SCTV on DVD set for release
Johnny LaRue, Edith Prickley, Bob and Doug, Guy Cabellero, Bobby Bittman, Lola Heatherton.
Those memorable characters from the now-iconic SCTV comedy shows of the late 1970s and early ’80s are coming to DVD, with the first of four boxed sets to be released Tuesday, and the remainder over the next year.
SCTV began as a cheesy little syndicated comedy show in a cheesy little Global TV studio in Toronto. And then in 1981 it got picked up by NBC as a late-night companion to Saturday Night Live. But unlike SNL, the Canadian-based show developed more of a cult following, seen as absolutely brilliant by such future comics as a young Conan O’Brien, while network suits of the day scratched their heads in bewilderment.
But over the years just about anyone who has ever watched television can recall a favourite SCTV sketch, whether it was the widely popular McKenzie Brothers or Count Floyd, or more obscure but inspired pop-culture cross-referencing fare like Polynesiantown, NASA’s Mercury III players’ version of Murder in the Cathedral or the cast performing a Chekhov play only to be interrupted by Star Trek’s Chekov beaming onto the set.
Who could ever forget the multi-layered content of the Merv Griffith Show Special Edition, a perverse combination of Merv Griffin, Andy Griffith and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Or The Midnight Express Special, featuring Wolfman Jack in a blend of the drug-smuggling movie and the old TV music variety show?
One of the first such sketches was a parody of Casablanca with John Candy and Catherine O’Hara in the Bogart-Bergman roles. But it soon morphed into a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road movie with a dash of Fantasy Island thrown in (with Candy as the diminutive Tattoo!).
Cast members recall the days when the whole production packed up and moved to Edmonton where they wrote and taped some of their most inspired material. The fact that they were in Alberta kept the suits away and allowed them to be creative.
“No executives could really come up there to keep tabs on us because if they left their chairs in L.A. empty too long someone would take them,” says Dave Thomas about the creative freedom they had.
Thomas says NBC became furious at some of the material that got through because they were delivering the episodes at the very last minute with no time for screening. He recalls doing a parody of Al Pacino’s Cruising in which he was a butch chef fist-stuffing a turkey that had its legs spread apart with chains. After that one, the network sent a censor to live full-time in Edmonton.
“At first he was very standoffish and dictatorial, then ultimately he became one of the gang. And then he became a co-conspirator with us!”
Joe Flaherty agrees that the location fuelled their creativity because there weren’t as many distractions as in a larger city, leaving them more time to write and perform the sketches.
“I still remember talking to someone down there about the show, somebody from NBC, and they were saying `Now what coast is Edmonton on?'”
Executive producer Andrew Alexander also recalls how being in Edmonton meant the cast members did their best work 24/7.
“Yeah, there’s no drugs, no managers, no agents, no outside temptations like you have in L.A. and New York.”
At the time, there was the perception of a long-running rivalry with Saturday Night Live. While both shows had strong Canadian roots and both dipped into the Second City theatre casts in Chicago and Toronto for talent, it’s agreed now that there was a vast difference between the two.
SNL was performed live with a studio audience and limited by the cramped facilities of NBC’s famed Studio 8-H in New York. SCTV was taped single-camera-style, like a movie, was able to shoot exteriors and for the most part shied away from timely subject matter, a fortunate decision because most of the DVD material has not been outdated.
“They did have a much more rigorous schedule,” concedes Flaherty. “They had to get that show out every week live, and just in doing that you’re not going to get a chance to get all the quality stuff in that you want to.”
Alexander says it was only in the last 10 years that it became apparent SCTV had found a special place in the annals of TV comedy, right up there with Monty Python. And he attributes that largely to its Canadian sensibility, because its cast members were not only intelligent but steeped in American pop culture by watching it from a distance across the border.
“So there was never any sense of wanting to talk down to the audience,” he says, despite frequent pressure from NBC to try and make the humour acceptable to a wider audience.
Each DVD set includes five discs, the first set offering episodes of the 90-minute NBC shows that began in 1981. Earlier half-hour episodes will be released later. Also included are look-back interviews by the cast, a tribute to the late John Candy, the 1999 SCTV reunion event at the Aspen Comedy Arts Festival, plus commentaries and a 24-page photo booklet.
SCTV on DVD set for release