- Dan Connors
SCTV- Laughs from up north, eh?
Sketch comedy has a long and storied history in American television, from the days of Your Show of Shows to Jackie Gleason to Carol Burnett. The art form truly took off in the 1970's with the debut of Monty Python's Flying Circus, a British comedy sketch show that broke through to become a worldwide phenomenon. American comedians noticed, and scrambled to produce their own irreverent sketch shows that drew from popular comedy proving grounds like Second City and National Lampoon. Lorne Michaels hired six unknown comics and created Saturday Night Live in 1975. Not to be outdone, the Canadian branch of Second City, based in Toronto, decided to create its own sketch tv show, and SCTV was born.
SCTV debuted in 1976 and was popular with Canadian audiences almost immediately. But Canadian shows for whatever reason rarely got shown in the US. (And still don't- most popular Canadian shows are never picked up by US networks, but with streaming services that is starting to change. Schitt's Creek is the latest breakaway cross-border hit.)
In 1981, thanks to the success of SNL, NBC decided to take a chance and pick up a 90 minute version of SCTV to be broadcast on Friday nights while a new cast tried to keep SNL from being cancelled. (which almost happened in 1984) The US version only ran a few years, but it launched into stardom a most of the SCTV cast including John Candy, Rick Moranis, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, and Martin Short.
SCTV and SNL were very different sketch comedy shows. SNL was live, had musical guests, and presented a variety of sketches from the bizarre to the political, none of them tied together in any particular way. SCTV presented itself as a fake television network with continuing, recognizable characters, and each episode had a recurring theme or plot. Not being live, SCTV had the luxury of rehearsals and rewrites, which makes its shows stronger in the vein of Monty Python.
I recently did a binge watch of SCTV episodes, which is very hard to do since none of the episodes are carried by anybody, and no DVD's have been issued in nearly 20 years. The best place to watch SCTV now is on YouTube, which has short sketches available to watch. The show for the most part holds up nicely, and it was great to see people like John Candy, Martin Short, and Eugene Levy in their prime.
The sketches are a bit dated, as you might expect, and the all-white cast wouldn't cut it today, but for its time it was legendary. The cast relied heavily on their recurring characters, such as Joe Flaherty's Count Floyd, John Candy's Johnny LaRue, and Andrea Martin's Edith Prickley. These characters are exaggerated for comic effect, and SCTV milks them just as much as SNL milked the Coneheads, Debbie Downer, and Stefon. Finding memorable, funny characters is the holy grail in sketch comedy, and both shows excelled in finding humor in recurring characters.
The cast also had some great impressions of famous celebrities of the time, including Bob Hope, Woody Allen, Dick Cavett. and George Carlin. And being a mock tv station, the commercial parodies and show previews were funny and amusing for the short times they appeared as fillers and links.
Probably the funniest and most famous bit on SCTV involved them thumbing their noses at Canadian officials who insisted on "Canadian" content in every episode. The Great White North starring Doug and Bob McKenzie mocked everything Canadian by presenting two slacker hosts who were drunk and silly most of the time. (See the link below). It amazes me that this sketch came to define SCTV, expanding into a full length movie (Strange Brew) and a large following of slackers from all over the world.
The NBC version ran 90 minutes and included musical guests, but now those shows are almost impossible to find. They made their mark on the television public, probably more than other SNL wannabes like Fridays and Mad TV. Most of the cast members were also writers, and the show won Emmy's for writing in 1982 and 1983. SCTV was dumped suddenly by NBC in 1983 in lieu of a music video program (MTV was the hot commodity by then), and the show faded away, to be brought back multiple times for reunion specials. The cast went on to make movies, and no reboot has ever been attempted.
SCTV was a unique, well-crafted sketch comedy show, and its admirers recall it even 40 years later. Here are some sample comments from You Tube.
"I loved that show when I was in HS; the only comedy show I loved more was Monty Python. The level of humor in both shows was sublime for a teen nerd like me."
"Great seeing this again. Watching SCTV was one of my few happy memories of being a teenager."
"SCTV was hilarious - it was on after Saturday Night Live - and I remember thinking it was much funnier than SNL many times. "
"1000 years from now, SCTV will be taught in the schools. It is timeless comedy, the funniest of any generation. I feel privileged just to have seen them in their prime...."
For you who are old enough to remember, here is a popular classic sketch featuring Howard Cosell and a boxing match between Mr. Rogers and Julia Child from PBS. Enjoy.