Today, virtually all the cast members are famous: Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Rick Moranis, the late John Candy. But they became famous–and beloved–by starting out as the best-kept secret of late night. What they did was comedy for comedy’s sake, the kind of stuff that makes comedians themselves laugh: breathtakingly spot-on imitations and parodies that in a more mass-audience-focused show would be simply scrapped, because “nobody out there will get it.”
Conan O’Brien recounts that when he was a teenager in Massachusetts in the late 1970s, he felt as if the amazing comedy of SCTV
were a private discovery he had made, a “secret” show that spoke to him alone. I had a very similar experience in my own teenage years, in Montreal, Canada. SCTV
wasn’t a show that the general public talked about much; it started out in syndication but got such impressive word-of-mouth from the pros that it was picked up by NBC for a couple of seasons in the early 1980s. None of the shows have ever been available on home video, until now: The five-DVD box set SCTV Network/90–Volume I
(Shout! Factory, $89.98) has just been released, and it contains the first nine 90-minute episodes that aired on NBC in 1981.
SCTV was “concept” comedy, in that all the sketches were rather loosely integrated into a framing narrative about a small-town TV station; but the recurring characters were the jumping-off point for dizzying heights of allusion and reference. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas played stereotypical Canadians Bob and Doug McKenzie–but also did devastatingly accurate imitations of, respectively, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. (One highlight I had forgotten was Moranis-as-Brinkley delivering an editorial about the declining quality of locally available marijuana. Priceless.) Eugene Levy (now famous for the American Pie films) played the whiny local news anchor Earl Camembert and talentless Vegas-style comic Bobby Bittman–but also did a terrific Ricardo Montalban, as well as Floyd the barber from The Andy Griffith Show.
Some of John Candy’s best work is on this DVD set, and reminds us how great a loss comedy sustained when he passed from the scene. His most perfectly realized recurring character was the blustery and egotistical lounge lizard Johnny LaRue, who managed, very convincingly, to be insulting, hilarious, and pathetic, all at the same time: a late-20th-century Falstaff.
But the real revelation of this set is perhaps the least famous member of the cast: Pittsburgh-born Joe Flaherty, I submit, is one of the greatest comedians of our time. Start with his characterization of TV-station boss Guy Caballero: a venal, overbearing sleazeball who travels around in a wheelchair–even though he can walk–because he thinks it’s a way he can win “respect.” Then watch Flaherty do a Bing Crosby that is so accurate it will cause your hair to stand up on the back of your neck. And Alastair Cooke. And Beaver Cleaver’s alcoholic father, in a terrific Leave It to Beaver send-up. And Count Floyd, the late-night horror-movie host who is always somehow given the wrong, non-horror movie, and desperately tries to convince the audience that it was a horror movie after all: “Oooh, kids, that Ingmar Bergman…he’s…really scary!” (One regret: It’s not on this set, but take my word for it, Flaherty does the best imitation of William F. Buckley Jr.–more reason to look forward to the release of further SCTV material on DVD.)
In one of the documentaries included in this box set, Conan O’Brien talks about the influence SCTV had on comedians in the 1990s, and up to our own time. That’s undeniable, but these DVDs are of much more than historical interest: They show some wildly talented people hitting for the long ball–and still getting laughs, and gasps of recognition, after almost a quarter century.