You may recall from my last blog post – What? You didn’t read it?!? Well, I never…!!! I’ll give you one more chance – here it is – but don’t make that same mistake twice, or I’ll release the radioactive beavers. Canadians are only so polite, after all.
Ahem…Now, where was I…Ah yes, comedy. As you may recall, I wasn’t quite ready to embark on my long-running love of parody and satire when I reached the fifth grade in 1982. I was four years away from embracing MAD Magazine, and I had already given up on SCTV after viewing half an episode. The Flintstones, Richie Rich and Archie Comics were only going to bring me so far, and even The Muppet Show – which actor Jason Segel described as his “gateway drug to comedy” when he helped reboot the franchise with a new movie in 2011 – wasn’t leading me down the road of truly adult humour.
It was only a matter of time before I boarded the comedy train. I just needed somebody I could trust to break through that satirical ceiling, to help me truly appreciate the sheer joy of taking an established property and playfully turning it inside out.
And then, just a couple of weeks after my tenth birthday, I found my Canadian comedy gurus, completely by accident, one fateful Saturday night on CBC-TV: Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster.
My first taste of Wayne and Shuster was also my first taste of anything even remotely resembling Shakespeare, as CBC began its latest season of the duo’s weekly half-hour compilation series with the Julius Caesar riff “Rinse The Blood Off My Toga.” (Yes, I’m well aware that the title – and the actual subject matter – seem rather violent for the 10-year-old version of me, which could barely handle SCTV or MAD Magazine. But I digress…)
I didn’t get most of the jokes that night, nor did I realize that I was actually watching the latest version of a sketch that Johnny and Frank had actually launched nearly three decades earlier. I just marvelled at the elaborate costumes and sets, drank in the concept of this classic tale being retold as a TV police drama, smiled at the silliness of the puns (“Give me a martinus.” “You mean a martini?” “If I want two, I’ll ask for them!”), and got my first taste of the punchline inextricably linked to Wayne and Shuster to this day, from Caesar’s widow Calpurnia: “If I told him once, I told him a thousand times – Julie, don’t go!” (Four years later, the opening chapter to The Complete Cynic’s Guide To Canadian Humour sardonically remarked: “It is interesting to note that the joke most identified with Wayne and Shuster was uttered by neither Wayne nor Shuster.”)
It didn’t take long for me to get hooked – Johnny and Frank had already whetted my appetite with “Toga” and sealed the deal a week later with an off-the-wall spoof of the over-the-top “Not Available In Stores” music commercials wallpapering TV in the ’70s and ’80s. (I can’t find that specific ad parody online but here’s the next best thing, the “Final Record Offer” take-off from a 1975 Wayne and Shuster Super Special. That particular clip also ends with the theme song that ended their ’70s and ’80s shows, one of the snappiest closing-credits tunes for any TV series, Canadian or otherwise.)
It’s quite possible that my first few years of Wayne and Shuster viewership were the most special because I was blissfully unaware that a significant portion of the material I was viewing had already aired on hour-long specials in the late ’70s and early ’80s. For that matter, I had no idea that characters like Professor Weingartner (whose surname reworked the back half of Johnny’s real name, Lou Weingarten) or sketches like the classic “Shakesperean Baseball” were actually decades in the making. (Here’s the original version of the latter sketch, minus the closing Montreal Expos punchline from the latter-day editions.)
So, for those first four years, I just drank it in and enjoyed the fun, taking in all the sight gags, pratfalls, groan-inducing jokes, wordplay and puns. (I remain convinced to this day that the duo concocted a wordless sketch involving two bumbling would-be hitmen simply so they could use the title “Nobody Likes A Smart Assassin.”)
Along the way, I also got my first tastes of a wide swath of literature and pop culture, from Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Bridge Of The River Kwai (reworked as “Kwai Me A River”) to The Portrait of Dorian Gray and The Scarlet Pimpernel, sent up as “The Brown Pumpernickel” (aka. “Close Encounters Of The Pumpernickel Kind”). Today, I’m not sure whether I get a bigger laugh out of the original sketch or a “Brown Pumpernickel” callback joke that shows up at the eight-minute mark of the 1982 Zorro reworking “The Mark of Zero.”
In addition to my cultural upbringing, Johnny and Frank delivered some key early exposure to two major aspects of my Canadian psyche: politics and sports. While they avoided jabs at specific politicians or policy developments, they spoofed the arrival of TV cameras in the House of Commons (as discussed in this blog post) with the legendary “Question Time” skit and production number; I fondly remember singing it with a couple of my classmates during recess time in the fifth grade.
Johnny’s love of the Toronto Maple Leafs also led to some of my favourite hockey-related gags, on Wayne and Shuster or anywhere else. Toronto great King Clancy narrates this sketch with the recollection (at the 5:40 mark) that “we lost eight out of our first nine games – and then, we went into a slump.” The above-left photo depicts the duo as hockey players who fill their down-time with the poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley and sing Wagner’s operas when they’re tossed into the penalty box together. And in this favourite number from 1982, “Laugh It Off,” the duo pose as psychoanalysts that cite laughter as the best medicine until Johnny passes by a Leafs goalie in full uniform (above, right), sadly informing him: “You, we CAN’T help.”
And since I’m talking about music, I’d be doing Wayne and Shuster a disservice if I didn’t underscore the importance of production numbers to their act. Sure, it had a leftover Tin Pan Alley ring to it, but I refuse to apologize for liking catchy numbers such as 1985’s “Everybody Has A Right To Be Wrong” (particularly the last-verse lines “So just remember, there is no one who’s a winner every day; even Gretzky doesn’t score on every single breakaway!”). The 1982 Greek-cuisine tribute “Spanakoteropita” was a family favourite, and one of a small number of Wayne and Shuster songs that my sister and I sang to each other (and can still recall together, years later). And the duo’s last project, the 1990 full-length fairy-tale spoof Once Upon A Giant (below), is stuffed full of charming song-and-dance numbers like this salute to camaraderie, “I’m With You.”
Now, even though I’ve just spent several paragraphs telling you why I loved Wayne and Shuster in my grade-school and teenage years (and why I still love them today), I’m not too blinded by my devotion to recognize the other side of the equation – specifically, that I discovered Johnny and Frank at roughly the same time that many TV viewers and critics, including some of their own colleagues within the CBC, were writing them off as irrelevant, repetitive and just plain annoying.
Maybe it was the repackaging of material from their early years. Maybe it was the refusal to go for the jugular like Saturday Night Live, SCTV, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, MAD or National Lampoon. Maybe it was the laugh track. Maybe it was the fact that these two goofs, whose partnership predated World War II (and actually included several overseas shows for Canadian troops during that period), had the audacity to think they were still capable of making people laugh.
For whatever the reason, Wayne and Shuster were regular targets of the new wave of Canadian satirists in the ’80s, including Double Exposure, Royal Canadian Air Farce, and The Frantics. More than one pop-culture critic, including self-indulgent talk-show host Dick Cavett, has suggested that Johnny and Frank were the only comedy duo in history in which neither member was “the funny one.” (Fun fact: They’re both funny. Johnny played most of the hero roles and got most of the punchlines, but Frank was no mere straight man; even in villainous parts, he had some of the greatest comic slow burns and double-takes this side of Harvey Korman.)
Even my own relatives were hard on Wayne and Shuster. I remember the sunny summer day in 1985 that I got a personally autographed photo of Johnny and Frank in the mail (along with a kind letter from the duo’s longtime executive producer, Leonard Starmer), in response to a fan letter I sent them in junior high school. I excitedly took the picture to my grandparents’ house to show my relatives on Mom’s side of the family, only to be told how “idiotic” and “stupid” the show was. Chagrined, I took the photo outside, where my Grandpere was tending to his garden. I walked up to him and meekly asked, “I don’t suppose you hate Wayne and Shuster, too?” I can’t remember what Grandpere’s exact response was, but I do remember that he was kind enough to recognize the right way to treat a grandson who had just received something special from two of his heroes.
Or maybe Grandpere knew just how big an impact Wayne and Shuster had made, on both sides of the border, over the previous four decades. This included a record 67 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, whose host (above) considered it “a coup” to book them even once and delighted in the literate approach they took to their stage appearances. (This interview with Sullivan, recorded just before their first appearances on the show in 1958, is an eye-opener.) If you’re keeping score, that’s over twice as many Ed Sullivan Show appearances as Pearl Bailey or Jim Henson’s Muppets, three times as many performances as Louis Armstrong, Joan Rivers or Patti Page, and 67 times as many performances as The Beatles or The Doors.
Still, that healthy, homegrown Canadian disrespect continued. I vividly remember a 1986 TV Guide story that began with the author admitting that he was “forced” by his parents to sit through Wayne and Shuster skits while waiting for The Beatles or The Rolling Stones to play The Ed Sullivan Show. A couple of paragraphs later, the writer sees a sign labelled “Shuster and Wayne” (the act’s original name) on their dressing room door and hopes he’s arrived in time to catch the duo in a bloody, career-ending fistfight – “no such luck.”
That same TV Guide story, however, includes one key reason that I admired Johnny and Frank in their last decade together and still love their work today – they knew their limitations. I imagine CBC pressured the duo to spoof more modern pop culture like Miami Vice during their twilight years, but apart from a throwaway gag in the mid-’80s piece “I Was A TV Addict,” the adventures of Crockett and Tubbs were off-limits to Wayne and Shuster. Why? Because, as Frank put it in that same article: “If we understood it, then we’d satirize it.” The pair, in their early seventies by this point, weren’t about to play two handsome young cops in their twenties, and more power to them for having the sense to avoid going down that road.
(Conversely, on the rare occasions when they did play much younger characters, they’d come clean about it; the ’70s TV spoof “Welby Marcus, Master Mechanic” included Frank as the jive-talking, shades-sporting character Smiley, who Johnny – as the elderly grease monkey channelling Marcus Welby, M.D. – described as “a fine example of the young people of today – and a terrible example of CBC casting.”)
Despite a 1986 sketch depicting themselves as celebrating their 60th anniversary in show business in 2006, I had a feeling Johnny and Frank wouldn’t be around forever, but I still wasn’t prepared for the duo to disappear from my life, either separately or together. So I was heartbroken by the news of Johnny Wayne’s passing in the summer of 1990, less than a month after I had graduated from high school (and less than two months after the untimely death of another pop culture hero from my youth, Jim Henson). I would later learn that Frank Shuster and Leonard Starmer – who had written that nice response to my fan letter in 1985 – were at Johnny’s bedside during his final moments.
Interviewed hours after the news broke on CBC’s The Journal by veteran broadcaster Bill Cameron, Frank was asked: “The first thing many people would do upon hearing Johnny Wayne has died is ask, ‘How’s Shuster?’ (Pause) So, how’s Shuster?” Frank put on a brave smile and answered: “He’s all right.” And, to his credit, Frank went the extra mile to promote and protect the duo’s legacy, hosting such efforts as Wayne and Shuster in Black and White (which opened my eyes to the duo’s huge catalogue of material from the ’50s and ’60s during my college years in Halifax), The Wayne and Shuster Years and Wayne and Shuster: The First 100 Years throughout the final decade of his own life. (We lost Frank thirteen days into 2002.)
It would be a lie to say I would never have discovered comedy if I hadn’t stumbled on Wayne and Shuster in the early days of my eleventh year on the planet. But it would also be a lie if I suggested that anybody else could have introduced me so fully and completely to the sheer joy and satisfaction of a good laugh, a goofy pun or an up-tempo musical number.
Thanks, Johnny. Thanks, Frank. I still miss you guys.
Well, I see by the clock on the wall…That it’s time to bid you one and all
Goodbye (Goodbye) So long (So long)
Farewell (Farewell) Adieu (Adieu)
Be good (Stay well) Bye-bye (Keep warm)
Relax (At ease) Take care (Stay loose)
Adieu, mon vieux (A la prochaine)
Good-bye ’til when we meet again
(See, I TOLD you it was a great ending.)