There is a fine line between being smart and being smart-ass, especially when it comes to comedy. Some performers, like Dennis Miller, just can’t stop themselves from playing mental one-upsmanship with their audience. Then there’s the comic who assumes that being calculatedly stupid and drawing our attention to that fact again and again amounts to genius. Many people have fallen to this strategy, though one that particularly grates on my nerves is Howie Mandel.
As I was growing up, littered amongst the desiccated veterans of show biz past was an abundance of smart comics: Lenny Bruce, Stan Freeberg, Jonathan Winters, Shelly Berman, Mike Nichols, Elaine May and the writers of Rocky and Bullwinkle, to name a few. They would just as soon go for the belly laugh as anyone else, but the elaborate wordplay, cultural references and flat out oddness of their work manifested minds that were brilliantly bent. Some recent individuals — the late Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, early Albert Brooks — bear testament to this heritage, but too often today, a dick joke is a dick joke is a dick joke.
One notable preserver of the amalgamation of brainpower and belly laughs was the Canadian-based comedy troupe called SCTV. In his introduction to a new collection of the group’s 1981 tv series, Conan O’Brien calls them “the funniest DVDS you will ever own.” You could say the same about the complete works of Buster Keaton or the films of Preston Sturges, if anyone saw fit to release a box set, but, as for TV of recent vintage, O’Brien has it right. These were smart people who figured out a way to make sketch comedy work in a 90-minute format, who created some of the oddest characters in the medium (Jackie Rodgers Jr., the Schmenge Brothers, Tex and Edna Boil’s Organ Emporium), who played to each other rather than the audience, and who created a sui generis universe that has little equal in all of comedy.
Once upon a time, there was a town called Melonville, populated by all manner of self-possessed air-heads, pompous officials, and, most of all, jive-talking no-talents. The performers early on thought of a brilliant frame — the machinations of a small town’s television station — to string together characters, parodies, and flights of imagination. Whereas the competition, Saturday Night Live, used the guest host and the short sketch as connective tissue, SCTV created an alternate reality with its own twisted sets of rules and conventions. The station owner, Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty), used a wheelchair in order to get respect. The mayor, Tommy Shanks (John Candy), would interrupt transmissions in order to give fireside chats with all the substance of deflated soufflé. Talk-show host Sammy Maudlin (Joe Flaherty) defined unctuousness, and Bobby Bittman (Eugene Levy) epitomized two-bit shtick with a catchphrase (“How are ya!”) and vacuous self-importance (“But seriously…”). The SCTV team developed these caricatures with an attention to detail and delight in oversize gestures that rivaled Charles Dickens.
Odd and memorable as the original characters were, when it came to elaborating parodies of characters and situations from the popular media, SCTV creamed the competition. The crew would not simply imitate a popular figure or genre and then make light of its essence, they took those ingredients into another dimension altogether, as in Dave Thomas’ masterful performance as Bob Hope. It’s not just that he had the voice, the rhythms, and the gag lines down, but also that he located the cold core of Hope’s arsenal of one-liners. When coupled in a devastatingly funny sketch with Rick Moranis’ equally astute recasting of Woody Allen and the neurotic New Yorker’s obsession with Hope’s suave self-possessed masculinity, you have a combination that mines the collision of gender definitions and attitudes toward life. And, it was drop-dead funny.
However, what I always enjoyed the most was SCTV‘s affectionate ribbing of the cheesy underbelly of show biz. They adored how performers could be so rampantly over the top and out of control but not seem to recognize they were one misstep from rehab. Catherine O’Hara’s Lola Heatherton, who loved her fans so much she wanted to “bear all your children,” condensed into one combustible figure every self-involved and bombastic female vocalist you could think of.
In the DVD commentaries, cast members Joe Flaherty and Eugene Levy wonder if their work exhibited a cruel streak. The farthest thing from it, really, for the affectionate engagement with the inadequacy of Lola and the other characters allowed the troupe to delineate tripe without the bruising demolition of the public image of celebrities that circulates today. Or as has often been featured on Saturday Night Live, as when, in the early days, John Belushi caricatured Elizabeth Taylor at her most zaftig choking on a chicken bone. Flaherty and Levy, and Dave Thomas as well, clearly indicate that they could not have come up with some devastatingly accurate an imitation without studying these figures in depth and without succumbing to demeaning rancor.
Another observation that bears mentioning from the duo’s commentary is how working in Canada and being off the beaten track liberated the group from satisfying anyone’s expectations other than their own. The show appeared on late night television in one time slot after another, so the cast sometimes wondered if anyone saw their work at all. As a result, they gained not in conceit but the kind of blissful assurance that they could take a chance on the most wayward ideas and it just wouldn’t matter. How else can one explain the wackiness of the Dr. Tongue and Woody Tobias episodes with their lame interpolations of 3-D effects: nothing more than the characters rhythmically moving objects back and forth at the television screen? Or a Gene Shalit Variety Hour, with the Today Show film critic doing shtick with guest stars like Rhona Barrett?
And who could forget Moranis and Thomas’ Bob and Doug McKenzie, the beer-swilling boors who downed their Molsons, fried their back bacon and firmly advised all “hosers” to “take off.” As wacky as the characters were, their origins always struck me as being on a comic plane all of their own. Because the show originated in Canada, the government required that it possess “Canadian content.” Moranis responded in a fury, just what could one consider Canadian culture: guys who drank beer, ate bacon and said “eh” a lot? Turns out that was just the right answer, and a segment was born. This DVD set affords ample introduction to the multi-talented cast, most of whom have gone on to other successes but never again had the opportunity to launch off into the ozone like they did here. Only in Melonville.