We really didn’t do jokes. We almost always commented on the fact that we were doing a joke.
— Mike Short, commentary, SCTV: Volume 3
In our best work, we are the targets of our own humor.
— Bernie Sahlins, “SCTV at the Museum of Television & Radio”
To thine own self, be true… or relatively true.
— Joe Flaherty, as SCTV president Guy Caballero
Melonville has the worst television station in the country. Its news show, “Nightline Melonville,” is always in varying states of disarray: technical glitches, phony breaking news, satellite guests who drive to the station to pummel the anchors in person. Its daytime shows don’t fare much better; after all, it’s hard getting Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Aaron Copland to define the ideal woman for the chauvinist host of “Just for Fun!” Its “sports” programming features boxing matches between Fred Rogers and Julia Child; Carl Sagan and William F. Buckley head up opposing football squads. The commercial segments are equally doomed: hucksters pawn such commodities as Convert-A-Toup, cars full of cement, Pavarotti’s favorite gum, even friendship. When the going gets tough, station president Guy Caballero turns to a couple of self-described “hosers” who attempt to parlay a nonsensical two-minute show full of beer and back bacon into a glittering Hollywood debacle.
The fictitious town’s superabundant incompetence is the product of its creator and caretaker, Second City Television. Comprised of actors from the original Second City stage troupe, SCTV produced some of the sharpest pop culture satire ever to bite the proverbial hand that supported its broadcasting life. SCTV was pop culture’s ultimate bullshit detector, an absurd put-on and put-down of more socially integrated absurdities like network TV, celebrity, and advertising. Salvador Dali starring in an elementary drawing show; Norman Mailer writing commercial copy for laundry detergent; Shakespeare and Francis Bacon as buddies in a swashbuckling serial (“The Adventures of Shake and Bake”): SCTV is high-brow comedy delivered in a low-brow guise. Intellectualism grates against television’s passive entertainment. And the intermingling of these two universes produced potent humor. No pretentious arguments are made that one is superior to the other; a segment like “Rome, Italian Style” can satisfy both our intelligence (its allusions, bloated and caricatured, to the films of De Sica and Fellini) and our desire to be instantly amused (its emphatically bad overdubbing).
SCTV: Volume 3 collects the final nine episodes from the show’s first season on NBC (its fourth season overall); the 1982 cast includes John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, and Dave Thomas. This extended first season for a major network was marked by improvements: more money from NBC meant slightly stronger production values and advanced makeup (lots of makeup), and the cast was settling into a masterful groove, harnessing its Python-like belief in the absurd to wittily undermine its subjects. Volume 3‘s highlights are generous and persistent: Candy and Levy debut the Shmenge Brothers, a.k.a. the Happy Wanderers, the cabbage rolls and coffee loving polka enthusiasts; Buzz Aldrin’s Mercury III Performers, astronauts-turned-actors, perform T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral with direction from ground control; the Pre-Teen World Marathon features the community’s youth fighting exhaustion to stage an all-night fundraiser; Francis Ford Coppola (Moranis), looking to remake his flop One From the Heart as a monster movie (3-D Stake From the Heart), is forced to look for funding from strangers on the street; and the recurring soap opera The Days of the Week begins, finding its humor by telegraphing the soap stereotype straight.
Yet no matter how strong the skit or how wonderfully subversive the concept, Volume 3‘s most enduring aspect is its characters: Candy’s sedated mayor Tommy Shanks and pouty star Johnny LaRue; Flaherty’s shrewd Caballero; Levy’s Bobby Bitman; Moranis and Thomas’s Bob and Doug MacKenzie; Martin’s spastic Edith Prickley. This mix benefited by the addition of another great character chameleon, Martin Short. The young Short joined in 1982, appearing for the first time in the last three episodes on this set. His anything-goes comic extremism is gleefully manic. He launches into his deliciously ridiculous Jerry Lewis, performing — where else? — in France (“I’m Jerry with a J / Parlez-vous Francais?”), and takes teenage angst to frenetic heights as the gullible James Dean-esque star of I Was a Teenage Communist. Short, who had performed with the Second City stage group before (a past he explores with O’Hara in the DVD bonus feature “SCTV Remembers”), would find his voice here on before defecting to SNL. (Note to Short fans: Don’t let Volume 3‘s cover art deceive you. Short’s definitive character, Ed Grimley, is not featured in these episodes.)
As the show’s fans can attest, bonus features are superfluous to the episodes themselves, since their delayed availability on DVD is its own reward. Nevertheless, the extras offer multi-angled views of the show’s creative process from the cast and crew. In “SCTV — The Producers,” Andrew Alexander and Patrick Whitley discuss the show’s genesis in very business-like monologues. Both mention the production relocating from Toronto to Edmonton and the ensuing culture shock from an urban to rural setting. Alexander describes SCTV‘s time in Edmonton as one of a “bunker mentality”; by cutting themselves off from the distractions of city (and home), the show became “the only thing” to the cast and crew. Whitley agrees: “Some of the best shows we ever did came out of Edmonton because we were so isolated.” The cast echoes this sentiment in the 70-minute roundtable Q&A, “SCTV at the Museum of Television and Radio.” It’s arguable that this move (issued as an ultimatum by the network) was the main reason the show surpassed its perceived competition, Saturday Night Live.
Less insightful are the two commentary tracks by Flaherty and additional writers, Flaherty’s brother Paul, Mike Short, and Dick Blasucci. It’s obvious that they haven’t seen the episodes for quite some time; as a result, most of their “commentary” consists of laughing, dead silence, and chummy questions (“Remember that?” or “What is this?”). It’s a bit like listening to a crew of ex-jocks watch tape of their big game 20 years later, congratulating and doubting their past decisions: you can’t blame them for getting sentimental, but you don’t need to hang around for the brotherly reminiscences. They do occasionally touch on the finer points of SCTV‘s absurdity: during the Ocean’s Eleven spoof, Maudlin’s Eleven, Flaherty notes that when dissecting the original for a comedic angle, they honed in on girls giving “massages and big tumblers full of straight scotch.” The show had a knack for exaggerated nuances big and small; SCTV‘s unpredictability, along with its fleshed-out characters, keeps it fresh and funny today.
In “SCTV at the Museum of Television and Radio,” Second City Chicago founder Bernie Sahlins comments on this very strength: “We were satirizing television in terms of the ironies that we’d learned as actors and behavior that we’d learned as actors.” SCTV engorged those ironies into a full-blown farce. Its cast exploited television’s numerous weak spots — schlock, self-importance, ubiquity — to make its own alternate universe, instantly recognizable yet doubly perverse. SCTV: Volume 3 finds the show in the midst of its gonzo stride, the last season for the original, definitive cast (Moranis, O’Hara, and Thomas would leave the following year). It’s difficult to look at television the same way again, after witnessing this uncompromised mess that Melonville calls a network.