It begins with piano playing. Liberace (Dave Thomas) happily plays in time to a cracking whip from one of Santa’s muscle-bound, mustachioed “helpers.” Before the next two minutes are over, this commercial for “Liberace’s Musical Tribute to the Holidays” will show us Ethel Merman (Andrea Martin) exploding Christmas ornaments with only her singing, Orson Welles (John Candy) storming off after a god-awful recitation of “Good King Wenceslas,” and Liberace duel-piano-playing with Elton John (Rick Moranis).
With that, the tone is officially set for the first Christmas episode of SCTV. Most people know about SCTV, even though they’ve never seen an episode. There’s hardly a person over the age of 20 who hasn’t seen some movie or TV show featuring a member of the cast, which at different times starred John Candy, Harold Ramis, Martin Short, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O’Hara. Moreover, pop culture has assimilated quite a few cast members. if you’ve seen Moranis and Thomas as the McKenzie Brothers in Strange Brew, or watched Short play Ed Grimley on Saturday Night Live, you’ve experienced slices of SCTV.
Today, SCTV is enjoying a revival of sorts with a DVD release planned for nearly every season, but at $90 a pop, it’s likely only fans will be purchasing. So now, Shout! Factory is releasing several less comprehensive SCTV volumes, including a compilation of Christmas episodes in time for the holiday season.
Second City Television debuted on Canadian TV in 1976, its cast culled primarily from the comedy troupe of the same name. The half-hour show (which ballooned to 90 minutes when it was picked up by NBC in 1981) chronicles the broadcast day of SCTV, a fledging independent TV station in the fictional town of Melonville, run by tightwad Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty). The station doesn’t have the cash to run even basic syndicated programs, so cheap programming, such as “The Fishin’ Musician” and “Count Floyd’s Monster Chiller Horror Theater,” is bought with ad space sold to local businesses, like Tex and Edna Boil’s Prairie Warehouse and Curio Emporium.
The station’s crew, who spent most of their time cavorting and arguing about the studio, turn up for the first holiday episode on the disc, “The SCTV Staff Christmas Party.” It features “The Nutcracker Suite,” a parody of Neil Simon’s California Suite; the spot-on impersonations of Alan Alda (Flaherty), Judd Hirsch (Levy), James Coco (John Candy), and Michael Caine (Thomas) are testament to the imitation skills of the entire cast. “Christmas With Catherine O’Hara and Andrae Crouch,” is a more typical SCTV episode, relying less on staff segments and more on TV “specials,” and the show suffers because of it. Not that it doesn’t have its moments — Ed Grimley appears in the classic “The Fella Who Couldn’t Wait for Christmas,” and Count Floyd’s “Scary Little Christmas” features sidesplitting performances from O’Hara as Lucille Ball and Short as The Kid From Deliverance.
Neither show effectively overcomes the usual shortcoming of SCTV episodes: overlong segments. Many of the 90-minute SCTV episodes parodied lengthier subjects, like films, and the writers would get as detailed as the source of their satire. As these writers dared to laugh in the face of the television abyss, that abyss had a habit of laughing right back. “The Nutcracker Suite” segment is a prime example; filled with skilled performances, it goes on about 10 minutes too long, which makes for a stark contrast from the rapid-ire jokes of the SCTV staff party segments.
To be fair, the slim extras on the disc are a shortcoming as well. The first show has a commentary track with O’Hara and Martin and one with O’Hara and Short on the second. Short’s part of the commentary is a bit subdued with a shortage of in-depth commentating on the making of the episodes, while Martin and O’Hara’s track runs like a happy reminiscing session. Their subjects of topic – like their fear of having their SCTV-era impersonations brought up while working with Meryl Streep and Liza Minelli, respectively – provide an interesting clue as to what with life was like after SCTV for the cast who weren’t lucky enough to star in American Pie.
The disc also comes with a featurette on how costume designer Juul Haalmeyer wound up leading the not-so-famous Juul Haalmeyer Dancers every time the show needed a lousy dance production. The featurette is extremely short, but Haalmeyer’s commentary over clips of some of SCTV’s lame dance numbers is priceless.
Still, if you need a reason to buy the Christmas disc, the answer is John Candy. Though he was resigned to playing the wiseacre-but-jolly fat guy for most of his career, at SCTV, Candy’s most famous alter ego was sneering loser Johnny LaRue, a consistently washed-up staff member whose inflated budgets reduced him to hosting the talk show “Street Beef.” In “Christmas Party,” a drunken LaRue is thrown out of the party to host a holiday edition of “Street Beef,” and after being abandoned by his cameraman, LaRue is left alone on the snowy streets of Melonville to shoot the show by himself.
Candy’s electrifying solo performance — a near seven-minute rant/apology “to anyone who ever knew me, met me or wanted to meet me” — is so fluid and nuanced (not to mention funny) that it looks improvised (it wasn’t). The segment not only hints at a genius that was never allowed to seep out in movies like Uncle Buck and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and almost makes up for the tedious moments in the rest of the episode.
The final thought on Candy’s solo performance in the episode (and the entire series) comes from O’Hara and Martin’s audio commentary on “Christmas Party”: “No matter where I go in Canada… people come up to me and talk about John Candy,” says Martin. “How could he have touched so many people’s lives?” “My parents are gone, God bless them… and I dream more of John than I do of them,” answers O’Hara.