Drawn from the first three seasons of SCTV‘s innovative run, this DVD set hits many of the show’s highlights: from the municipal elections in the fictional town of Melonville, through the first MacKenzie Brothers appearance (“Take off, eh?”), to well-loved characters like Bobby Bittman, Edith Prickley and Guy Cabellero. Many of the references are dated—who really remembers that Palmolive “You’re soaking in it” commercial or the game show What’s My Line? anymore?—but the sharp-witted silliness of the series remains fairly fresh. If the sight of a half dozen televisions flying out of apartment windows doesn’t crack you up now, it probably never did, and too bad for you, anyway.
The premise of the whole series was that SCTV was a local television station run by the wheel-chaired and white suited Guy Cabellero and managed by Edith Prickley (she of the horn-rimmed glasses, abrasive voice, and leopard print coat). As a result, segments of each episode were a series of parodies—not just of television shows, but of the ads and promos between them. The real (non-television) world intruded only occasionally; SCTV took broadcast concepts that were already absurd (“Dialing for Dollars”, “Midnight Express”) and pushed them into even more ridiculous territory. It was like Saturday Night Live, but more TV-focused. Many of these episodes were extended conceptual gags; “My Factory, Myself” riffed on a whole series of women’s empowerment movies, from Norma Rae, to An Unmarried Woman, to Coming Home over the full-length of the episode.
An odder, darker, not as funny “1984—Big Brother” envisioned television broadcasts under Orwell’s totalitarian state. There’s a chilling kids show called “Comrade Kangaroo” (though very few current viewers will likely remember the old Captain Kangaroo) and a Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker-ish televangelism show. It’s a repellent but fascinating concept, going on, as many of these things do, a little too long, but wholly interesting as an effort.
Another long-form effort that works well is the “Midnight Express Special”, which conflates the early ‘80s drug movie Midnight Express with the Wolfman Jack-hosted late night rock show of the same name. We see a string of music stars—John Denver singing “Rocky Mountain High” (that’s Rick Moranis) , Randy Newman (Dave Thomas) and Anne Murray (Catherine O’Hara)—getting hauled off to Turkish prisons. Abbott and Costello host the show, doing a hilarious, rock-themed take-off on the “Who’s on first” routine. (Who’s on this week? The band. What band? The band? Who? No, the Who’s on next week…and on and on), and finally having a bit of customs problem themselves as they attempt to leave Turkey.
SCTV‘s most famous skit was, arguably, the MacKenzie Brothers, whose amiable, dunderheaded banter became a staple of keg parties everywhere during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. A Canadian news segment about “hoser-mania” is, without question, the best of this DVD set’s special features. Moranis explains that the segment was originally developed because the Canadian network insisted on two extra minutes of Canadian content in SCTV‘s shows. The first MacKenzie Brothers has a very funny disclaimer that states that although four Americans write for the show, the segment is still Canadian because “They have all certified that they drink beer, eat back bacon, drive snow mobiles and wear toques.” The segments—all improvised on the spot by Moranis and Dave Thomas—became a runaway success, adding new phrases to the lexicon (such as “hoser” and “take off”), inspiring drunken imitation, as well as parades and a feature movie.
The cast of SCTV was all relatively unknown when the series started; the early episodes show a very young John Candy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty. Later, Rick Moranis, Tony Rosato and Robin Duke join the cast. Like its American cousin, Saturday Night Live, the show turned into a launching pad for lots of careers. You can hardly rent a PG-13 movie these days without running into one of the alums; Eugene Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen), Catherine O’Hara (Home Alone), Rick Moranis (Honey I Shrunk the Kids)...etc., etc. It becomes a bit disorienting to see these “kids’ movie” actors doing younger, smarter, more challenging work—though there’s plenty of silliness in the episodes, as well.
Bonus features on this three CD set are a bit tepid, mostly unrehearsed commentary by key players including Joe Flaherty, Robin Duke, and producer Andrew Alexander. Exceptions to this ho-hum rule are Andrea Martin’s warm and funny interview on disc 1. There she describes how Edith Prickley came to life one night when Catherine O’Hara brought in her mother’s old leopard print coat and hat. O’Hara took one look at Martin and said, “You must be Mrs. Prickly.” Martin responded, “That’s right dear. That’s my name don’t wear it out,” and a character was born.
Another bonus, Take Off, Eh!, charts the surprising success of the MacKenzie Brothers, who were, at the height of their fame, nominated for the Order of Canada for contributing to the Canadians’ sense of cultural identity. We see the International Hoser Day Parade, apparently in Toronto, where hundreds of young men in toques and earmuffs down Molson’s and make Doug’s peculiar “Koo-koo-koo-ooo-ooo” sound. There is also a tour of the Firehall, where SCTV started, but it is not very interesting.
Apparently, there’s been some controversy about the SCTV DVDS. Shout Factory! had some difficulty in clearing music samples, so some of the audio that went with the segments is not available. Moreover, the discs are not all-inclusive. There are no episodes from season one, and only three from season two; the bulk of these shows come from season three, 1980 to 1981, when the cast had added Moranis and Rosato and John Candy had temporarily left the show.
Still, it’s a pretty good introduction to a landmark in television comedy. It’s won at least one new fan around this house . . . someone young enough that most of the historical references have to be translated, but who nonetheless occasionally jumps off the school bus with a big grin and a Bobby Bittman-ish “Hi, how aaaah you!” Some jokes never grow stale.