If you grew up in the 1990s like I did, and you were home during the summer or had a sick day, then there were certain shows you watched. There was of course the Price is Right, but on CBC there was another show, and it was one that is not only fondly remembered today but has become part of Canadian culture.
It was the Red Green Show and in today’s nostalgia episode, I am looking at the show that ran for nearly a generation. I will also have my interview with Red Green himself, Steve Smith, at the end of the episode.
First, we need to look at the man we most identify with the show, Steve Smith.
Born on Dec. 24, 1945, in Toronto, Smith would begin his career by studying engineering at the University of Waterloo, followed by a series of jobs.
In 2011, Smith would state quote:
“The University of Waterloo is largely to blame for Red Green.”
In 1979, he would begin to produce, write and star in the show Smith & Smith, a sketch comedy series with his wife Morag, whom he had married in 1966. The show would run until 1985. It was on that show that a proto-Red Green would first appear, satirizing home improvement, fishing and do-it yourself shows. Particularly, it would focus on Red Fisher, who hosted a hunting and fishing show that ran on CTV from 1968 to 1989. It was on Fisher’s show that Scuttlebutt Lodge would appear and would serve as an inspiration for Possum Lodge years later. The Red Green character would first appear on Smith & Smith in 1979.
Smith would state quote:
“I remember watching Red Fisher and thinking it never occurred to him that he might be boring you. He was not intimidated by the medium of television. Red Green talks the way Red Fisher talked.”
Smith would add in a later interview, quote:
“Red Fisher, who had a real fishing show where they sat in front of a piece of paneling and pretended to be sober. I was supposed to meet him at a radio station once, but he stayed home to do his laundry. One of my heroes.”
In Smith & Smith, a proto-Red Green would appear called Ol’ Uncle Red. The mailbag segment that ended each episode would also become part of the Red Green Show, as would the idea of a dual monologue, which would be adapted to the characters of Green and his nephew Harold.
The year that Smith & Smith ended, Smith created Me & Max, which he starred in with his wife, as well as their kids Max and David. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, the show ran for 26 episodes
In Me & Max, a proto-Red Green would again appear, further refining the character. In that show, Ol’ Uncle Red was the uncle to the boys, and it helped to show that the character benefited from having a sidekick that was the opposite of Red, which would be adapted into creating the character of Harold.
Me & Max was followed by The Comedy Mill, also created by Smith and his wife. This show would include Peter Keleghan, who would go on to play Ranger Gord but at this point was just starting out in acting.
Once The Comedy Mill ended its run, Morag retired from performing and Steve would launch a new series, The Red Green Show. He didn’t know for sure if he was going to do another show, but thought he had another show in him. Smith would say quote:
“I was going to go back to school to be a lawyer, but I thought I’d give it one more try.”
He may not have known it at the time, but The Red Green Show would go on to define his career, become a part of Canadian culture and would run for 15 years, producing an astounding 300 episodes.
Smith was approached by the management of CHCH in Hamilton asking if he could put together some low budget show ideas for spots in their lineup. Smith would suggest his character of Ol’ Uncle Red as he wanted to explore the character more. Smith would say in 2020, quote:
“I said to them, give me enough money so I can do something but not enough, so you care what it is.”
Smith knew that the character featured in sketches would not be able to carry a half hour show, so the decision was made to expand it to all of men’s stereotypical obsessions such as speed, male bonding and power tools.
Production on the show began in January 1990 but it would not air its first episode until March of 1991.
In the first season, the show was noticeably different from later seasons. Only Red and Harold were shown at the lodge, and the Red Green Show Crest was worn by both characters in this season only. The Possum Lodge Crest would debut in lodge meetings in season 2.
The creation of Harold was seen as a stroke of genius by many, for Pat McKenna’s chemistry with Steve Smith and the way their characters played off each other. Mckenna would say in an interview in 1993, quote:
“Harold figures he’s the only one who understands what people want to see. So, when the old fishermen are telling their old fishing stories, he tries to squeeze his own shows that are hip and now for the teenagers out there. We have things like Cool Hair and Harold teaching teens how to dance or instructing them on starting good gangs and having drive-by science lessons. Of course, all of this is being taught by the nerd at school who is as out of touch as the old fishermen.”
Harold actually came from a character McKenna used to perform in Second City. McKenna would say quote:
“The key to the character was his vulnerability. The twitch, the glasses, all that’s fine but Harold’s so funny because of his determination not to be dismissed.”
Smith was looking for a character to work off of Red Green and he happened to attend McKenna’s act in 1989. He would say quote:
The show was technically a show within a show, with Red and his fellow lodge members having their own television show in which they gave lessons, showed how to repair things, offered advice and took part in outdoor activities. Summing up the show, Smith would state it was about, quote:
“The stupid things men do when women aren’t around. It is amazing the lengths men will go to for dumb things. Men can focus really well, but their aim is off.”
The premise of the show followed Red Green, a handyman who was the president of Possum Lodge, a fictional fraternal organization in the town of Possum Lake, itself also fictional and located in northwestern Ontario. Possum Lake was located near the fictional community of Port Asbestos.
Portrayed as a basic cable access show, taped on hand-held camera by Red’s nephew Harold, the show would evolve over time and several regular segments would be featured in each episode. The most frequent segments were The Possum Lodge Word Game, Adventures With Bill and, of course, Handyman Corner.
At first, the show did poorly in the ratings, but it did see ratings improve slightly with each of the first three seasons. One issue was that the show was bouncing around the schedule but even with this, its viewership began to grow.
At the end of each season, there was the ever-present risk of cancellation. Thankfully, the past success of Smith helped to keep the show going, as did things like the Hamilton billboard someone put up that said, quote:
“Forget the whales, save Red Green.”
Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after the third season.
So, why am I still talking about it and how did it go for another 12 seasons?
The show was quickly picked up by CFPL London, under an agreement with YTV. Smith had bought the rights to the show from CHCH when it was cancelled, allowing him to get this new deal. He had complete control as the owner of the show now and would even put commercials on Global for the show. The fourth season would begin with a name change to due to worries over legal issues. The show was now the New Red Green Show, and while various regulars couldn’t appear on the show during this time, new ones would soon appear. The name change would last only until the sixth season. Smith would say in 2010 quote:
“We’ve always been different, so we started with the Red Green Show, then in our fourth season my producers changed it to the New Red Green Show and then after our sixth season we went our separate ways, and I went back to calling it the Red Green Show. So, the new ones aren’t new or old, they’re in the middle. Told you we were odd.”
The return of the show to another network, came down to the viewers who loved it. The Red Green Fan Club, which numbered 1,000, quickly mobilized into action in a letter campaign and its numbers would soon swell to 5,000 people. By 2002, that fan club would have 120,000 members
Smith would say in 1993, quote:
“I can’t stress how much the viewers played a role in this. They gave me a feeling we were connecting at some level. I’ve completely changed my attitude to TV in the last year.”
He would add in a Maclean’s Article that same year, quote:
“Letters came in on lunch bags, sandpaper, birch bark, whatever was handy.”
Around this same time, PBS in the United States started to broadcast the show, greatly increasing the viewer base. The show was also committed to being part of the PBS pledge drives, with characters from the show appearing in-character during the pledge drive. By 1993, the show was being syndicated in Trinidad and Tobago, Korea, Taiwan and several other markets, making the show an unlikely Canadian export. With its move into the United States, the show became the first entirely Canadian comedy series to run on US prime time.
It was in 1993 that the show was beginning to gain notice from the critics as well. That year, the show earned its first Gemini Award, now the Canadian Screen Awards, nomination. In 1994, it not only picked up a nomination for Best Comedy Series, but also for writing and Smith was nominated for his performance as Red Green. Over the course of its run from 1991 to 2006, the show would be nominated for 25 Gemini Awards, picking up one in 1998 for Best Performance in a Comedy Program or Series. Smith would also receive the Order of Canada in 2006 for his contribution to Canadian culture.
Finally, in the seventh season, a deal would come along that would secure the long-term survival of the show. CBC bought the rights to the show, and it would remain on that network for the rest of its run.
During this time, Smith would also write a syndicated newspaper column, in the character of Red Green, called North of 40, in which he gave advice to readers. Beginning in 2000, Green became the Ambassador of Scotch Duct Tape for 3M.
In 1994, a Fan Appreciation Day was held in London, Ontario with 2,000 people showing up. Smith said he was expecting maybe 200. Even Tim Allen, who had a huge hit with Home Improvement at the time, ran into Smith at a TV industry convention and asked him quote:
“Should I be worried about you guys?”
In 1997, Michael Foale, a British astrophysicist, went into space on the Space Shuttle Atlantis. He would take with him, to pass the time during his four month stay on the space station Mir, 13 hours of Red Green videotapes. Smith would state quote:
“Lord only knows what the Russians will think of it.”
Once the show incorporated a live audience, they would bring in audience members to take part in the possum salute at the end of the episode. Smith would say quote:
“At one of these sessions there was a bank president next to a 17-year-old kid with a ring through his eyelid.”
By 2002, the show was playing in 100 PBS outlets in the United States, and a movie, Duct Tape Forever, would be released that same year, following Red and Harold as they tow a giant goose to a duct-tape sculpture contest in Minnesota.
Through the years, the show would bring in some very high-profile Canadian talent, who would take part in various segments. Of all the characters, only Smith would appear in every single episode. Patrick McKenna, who played Harold, would appear in the next most, 241, followed by Rick Green, who portrayed Bill in Adventures with Bill segments, appearing in 200 episodes.
Among notable guest stars there was Gordon Pinsent, the celebrated Canadian actor who appeared in 57 episodes as Hap Shaughnessy, as well as Academy Award nominated actor Grahame Green, who played Edgar K.B. Montrose, in 27 episodes of the show. Paul Gross, another well-known Canadian actor, appeared in five episodes of the show, as did actors such as Gavin Crawford, Dave Thomas and Colin Mochrie.
Graham Greene came about due to a chance meeting between Greene and Smith, with Greene stating he was a fan of the show and wanted to play a role. Coming off his Oscar nomination, it was a request Smith was more than happy to approve.
There were of course the famous segments that aired, and I won’t go into all of them, but I will touch on the most famous ones.
Without a doubt, the most famous and well-known is Handyman Corner. This was a segment where Red Green would demonstrate creative and weird ways to tackle common tasks such as taking out the trash. Duct Tape, which he called the Handyman’s Secret Weapon, was used heavily in these segments and became a trademark of the entire show as a result. Even the subsequent movie was called Duct Tape Forever. Some things made during these segments was a paddle-wheeler made out of a van on pallets and a revolving door, a jet pack made from propane tanks, and scuba gear made from an old gas grill. At the end of every segment, Red Green would say, quote:
“If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.”
Adventures with Bill, which Smith will relate the origin of in my interview with him at the end of this episode, was a black-and-white segment in the form of a narrated home movie. It was silent but it had sound effects and music with Red Green narrating. Typically, the segment followed Bill and Red trying to accomplish a task, go on an adventure or try out a sport but it would quickly descend into slapstick with Bill being severely hurt in some way, but always bouncing back without an injury in the next episode.
The third most famous segment was The Possum Lodge Word Game, done in the style of Password, with a contestant trying to guess a word within 30 seconds with various clues given. In the segment, the contestant would guess things that were way off, and usually said the right word by accident. Harold would host the game typically and when he would announce the prize, he would do so in a misleading way by saying the contestant, for example, had won a new house roof shingle.
The last episode of the show would be filmed on Nov. 5, 2005. In the last episode, the fourth wall was broken when the audience and fans were thanked for the continued popularity of the show. The Man’s Prayer, said at the end of each episode was also changed in the last episode to say quote:
“I’m a man, but I changed, because I had to. Oh well.”
For Smith, the success of the show and its longevity came as a surprise, he would state quote:
“In 1990 this was a summer job for Rick Green and me. Everything has been a miracle.”
McKenna would say quote:
“We started 15 years ago, guys who watched us with their dads now have kids.”
Why was the show so popular? Smith states it was because it didn’t focus on one demographic. He would state quote:
Smith had not planned to return to the character, having spent so many years with Red Green, but he found that it was harder to shake the character than he thought. He would say quote:
“When I finished the show, I was done, done, done. I was like I’m not doing anything ever again, but my brain wouldn’t shut off. I keep thinking of things.”
A special for PBS was created called The Red Green Story-We’re All In This Together in 2008. In 2010, Smith embarked on the Wit and Wisdom Comedy Tour, giving live performances as Red Green in cities across North America. Two years later in 2012, the How to Do Everything Tour was announced, touring through Canada in 2013 and the United States in 2014. In 2016, the I’m Not Old, I’m Ripe Tour began in March and finished in May with 25 US stops. In 2019, This Could Be It tour ran from March to October, hitting 34 US cities and 29 Canadian cities.
In 2020, the Possum Lodge Podcast would launch, and continues to run to this day, featuring the characters from the show in a radio show style. I will have a link to where you can become a listener of the show in my show notes.
I will end this episode the same way that Red Green would end all of his episodes. Keep your stick on the ice.
Now, my interview with Steve Smith.
Information from CBC, The Record, The Classic Red Green Page, Wikipedia, the Globe and Mail, Hamilton Spectator, The Windsor Star, The Regina Leader-Post, Calgary Herald, National Post, Macleans.