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SCTV: "Polynesiantown"

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As an entertainer writer, in all seriousness, it is my distinct pleasure to bring you the second SCTV entry for TV Club Classic. I have a feeling that exploring SCTV together will be an uplifting experience, not unlike Jane Russell's Cross-Your-Heart bra though I solemnly swear that it will entail more than just clumsy, re-contextualized SCTV references.

Since this is the second SCTV entry and the first all-new episode I'm covering now would probably be a good time to get all the clumsy, obvious observations out of the way. First, there is genius of SCTV's framing device as both a fictional television channel and a behind-the-scenes look at the channel's backstage shenanigans. Alone among its peers, SCTV was a sketch comedy show, an elaborate and wide-ranging show-biz satire, a soap opera of sorts and a situation comedy.

The SCTV concept ruled out a fair amount of slice-of-life sketches, since nothing could appear on the show unless it happened either behind the scenes of SCTV or on the network itself–but it otherwise granted the writers and performers both enormous freedom and some challenging strictures. It also reflected the obsessions and preoccupations of a generation weaned on the glass teat and the SCTV gang's exquisitely passive-aggressive relationship with the medium they were at once skewering and paying homage to.


It's hard to overestimate SCTV's influence on The Simpsons. Matt Groening has spoken extensively about how the depth and inter-connectedness of SCTV's Melonville inspired him to make Springfield a major character in itself. Like The Simpsons and so many other cult classics, SCTV offers not just some characters and a setting but rather a deep, rich and endlessly fascinating universe to get lost in.

But on with the show! Today's episode opens with a commercial for 5 Neat Guys, a rich, multi-leveled parody of the quaint, narcotizing squareness of terminally white 50s vocal groups, with their matching sweaters, bland harmonies and creepy Stepford smiles. The bit gets an added layer of ridiculousness from the incongruity of clearly middle-aged men singing about high school subjects like class clowns ("I'm the goof in the Classroom"), girls with bad reputations ("She Does It") and oversized mammaries ("Patsy Has the Largest Breasts in Town"). Joe Flaherty plays the token drunk Neat Guy and now would probably be a good time to point out that almost nobody does drunk and sad better than Flaherty. He's right up there with Dean Martin, whether in his Neat Guy incarnation or making perennially irritated newscaster Floyd Robertson (and by extension Count Floyd) a secret alcoholic.


"The Tim Ishimuni Show" follows, with the titular offensive (yet really funny) Japanese caricature chatting with special guest Grogan (voiced by John Candy), a Godzilla-like monster who really wants to put all that destroying-cities and terrifying-populaces stuff behind him to concentrate on pimping his new book. Dave Thomas' Ishimuni will have none of it, however, and after a series of taunting questions gets him to crush an airplane for old time's sake. This sketch was funny but was it realist? Yes, yes it was.


The episode is built around Polynesiantown, an elaborate, albeit fairly loose two-part Chinatown parody featuring a famous crane shot that sent the show so over budget that the producers were chastised by NBC. SCTV later made repeated references to both the cost overruns involved in that glorious, glorious crane shot and the backlash from the network. Cause that's the kind of nerdy show SCTV was: the kind that goes to the mat over a single crane shot, then gets endless comic mileage out of it. To this day I cannot look at a really sweet crane shot (most recently the famous one in High Noon) and not think of John Candy's Johnny Larue, auteur, actor, sleazebag and crane-shot enthusiast.

Candy's Larue stars in Polynesiantown as the owner of a Polynesian restaurant in the midst of a disastrous opening. The opening act (Andrea Martin's Big Momma) belly flops, the press promises to pan it after getting shut down in their quest for freebies and musical guest Dr. John refuses to wear a grass skirt or perform Polynesian music, even after Larue pleads ""Surely as a physician, you must realize that those people came here to hear Polynesian songs!"


The rest of the show is filled with comedy goodness. Eugene Levy's schlock comedian Bobby Bitman appears on The Sammy Maudlin Show to show some outtakes from his appearance before a Senate subcommittee on drugs and Hollywood. He understandably gets a little choked up when he boasts "This drug thing that's happening in town–I don't know about you, Sammy, but when I get paid, I get paid with the green stuff, I don't get paid with white stuff". Sammy Maudlin began life as a parody of Sammy Davis Jr's famously smarmy and sycophantic talk show, where every guest is fabulous babe, really just fabulous babe, and mutual admiration societies were the order of the day.

Like so much SCTV, this bit captures a show business that no longer exists, a back-slapping universe where everyone is everyone else's best pal and biggest admirer and you could smoke and drink on-air. The other big cornerstone of Sammy Maudlin sketches is the exquisite passive-aggression of Maudlin's sidekick William B. William (John Candy), a second banana who alternates between gushing praise and thinly veiled put-downs, as when he "praises" Maudlin for overcoming his terrible drug addiction and alcoholism and plugs his book about him, Sammy Maudlin–The Loser I Knew.


The rest of the episode illustrates the dazzlingly eclectic nature of the show's satire, with spot-on spoofs of the entire Angry Young Men genre of early sixties British films, Joel Silver (the inspiration for Rick Moranis' Larry Seigel character, a perpetually loud, agitated jerk), Evita (in the form of a mock commercial for an Evita-like touring musical featuring Andrea Martin's Indira Ghandi and Joe Flaherty's Slim Whitman), Watergate dirty trickster G. Gordon Liddy (in a mock film adaptation of Liddy's memoir Will), Soviet weightlifter Yuri Rozmanovich (here the host of an amusingly tacky variety show) and self-infatuated DJs/VJs (the first episode ofThe Gerry Todd Show. That's an awful lot of satirical ground to cover in a mere ninety minutes, and SCTV does right by pretty much everything it spoofs here.

If I may throw a little more geek love Rick Moranis' way (come back! The comedy world needs you!), I really love his Gerry Todd character, a goateed "Video Disk Jockey" with a sonorous voice and a purring delivery that's downright hypnotic. He's a silly little man, happy in his high-tech world of levers and switches and electronic doo-dads that make his heart sing and he embodies one of Moranis' specialties: smooth-talking narcissists in love with the sound of their own voice, snugly ensconced in a protective bubble of self-love. Have I mentioned that I love this show? Cause I totally do.


Grade: A- Stray Observations –In one of the special features included on one of the DVDs, Eugene Levy recycles one of Bobby Bitman's great lines when he says that if there was drug use among the cast and crew of SCTV it was "the green stuff, not the white stuff" –Oddly enough, the A.V Club does pay us in the white stuff, not the green stuff. Shit, I probably shouldn't have said that. –Are any of you offended by Tim Ishimuni? It's certainly not the most culturally sensitive characterization of An Asian gentleman I've ever seen –In a pretty sweet throwaway gag, Mother Theresa is a guest on the Sammy Maudlin Show but they never get around to talking to her. Obviously she's not as important as the Bobby Bitmans and Lola Heathertons of the world. –what did I miss? What did I overrate/underrate?

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