The producer of my old television show liked to reference what he claimed was Gene Siskel's mantra: "Write it once, sell it five times". Siskel apparently took great pride in being able to recycle reviews in myriad forms: in print, on the radio, on Siskel & Ebert and on Johnny Carson's couch as a frequent guest of The Tonight Show.
I am nowhere near as enterprising or as sought-after. But in this TV Club Classic piece I'm going to channel Siskel, another nice Jewish boy from Rogers Park, by recycling some observations I previously made in my original A.V Club review of SCTV and my radio review of the same for NPR. Namely, I would like to gush about the mind-boggling genius of the legendary David Brinkley pot sketch. Christ, this blog is so threatening to turn into the Rick Moranis Appreciation Society. That's O.K, though. I'd like to think I'm single-handedly coaxing Moranis back into the public eye by shamelessly gushing about him at every opportunity. Honestly, Mr. Moranis, we can't let the Friedbergs and Seltzers and Mike Myers of the world win, now can we?
SCTV's latest batch of Golden Oldies opens with an editorial from David Brinkley on an unexpected topic. "In 1968, a close friend uttered the irrepressible and unforgettable phrase, "Here, try some of this". Blond Lebanese it was, a mere twenty dollars a quarter. The same smoke now approaches twenty dollars a gram, if you can find it. Most of the hash you find now is weak, stale, overpriced and worst of all, impotent. When will the street dealer be able to consistently provide quality smoke? " It seems that if you don't have a friend or two making an odd trip to the East now and then, you might as well smoke cork. Or maybe it's just me. A two-toker at one time, now it's a chillum or no buzz at all…I don't get stoned any more. I just smoke and get depressed." Moranis' scarily accurate Brinkley muses wryly with an unmistakable hint of sadness in his voice.
What makes the sketch so brilliant is that it's played absolutely straight. There is no wink, no nudge, no joking aside to the audience to indicate just how wacky it is that David Brinkley is bitching about the unavailability of high quality doobage. Moranis' Brinkley delivers the "editorial" in the same simultaneously bemused and serious tone he'd use for an editorial about legislative gridlock or a Presidential debate. There is an almost casual poetry to the piece, from the oddly evocative phrasing of "Blond Lebanese it was" to the final image of David Brinkley staring glumly at his chillum, knowing that he could smoke bowl after bowl but, in the immortal words of Krusty The Klown, all it would do is get him to normal.
Today's collection of "Golden Classics" boasts a decidedly musical bent, with another vintage edition of Mel's Rock Pile featuring a beyond-awesome musical performance by Dave Thomas' Richard Harris, and Joe Flaherty's Slim Whitman, Andrea Martin's cross-eyed Barbra Streisand, Moranis' Ringo Starr and Eugene Levy's Gino Vanelli on Lee A. Iacocca's Rock Concert. The Richard Harris bit on "Rock Concert" is one of two Harris parodies on the show; the other can be found in The Man Who Would Be King of The Popes, a sublimely silly spoof of British costume dramas and hammy British thespians in general. Two Richard Harris spoofs in one episode: this can only be SCTV, where the cast and crew's indifference to what an audience of young people wants out of a comedy show borders on perverse.
The kids might not have been hungering for satiric take-downs of David Brinkley or Slim Whitman or a pitch-perfect spoof of fifties panel shows ("What's My Shoe Size?") highlighted by Joe Flaherty's very loud, very angry, very funny Kirk Douglas, but SCTV was going to give it to them anyway. Plenty of shows talk a good game about making comedy primarily for themselves and their friends. But SCTV walked the walk.
SCTV wasn't immune from the siren song of catchphrases but it frequently mined humor from obscure, unexpected places. A good example can be found in the Sammy Maudlin Show sketch where Eugene Levy's Bobby Bittman's prop-comedy routine is interrupted by a walk-on from Dave Thomas' Bob Hope, who shows up to plug his upcoming special I Owe Peking Fifteen Dollars by showing outtakes of Hope and his writer (Moranis) running various gags up the proverbial flagpole and seeing if any Commies salute. It's an extraordinarily odd bit that derives its humor from the cultural specificity of comedy, the way it relies on a common cultural vocabulary between the audience and the comic.
Thomas' Hope tries to find common ground with his Chinese hosts but is flummoxed when drunk jokes about Foster Brooks and Phil Harris draw nothing but confused looks before a mere mention of Dean Martin ("Matt Helm! Matt Helm!") instantly builds a bridge between disparate cultures. On a similarly offbeat note, the Richard Harris bit on Mel's Rock Pile riffs ingeniously on the epic length and endless instrumental break in "MacArthur Park". Thomas' Harris sings the first verse, then spends such an eternity boogying between verses that Mel has time to go into the audience and interview dancers before Harris starts up again.
Other highlights include very funny fake commercials for Taxi Driver starring Woody Allen, Sid Dithers and Gregory Peck. The Peck impersonation reminded me of bygone days when I used to irritate a Peck-loving co-worker at a video store with my gay Gregory Peck routine, borrowing the great man of oaks' stentorian delivery to loudly enthuse "I'm Gregory Peck and I love nothing more than anonymous bathroom hook-ups. Why, on the set of To Kill A Mockingbird it wasn't unusual for me to practice the delicate art of man-love several times a day". What's that? You say that that last aside had nothing whatsoever to do with SCTV? You're entirely right. My bad.
Sorry, during these repeats my mind tends to wander. Thankfully, next week marks an end to repeats and an all-new batch of comical goodness. Yay!
Grade: A- Stray Observations –SCTV's influence is so great that It'd almost be easier to single out respected comedy shows that didn't borrow heavily from it but I detected an awful lot of Tim & Eric Awesome Show in the intentionally stilted delivery and public-access-quality production values of the ad for Tex and Edna Boil's Organ Emporium –I really like Moranis as the awkward younger brother of both Bobby Bittman and Rocking Mel. –I also liked John Candy's as the annoyed, hungover host of Mr. Science –Here's a link to the NPR piece I did on SCTV –A final thought to ponder: When will the street dealer be able to consistently provide quality smoke?