|SCTV - Volume 1: Network 90|
|DVD TV Shows|
|Written by Dan Macintosh|
|Tuesday, 08 June 2004|
Perhaps actor/comedian Ben Stiller sums it up best in the liner notes for this five-DVD set: “For my sister and me, it was the funniest thing we had ever seen, on at 12:30 on Friday nights – and no one knew about it.” For early fans of the show, it really seemed like this quirky SCTV series was our little secret. And even though the equally new “Saturday Night Live” was getting almost all of the media attention around this time – at least with regard to emerging sketch comedy programs -- performers and writers, such as Stiller, immediately gravitated toward this offbeat little-show-that-could, and it still holds a special place in their hearts.
For those who did not see SCTV back during its original run, a brief description is in order. The show takes place in the made up town of Melonville, and SCTV is the station i.d. letters for a bumbling fictitious television channel. This means that all of the jokes revolve around television. While such a concept may seem limiting upon first glance, keep in mind the fact that TV can (and does) produce shows about every conceivable topic known to mankind. Thus SCTV could satirize anything and everything it so desired. And boy, does it have a field day!
Sometimes the gang has fun reconfiguring whole movies, as they did with the nearly sacred “Casablanca,” while other jokes strictly limit themselves to lampooning commercials and/or stereotypical commercial situations. Many of these TV advertisement send-ups, such as Dave Thomas’ fast-talking Ronco-inspired pitchman, are double-over funny. The advent of infomercials, which now gives advertisers full TV timeslots for the purpose of selling their products, has probably slowed down the amphetamined patter of the TV pitchmen considerably. But back in the day, TV advertising time was precious, so talk was rapid. In another bit, Eugene Levy inhabits one of those crazy stereo salesmen characters, those guys who would have to be crazy to discount merchandise so much. But instead of pushing hi-fi equipment, Levy’s character enthusiastically hypes his emporium of nails. That’s right, those pointy, metallic things you normally buy at a hardware store. Why pay more, he says to TV viewers, when he can save you three cents a pound on your favorite nail? This is absurdly funny – believe me. While many of this show’s original targets are obvious – we’ve all seen these aforementioned fast-talkers and seemingly insane discounters -- other SCTV skits could only have resulted from the musings of a twisted comedic imagination. For example, John Candy plays a guy with has a big green snake tattoo on his face who owns a sex shop. During his ad time, he attempts to appeal to frustrated perverts with his wares. It’s reassuring to know that not everything can be advertised on television, don’t you think?
This DVD set for SCTV Network/90 documents the years when this formerly syndicated program briefly became one of NBC’s late night shows. The “90” part of its title signifies that it – like SNL – had become a 90-minute program. And although the network also convinced the show’s creators to begin including live musical segments in its programs – mirroring SNL’s similar nod to pop music – these crafty SCTV folks smartly worked their guest musicians right into the skits, rather than just doing cut-aways to their performances. So in addition to hearing Dr. John playing and singing New Orleans style, for instance, the viewer also gets a chance to see this artist mow through a hill of bad ribs while acting in the “Polynesian Town” bit. Of course, it is this comedy troupe’s regular original characters and celebrity impressions that make the show so special – and certainly not the part-time acting of its musical guests.
Every fan has his or her favorite recurring figures, but who can ever forget those losers, Bob and Doug McKenzie? Inspired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) guideline, which requires Canadian programs to always contain a certain percentage of purely Canadian content, this self-deprecating little segment played fast and loose with many silly Canadian stereotypes. These ranged from exaggerated accents to silly local phrases (like “hoser” and “take off”) to edible “delicacies” like back bacon. These two loveable losers caught on so well with U.S. audiences, in fact, they eventually made their own feature film.
It would be impossible to name all of the many memorable SCTV characters, but one would be remiss if the leopard skin-outfitted Edith Prickley were not soundly saluted. She is like a hyperactive insect, always buzzing around the studio – albeit with an omnipresent smile on her face. Similar praise should also be heaped upon the regular guests of the Sammy Maudlin Show, such as its unfunny comedian, Bobby Bittman, and its used jet trash nightclub singer, Lola Heatherton. And let’s not forget that knee-slapping Maudlin himself. Had the Tonight Show originated from a Las Vegas showroom, it would have looked an awful lot like the Maudlin show.
Still, none of these funny characters would have even existed were it not for the talented cast that created them. For instance, Andrea Martin played both Prickley and her organ-selling sister, Edna; Dave Thomas could go from being one half of the moronic McKenzie Brothers, to doing a pitch-perfect Bob Hope voice impression; John Candy, who probably made the most recognizable transition to feature films after leaving the show, was the loveable, yet annoying, Johnny LaRue, as well as about a billion other rotund characters; Joe Flaherty never failed to raise a chuckle every time he introduced another un-scary horror film during his “Monster Horror Chiller Theater” bit and Eugene Levy was just as hilarious playing the lame Bobby Bittman as he was doing a hapless Alex Trebek-like game show host. These were (and are) the men and women of a million funny faces.
"The Craft of SCTV," an extra feature that spotlights this show’s costume, hair and makeup designers, is perhaps the boxed set’s best added feature. It’s hard to believe that just three people were able to keep these actors and actresses outfitted so wonderfully throughout the show’s run. During this segment, one learns that this program was filmed in Edmonton, Alberta, which is not exactly the entertainment capital of the world. It’s not very cosmopolitan, either. And why should this have mattered, you ask? Well, for instance, in other, bigger cities, costumers can sometimes find necessary vintage outfits in thrift stores. But as these three brave and hardworking staff members explain to the camera, SCTV didn’t have such advantages in their chosen locale. Heck, I’ll bet Edmonton residents were still wearing a lot of their vintage outfits.
Being slightly isolated has its advantages, however, at least from an artistic standpoint. For instance, during the troupe’s reunion discussion at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, Eugene Levy mentions how the show’s participants rarely had to deal with the kinds of distractions a bigger city like Los Angeles or New York can oftentimes present. Edmonton is certainly not “life in the fast lane,” that’s for sure. Instead, these skilled actors could completely concentrate on making the best show possible, without being tempted by the bright lights of the big city.
While the aforementioned SCTV reunion extra feature certainly has its fine moments, it also has a few nagging flaws, too. Most notably, it’s disappointing every time host Conan O’Brien introduces a favorite clip, only to be let down when the clip is then completely edited out of the DVD. In other words, the audience and the panel participants got to see what O’Brien was talking and laughing about, but the home viewer totally misses out. One wonders if this editing might have had something to do with contractual issues of some kind, since some of these clips pre-date the NBC era. But even so, an explanation would have been appreciated, at the very least.
SCTV, even to this day, still gets compared to SNL, probably because they were both sketch TV comedy programs. But while SNL played to a live audience and its actors played off of that live crowd energy, SCTV had no such direct and personal interactions. This may be why the characters were usually better developed, and oftentimes just plain funnier than those of SNL fame. These actors didn’t have to make every punchline payoff, so they could just be funny people, instead.
But as good as this set is, it’s only a reminder that there is still a whole heck of a lot of other SCTV material not yet on DVD, someplace out there where this collection came from. Let’s hope this collection is a big seller, and that it inspires some smart business mind to release the rest of the stash. SCTV truly deserves to be an international religion, rather than the underappreciated cult show it is today.