Growing up in the 1980s, there was a show I discovered as a child that intrigued me, but I didn’t quite understand it at the time. In the 1990s, when I was a teenager, I started to understand it more and by the time I reached my 20s, I saw that it was one of the funniest shows ever created.
It was SCTV and on today’s nostalgia episode, I’m looking at the show that shaped comedy to this very day.
The show was unlike any form of comedy show before it. Rather than being a series of sketches that are not connected, a typical episode of SCTV presented an assortment of programming seen on the station during its broadcast day. Everything from news, sitcoms, movies, talk shows, children’s shows and game shows would feature in a typical episode. This also allowed for the community of Melonville to become a character, and several recurring characters gave life to this.
Most shows on television have a clear origin as to who created the show, but for SCTV things are a bit murkier. In 1976, Andrew Alexander was the producer of Second City, a stage show in Toronto that was part of the famous Chicago Second City. Looking to expand the show into television, he met with the cast, which included John Candy, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty, as well as others like Harold Ramis, to discuss what a Second City television show would look like.
Several ideas were put out, but it was an idea, attributed to either Sheldon Patinkin or Del Close, to create a show around the world’s smallest television station. Everyone at the meeting was immediately interested in the idea, as it provided the opportunity to develop a wide range of characters and scenarios for the show.
The Global Television Network, based out of Toronto, and made up of several small regional stations in southern Ontario, produced the show during its first season.
The show had been offered to CBC initially, but they had issues with the improvisational nature. Levy would say in 1978 quote:
“They thought maybe we’d take six bentwood chairs, you know, improvise for half an hour. Good for you, CBC, stick with the winners.”
As it turned out, CBC would eventually reverse that mistake of not taking on SCTV as a show.
The first season would constitute 26 episodes, but they were released in a very odd manner. The first six episodes were released once per month. The next seven episodes, broadcast from February 1977 to the spring, were broadcast bi-weekly. Then, in September of 1977, 13 more episodes were ordered, and they were broadcast once a week through to the end of the year. To start, the budget of each episode was $5,000.
These 26 episodes, broadcast in an irregular fashion, are today considered to be the first season. The cast at the time was made up of the members of the Toronto branch of the Second City troupe, while Ramis came from the Chicago troupe. The Toronto cast consisted of John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara and Dave Thomas. All the cast members also served as writers on the show, and Ramis was the head writer.
When a second season was ordered, the show became a weekly production, and it went into syndication in Canada and the United States in 45 cities. This made the show the first Canadian series to air on an American network.
The Ottawa Journal reported quote:
“This year, the show has gone international and is a TV attraction in almost every major city in the United States, as well as in the UK and Australia.”
Dave Thomas would say quote:
“The notorious Swedish suicide rate has dropped since we penetrated there. Perhaps the Swedes realize they aren’t so badly off compared with some.”
One major change for the show was that Ramis was no longer part of the cast after the third episode of season two but was still credited as head writer for most of the season.
SCTV would do poorly in the US ratings, but it would gain critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times would write quote:
The SOHO News would say it was the funniest show on Earth.
New York Magazine would write the show was quote:
“Smashingly funny, audacious and needlingly accurate.”
Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi, who were finding international fame themselves at the time, were highly praiseful of SCTV.”
Alexander would say quote:
“In the United States the show was always something of a well-kept secret. Certainly, it was not on the lips of every American.”
Alexander would add in another interview with the Ottawa Citizen, quote:
“What can I say? It’s the most successful independent internationally syndicated program in this country’s television history. Give you an example. In Chicago, we’re on right after Saturday Night Live and early this winter we started to beat them in the ratings.”
Part of the growing success of the show was the fact that while it was made up of Canadian actors, filming in Canada, there was a concentrated effort not to say that Melonville was in Canada for the most part. Alexander would say quote:
“It’s deliberate that we don’t mention we’re coming from Canada. There’s some kind of stigma for US buyers about Canadian programming.”
Sometimes, the show would make a version of a sketch for Canadian audiences, while Americans would get another version. Alexander relates quote:
“We worked up a funny skit about Guy Lafleur and Darryl Sittler but the executive who distributes the shows in the US said, what are these guys? Eskimos? What’s hockey? So, the skit ran on the Canadian show but was cut out every place else.”
I’m going to sidetrack now to talk a bit about the show’s content. As I mentioned, SCTV was a parody of a television station in a small town. So, it would often show extremely funny movies that were parodies of actual movies. An example is Grizzly Abrams, a parody of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. In Grizzly Abrams, rather than having a bear, Abrams had a tortoise and when he was trapped under a fallen log, the tortoise went for help, returning with police long after Abrams had died.
Late-night advertisements were also a common part of the show, featuring places such as Chet Vet the Dead Pet Remover and Tex and Edna Boil’s Prairie Warehouse and Curio Emporium.
The heart of the show were the sketches that centred on the staff of SCTV and the people of Melonville. There are far too many for me to cover here, so I am going to look at my favourites.
SCTV News, also called Nightline Melonville, featured Flaherty and Levy as Floyd Robertson and Earl Camembert. This news program did not use real world events in its news stories but made-up events typically centering on Melonville. One running gag of the show was that Robertson, the more respected of the two anchors, always had the hard news items to report, while Camembert, the hapless anchor, typically had trivial and poorly reported stories.
Monster Chiller Horror Theatre featured Flaherty as Count Floyd, a vampire who for some reason howls like a wolf. Count Floyd would rarely pick movies that were actually scary and often introduced movies he had never seen with names such as 3-D House of Beef. It would later turn out that Count Floyd was actually Floyd Robertson working a second job.
Mel’s Rock Pile was a very funny dance show that was hosted by Levy in character as Rockin Mel Slirrup, a nervous man in glasses who played terrible pop songs for angry teen guests.
Mayor Tommy Shanks was the mayor of Melonville who was prone to sudden bouts of rage and physical violence during his fireside chats on SCTV. He would often feed a treat to a stuffed dog that sat motionless next to him.
Candy also played Johnny LaRue, the drunken lecher who always wore a smoking jacket and was trying to keep his last fleeting moments of fame alive. Candy would say of playing so many characters on the show. Candy would state quote:
“I’m going to be a psychiatrist’s field day after this. Well, who are you? Well, I’m not sure. I don’t know, do you? That is what I’m paying you for.”
Edith Prickley, played by Andrea Martin, was the station manager at SCTV and she would appear always in leopard print, talking fast and ordering people around. Martin would say of the creation of the character quote:
“We were doing a PTA skit, a bunch of concerned parents confronting the teacher and as the skit started to roll, I decided I’d be this brash, aggressive woman. Kind of loud and know it all. I’d be Edith Prickley and I’ve kept the character ever since.”
Guy Caballero, the wheelchair-bound owner of SCTV was played by Flaherty and often had terrible ideas for directions to take the network.
By far, the most famous characters created by the show were Bob and Doug McKenzie, starring Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. The creation of the brothers has itself become part of Canadian lore. The CBC had requested that the show feature two minutes of identifiably Canadian content in every episode. The cast and writers of SCTV thought this was dumb since the show was written by Canadians, starred Canadians and was filmed in Canada.
Thomas would say quote:
In 1980, the brothers appeared for the first time, and they would appear in every episode until Thomas and Moranis left the show.
The two-minute segments were completely improvised and taped in marathon sessions all at once. Moranis would say quote:
“Most people don’t know its improvised but boy, if you ever saw the 60 that haven’t been aired.”
The characters have now become cultural icons in Canada and grew to be big enough characters that they would star in their own movie, as well as commercials and in television and film cameos.
In 1982, during the debate of the Canadian Constitution in British Parliament, a London-based reporter got tired of the cheap shots aimed at Canada and responded in a letter to the London Times, quote:
“You’re all a bunch of hosers. Take off, eh.”
The Times editor would contact the reporter to make sure that what he said wasn’t obscene.
The huge response to Bob and Doug McKenzie would actually cause some friction behind the scenes as other cast members grew envious of the financial and popular success of the characters and their movie and albums. Their album alone sold 350,000 copies in Canada and 650,000 copies in the United States.
Thomas would say later that the characters quote:
“Became a pain in the ass for the other performers.”
For Moranis and Thomas, it also became a pain to be associated with the characters at times. Speaking of some of the fans, Thomas would say in 1996 quote:
“They didn’t care what we said. They just wanted us to chug a beer.”
Moranis and Thomas would recreate their characters in the movie Brother Bear as a pair of moose. Today, a statue of Bob and Doug McKenzie can be found in Edmonton near Rogers Place. They sit on a bench, and you can sit with them to get a picture.
Thomas would say in 2007 quote:
“It is odd that the stuff we worked the hardest on, on SCTV had nowhere the commercial value or the longevity that these two basically throwaway characters did.”
Guest stars would also become a fixture of the show including John Mellencamp, the Boomtown Rats, Hall and Oats, Carl Perkins, Joe Walsh, Tony Bennett, Bill Murray, Robin Williams and many more. Often, the guest stars were part of the sketches themselves, sometimes promoting movies that did not actually exist.
Tony Bennett would state that his appearance on the show helped to start a significant comeback for him.
The writing process often involved creating characters in the makeup chair and seeing what came out of it. There was also a system to figuring out which ideas worked.
The Calgary Herald reported in 1978, quote:
“The writing room for the series looks like something out of one of the troupe’s sketches. A large, bare conference room, table piled high with Styrofoam coffee cups and a notice board covered with various colours of three-by-five-inch file cards.”
The pink cards were funny ideas, the white cards were funny ideas that had been executed into scripts, but there was also a segregated white card row of ideas that were executed but failed.
Joe Flaherty would state about writing the show and the challenges of it, quote:
“The problem with everything we do on our show, is to make it intelligent without being arcane. We have to find the fine line. We can’t be entirely wild like Saturday Night Live. They have more leeway because they got to be the darlings of NBC right off the bat. With us, we have to balance things, make it accessible to our audience.”
The show was in hiatus during the 1979-80 season, but it would return the following year and in a new location.
Due to the high production costs of the show, the show was dropped by Global but the independent station CITV in Edmonton, Alberta struck a deal to produce SCTV out of its Edmonton facilities. At this point, and for the next three years, CBC would broadcast the show.
At this point, Candy, O’Hara and Ramis dropped out and Dave Thomas became the head writer of the show. Robin Duke, Tony Rosato and Rick Moranis were added to the show. In Edmonton, the cast had little to do but work so they would spend all day improvising skit ideas on a tape recorder, testing them and then performing them.
In 1981, NBC picked up the show in a 90-minute format to replace the cancelled Friday night show The Midnight Special. The turnaround was extremely quick for the show with season four. Only two months after season three ended, season four had begun to air. Once again back in Toronto, the show was broadcast in the late block of Friday nights on NBC and billed as SCTV Network. Rosato and Duke left the show at this point, while Candy and O’Hara returned. Due to the quick turnaround, several early episodes were essentially broadcasts of season one to three episodes.
This season was broadcasting 25 episodes from May 1981 to July 1982.
Near the end of season four, Martin Short joined the cast, taping three episodes before O’Hara, Thomas and Moranis left. By this point, the show was costing $600,000 per episode.
Candy would say of the departure of Thomas and Moranis, quote:
“I think their film careers are blossoming in other directions with directing, writing and starring in the feature film. I don’t know if they’re going to have time to come back. Apparently, they have another album coming out and they’re doing another movie next summer.”
Candy, who would stay with SCTV out of loyalty despite offers from Saturday Night Live, would act in less episodes as the seasons went on. He would say quote:
“I’m looking at all sorts of varying projects right now, but they’re sending all kinds of weird scripts. I don’t know what sort of image I must have out there.”
The characters and town of Melonville was so vibrant, that critics praised the show for being much deeper than people realized. The Calgary Herald would write quote:
“The characterizations are so sure, so accomplished and the scripts so well written, that you can find yourself thinking that on same other plane, in some other dimension, the television city of Melonville may well exist.”
Levy would say quote:
Season five, which consisted of 14 episodes, started to broadcast in October of 1981, with the cast consisting of Candy, Flaherty, Levy, and Short. For the last part of the season, John Hemphill and Mary Charlotte Wilcox joined the show. Both Ramis and O’Hara also returned for one episode as guest stars.
Candy would say of the shows in that era, quote:
“The six shows we’re doing now are possibly some of our best stuff. Our biggest problem is time, we just don’t have the time. It’s hard, very hard but not too many people can say ‘I’ve got to work today and fly as Peter Pan or ‘I’ve got to dance today with four Mombo girls, like I did last night with an 18-piece band.”
In March of 1983, the last original episode of SCTV for NBC was broadcast, with reruns continuing until June.
The Calgary Herald would write quote:
“Network TV accommodates drivel and slop in 31 flavours. Yet it’s possible that room no longer exists on the tube for a triple scoop of comedy riches like SCTV Network. The best comedy show on TV, maybe the best one in TV history, is in danger of becoming extinct.”
For the final season, the sixth of the show, NBC was offered the timeslot of Sunday evenings, but the show’s producers were unhappy with this as it would mean the show would be altered to appeal to family audiences, while also facing strong competition such as 60 Minutes.
The final season of the show would instead move to Superchannel in Canada and Cinemax in the United States. The runtime was now 45 minutes, and new episodes, 18 in total, were broadcast from November 1983 to July 1984. For the final season, the cast consisted of Flaherty, Levy, Martin and Short, with guest appearances by Candy, Thomas and O’Hara.
In all, the show produced 72 half-hour shows, 42 90-minute shows and 18 45-minute shows. Over the course of eight years, the show had 11 cast members, was on two networks and then on two pay-tv channels.
During its run, SCTV picked up 15 Emmy nominations, typically with several of its own episodes competing against each other in the writing category. In 1982, the episode Moral Majority, won an Emmy Award for writing. One famous incident occurred at the ceremony when Joe Flaherty accepted the Emmy Award. The presenter, Milton Berle, began to interrupt the speech with sarcastic statements such as “Oh that’s funny”. Flaherty then turned to Berle and “Sorry Uncle Miltie, go to sleep.” This was a parody of what Berle used to say in the 1950s at the end of each episode of his television show.
In 1983, the show swept all the nominations for the Emmy writing category.
Alexander would say quote:
“The writing award means a lot to the cast because a lot of people don’t realize that they do the bulk of the writing.”
The Red Deer Advocate would write when SCTV went off the air, quote:
In 1983, SCTV once again won the writing award.
SCTV would go on to inspire many shows, including The Simpsons. Matt Groening, who was a fan of SCTV, modelled the idea of Springfield on Melonville and having a large cast of characters to use in episodes.
The actors from SCTV would nearly all go on to big successes. Rick Moranis would have a strong acting career in movies such as Ghostbusters and Honey I Shrunk the Kids before he retired in the 1990s to spend time with his children. Dave Thomas would have a steady acting career in several movies and television shows, as well as in voice acting. Joe Flaherty would also have a steady acting career, appearing in movies such as Happy Gilmore and critically acclaimed shows like Freaks and Geeks.
Andrea Martin would act in everything from Star Trek to Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius. She would also act heavily in theatre and has been nominated for a Tony Award.
Harold Ramis would become a celebrated director, creating such iconic movies as Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Animal House and my personal favourite movie, Groundhog Day. He would sadly pass away on Feb. 24, 2014.
Martin Short has worked steady since the days of SCTV. He would become a cast member on Saturday Night Live and appeared in the Three Amigos, Mars Attacks and Innerspace to name a few. He would also do extensive voice work and theatre acting, even earning a Tony Award. Recently, he appeared in the fantastic show Only Murders in The Building, earning a Golden Globe nomination.
Eugene Levy appeared in not only all the American Pie movies, but in the movies of Christopher Guest, often co-writing the films, beginning with Waiting for Guffman, and continuing with Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and more. He found renewed success from 2015 to 2020 in his role as Johnny Rose on Schitt’s Creek, a show he co-created with his son Dan. In his career, he has won four Emmy Awards and a Grammy Award.
Catherine O’Hara has had a prolific career, acting in movies such as Beetlejuice, Home Alone, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the movies of Christopher Guest, often being paired with Eugene Levy. She would find massive success in Schitt’s Creek as well, winning five consecutive Canadian Screen Awards. In her career, she has won a Golden Globe, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, two Emmy awards and six Canadian Screen Awards. In 2020, she was given the Governor General’s Performing arts Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award.
The most famous cast member is of course John Candy. In the 1980s and 1990s, Candy became one of the biggest names in Hollywood and acted in several hit movies including National Lampoon’s Vacation, Spaceballs, The Great Outdoors, Uncle Buck, Home Alone, Cool Runnings and in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. A member of Canada’s Walk of Fame since 1998, he has been honoured with a Canada Post stamp and Oct. 31, 2020, was declared John Candy Day in Toronto. Candy sadly died on March 4, 1994, of a heart attack at the age of 43.
Of the main cast members, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short and Dave Thomas have been awarded The Order of Canada.
In 2002, SCTV was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.
For those who appeared on the show, it would remain one of the highlights of their lives. Rick Moranis would write in 1996 in SCTV-Behind The Scenes quote:
“I think everyone involved agrees SCTV was their purest creative time. The irony of it is we all may have done our best work at the beginning of our careers.”
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Ottawa Journal, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, Windsor Star, Montreal Gazette, Red Deer Advocate,