SNL got all the ink but SCTV was the place for serious comedy in the 1970s. PKM revisits the funniest clips from the Great White North, featuring greats like John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis and Harold Ramis
It’s time to face the truth: Canadians are funny. Samantha Bee and Mike Myers have proven this, beyond any reasonable doubt, in the past few years. Bee, on her Full Frontal cable show, has us laughing nightly and Myers will ride into the Comedy Hall of Fame in his Austin Powers Jaguar E while shredding on Wayne’s guitar.
Long before Ms. Bee and Mr. Myers got us laughing, however, there was Second City, the comedy troupe started in 1959 that was originally based in Chicago, with a second outpost in Toronto. Some of our greatest skit comedians came out of Second City: John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, Rick Moranis, Fred Willard, John Candy, Chris Farley and the great Del Close, who deserves a separate post all his own. It may even surprise you to learn that Alan Arkin, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Peter Boyle and Joan Rivers also got their starts on these two live stages.
However, the vehicle by which Canadians proved that they had established, in the words of writer Bruce Eaton, “comedic supremacy,” as well as spreading the proof of this to the world beyond the Great White North was SCTV. SCTV was started, as an offshoot of the stage performances, in 1976. It was partly inspired by the arrival, and success, of Saturday Night Live, which was, by the way, created by another Canadian, Lorne Michaels, in 1975.
The following clip, a whacked-out riff on the 1960s, is typical of the quality of SCTV comedy. Often, their material is so seamlessly done that it’s hard to even single out which vignette is the funniest, and this is a case in point:
Airing on Canada’s Global TV Network, and later picked up for US viewers by NBC-TV, SCTV featured this original cast of writer-performers: John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Harold Ramis and Dave Thomas. Rick Moranis and Martin Short were added later. The premise of the show was to dip in and out of a day’s programming from the fictional Canadian town of Melonville. Parody was the cast’s strongest suit, particularly of talk shows (“The Sammy Maudlin Show”), news casts and educational programming, like “Mr. Science” and “The Great White North”.
Here’s a segment when Mr. Science (Candy) is visited by Damian, a Satanic child, who wants to learn about acid.
Here are Bob and Doug MacKenzie (Moranis and Thomas) offering some expert commentary on Star Wars in a segment of “The Great White North”:
“Farm Film Report” was their version of Siskel and Ebert, where the sole measure of a movie’s worth was if something or someone “blowed up real good.”
The fictional SCTV staff personnel, and their backstage crises, became part of the program cycle, too, especially the nervous breakdown of Johnny Larue (John Candy), the hysteria of regular talk show guests Lola Heatherton (Catherine O’Hara), Lorna Minetti (Andrea Martin), Bobby Bittman (Eugene Levy) and sad sack Ed McMahon-like lackey William B. Williams (Candy). Further soap operatic plots were created from the test of wills between station owner Guy Caballero (Flaherty) and station manager Edith Prickley (Martin).
Andrea Martin was a particularly underrated comic performer, bringing the fever to every one of her characters. Here she is as Edith Prickley performing “Live From the Melonville Baths”:
There was also the scary movie host, Count Floyd (Flaherty), hepcat radio deejay Gerry Todd (Rick Moranis) and recurring news casters Earl Camembert (Levy) and Floyd Robertson (Flaherty). Thomas and Moranis also teamed up to do brilliant riffs on an unlikely pair, Bob Hope and Woody Allen.
This “Play it Again, Bob” segment showcases their talents:
During its six years of programming, SCTV altered the comedic landscape. Even though SNL got most of the publicity, SCTV was what serious comedy nerds watched, studied and discussed with real passion.
Conan O’Brien was one of these nerds. He explained: “For me, and a lot of the comedy writers, performers, and producers of my generation, SCTV is the show…SCTV was the reason that I got into television, the reason I wanted to go into comedy. It’s always in the back of my mind when I’m doing stuff, and it’s always in the back of the minds of my writers.”
One of my favorite recurring characters was Rick Moranis’s Gerry Todd. Here’s the smooth-talking deejay, doubling as Tom Monroe, doing his rendition of “Turning Japanese” to open the very first Gerry Todd Show sketch:
If anyone was wondering where Christopher Guest got the idea for his film A Mighty Wind, look no further than this sketch from SCTV, “The Ramblers Greatest Hits”.