Second to None
Season Five of Second City Television marked a turning point for the critically adored sketch comedy series. NBC had picked it up in 1981, after first attempting to hire away the entire cast to replace the floundering Saturday Night Live. Started in Canada and syndicated throughout North America in 1976, SCTV looked to be another jewel in the network’s crown of cutting edge comedy. But after two years, the program was about to face some very trying times.
With the completion of Season Four, original players Dave Thomas and Catherine O’Hara left to pursue other interests—O’Hara on her own, Thomas with fellow cast member Rick Moranis—leaving John Candy, Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, and new addition Martin Short. While Moranis and Thomas were cashing in on the popularity of their crackpot Canuck characters Bob and Doug McKenzie, the show they helped elevate into a pop culture cult classic wondered if it could survive.
The actors, who also wrote for the show, faced an uphill battle replacing the McKenzies and finding a balance between their “intellectualized” material and their increasingly popular parodies and spoofs. Yet, as Short says in an interview for the new DVD set of Season Five (labeled Volume 4 by Shout!), the team realized they had to change.
In the past, SCTV had mined mirth out of such divergent famous faces as Lee A. Iacocca, Don Kirshner, David Brinkley, and Gino Vanelli. But it would be well-crafted, three-dimensional individuals, not current trendsetters or newsmakers, who salvaged the season. “It was daunting…” Short says, “Many people questioned whether [the show] was going to limp along, or how could it be as good as it was.”
It ended up being better. The season saw the creation of Short’s sensationally surreal Ed Grimley, increased time for two previous favorites (polka playing troubadours Yosh and Stan Schmenge) and new exploitations of longstanding staples like Sammy Maudlin, Bobby Bittman, Johnny LaRue, Edith Prickley, and Guy Caballero. The DVD reveals some of the specific problems the team confronted. NBC demanded “wraparound” stories, segments to tie all the skits and blackouts of a 90-minute episode together. This even though SCTV‘s premise was a bargain basement broadcasting station that featured some far-out examples of television at its tackiest.
The Peacock wanted to cut back on its famously scattershot approach. The results are varied. The “Sweeps Week” storyline is great… until a Poltergeist-meets-video-game ending throws the entire narrative out of whack. Crappy club comic Bobby Bitman’s retirement is also intriguing, yet it never develops into the flame-out and phoenix rise it promises.
When they found substantial foundations, the SCTV crew soared. In the season’s first episode, the janitors at the station go on strike, and SCTV buys programming from Canada as backup. Thus one of the funniest installments in the show’s history—the “CBC Parody”—takes shape. Between the dull-as-dirt game show, “Headline Challenge” to the pitch perfect take on Canadian film Going Down the Road (here entitled “Garth and Gord and Fiona and Alice”), the satire is sharp and genuinely funny.
Still, the inclination to the topical extracts costs. During the second episode, the wraparound centers on SCTV President Guy Caballero’s forging of checks. The episode, “Indecent Exposure,” takes its title from a book chronicling a 1980s scandal, when Columbia Pictures David Begelman embezzled nearly $400,000 from the studio by issuing fraudulent payments to celebrities. But, aside from some goofy physical comedy involving a character named Crazy Legs, the in-jokes are lost on the general public.
Truth be told, the wraparounds were never a great idea. SCTV excelled in small doses, bits where the satire could be succinct and focused. Short does a spot-on Jerry Lewis, and in one of the season’s highlights, “Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from an Idiot’s Marriage,” SCTV combines the director’s somber tone with Lewis’ outlandish shtick to highlight the best (and worst) or both filmmakers. During this and other mini-parodies (another Lewis-based gem, “The Nutty Lab Assistant,” the silly send-up “Jane Eyrehead”), the jokes careen between the obvious and the obscure. They weren’t always successful, but when they were, no one topped SCTV.
The most effective meshing of character with commentary is the parody from the final episode of the NBC series. As part of “3-D Firing Line” (riffing on William F. Buckley’s think-tank program), Dr. Tongue and Woody Tobias, Jr. are Count Floyd’s guests. (Fans will recall that Floyd hosts SCTV‘s “Monster Chiller Horror Theater,” where he usually shows the hilariously half-assed 3D fright films created by Tongue and Tobias.)
Here, the terror titans unveil their latest “straight” drama, a remake of Midnight Cowboy called “Midnight Cowboy II.” On the panel is Pauline Kael (Mary Charlotte Wilcox, doing a bang-up impression). As clips scroll by, the interaction between the actors is priceless, moving from heady self-promotion to petty squabbling (sometimes in the same sentence) to be shameless, sly and silly. Not only does the sketch critique the 1970 Oscar winner, but it also deconstructs film criticism, local horror hosts, and failed filmmakers too blind to see their own stupidity.
Just as Monty Python’s Flying Circus dressed down British standards and mores, SCTV tackled the proverbial wasteland known as the media. Whether taking on film, music, television or book, these cunning Canadians exposed the foibles of their subject matter while entertaining and enlightening. SCTV was better, smarter, funnier, and fresher than anything to come out of Rockefeller Center.