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SCTV: "The Great White North"

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In his opening comments before hosting a SCTV reunion in Aspen, Conan O'Brien talks movingly about finding SCTV in the wasteland of syndicated television in 1977 as an impressionable, comedy-starved fourteen-year-old and feeling like it somehow belonged to him and him alone. Saturday Night Live belonged to everybody. Its Not Ready For Prime Time Players became the biggest movie stars in the world. Its catchphrases ricocheted through water-cooler conversations and frat parties. It inspired an endless parade of movies, some good (Wayne's World, Office Space), some less so (It's Pat: The Movie).

But SCTV seemed to belong to the geeks, the outcasts, the comedy nerds willing to scour TV Guide and stay up late for their weekly fix of hilariosity. As O'Brien attests, the show inspired just about every sketch comedy that followed, from The Ben Stiller Show and Kids In The Hall to Mr. Show and The Upright Citizen's Brigade. If Saturday Night Live revolved around the cool kids, SCTV belonged to the theater geeks, the pop culture obsessives, the weird-looking dudes with caterpillar eyebrows who didn't feel weird about wearing make-up and doing bizarre characters.

We are coming to the end of the first cycle of SCTV here at TV Club. At this point during my increasingly irrelevant chronicling of Saturday Night Live's second season I was feeling more exhausted than ecstatic. The season proved something of an endurance test. It was exceedingly difficult to come up with new, interesting ways to say pretty much the same thing, week in and week out. Boy, 90 minutes sure is a lot of time to fill! Hey, that Dan Aykroyd sure is a genius. Isn't that Gilda Radner just adorable? Even at its best, Saturday Night Live is consistently inconsistent.

Yet I'm not experiencing any fatigue at all in writing about SCTV. It's a gift that keeps on giving. I wrote earlier that SCTV and early SNL were equally good but I am officially changing my opinion. They may be equally good, but SCTV is consistently gooder (or would that be "more gooderer"? Oh, semantics) than SNL. The average episode of SCTV is more than the sum of its formidable parts, both because it illuminates some weird nook and cranny of the weird, wonderful Melonville world and because it generally tells a coherent, cohesive story rather than piling one iffy stand-alone sketch on top of another.


The connective tissue is a little looser on the last SCTV episode of the SCTV Network 90 box set. The main thread find lovable hosers Doug and Bob Macknenzie (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis) once again looking for a topic for their next show. When Eugene Levy's Brian Johns, one of the comic actor's formidable arsenal of twitchy, awkward Poindexters, says he's going to explore the world of rock on an upcoming show, the brothers steal his idea and get Canuck rocker Ian Thomas to appear on "The Great White North". At this point I was wondering, "Who the hell is Ian Thomas and why is he being showcased so extensively?" Granted, it's not as if SCTV featured the reunited Beatles every week but even for SCTV Thomas seemed a little small time.

It turns out that Thomas is, non-shockingly enough, Dave Thomas' brother. He doesn't exactly give nepotism a good name but he's a decent enough roots rocker and does a pretty solid Mackenzie brothers impersonation. Then again you could probably hock a loogie in Canada in the early eighties and be secure in the knowledge it'd land on someone only too happy to do impersonate Bob and Doug. This episode isn't quite as inspired as "The Great White North Palace" episode, which managed to be both a great Bob and Doug episode and an inspired meta-commentary on the Mackenzie Brothers phenomenon and the perils of instant fame, especially of the unearned variety, but it's not bad.


The show is filled out with plenty of "Golden Classics", including a hilarious Johnny Larue exercise show where Larue illustrates the lowest-intensity workout in existence and once again angrily denies being gay. There's also a great "Money Talks" sketch. The idea behind "Money Talks" is genius: Levy plays a fidgety overgrown adolescent who asks prominent citizens exceedingly awkward questions about how much money they have. It's a sketch that speaks directly and irreverently to humanity's boundless curiosity about the lives and pocketbooks of the rich and famous and Rick Moranis is absolutely perfect as a tycoon who semi-patiently puts up with John's invasive questions.

The episode is padded out with an elaborate Fantasy Island parody that riffs on the road films of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca. It's ambitious but it's not particularly funny, which is anomalous for a show where Herculean ambition generally met brilliant execution. Well, folks, I think this is far from the last you'll read from me about SCTV. I plan to continue covering SCTV in some context, writing up the third season of Saturday Night Live and eventually tackling the first season of Mr. Show season as well, but not at the same time. Even a sketch comedy fiend has to know his limits.


Grade: B+ Stray Observations– –Was there a bum episode in this entire set? I don't think so. –Though I haven't watched it in its entirety yet the SCTV reunion (which features Harold Ramis and Martin Short but not Moranis) is fascinating and surprisingly tense –I similarly recommend the vintage Canadian news report on Mackenzie Brothers mania sweeping the Great White North. Fascinating stuff.

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