Over the years, SCTVhas taken on a kind of mythological cult status. The cast itself contains enough legends of comedic acting to rewrite a few entries in the history book of humor. Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Harold Ramis and the irreplaceable John Candy, combined with a stellar group of individuals behind the scenes, and blessed with total creative control over their product, the result quickly became every sketch performers dream job. It was a place where their craft could be nurtured, not neutered by forces outside the process. Yet sadly, after a brief stint on Nick and Nite and an even more abbreviated stay on Comedy Central (back when it was called The Comedy Channel), the seminal shows themselves have fallen into obscurity, given over to rumor and speculation, faulty memory and a sense of entertainment emptiness. Now thanks to Shout! Factory, SCTVis back on the air (to paraphrase the show's opening). Having already released four box sets covering the NBC period and beyond, a look at the show's earliest incarnations is now available for DVD consumption. While it represents another exemplary collection of comedy, the lack of a few famous faces, and the addition of two relatively unremarkable new ones, may give some of the series' faithful purposeful pause.
SCTVis a show within a show, a wonderfully wicked satire centering around a small town TV station owed by the slightly cracked Guy Caballero. Along with Edith Prickley his programming director and various staff members, it's up to Guy and his stable of actors, directors and producers to put on quality (?) programming every single day. Some of his in-house talent doing this duty includes newscasters Floyd Robertson (who also hosts "Monster Chiller Horror Theater" as the vampiric Count Floyd), Earl Camembert and self-proclaimed genius, filmmaker and raconteur Johnny LaRue (a titan of arrogant skill who fashions his lifestyle after Hugh Hefner. He even has his own version of Hef's Bunnies...he calls his gals the Gerbils).
Additionally, Bob McKenzie and his brother Doug offer a Canadian take on things with their show "Great White North", and Chef Marcello can be found cooking up classic old world recipes and enjoying the occasional glass of wine. Social commentator Bill Needle presents his ever shrinking showcase for free speech while crafts expert Molly Earle always seems to find unique and interesting ways to dress up the drabbest of found objects. But the true staple of the SCTV Entertainment Empire is "The Sammy Maudlin Show", a late night chat fest featuring versatile performer and all-around ass kisser; Mr. Showbiz himself, Sammy Maudlin. Regulars include his co-host, William B. Williams, crass comedian Bobby Bittman and space case singer/actress Lola Heatherton.
As part of this select two season overview, we are treated to the following random episodes:
Episode #32 – "Municipal Election" – Johnny LaRue is running for City Council, and Earl Camembert is his campaign manager. Also features scenes from the miniseries "The Silly Bastard".
Episode #37 – "SCTV's 30th Anniversary Special" – as the station celebrates, we view clips from past efforts including a look at the Camembert's role in the McCarthy hearings.
Episode #45 – "On the Waterfront, Again" – funnyman Bobby Bittman has turned auteur and is on "The Sammy Maudlin Show" to plug his remake of the classic Brando film.
Episode #54 – "Thursday Night Live" – in an attempt to capture the hip comedy audience, SCTV goes "live". Also features the "K-Tel Fast Talking Playhouse" version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Episode #56 – "My Factory My Self" – Walter Cronkite joins the SCTV staff and presides over this "Dialing for Dollars" presentation. Also features Brian John's finance show "Money Talks".
Season 3 (Cont.)
Episode #57 – "Death Motel" - Count Floyd offers up this so-called scare classic, with a rare in-studio interview with star Woody Tobias, Jr.
Episode #59 – "Play It Again, Bob" – Woody Allen tries to jumpstart Bob Hope's flagging film career with this strange cinematic love letter. Also features "The Trial of Oscar Wilde".
Episode #60 – "Gaslight" - the classic thriller is given the satiric SCTVapproach. Also features Dick Cavett talking to his most appropriate guest – himself.
Episode #63 – "The Sammy Maudlin Show" – Bob Hope crashes Bobby Bittman's appearance to discuss his new multi-night special. Also features a clip of Taxi Driver starring Gregory Peck.
Episode #66 – "Hollywood Salutes Its Extras" – this SCTV special acknowledges the tireless efforts of Tinsel Town's talented background artists. Also features a clip of Taxi Driver starring Dick Cavett and a promo for the new "Hawaii Five-Ho".
Season 3 (Cont.)
Episode #67 – "The Irwin Allen Show" – the famous disaster film producer hosts his own catastrophe-plagued talk show. Also features "Cooking with Marcello".
Episode #68 – "1984/Big Brother" – at the stroke of midnight, New Year's Eve 1983, TV is overtaken by Big Brother.
Episode #69 – "Two Way TV/Pit Bull" – as the latest in television technology is explained, journalist Earl Camembert infiltrates an illegal dogfight. Also features Molly Earle and her Crazy Crafts.
Episode #71 – "Midnight Express Special" – live from a Turkish prison, it's Abbott and Costello hosting the premiere rock and roll showcase. Also features "Sunrise Semester: Basic Photography with Edith Prickley".
Episode #76 – "Dick Cavett" – Bobby Bittman makes an appearance on the PBS staple's talk show to promote his new film, Funny Stuff. Also features another lesson in Italian cuisine from Chef Marcello.
It's rare when a true television classic causes this sort of merchandising conundrum. After all, for many, SCTVrepresents the gold standard of sketch comedy. It effortlessly matched the anarchy attributed to those madcap members of the British Monty Python troupe while staying completely true to their own improv-based character/lampoon roots. It also took a slightly skewed view of the social and entertainment world and magnified it into sublime comic karma. Unlike its brash brother in anarchy, Saturday Night Live (both drew from the same talent pools over the years), which tended to ladle on its irony with a thirty foot trowel, SCTVbasked in a sunnier, more sly sense of the spoof. They would rather observe and scrutinize a situation/ individual, picking out the particulars that made them mockable, rather than routinely turn them into a silly stand-up bit or obvious piece of pantomime.
But when financial issues plagued the production of a third season, it appeared that cast and crew needed to find other work. For Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy, the break was a welcome relief. They wanted some time off to consider their career options. John Candy went off and immediately found work on the CBC series Big City Comedy. After two sensational seasons, it looked like SCTVwas finally OFF the air…for good. Then, as luck would have it, the money to make another set of shows was discovered. The only problem was getting the individual elements – both personal and professional - back together and in front of the camera. Candy was committed to his new show, and couldn't return. O'Hara likewise decided against another season. Levy agreed to part time status, as did sudden ship-jumper Andrea Martin. With such a shaky cast make-up, the producers had to plug in some new faces to take up the slack. Enter SCTV stage performers Tony Rosato and Robin Duke. For the next year, they would fill in the blanks, creating their own quasi-classic characters and giving Season 3 it's own unique spin.
As a result, they create the ultimate SCTV quandary. Many fans find the addition of Rosato and Duke to be yet another stellar decision in the praiseworthy path of the series seminal run. Others, however, notice something significant about the tone and temperament of these shows. Since 12 of the 15 episodes offered on Shout! Factory's new DVD box set, SCTV: The Best of the Early Years, come from the Rosato and Duke era, you can clearly see the change. While never one to avoid the physical or lowbrow end of humor, the Season 3 episodes seem overloaded with such concepts. Specific examples of the ideal come in the so-called 'classic' characters the duo created. For Rosato, a stereotypical swipe at all Italians named Chef Marcello illustrates the best that the organ grinder mentality of this kind of characterization can create. When Luigi on The Simpsons represents a subtler portrait of a paisan, you get the feeling that comedic shortcuts are being applied. Similarly, Duke's elderly how-to host, Molly Earle, is just a series of strange body movements meant to suggest a crazy old coot who loves crafts a little too much. The truth is that Duke is merely trading on her unusual looks for a laugh.
How you react to Rosato and Duke will be the primary criteria for judging the value of this new DVD set. Fans are already fuming that Shout! Factory, after four previous chronological releases (full seasons, or as close to same as possible) is now going the 'best of' route made famous in the digital medium's infancy. Even worse, only three of the installments here (all found on Disc 1) represent the efforts of the original cast. And when you compare the brilliance of "On the Waterfront, Again" (supposed funnyman Bobby Bittman remakes the Oscar winning drama in his own unique way) or Johnny LaRue's run for City Council (as part of "Municipal Election") it's hard to get exciting over skits like "Make Me Barf" or the ridiculous Rona Barrett parody featuring a fey sports reporter. If anything, Rosato and Duke rely so heavily on physicality for their humor that the laughs become telegraphed and obvious. In a show known for its subtlety, such an approach tends to be jarring. This does not mean that the Rosato and Duke era was without its classic moments, but there is definitely more filler here than finesse.
Thankfully, the good far outweighs the bad especially when you consider this set has such finely crafted parodies as the feminist manifesto amalgamation of '70s issue films "My Factory, My Self", the satiric stab at bad b-movie making from the '50s, "Death Motel" and the terrific talk show lampoon "The Sammy Maudlin Show" (with a walk-on appearance by Dave Thomas' definitive Bob Hope). Other show length sketches are a little week. "Hollywood Salutes Its Extras" is way too dry and insular to register with a non-insider audience, while the Big Brother show was sensational – and way too short. Season 3 is also where Bob and Doug McKenzie got their start, and there is lots of groovy "Great White North" goodness in this set. The arrival of Rick Moranis also meant the introduction of a new technology-tweaking philosophy for SCTV. There is an over reliance on the gay swish stereotype, and some of the material here is recycled later on in the NBC era SCTV Network 90 shows. Still, for a chance to see the brilliant 1984 parody, or the implied Jerry Lewis lampoon via the brilliant Bobby Bittman appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show", this DVD collection is excellent. Even with Rosato and Duke's hit and miss approach, the results are often on par with the series' signature best.
Shout! Factory unleashes this fifth heaping helping of SCTVin a technically sound three disc set. Visually, fans couldn't ask for more. SCTVis not some carefully preserved product, like SNL or other brand new broadcast entities. And it was not the most expensive comedy series ever made. So production and budgetary limitations should be prevalent throughout the set. But in reality, SCTVlooks and sounds great. The 1.33:1 transfer is crisp, full of detail and deep contrasts. The colors are vibrant without flaring or bleeding, and even some of the weaker elements (a lot of the filmed material pales in grainy comparison to the video image) look wonderful.
Aurally, SCTVhas some minor issues. All the divergent aspects struggling to be heard on the soundtrack can occasionally overwhelm the Dolby Digital Mono. Especially when a musical number is employed, you can have voice, music, effects and laugh track all going at once and there is a near-tinny quality to the mix. Still, for a show this old, the sonic qualities are quite excellent (Heck, even the prevalent laugh track works!).
As with previous installments of Shout! Factory's SCTVdiscs, each volume houses an interesting array of added content. Primarily, select episodes feature full length audio commentaries by either Andrew Alexander (show producer and Second City luminary) or assorted cast members. Alexander's discussions are unique in that they don't actually focus on the episode at hand, but instead address questions sent in from fans and viewers. He appears on the very first episode of this box set ("Municipal Election") and again on Disc 3's "Dick Cavett". With Scott Dobson acting as moderator, these two alternate narratives are enlightening, and a lot of fun. As for actual cast participation, Joe Flaherty and Robin Duke provide some dead-air addled insights for Disc 1's "My Factory, My Self" and Disc 2's "Gaslight". Part of the problem with any SCTVcast commentary is that many of the actors have not seen the show in decades. Instead of adding context to what's being presented, they mostly sit back and watch the sketches and skits. This leads to more pauses than proclamations. Still, when they're not silent, or just dishing the dirt, both do add some nice performer perspective to our understanding of the series.
In addition, each disc holds it's own mini-documentary, each one focusing on a different facet of the show. Up first is an Andrea Martin career retrospective that explains how Godspell functioned as the catalyst for many of SCTV's stars, and the inspiration for many of her most famous characters. Disc 3 has Andrew Alexander discussing The Firehouse, home to Second City for decades. As he tours the building (now a nightclub) he offers up some anecdotes about the cast and the creative process. The best added element though is on Disc 2, a report from Canadian television entitled "The McKenzie Brothers Take Off, Eh!" Explaining the series' sketch phenomenon and its impact both in the Great White North and abroad, it's a wonderfully nostalgic overview, and really argues for the timeless quality of the Moranis and Thomas's dim Canuck duo.
With a wealth of Harold Ramis-era material still locked in the vaults, and no clear indication how Shout! Factory will proceed from this point on when it comes to releases, grading this Best of the Early Years package creates its own entertainment enigma. Much if not all of the material here is fine, if not first rate, with Rosato and Duke unable to completely affect the level of considered cleverness the series always strived for. In that case, a rating of Highly Recommended would seem to be in order. On the other hand, promoting such a piecemeal approach to the release of the SCTVcanon seems counterproductive. We fans want to see the all the older shows as well, no matter the seemingly impenetrable rights issues involved. Therefore, giving credence to something which doesn't represent an entire season suggests a score of Skip or Rent It. As a kind of critical compromise, a rank of Recommended will be offered. It expresses the proper perspective on the comedic material inherent in the show while creating a caveat regarding the future handling of additional DVD titles. In a perfect world, each and every season of SCTVwould be preserved in full digital quality for proceeding generations to ponder and proclaim. Until that time, it appears we have to settle for a far more randomized retrospective. Frankly, the series deserves better.
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