SCTV is on the air, again. NBC's Saturday Night (Live) has been around longer, produced more big-time movie spin-offs, and had the hottest guest stars from Hollywood. But for connoisseurs of great comedy there was no comparison. Second City TV and its follow-up, SCTV Network 90 were the top echelon of television comedy during the late-1970s and early-'80s, the torch-bearers of great sketch comedy in the wake of The Goon Show, the early work of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore and, of course, Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Comparisons with the bigger, mostly concurrent Saturday Night are in some ways unfair, in some ways inevitable, and in truth they were in many ways completely different shows. Saturday Night was "live in New York" and performed in front of a studio audience, giving it an immediacy which both worked for and against the show. The in-house audience set its pace; this was fine when sketches worked, but deadly when they didn't. When the show proved a springboard to Hollywood fame and fortune, its writer-performers became fiercely competitive, fighting one another for precious airtime, and the show became star- instead of character-driven, and on-set drug use further fueled its meltdown. Saturday Night's shows were also written in great haste, and its cast driven to rely on cue cards, a style of performance not known for producing great comedy.
SCTV, by contrast, was leisurely taped without an audience, in comparatively remote Edmonton, Alberta, where its staff of writers and performers had only the vaguest awareness anyone was even watching. For the most part, they got on swimmingly, and as Joe Flaherty's jokes in one of the documentaries, "We did the green stuff, not the white stuff [like Saturday Night Live's cast]." Playing to the camera, the performances could be subtler, and problematic sketches could be tinkered with as they were being shot, or whittled down in the editing room. Ultimately, Saturday Night ended up being driven by its audience; popular characters were brought back until they had been done to death and the humor pummeled into nothingness. SCTV's writers were, in essence, writing for themselves.
The result was comedy far more personal, more complex and inspired than anything on Saturday Night after that show's first few seasons. Now, Shout Factory has compiled the first nine 90-minute SCTV Network 90 shows and a feast of extras in Volume 1: SCTV Network 90. Simply put, it's one of the best DVDs of 2004.
Mostly unavailable in its original form for years, these complete 65-minute shows (happily without those interminable late-night TV commercials), SCTV Network 90 is as funny as ever, and these nine shows arguably represent the series at its creative peak. Each is crammed with memorable characters and sly parodies. John Candy is featured in a hilarious spoof of The Millionaire, the popular '50s TV melodrama. Dave Thomas captures Bob Hope's slick vanity and womanizing in "Play It Again, Bob," with Rick Moranis doing a dead-on Woody Allen. Catherine O'Hara is a creepily uncanny Faye Dunaway in the show's epic "Polynesiantown," a goofy parody of Roman Polanski's retro-noir. Eugene Levy captures Alex Trebek's short-fuse personality in a hilarious game show parody. "Indira" spoofs Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, with Andrea Martin as the slain Indian leader in a tacky musical co-starring Slim Whitman (Joe Flaherty)!
For the uninitiated, the show's premise is that the audience is watching the daily programming of a small-time TV station in tiny Melonville, with its cast also appearing as recurring off- and on-camera characters. There is Guy Caballero (Flaherty), the station owner (patterned after Lionel Barrymore's character from Key Largo), who moves about in a wheelchair purely for "respect"; station manager Edith Prickley (Martin); Leutonian Polka stars Yosh & Stan, the cheery Shmenge Brothers; the great Bobby Bittman (Levy); and John Candy as the indefatigable Johnny La Rue. And, of course, there's Bob & Doug McKenzie (Moranis and Thomas), whose stereotyped Canadians eventually starred in their own wonderfully goofy feature film, Strange Brew.
The show could be beguilingly weird and obscure at times. A performance of a 19th century Chekov play is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Ensign Chekov, of TV's Star Trek. In a parody of The Andy Griffith Show Eugene Levy's send-up of Floyd the barber is specifically "post-stroke."
Not every sketch is funny, and the show was saddled with musical guests that, while often good in and of themselves (Roy Orbison and Dr. John are among those appearing in these early episodes) their acts throw the format slightly askew. Overall, however, this is truly a classic show with a phenomenal batting average.
Video & Audio
The shows look about as good as one would expect. Shot on early-'80s videotape, the quality inherently isn't anything to write home about, but perfectly acceptable, as is the mono sound. There's no problem with the bit rate, as two episodes plus 30 minutes of extra features are typically spread over each of the five single-sided, dual-layered discs. Where this package falls short is in the chapter stops, which for some reason go unnamed and are limited to five per show. The longish documentaries have no chapter options at all, nor are the shows subtitled.
Fans of the series will be delighted by the almost three hours of extra material. Disc 1 Features a nice overview of the show, SCTV Remembers. As with most of the supplements, it was shot in 2003 with the participation of most of the cast, writers (including Doug Steckler, Paul Flaherty, John McAndrew, Bob Dilman, and Dick Blasucci), and producers. Only Rick Moranis is conspicuously absent from all this new material. Appropriately, these mini-documentaries are leisurely paced and have none of the slickness one would expect from a more mainstream DVD.
Disc 2 offers a fascinating Origins of SCTV which is really about the origins of Second City, the seminal improv troupe that eventually moved into TV. The 25-minute featurette includes great archival clips going back to 1961 with Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris (surely a major influence on Catherine O'Hara?), Severn Darden and others.
Disc 3 features a mostly humorous Remembering John, a 27-minute tribute to the actor who died in 1994. Not surprisingly, there are some gloriously funny clips (Candy as cowardly cowboy "Yellowbelly," as a sex-starved Tattoo in a Fantasy Island spoof) and interviews that paint a vivid portrait of the sorely missed comedian.
Disc 4 features a 29-minute short on The Craft of SCTV with wardrobe designer Juul Haalmeyer, makeup designer Bev Schechtman, and hair and wig designer Judi Cooper Sealy. Archival costumes (hey, it's Johnny La Rue's embroidered jacket!) and the like are featured, along with plenty of behind-the-scenes makeup photos.
Disc 5 features an SCTV Reunion videotaped at the 1999 U.S. Comedy Art Festival, and provided by HBO. The 63-minute program is a Q&A with the SCTV cast save Candy and Rick Moranis, who was too ill to attend. Martin Short, who joined the cast the following season, and Harold Ramis, prominent in early episodes but less so later on, also appear. Conan O'Brien, who obviously knows the show and its characters, pays tribute and moderates the lively discussion. O'Hara is blunt about the inequity received by her and Martin, who wrote for the show but were initially paid and recognized only as performers, even though they wrote much of their own material. Short discusses the thin-skinned reactions by Jerry Lewis and Robin Williams, among others, to his imitations of them. (O'Hara does a terrific Karen Black here as well, while Thomas recalls meetings with a confused Bob Hope.)
Joe Flaherty and Eugene Levy contribute funny and informative commentary tracks for episodes two and six. The set reportedly features a 24-page booklet, though this reviewer didn't get one.
Just as SCTV was inspired by the Goons and Monty Python, the impact of SCTV has been carried through newer shows like Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show. If you've never seen SCTV or, like this reviewer, has barely seen it since it originally aired, you're in for a treat. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.