Canada 1982: Discovering SCTV, As It Discovered Canada

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My sense of humour was still developing as I neared the end of my tenth year in the spring of 1982, and the basic concepts of parody and satire – which I’ve embraced and enjoyed throughout my adolescence and adult life – still freaked me out a little bit.

I had never seen Saturday Night Live, Monty Python or National Lampoon. I was starting to sneak newsstand peeks at MAD Magazine but wouldn’t muster up the courage to officially buy a copy for another four years. Even the likes of Warner Brothers’ classic Looney Tunes and MGM’s Tom and Jerry series freaked out my little mind, which was tiptoeing into comedy via the likes of The Muppet Show, Archie and Richie Rich comic books, Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, and The Flintstones.

So, with this in mind, you shouldn’t be all that surprised that, at the tender age of nine years and nine months, I wasn’t even close to being ready for my first taste of the North American comedy institution known as Second City and its much-celebrated TV spin-off, SCTV Television Network. 

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That’s a shame, of course, because by the time I gave the series a shot, near the end of its second season on CBC-TV, its core performers and writers – Joe Flaherty, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara (above) – had been bringing the gleeful anarchy of Second City’s improvisational comedy performances in Toronto and Chicago to delighted TV viewers since 1976. For someone like me, who would grow up to both devour and produce Canadian-based comedy and satire in his teenage and adult years, this should have been my earliest – and arguably, best – education in the fine art of parody.

But I just wasn’t ready. I gave up on my first SCTV episode, on a Friday evening in June of 1982, after roughly half an hour. I wasn’t ready to laugh at a Reach For The Top spoof that ended with the host (Levy’s thinly-disguised “Alex Trebel”) losing his cool at the contestants, or a mock perfume commercial whose punchline involved the (fake) product blowing up in the model’s face. (I shudder to think of what my nine-year-old reaction might have been to the later years of the Farm Film Report.)

It was the comedy equivalent of asking a first-grader to solve calculus equations or demanding that a five-year-old Sunday School student quote their favourite line from Leviticus or Revelation. I would get there eventually; I just wasn’t ready for SCTV’s gang of rabble-rousers to lead me there.

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They would slowly but surely win me over, via cameo appearances in the brilliant 1986 faux documentary The Canadian Conspiracy (which I’ll discuss in a future blog post), clips of The Schmenge Brothers that aired on CBC Radio comedy retrospectives, and the 1988 CBC-aired compilation special SCTV On Trial: A Royal Commission, which ran in the U.S. under the title The Best of SCTV. By that time, my satire-meter had been aided immensely by the likes of The Frantics, The Royal Canadian Air Farce, Wayne and Shuster, my early readership of MAD and CBC’s airing of the brilliant, biting British puppetry series Spitting Image, so I was finally able to get a handle on what the Second City folks were trying to do, and to get far more laughs out of it as a result.

And then, just as quickly as SCTV finally entered my consciousness in the late ’80s, it was gone. I didn’t have access to any of its six seasons’ worth of episodes – via reruns, VHS, DVD or any other means you could surmise – for over a decade. But my interest in the show and its comedic legacy lingered, partly due to my better-late-than-never discovery of the Bob and Doug McKenzie album Great White North and mainly via a surprise Christmas present from my parents in 1997: Dave Thomas’ excellent book SCTV: Behind The Scenes. Even for someone like me with only a passing interest in the show, this was a comedic smorgasbord of episode guides, trivia questions, first-person anecdotes, behind-the-scenes photos, and a wide-ranging look at the highs and lows of trying to launch a sketch-comedy series anywhere in the world, and particularly in Canada.

(It was even surreal for me to read SCTV: Behind The Scenes and learn that the series moved from Toronto to Edmonton in its third season; at one point of the book, Joe Flaherty remarks that horror-themed skits like “Doorway to Hell” fit perfectly with the cast’s mindset because of “the fact that we were in Edmonton working our asses off and the show was hell to do.”) 

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Above: The cast at SCTV’s midway point: Eugene Levy, John Candy (behind Levy), Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Tony Rosato, Robin Duke – who filled in for Catherine O’Hara during her brief departure from the series – and Joe Flaherty.

And then, in 2001, as I finally gained regular access to Canada’s The Comedy Network, there were the SCTV reruns in all their glory. From the 1976 launch that included Harold Ramis among the main cast members and writers, to the final two seasons that saw Martin Short establish himself as one of the brightest comic talents inside or outside of Canada, there they were.

Suddenly, the jokes that frightened me as a nine-year-old were hilarious; suddenly, several of the little details in Dave Thomas’ book made sense; suddenly, this incredibly talented group of people were back together again, every day, in front of my delighted eyeballs. (Suddenly, I was quite wistful over the 1994 passing of John Candy. I’ll get to that in a future blog post, as well.)

Suddenly, it made perfect sense that SCTV had won an Emmy Award in 1982 for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program (their acceptance speech, including Joe Flaherty’s epic response to heckling from presenter Milton Berle, is here), and followed that up in 1995 with the Earle Grey Award for lifetime achievement in Canadian TV, presented by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television at its annual Gemini Awards.

(All right, folks, sing along with the Five Neat Guys: “It was Chariots…of Fire…But I have to…inquire…why there weren’t…any chariots in the movie…” And then pick it up with the Schmenges: “Cabbage rolls and coffee! Mmm, mmm, good!”)

But then, on a September morning in 2005, I finally learned that SCTV didn’t restrict its Canadian material to the McKenzie Brothers, developed in 1980 as a passive-aggressive reply to CBC’s insistence that the series’ Canadian broadcasts feature two minutes of “distinctive Canadian content.”

No, it wasn’t just Bob and Doug, or send-ups of border-jumping interviewer Brian Linehan, or infrequently-produced one-shots like this Wheetabix commercial parody featuring Flaherty as Guy Lafleur and Candy as Darryl Sittler. By 1982, SCTV‘s cast and writers were ready to turn their fractured-lens cameras squarely on Canada, particularly the CBC, which played a key role in the series’ 106th episode as the provider of emergency content to help SCTV deal with a (fictional) labour dispute.

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With this landmark episode, the Canadian comedy juggernaut that had seemed more interested in skewering British or Russian TV than its own public broadcaster was suddenly serving up John Candy as Tom Selleck in “Magnum, P.E.I.,” nailing the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s ubiquitous Hinterland Who’s Who spots, educating SCTV’s American viewers with the multi-part “It’s A Canadian Fact,” running promos for such obviously-fictional CBC fare as “Monday Night Curling” (above), and delivering a lengthy take-down of a CBC institution whose longevity baffles even me, Front Page Challenge. (The “Headline Challenge” clip seen here even wound up bring the springboard for two latter-day SCTV skits featuring the same characters, “Canadian Gaffes and Practical Amusements” and a no-holds-barred discussion of the general state of Canadian television in the mid-’80s, “Murray’s File.”)

But the centrepiece for this cornucopia of uniquely homegrown self-mockery is the “Canadian Movie of the Week: Garth and Gord and Fiona and Alice,” an obvious parody of the 1970 Don Shebib movie Goin’ Down The Road, which was a Canadian TV staple for years after its release. Candy and Flaherty, sporting accents that sound far more Irish than Atlantic Canadian, star as a doctor and a lawyer, respectively, leaving the Maritimes (specifically, Moncton) for all the jobs allegedly available in Toronto. In Quebec, they run over the woodchuck from the aforementioned Hinterland Who’s Who spoof and then pick up Martin, playing a French-speaking nuclear physicist who’s somehow unable to find work in La Belle Province.

Their Toronto adventures, aided and abetted by SCTV guest star (and original Goin’ Down The Road cast member) Jayne Eastwood, largely consist of Candy and Flaherty bumming around Yonge Street and looking depressed. Finally, the duo hatches a scheme to head West and cash in on all the oil-boom jobs, getting in a few digs at Edmonton before they hit the road to the tune of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Alberta Bound.” (It could be worse; at least, by this point of the movie, they’ve stopped playing the rather unsettling Keith Hampshire cover of Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “To It and At It” that accompanies the Yonge Street scenes.)

Fortunately, SCTV, led by intrepid station manager Guy Caballero (Flaherty), finds a way to end the strike before any more of this nonsense ensues. By the time we get back to Sammy Maudlin’s 23rd Anniversary Show, however, we’ve seen more Canadian content in a single SCTV instalment than in the combined run of the series, and we’ve seen what The A.V. Club describes as one of the 10 SCTV episodes that best represent the entire series.

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Strangely, despite SCTV’s chafing at the two-minutes-of-Canadian-content directive and the cast’s surprise (and occasional horror) with the McKenzie Brothers’ success, the “strike episode” signalled a pronounced shift towards more Canadian material on the show. By the time it wrapped up in 1984, with only Martin, Levy and Flaherty remaining from the original cast (given a big lift by Short in his second SCTV season), the performers and writers found themselves more driven to CBC/Canadian spoofs than at any time in the series’ history. But it wasn’t out of any great loyalty to Canada, according to this quote from Flaherty (a native of Pittsburgh) in SCTV: Behind The Scenes: 

“We just knew it was one big empty slate. We had to do twenty-eight shows and we fell into a trap of doing certain types of humour over and over again – stuff like ‘Canadian Gaffes and Practical Amusements’ – funny things that weren’t really funny…We sort of threw up our hands.”

And what was the reaction to SCTV’s departure after it had gone to the trouble of inserting more Canadian content in its broadcasts on either side of the border? According to Short, “a lot of very flattering press across the U.S. eulogizing the show,” including “a love letter to SCTV” from The New York Times. Not so for The Hamilton Spectator, the main newspaper for the Ontario city that Thomas, Levy and Short had all called home. “GOOD RIDDANCE TO SCTV,” blared the banner headline, over a story that – according to Short – charged that “SCTV had lost its Canadianism.”

Lost its Canadianism? Not from where I sat on that September morning in 2005, watching the “CBC episode” for the first time – on the first day of the latest dispute between the public broadcaster and the union serving most of its on-air employees, no less. That’s about as Canadian as it gets, my friends.

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Perhaps, the next time the CBC has a labour issue, it can consider re-running my favourite SCTV bits from each of these core cast members:

  • Andrea Martin: “Mrs. Falbo’s Tiny Town” (once you hear the theme song to this twisted children’s show, or her rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” in a local penitentiary, you can’t un-hear it).
  • Catherine O’Hara: “Way To Go Woman!”, featuring ditsy semi-celeb Lola Heatherton “roughing it with Mother Teresa” (a phrase that still makes me laugh nearly three decades after hearing it for the first time). Honourable Mention: The most bizarre rendition of the already-bizarre Devo hit “Whip It” you’ll ever hear, in “The Brooke Shields Show.”
  • Dave Thomas: Since I can’t find “Harvey K-Tel’s House-In-A-Box” anywhere online, here’s the next best thing: The living embodiment of the fast-talking K-Tel commercial voice, staging a rapid-fire version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Honourable Mention: “Lloyd Bridges’ Sea Talk,” the last time a Canadian comedy series would attempt an underwater talk show until Royal Canadian Air Farce submerged Pamela Wallin for an interview with a codfish in 1999.
  • Eugene Levy: “Perry Como: Still Alive,” which had its target laughing his head off when it was played during the 1982 Emmy broadcast that saw SCTV pick up its writing award. Honourable Mention: “Six-Gun Justice,” for no better reason than the fact that Levy’s singing of “The Dusty Trails” cracks me up every time.
  • Joe Flaherty: Pretty much any episode of Count Floyd’s “Monster Chiller Horror Theatre” will do, but my favourite is “Whispers Of The Wolf,” in which the station accidentally runs an Ingmar Bergman snoozer featuring Martin, O’Hara and a cameo from Harold Ramis.
  • John Candy: “Johnny LaRue’s Christmas Street Beef,” which sees the title character drunkenly wandering around Mellonville (aka. Edmonton) before collapsing in the snow and receiving a gift from Santa: a Chapman Nike crane. (Earlier episodes saw LaRue stripped of his parking spot and his SCTV movie-of-the-week because he finished one of his productions with an expensive camera shot involving a similar crane; I’m still astounded that this holiday sketch got approved, since Candy got in trouble with SCTV’s production team for insisting on a crane shot in his Chinatown parody “Polynesia Town.”)
  • Martin Short: Early gold from Ed Grimley, “The Fella Who Couldn’t Wait For Christmas.” Honourable Mention: “Ronco’s Shower/Blow-Dryer In A Briefcase.” Both sketches were favourites for my high school friends and I to quote and re-enact.
  • Rick Moranis: “The Larry Siegel Show,” partly because I love Moranis’ anecdote of how he re-purposed Hollywood producer Joel Silver into the disrespectful, fast-talking host of this faux talk show. (And partly because Larry Siegel is the real name of a long-time writer for MAD Magazine, and I refuse to believe that the use of his name in this sketch was an accident, especially since young “Ricky Moranis” from “Toronto, Canada” had a letter published in the magazine regarding a Don Martin article about frogs. That’s some serious satirical synergy, gang!)

This brings me to the end of my SCTV blog and our broadcast day. Please rise for the playing of the national anthem, as chosen by Bob and Doug McKenzie…

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