Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Dave at https://soundday.wordpress.com/
For my next pick in this TV event, I go to a show that always made me laugh hysterically…and make me feel a bit proud. SCTV was not only one of the funniest and most creative shows of its era, it was Canadian to boot.
SCTV stands for “Second City Television”, because it sprung forth from Second City. That was (and remains to this day) a ground-breaking comedy troupe and theater from Chicage (America’s “Second City”). It opened its doors in 1959, and by 1961 was making stars out of people like Joan Rivers and Alan Arkin with their creative comedy sketches. But instead of just playing their home city, the organization had big dreams – ones they’ve fulfilled as they describe themselves as “the most influential and prolific comedy empire in the world.” They began touring with their show and found an enthusiastic response in Toronto when they played there in 1963. Second City took note, and ten years later opened a second club there, in its early months “no air conditioning, no liquor license and almost no audience.” That quickly changed though as they moved to a bigger venue and found homegrown wits like Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas and John Candy.
Only a couple of years in, there was interest in making it into a TV show. Once the idea was hatched to do a show about “the world’s smallest TV station”, the cast was on board. They saw endless possibilities of skits involving actual TV shows they could satirize, goofy commercials and behind-the-scenes follies involving the fictional station’s management. Global TV (a Canadian network) was interested and put them on air in 1976, with a half-hour show. After a couple of years, they canceled it but soon an independent company in Edmonton bought the idea, moved the players to the Prairies and resurrected it, soon selling the show to Canada’s premier network, CBC. A few stations in the U.S. began running re-runs, and soon NBC came knocking, wanting a replacement for the Midnight Special. They ran it for a couple of years as a 90-minute late night show (rather akin to Saturday Night Live) but were said to be rather lacking in commitment to it, and after two seasons axed it when the crew refused to re-jig the show to run on Sunday evenings against 60 Minutes. (NBC also wanted it made much more G-rated, family-oriented humor rather than the edgy satire they SCTV was making.) At that time Cinemax cable in the U.S. and a Canadian subsidiary revived it for one final season of 45 minute shows. By 1984 when it wrapped up, they’d made 135 episodes of varying length and production quality…and created both some big-name stars and some entirely memorable characters.
SCTV‘s original cast was largely kept in tact through the years and was a goldmine of comic talent. They were essentiallly unknown then but wouldn’t stay that for long. Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Joe Flaherty, Harold Ramis… funny each one in their own right but brilliant together in an ensemble. Of them, only Ramis was brought in from American Second City; Moranis came in directly from a background of being a radio DJ in Toronto! We see their ongoing work in so many great comedy films like Home Alone, Ghostbusters, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Splash and TV shows like Schitt’s Creek. In terms of launching great careers in comedy, it’s probably second only to Saturday Night Live…and that one has had an advantage of 40 more years of talent to be culled from.
That alone made the show noteworthy, but it was great because of the strength of the shows themselves and the sketches they created. The station which was set in the imaginary town of Melonville was run by Guy Caballero, a boss played by Joe Flaherty, whose character was as shady as his suit was blinding white. Guy was confined to a wheelchair… but quick to jump up and run away when threatened. His station was inhabited by regulars like boozy, washed up playboy-type Johnny LaRue (Candy), and the owner, leopard-print clad cougar Edith Prickley (Martin), and the hapless local news team of dim-witted Earl Camembert (Levy) and hard-nosed Floyd Robertson (Flaherty). Between the workplace bits we got to see the fine programming of SCTV…things like Bill Needle’s ascerbic talk show, Count Floyd’s “Monster Horror Chiller Theater” (which sometimes boasted titles like the “3D House of Cats”… you simply had to see it to appreciate the “3D” effect!) , kids show “Mrs Falbo’s Tiny town” and various movies, usually parodies of real hit ones. And in between we’d get commercials for local businesses like Harry, the Guy with the Snake on His Face and his adult video store. Like the Simpsons later, the shows were funny enough at face value but took on an added level of hilarity when one was wise to exactly what they were spoofing.
About 40 years has passed since it went off the air, but even the thought of things like the opening scene of “Mrs. Falbo’s Tiny Town” (remember her trying to drive?), Flaherty as Count Floyd (the frustrated late night movie host dressed as a vampire who often had to admit, “well that wasn’t very scary, kids…”) John Candy as Paul Fistinyourface, the angry high school teen on the TV dance show or as Gil Fisher “The Fishin’ Musician” crack me up. Speaking of the last, “The Fishin’ Musician” with Candy as Gil, the fisherman with his guide Ol’ Willie (who looked a lot like Willie Nelson and took the fishing boat ‘out into the weeds’ every time, natch) was their way of allowing for musical numbers. Through the years bands like Rough Trade, The Tubes and Boomtown Rats went fishin’ with Gil…and playing a little number or two. In retrospect, years later it became even funnier seeing Bob Geldof as a disgruntled punker with the Boomtown Rats and acting as a high school tough in their parody of To Sir with Love , “Teacher’s Pet” (with Eugene Levy as Ricardo Montalban, an ongoing spoof on the show, being the Corinthian lether-loving teacher).
It was a different kind of humor, probably ahead of its time and perhaps to Americans, a wee bit odd. I’m frequently told, living in the U.S., that I have a different sense of humor than many Americans; I think Canada is a cultural “bridge” between the States and Britain, and that applies to our comic sensibilites too. SCTV found the happy medium to be edgy for the mainstream but not so much so as to be confounding or alienating. All that said, ironically, the ongoing skit on SCTV I found the most tiresome was the one that was probably it’s most popular and the one which reveled in its Canadianism – Bob and Doug McKenzie and the “Great White North.” But no one hits it out of the park every time…SCTV is remembered because it did more often than not. When a show of largely social satire from four decades back can still make me fall on the floor laughing, they must have been something special. And they were.