Each delirious episode began in the same adroitly subversive way — with a torrent of TV sets hurtling out apartment windows.
And the bombastic voiceover that followed was a beacon to all diehard comedy nerds: “SCTV is on the air!”
For any TV junkie who grew up in the ’70s, the wildly inventive sketch series defined Canadiana and our uniquely outsider perspective in a whole new hilarious way.
And its cast of kooks — among them a hyperactive man-child named Ed Grimley, a leopard print-clad station boss named Edith Prickley and a couple of dim-witted hosers named Bob and Doug — would become unlikely ambassadors for the brainy but funny artists, musicians, actors and writers raised in the Great White North.
Today, its stars are legendary: the late John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, the U.S.-bred Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty and the late Harold Ramis, as well as later Canadian cast members Martin Short and Rick Moranis.
Back then, they were just a group of pals who loved to make each other laugh, former head writer Ramis recounted in one interview that can be found online.
“We just pleased ourselves (with) what we thought was funny and I think that led us to a kind of comedy that was later acknowledged — even by people at Saturday Night — as being slightly more inspired or freer or smarter or something,” Ramis said of a wildly talented crew that debuted in the shadow of NBC’s slicker late night showcase, which would later come to be known as Saturday Night Live.
“Saturday Night people always paid lip service to SCTV saying we were really the funny show but it was a little like being the comedians’ comedians, or playing to the band in a certain way. The audience might not have gotten what we were doing but other comedy people seem to have really appreciated it and real hardcore comedy fans knew every scene that we did.”
The cast was drawn from the nascent Toronto branch of Chicago’s famed Second City improvisational theatre.
And its modest beginnings mirrored the cheap and hapless TV station it parodied, set in the fictional town of Melonville where it seemed anything could, and did, happen.
When it launched on just a handful of Global stations in southern Ontario in September 1976, it had no stars, no sponsors, and barely enough funds to pull together a bare bones show. It would go on to a disjointed run that often teetered on cancellation until its demise in 1984.
But a genius premise gave the young cast licence to run wild with demented characters.
There was Candy’s smooth-talking network star Johnny LaRue; Short’s deluded albino lounge singer Jackie Rogers, Jr.; O’Hara’s big-haired entertainer Lola Heatherton; Candy and Levy’s inane polka duo Yosh and Stan Schmenge; and Thomas and Martin’s marble-mouthed hucksters Tex and Edna Boil, the owners of various small businesses forever imploring viewers to “Come on down!”
The humour was undeniably silly, but deceptively smart as it took viewers — the first generation to be reared on TV — behind the scenes with sharp satire that riffed on celebrity, fame, the media and pop culture.
It was shameless and subversive, and thanks to the fact few skits were particularly topical, went on to stand the test of time in a way few comedies of the era would.
Levy says SCTV was just following in a grand tradition of biting Canadian satire.
“I don’t know if that’s because we were part of the Commonwealth back when and there’s a bit more of a British edge to our sensibility, but there’s always been — going back to when I was still a kid watching late night shows on CBC like Night Cap — very kind of hot, hip shows that you always found really kind of smart and extremely funny,” says Levy.
“In the early ’70s a bunch of great people certainly came out of Toronto around the time I was hanging around here — the John Candys and Dan Aykroyds and Marty Shorts — it was really ripe comedically speaking and then shortly after our little burst you had Kids in the Hall which had their show on as well, which to me again really had that kind of British sensibility to it, almost Python-esque in a way.”
Echoes of SCTV would reverberate decades later — it’s hard not to see Levy’s take on a mustachioed, frustrated game show host Alex Trebek in Will Ferrell’s similarly themed version of Alex Trebek for SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy! or view the surreal antics of modern-day reality TV as unwitting re-enactments of scraps between SCTV’s over-blown and over-exposed personalities.
Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, is said to have drawn inspiration for the loony residents of Springfield from SCTV’s Melonville and Conan O’Brien has said it was the biggest influence on his comedy career.
Without it, there arguably would have been no The Kids in the Hall, The Ben Stiller Show, nor Mr. Show With Bob and David.
Even legendary crooner Tony Bennett has touted it for launching a career comeback in the 1980s, when he appeared alongside Bob and Doug for their disastrous (natch) variety show.
Yuk Yuk’s founder Mark Breslin says the series emerged during a magical time for Canada’s burgeoning comedy scene.
“It’s lightning in a bottle in a lot of ways, that era, isn’t it? But that’s also because people didn’t really know what they had in a sense,” says the standup patron, whose comedy clubs helped cultivate future Canuck stars Howie Mandel, Jim Carrey, Norm Macdonald and Tom Green.
“I think most artistic endeavours work best when it’s approached from a point of innocence — and there was a great innocence about what the business was then. There almost wasn’t a business. People were just doing things because they seemed funny and they were happy to be working.”
At the same time, Canuck comics had the benefit of drawing inspiration and influence from two cultural powerhouses inextricably linked with so much of our history, suggests improv master Colin Mochrie.
“When I was growing up, I saw as many British comedy and shows as I did American shows and I think Canadians sort of have a hybrid of those two humours,” muses the Whose Line Is It Anyway? star, adding that Canada’s notorious inferiority complex might have played a role here, too.
“We’re also like a little brother — outsiders to America — and I think that made us want to hone our comedic skills so we could get noticed.”
SCTV went a long way towards making that happen.
A late-night syndication deal put the quirky comedy on NBC after Saturday Night in most U.S. markets, allowing it to build a cult following on both sides of the border.
NBC would later pick it up as a 90-minute show from 1981 to 1983, when it arguably hit a creative and critical stride with the addition of Short’s manic characters and the increasing popularity of Bob and Doug, who spun off a bestselling comedy album Great White North and movie Strange Brew.
Fellow Canuck and musician Paul Shaffer recalls watching the show as he worked on Saturday Night Live with fellow Canadian castmember Aykroyd and Toronto-born show creator Lorne Michaels.
Shaffer had bonded with Levy, Short, Thomas and Martin as fellow castmembers in the 1972 Toronto production of Godspell, which also included local boy Victor Garber and future SNL star and U.S. import, Gilda Radner.
“At the time, I thought, ‘These people are great but, boy, if I ever got to New York, I’m going to see some talented people then,’” says Shaffer, who moved south after Godspell to work on Broadway and joined the Saturday Night Live house band in 1975.
“Well, of course, I was wrong. These people were the greatest, and acknowledged by the Americans as wow, legendary.”
Of course, Canada has been quietly shaping U.S. pop culture for decades, going back to silent film producer Mack Sennett and his slapstick Keystone Cops, “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford and her star-making silver screen roles, and Montreal-born political satirist Mort Sahl, considered by many to be the father of modern day stand-up comedy.
You don’t have to search far to find homegrown trailblazers in music, too, with Oscar Peterson, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen each evolving into legends in their own right.
Ultimately, SCTV’s ratings failed to take off, and its stars began defecting to pursue individual careers. The show landed on the fledgling cable network Cinemax for a final run in 1983.
Andrew Alexander, show producer and head of The Second City in Toronto, says its spirit endures in the work of countless comics working today.
“If you talk to even Seth Rogen or Judd Apatow or Jimmy Kimmel or any major (comic) — Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey — they all talk about SCTV as being their influence. It’s pretty cool that they still look at that as kind of a seminal inspiration,” he says.
These days Canadian successes are everywhere, and arguably at a new apex of popularity and influence.
Just turn to late night’s newest Canuck sensation, sneaker-clad Samantha Bee, a pioneer herself as the genre’s only female comedy host. Michaels, meanwhile, is the veritable king of late night as the boss of SNL, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Myers.
Meanwhile, the film world has caught on to Quebec wunderkind and Cannes darling Xavier Dolan, while the stealth ascendancy of Denis Villeneuve as sci-fi’s newest visionary is whipping cinephiles into a frenzy over his upcoming takes on Blade Runner and Dune.
Hollywood’s biggest stars include nice guys Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, and Christopher Plummer; and television just wouldn’t be the same without Michael J. Fox, William Shatner, Jason Priestley, and Kiefer Sutherland.
Drake, The Weeknd, Alessia Cara, Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber are dominating music charts and streaming services, while Toronto-bred YouTube star Lilly Singh is leading a revolution of video creators storming a whole new industry driven by social media.
If Canadians have a knack for breaking through in Hollywood, Breslin suggests it’s due to a well-earned reputation for hard work and an easy-going demeanour, as well as a distinctive point of view.
“We’re among them but we’re not of them. And I think that’s an important distinction to make. And that is something that really works to Canadians’ advantage.”
After years of absorbing U.S. pop culture and melding it with our British roots, we seem to have perfected the art of revealing the very essence of America right back at it, says former SNL star Mike Myers, whose myriad oddball characters and catchphrases have wormed their way into so many aspects of U.S. entertainment.
“While we may not, as a culture, have a distinct cultural cuisine, if you will, we’re made up of fantastic ingredients,” says the Austin Powers, Wayne’s World and Shrek star.
“So we didn’t invent folk music, but Joni Mitchell may have perfected it. And we didn’t invent rock music but (we had) Neil Young and The Band. It just goes on and on. It’s a great place to be an artist.”