Something is rotten in the state of SCTV. The transmission signal wobbles on and off so that the customary chaos overseen by station owner Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty) succumbs to wayward interruptions by “CCCP1,” Soviet Television. Shot by Soviet “Mini-Cams,” massive tank-like apparatuses piloted by three or four overtaxed technicians, the clandestine broadcasts consist of Bizzaro-World metamorphoses of SCTV‘s already twisted fare. They include public service announcements that warn against indulging Uzbeks; a take-off on the notorious 1960s flop My Mother, The Car featuring a talking piece of farm equipment, “Tibor’s Tractor”; a human interest program, “Hey Giorgi,” whose eponymous protagonist (John Candy) embodies the “free spirit” of Soviet spontaneity; and, oddest of all, “What Fits Into Russia,” on which a over-eager host takes cut-outs of 50 states and places them inside the borders of a Russian map, thereby indicating the enormity of the Soviet Union compared to the U.S.
These sidesplitting interruptions wrap-around an assortment of comic gems. Catherine O’Hara mimics the over emotional evangelist, Tammy Faye Baker, her face plastered with make up, on a mock commercial promoting industrial strength mascara piled so voluminously on her features that as she typically starts to cry, streams of dark material run down her cheeks. O’Hara also takes her trademark character, the brassy, bombastic entertainer Lola Heatherton, into new realms of idiocy as she interviews her incongruous guest star, an unflappable Mother Theresa (Andrea Martin). Dave Thomas concocts an off-the-wall gourmet cooking show incorporating bondage and discipline techniques as hosted by Al Pacino in his Cruising (1980) persona. Most memorable and cock-eyed of all, the episode leads off with a devastating dig at the perpetually laid-back late crooner Perry Como (Eugene Levy), here so relaxed that he vocalizes flat out on the floor with the microphone lying next to his just barely open mouth. And all that is just part of the first episode of the first disc of this five DVD set.
This elaborate package (the second volume released by Shout Factory!) contains all of the programs the SCTV troupe aired from October 1981 to February 1982. Originally broadcast late night on NBC, these episodes illustrate how the collaborative energies of the group had crafted a coherent comic universe like little else on the cathode ray tube. Few sketch shows have been so effortlessly able to synthesize parodies of mainstream entertainment along with the creation of original characters that inhabit the ingeniously crafted original universe of Melonville, its inhabitants and media personalities.
Hilarious as the first volume of SCTV episodes was, they sometimes evidenced some obvious paste-work incorporating isolated bits from the first three seasons of broadcasts. This collection exhibits less madcap miscellany. The wraparound concepts, like the aforementioned CCCP1 episode, had become more breathtaking in their audacious layering of selected shards of pop culture along with the familiar repertory of repeating characters.
One of the most dazzling shows contained here integrates a station Christmas party along with a caustic parody of Neil Simon’s portmanteau comedies, the “Nutcracker Suite,” and a holiday special featuring a bawdy female comic, Dusty Towne (O’Hara), with a guest star spot by Divine (Candy). The episode concludes with one of the series’ most memorable moments in which a down and out, and drunken, Johnny LaRue (Candy), Melonville’s all-purpose TV host and bon vivant, gets his seasonal wish from Santa: a boom crane! Always eager to transmit his painfully limited notion of “class,” LaRue believes against all evidence that if his shows could only acquire higher production values, all his problems would be solved. This outlandish skit audaciously picks up on this quixotic desire for quality and audaciously combines sentiment and sarcasm in equal measure.
The material also shows how much the SCTV crew did not engage in either obvious parody or simple knee-jerk laughs. They were always willing to introduce an arcane reference (who, one of them asks on a commentary track, does a James Coco imitation?) and more to the point relished bravura leaps of logic that would make the viewer slap their forehead in disbelief. One of my favorite such routines remains the brief but oddly baffling advertisement in the K-Tell mode for a compilation of “Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written” — and he makes every one of them sound curiously like either “Early Morning Rain” or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
At the time of their original airing, it took mainstream media time to recognize the troupe’s genius. Eventually even the television powers that be nominated episodes contained on this box set for Emmy Awards, which the troupe won in the writing category in 1982 and 1983. Footage from the 1982 awards ceremony is included amongst the extras as well as interviews with some of the show’s writers, Flaherty and Levy, the costume designer Juul Haulmeyer (who led the notoriously inept “Juul Haulmeyer Dancers”) and an extended documentary on a 1982 Life magazine shoot of the stars, which followed the group’s emerging notoriety.
Commentary tracks are included, too, by Dave Thomas and two of the writers, Dick Blasucci and John McAndrew, and another by the group’s wickedly talented women, Martin and O’Hara. Their evident affection for one another and their experiences on the show prove infectious rather than saccharine and become wonderfully poignant when O’Hara mentions how often she dreams of the late Candy. This truly was a group for whom the show biz cliché of “one big happy family” altogether applied.
As much as the two women pine for the loss of Candy’s effervescence, I mourn the present day absence of a sketch comedy show as worthy of repeated viewing as SCTV. Too often, such fare proves to be as lame as the hideous horror features parodied on “Monster Chiller Horror Theater,” hosted by Count Floyd (Flaherty). What of recent vintage can compete for sheer oddness and out and out hilarity wit the CCCP1 segment or the Perry Como parody? Perhaps the only proper response to the pervasive flatulence would be the injunction delivered by the backwoods film critics Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok (Flaherty and Candy) to “blow them up real good!”