God Is in the Details
Toronto in the 1970s was a talent pool awaiting a trawler. Picture it: Gilda Radner transitioned from a starring role at the Royal Alex one month to working coat check at the local comedy revue the next. Her boyfriend at the time, Martin Short, and his McMaster University buddies Eugene Levy and Dave Thomas were holding ‘Friday Night Services’ at 1063 Avenue Road, informal and competitive parties where the main activity was topping each other with new routines, characters, and bits developed between small time gigs and day jobs. Eugene was briefly dating Andrea Martin, who knocked them all out with her sexy, sailor-shaming jokes when she dropped by. Dan Aykroyd was doing radio ads, youth theatre, and closing down comedy clubs after last call. Catherine O’Hara was waiting tables at the same clubs straight out of high school, and the youngest of the group, John Candy, was selling Kleenex. He had a route.
To the south, the Chicago Second City Stages were already famous for launching comedy careers, and when the producers held auditions for a Toronto-based improv venue in 1973, everyone jumped. John Candy was sent up to the Chicago stage immediately for a training stint — the future ‘Johnny Toronto’ had something special right from the start and everyone knew it. Joe Flaherty and Harold Ramis, hardened improv veterans, were imported to give the novice T-Dot group some leadership and solid material to launch with. (An aside here — I’ve often wondered if Joe Flaherty ever cursed his choice to relocate from America — he never gained the fame I think he richly deserved. Trust me — Joe was the original GOB.)
The venture launched at an Adelaide Street theatre and promptly failed after two revues. You simply can’t run a successful comedy club in Canada without a liquor license. Plus, there was trouble gaining an audience, paltry paychecks were bouncing, and occasional bad scenes broke out like when the Chicago cast played a Toronto stint and Bill Murray broke a heckler’s arm after dragging him out into the alley. It seemed like the Second City couldn’t catch purchase in Canada, until in late 1974 the empire was saved and rejuvenated by a young and enthusiastic ‘angel’ investor named Andrew Alexander (who ended up taking more hits from the North than a six foot lacrosse player).
Second City settled into the nearby Firehall Theatre, but still encountered bumpy roads, working hard to draw crowds past the alcoholic ‘dubs’ and ‘cheesers’ wandering the streets outside. Gilda and Dan had wisely defected to America to launch “Saturday Night Live,” which promptly exploded onto the television scene. “SNL” translated the political satire, popular drug humor and general cut-throat chaos of the Chicago improv aesthetic into a star-making vehicle, and every comedian in North America took note and drooled.
When the Toronto group politely tip-toed onto the airwaves in 1976, “SNL” was very much on their minds, but ‘Second City Television’ would become a very different animal indeed. Like most Canadian endeavors, the project was characterized by a glut of raw talent, an almost hopeless naiveté, and zero fanfare. With a measly five grand budget per show and a half hour once-a-month commitment from a tiny ‘second rate’ Canadian broadcaster, Global, there was hardly any chance apparent for breakout fame. Even a regular audience was a lot to hope for. But for a comedian, any opportunity is a good one and when the group came up with the narrative for the show — that of a “crummy little TV station with bad shows and lame personalities” — it opened up an avenue of endless creative possibility that would fuel the show for six seasons.
“SCTV’s” talent pool was epic. The show launched with Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas. The cast wrote their own material, generated the creative concepts and were credited for doing so, with the initial exclusion of the female cast members and John, who was considered more of an ‘idea guy’ (and when he found out, Candy was so infuriated by the slight that he threw his entire creative weight into attempts to bankrupt the show’s budget for the next six years).
An average early episode would start with shoddy local programming, mundane soap operas, stupefying commercials, the SCTV News (with Floyd Robertson and Earl Camembert, two hopelessly mismatched newscasters who were likely the genesis of ‘discomfort comedy’ — comedians like Gervais have dined out on this trailblazing duo for years), excruciating game shows, late night talk shows, ‘event television,’ and full blown movie spoofs. Throughout, station managers, spoiled actors, and cheeseball ‘celebrities’ would scheme, connive, and evolve over the course of a year-long series. It was brilliant, multilayered work. It was also incredibly stupid at times. There was nothing else like it on television. Not that anyone noticed.
The shoddy production values — canned laughter grabbed from the Second City stage audiences, lame hair and makeup created by Global’s inexperienced in-house team and stupid post-production effects like cowbells clanging during physical comedy chops, drove most of the cast insane with frustration during the first two series. But the level of creative editorial control — by then the cast was well versed in steamrolling over their put-upon creative producers who admittedly didn’t ‘get’ the material — was unprecedented.
At the end of Series One, Ramis, who was always uncomfortable in front of the camera, left for the States to prepare his script, Animal House, for production. The cast was miserable to lose him so soon, so Alexander decided to pony up for a rental in Bel Air and brought everyone down for a marathon writing session. It proved to be well worth it from a business standpoint, garnering 17 episodes worth of material, but it also served as the closest the SCTV cast got to the ‘fame machine’ in their early careers. They hosted a massive party at the end of their stay, attended by the white-hot SNL stars, directors like Spielberg and other Hollywood luminaries. It is rumoured that John held Chevy Chase in a headlock for a full hour and a half at this party, and then was forced to roll out of bed the next morning to show a young Brooke Shields the main bedroom during a very poorly timed rental preview.
After the cast returned and finished Series Two, a lack of funding drove the show off the air for an entire year. During this time, John Candy had a chance to launch a variety show of his own and ran with it. Catherine O’Hara, who was an extreme party animal who often came to work after literally staying out all night with her sister and her musician friends, took a year off, presumably to sleep. Ramis was hired to pen Caddyshack and never looked back.
Alexander again broke through with an opportunity to create Series Three — the only problem was that the show would have to be shot in … Edmonton. It was … well, Edmonton. Martin and Levy didn’t jump at that ‘exciting’ opportunity and only offered their services part-time. With Candy still otherwise engaged, and O’Hara briefly courting the SNL show, new cast members were called in, and Tony Rosato, Robin Duke and the content powerhouse known as Rick Moranis came onboard.
Moranis, known as the ‘blitzkrieg,’ had more than enough juice in him to help make up for the cast change-up, transforming his former gig as a DJ into the character Gerry Todd — dude invented the modern VJ! — and a million other brilliant characters, including a lovable little hoser named Bob (please see more about Bob and Doug in Meaux’s awesome ‘Growing Up Canadian’ article).
In Edmonton the show gained its footing. Hair and makeup, set design, and overall production quality finally met the challenge presented by a show heavy on impersonations and television parody, and in the arid social landscape of Edmonton, SCTV improved its game and gained an attractive sheen that the larger networks began to take notice of.
In 1981 NBC pitched a deal for a new series of 90 minute weeklies that lured Candy and O’Hara back to the fold (Tony Rosato and Robin Duke landed spots on SNL — spots that other cast members were turned down for in years previous — and left the show. In fact, Lorne Michaels told John Candy ‘not to quit his day job’ after auditioning. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.) Series three was airing in syndication in both Canadian and American markets, and with the growing success of Bob and Doug to the south, the show began to find its audience.
The true brilliance of the show was always in its complexity and utter lack of interest in whether or not an audience was ‘getting’ the references. SCTV never sucked up to anyone. Why simply parody Ben Hur when you can portray him as Curly from the Three Stooges? Are the hero’s mother and sister turned into lepers or leopards? End it with the “Ballad of Davy Crockett” and you begin to see how it was. You find out that recovering alcoholic newscaster, Floyd Robertson, is actually moonlighting as ‘Count Floyd’ the host of the epically un-frightening ‘Monster Chiller Horror Theatre’. The Russians take over the SCTV network satellite and all of a sudden you’re subject to Russia’s CCCP-1 broadcast schedule, watching ‘What Fits Into Russia?’ and public service announcements warning against associating with Uzbeks. O’Hara’s ‘hot mess’ celebrity Lola Heatherton pitched wild spectaculars — shows that featured the spectacularly inept dance troupe led by the show’s costume designer, Juul Haalmeyer and other crew members. Rubes from the prairies discussed Godard before getting their kicks blowing up celebrities. Famous performers of all stripes were absolutely slaughtered. And terrible, terrible things befell the tiny island nation of Togo.
NBC insisted upon a list of Ten Directives for their version of the show. The cast promptly denied them all but two — and they only agreed to musical guests because Catherine wanted them. Even though the show had a vast catalogue of original material, they agreed — anything to reduce the grueling workload. So, improbably, SCTV featured musical acts such as Levon Helm, The Boomtown Rats, The Tubes, Wendy O’ Williams and Plasmatics, Hall and Oates, Talking Heads, Tony Bennet, Joe Walsh, and Rough Trade to name a few. Even so, they were always written into sketches like Chariots of Eggs, the Fishin’ Musician and Pre-Teen World. Tony Bennett even credited his appearance on Bob and Doug McKenzie’s variety-show debacle “The Great White North Palace” as triggering a significant career comeback
The show moved back to Toronto in 1982 and 1983, and SCTV was finally receiving critical acclaim, garnering 14 nominations and winning the Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program two years in a row. However, the grind of producing such a vast amount of content was beginning to show, and Moranis and Thomas left to film Strange Brew. After O’Hara left too, the cast was lucky to capture an old friend, Martin Short, who ably generated outrageous energy and content to the show, (much like Rick Moranis did when he arrived fresh onto the scene). Sketches such as The Queen Haters and the Monster Chiller Horror Production ‘Scenes From an Idiot’s Marriage’ were as specific to the ‘SCTV savant’ aesthetic as anything else that had come before.
The show finally ran out of steam in 1984. With the cast down to four with the departure of John Candy, and then NBC’s decision to cancel when the group balked at being offered a prime time gig with requirements to ‘dumb down the drug humour’ (which makes one wonder — did NBC ever see the show?) SCTV did a short stint on Cinemax. When Martin Short announced he was taking Ed Grimley over to SNL, Alexander announced the show was done. Over its six year run, SCTV produced 78 half-hour episodes, 57 90-minute episodes, endless syndicated re-edits, garnered 14 Emmy nominations, 2 Emmy awards for best writing for a variety, musical or comedy and … oh yeah … revolutionized comedy forevermore.
“They created this show that had no reason to exist, and nobody was particularly looking for it, and it arrived. …It’s hard to describe to young people today how unusual — and how revolutionary - that show was. …It made me believe that [when it comes to comedy] God is in the details.” ~ Conan O’Brian
Replica really loves this show, and wishes she had higher quality clips to show you. She’d like to dedicate the article to an extraordinary Canadian, John D., who could use a laugh.
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