crew, particularly after a Rolling Stone cover headline described the hosers as “SCTV‘s Best Joke.” (The actual story is here.) Later in the book, Thomas recalls post-SCTV instances of people screaming “Take off, eh?” at him as he walked around Toronto: “This was like rubbing ground glass in my face because the Bob and Doug phenomenon had turned on me.”
Given all this, it’s been a delight and somewhat of a relief to see the McKenzies revived in the 21st century for, among other things: the 2003 Disney animated movie Brother Bear and its direct-to-video sequel, which cast Moranis and Thomas as moose versions of Bob and Doug (“Rutt” and “Tuke”) that became so popular they were asked to provide the original movie’s DVD commentary; the 2007 CBC special Bob and Doug McKenzie’s Two-Four Anniversary (featuring a reunion with Geddy Lee and the unusual-but-effective choice of former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin as host, with Martin donning hoser wardrobe for the final segment); and the short-lived 2009 animated series Bob and Doug, which saw Full House alumnus Dave Coulier replace Moranis in voicing Bob McKenzie.
More recently, Thomas and Moranis announced that they’ll bring Bob and Doug out of retirement next month for a fundraiser at Toronto’s Second City Theatre, arguably the birthplace of SCTV, along with former cast-mates Martin Short and Eugene Levy, Canuck comedy contemporary Dan Aykroyd, and several members of The Kids In The Hall. The July 18 event is in support of Thomas’ nephew Jake, a father of four who is now paralyzed from the waist down as the result of a snowmobiling accident this past January. (The not-for-profit group Spinal Cord Injury Ontario will also be a beneficiary of this summer’s gathering of Canadian comedy icons.)
And, however you feel about the fact that these two goofs in toques and their “eh”-heavy lingo have come to symbolize Canadians around the world for people of a certain generation, there’s no doubt that the McKenzie Brothers have had a lasting impact on comedy, inside and outside of Canada. I discovered Saturday Night Live’s Wayne and Garth about five years before I finally hooked into Bob and Doug, but the Canadian comic genius behind Wayne Campbell, Mike Myers, recently confirmed in his book Canada that the cable-access headbanger heroes couldn’t have happened without the hosers:
“There’s a lot of Bob and Doug McKenzie from SCTV in Wayne’s World: both sketches were unabashedly local and had a homemade feel to them…Hereby officially stated: No Bob and Doug? No Wayne and Garth.”
Even Dave Thomas, who once bristled at NBC executives’ insistence that Bob and Doug take a more central role in SCTV after their unexpected rise in American popularity, described the duo in 2007 to Maclean’s Magazine as “a successful comedic creation” of which he was “quite proud.”
Aw. Kinda gets you right here, eh?