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‘SCTV’ remains the gold standard

Times Staff Writer

There is a special delight in loving a thing you are sure no one else loves, or could love -- the thing that is strange and scruffy beyond description. (Call it the Velveteen Rabbit effect.)

Such was my love, and perhaps yours, for “SCTV,” the Canadian-sprung sketch-comedy series that sneaked onto the air in 1976, the year after “Saturday Night Live,” and kept a fairly low profile thereafter, never really emerging from underneath the shadow of its better-heeled, media-beloved cousin.

In mid-'70s terms, it was like the difference between being a fan of Fleetwood Mac and a fan of the Ramones. Of course, as with all pop cultural cults, the audience is bigger than any single member suspects; at the same time, the object of cultish adoration does not necessarily realize the depth of its influence, or the range of its success.

Now “SCTV” has come to DVD. That is reason enough for the technology to exist. “Blowed up real good.” “Good day, eh?” “Oooo, scary, kids! “Aaaah-hahaha, I want to bear your children!” Once again these words will be heard in the land, without having to wait for NBC (which has the American syndication rights into next year) to schedule reruns.

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The five-disc set, released on the Shout! Factory label Tuesday (priced at $74.94), contains the first nine NBC “Network 90" episodes, i.e., the first third of the show’s fourth of six seasons (three syndicated, two for NBC and one for Cinemax), which came on the air in 1981.

Given that this was the first version most Americans would have seen, it’s the logical place to start, and features the series’ definitive cast: John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis (the Canadians), and Joe Flaherty and Andrea Martin (the Americans). (Martin Short, a Canadian, would join before the end of the year.)

And as these particular episodes repeat many sketches drawn from the first three, syndicated, seasons, it provides a look backward as well. (Which means that founding member Harold Ramis turns up in the occasional interpolated old sketch.)

What “SCTV” and “SNL” did have in common was Second City -- it’s the SC in “SCTV” -- the Chicago-based, Toronto-franchised comedy troupe that was the training ground for some of the best comic actors of the late 20th century: Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Paul Sand, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Peter Boyle, Fred Willard, Shelley Long, Robert Klein, Bonnie Hunt, Dan Castellaneta, Mike Myers, Tim Meadows, Bob Odenkirk and Chris Farley, in addition to all the “SCTV” players, save for Moranis (who Thomas met at a party).

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From the outset “SCTV” replicated, in a highly compressed fashion, the broadcast day of an extremely low-rent local television station -- a practical function of its own meager budget. Production values increased across the life of the series, but at first they were as good as nonexistent -- something on the level of a hastily mounted high school production. Yet the show was ultimately well served by its economies and by a long gestation in relative obscurity.

“From a comedic point of view it’s a privileged position,” Ramis says during a reunion panel (at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen 1999) included as an extra in the DVD set. “It’s hard for winners to do comedy.... We represent the underdog....We attack the winners.”

Far from experiencing the rock star-style big-city celebrity that descended upon their former colleagues on “SNL,” the “SCTV” crew was headquartered after the second season not even in Toronto but in far off Edmonton, Alberta (“flat and lonely,” Thomas called it), later home to the world’s biggest mall but offering then only the chance to work without distraction.

“We had no idea who was watching the show,” Flaherty told the Aspen audience, “if anybody was watching the show.”

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No audience necessary

If obscurity gave them the chance to work for themselves, the format of the show -- shot without a live audience, on a five-day schedule -- let them work in subtle shades and to create a pace that had nothing to do with keeping an audience roaring. “We never had to hold for laughs,” Martin says at the Aspen reunion. “We never thought about the punchline or the joke.” There are no jokes, as such; in fact, when a character tells a joke -- unless it’s Dave Thomas as Bob Hope -- it’s generally not supposed to be funny. They played to the camera instead, creating complicity with you, the viewer.

The apotheosis of this method is “Great White North,” in which Moranis and Thomas, as the preternaturally “Canadian” McKenzie Brothers Bob and Doug (“Take off, ya hoser”), smoke cigarettes and drink beer and eat back bacon as they attempt to discuss or decide on their daily “topic” -- the size of parking lots at doughnut shops, say. These segments were improvised after everyone else had gone home. “It was all very low-key and stupid,” Thomas has said. But it gives the sketch the ring of truth.

The writers and writer-performers created a multidimensional alternative universe into which all their disparate characters were eventually knit. Oversized personality Johnny La Rue (Candy) shared space with the McKenzies (he got them to wash his car) and talk-show host Sammy Maudlin (Flaherty) and talk-show guest Lola Heatherton (O’Hara) and hot-under-the-collar commentator Bill Needle (Thomas), all of them working more or less under network chief Guy Caballero (a white-suited Flaherty in a wheelchair -- “for respect,” and in imitation of Lionel Barrymore in “Key Largo”).

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What’s more, these characters would sometimes play other characters, adding a weird sort of depth to the world of the show: Horror movie host Count Floyd, for instance, was played by newsman Floyd Robertson, who was played by Flaherty. You also get funnyman Bobby Bittman (Eugene Levy) as Julius Caesar, or the English-incapable Perini Scleroso (Martin) essaying the role of Eliza Doolittle.

Parodies of movies and of TV series and advertisements were the series’ stock in trade, and in this it was the hipper cousin of “The Carol Burnett Show” -- and also the eccentric uncle of “The Ben Stiller Show” and of “Mad TV,” whose creative team has included “SCTV” alumni such as director John Blanchard and writer Dick Blasucci. (Stiller contributes a short testimonial to the DVD booklet: “If you’re anything like me,” he writes, “you’ll be humbled, awed and, best of all, incredibly entertained.”)

Among the cast members there was no actor they could not approximate or completely re-create: Dave Thomas’ Bob Hope, Walter Cronkite and Richard Harris, and Rick Moranis’ David Brinkley, Woody Allen and Merv Griffin remain uncanny. (Moranis’ Merv -- “Ooo, we’llberightback” -- has, in fact, supplanted the actual one in the public imagination.) “The Merv Griffith Show,” in which Moranis plays Griffin as the sheriff of Mayberry, is possibly the funniest thing I have ever seen on television that does not involve a clumsy pet caught on home video.

There are a few routines here that were probably not funny even in their time -- Brenda Vaccaro’s breathing problems and Gino Vannelli’s hair are shallow subjects for parody. And given that the references are two decades old and more, footnotes would benefit the kids -- or at least the presence of a helpful adult.

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The chances that younger viewers, and not especially young ones at that, will have the vaguest idea of who Slim Whitman is are ... slim.

But given a basic understanding of the times, everything that was funny then is funny now. Its shoestring brilliance is undimmed.


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