Second City Television

sctv

Second City Television (SCTV) is a Canadian television sketch comedy show offshoot from Toronto’s The Second City troupe that ran between 1976 and 1984. The basic premise of the show is that ‘SCTV’ is an independent television station in the city of Melonville.

Rather than broadcasting the usual TV rerun fare, the station produces a bizarre and humorously incompetent range of cheap local programming including a soap opera called ‘The Days of the Week’ (‘Monday… Tuesday… Wednesday… these are… the days of the week’), a game show, ‘Shoot At The Stars,’ in which celebrities are literally shot at like targets in a shooting gallery, and full blown movie spoofs like ‘Play it Again, Bob’ in which Woody Allen (Rick Moranis) tries to get Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) to star in his next film.

A typical episode of SCTV would present a compendium of programming seen on the station throughout their programming day. This would mean a given episode could contain everything from SCTV news broadcasts to sitcoms, dramas, talk shows, kids shows, and/or game shows. Episodes would also feature a range of SCTV-produced promos and commercials, such as spots for ‘Al Peck’s Used Fruit’ or ‘Shower In A Briefcase,’ or a PSA which helpfully describes ‘Seven Signs You May Already Be Dead.’

Also seen fairly frequently (particularly in the later episodes) were behind-the-scenes plots focusing on life at the station. These plots often featured Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty), the cheap, tyrannical owner and president of SCTV, who was in a wheelchair only so that people would ‘respect’ him; weaselly, sweating station manager Maurice ‘Moe’ Green (Harold Ramis), who was succeeded by flamboyant, leopard-skin clad station manager Mrs. Edith Prickley (Andrea Martin); vain variety star Johnny La Rue (John Candy); washed-up entertainers like singer Lola Heatherton (Catherine O’Hara) and ‘funnyman’ Bobby Bittman (Eugene Levy); news anchors Floyd Robertson (Flaherty) and Earl Camembert (Levy), talk-show host Sammy Maudlin (Flaherty), beer-addled brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie (Moranis and Thomas), plus many other characters, all played by the SCTV cast.

There is much dispute as to who created the SCTV series. The show itself bears no ‘created by’ credit, although it gives ‘developed by’ credits to Bernard Sahlins and Andrew Alexander. What is clear is that in 1976, Andrew Alexander, then the producer of Toronto’s Second City stage show, was looking to expand his company into the realm of TV production. He called together the current cast of the stage show (including Candy, Flaherty, Thomas and Levy) to discuss a format for a ‘Second City TV’ series. Also in attendance at the meeting were Second City vets Del Close, Sheldon Patinkin, and Harold Ramis and business partner Bernard Sahlins.

The core premise of the show allowed for tremendous variety in presentation, but unlike ‘Monty Python,’ which often would cut from one sketch to another without any resolution, the ‘SCTV’ format required television style bridges. One technique they used was to build premises into ‘promos’ for shows that would never run (such as ‘Melvin and Howards,’ a parody of the movie ‘Melvin and Howard’ which featured Melvin Dummar, Howard Hughes, Howard Cosell, Curly Howard, and Senator Howard Baker on a road trip singing old tunes). Another was to take longer pieces that failed and cut them into promos or trailers. These short elements wound up being the equivalent of ‘blackout’ pieces on the Second City stage. However, the internal logic of the series — that this actually was a television station producing low-budget programming — was never lost. SCTV’s techniques helped inform and influence later shows, with clear influence on ‘The State,’ the ‘Upright Citizen’s Brigade,’ and ‘The Kids in the Hall.’

Later shows built a tight theme, sometimes acting as a metaparody — such as the Emmy-winning ‘Moral Majority’ episode where advertisers and special interest groups forced significant changes to SCTV’s programming; ‘Zontar,’ a parody of the Larry Buchanan film ‘Zontar, The Thing from Venus’ which featured an alien race seeking to kidnap SCTV’s on-air talent for ‘a nine-show cycle plus three best-ofs’ (which was the actual deal NBC worked out with SCTV that season); and an ambitious parody of ‘The Godfather’ featuring an all-out network war over pay television between SCTV, CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS – the last featured mafia-style hits on the sets of ‘The Today Show,’ ‘Three’s Company,’ and ‘The NFL Today’ as well as an extended sequence with guest star John Marley as an off-beat Leonard Bernstein, spoofing his Godfather role of Hollywood mogul Jack Woltz.

In another such episode, a janitorial union went on strike, forcing the station to broadcast the network feed from CBC Television. Parodies of Canadian television ensued, such as ‘Hinterland Who’s Who’ and promos for ‘Monday Night Curling,’ hosted by two orange-jacketed sportscasters who were both named Gord, and ‘Magnum, P.E.I.,’ with John Candy as a private detective chasing his quarry through the scenic potato patches of Prince Edward Island. Meanwhile, in behind-the-scenes labor negotiations, Eugene Levy’s Sid Dithers played the union president, barely able to see over the conference table as he detailed the progress of the strike-talks (‘Fifteen minutes for lunsch? Ye can’t even blow on your shoop!’).

The show would have a huge influence on ‘The Simpsons.’ Matt Groening has said that he was specifically inspired by the town of Melonville, its own little universe with many recurring characters, and that that was the type of universe he wanted for ‘The Simpsons.’ Both Dave Thomas and Andrea Martin have guest starred on ‘The Simpsons.’

Ironically, the most popular SCTV sketch was intended as throwaway filler. Bob & Doug McKenzie, the dim-witted, beer-chugging brothers in a recurring Canadian-themed sketch called ‘Great White North,’ were initially developed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas (Bob & Doug, respectively) as a sardonic response to the CBC network’s request that the show feature two minutes of ‘identifiably Canadian content’ in every episode. The characters ultimately became icons of the very Canadian culture they parodied, spinning off albums, a feature film (‘Strange Brew’), commercials, and numerous TV and film cameos. Bob and Doug helped to popularize the stereotypical Canadian trait of adding ‘eh’ to the end of sentences, a facet of Canadian life that is often gently ridiculed in American shows featuring Canadian characters. Lines from the sketch, such as ‘take off, you hoser!,’ became part of North American popular culture. Thomas later revealed that the other members of the cast grew bitter at the immense financial and popular success he and Moranis received from their Bob & Doug McKenzie albums, ultimately leading to their departing the show. An SCTV episode even poked fun at the duo’s popularity. Station manager Guy Caballero declared that they had become SCTV’s top celebrities, supplanting Johnny LaRue. This led to the pair being given a Bob & Doug ‘special’ with Tony Bennett as their guest, which wound up being a disaster.

The show’s NBC years brought with them a network edict to include musical guests (in part because of their use on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ which NBC executives considered the model for ‘SCTV,’ despite their being very different shows). At first, the ‘SCTV’ cast, writers, and producers resisted special guests, on the theory that famous people wouldn’t just ‘drop into’ the Melonville studios. However, they soon discovered that by actually working these guests into different shows-within-shows, they could keep the premise going while also giving guest stars something more to do than show up and sing a song. As a result, Dr. John became a featured player in the movie ‘Polynesiantown,’ John Mellencamp (no longer known as Johnny Cougar) was Mister Hyde to Ed Grimley’s Doctor Jekyll in ‘The Nutty Lab Assistant,’ Natalie Cole was made into a zombie by a cabbage in ‘Zontar,’ and the Boomtown Rats were both blown up on ‘Farm Film Celebrity Blow Up.’ It reached a point where Hall & Oates appeared on a ‘Sammy Maudlin Show’ segment, promoting a new film called ‘Chariots of Eggs,’ which was a parody of both ‘Chariots of Fire’ and ‘Personal Best,’ only to show scenes from the faux movie as clips.

This, along with SCTV’s cult status, led to the show’s celebrity fans clamoring to appear. Later on, Tony Bennett credited his appearance on Bob and Doug McKenzie’s variety-show debacle ‘The Great White North Palace’ as triggering a significant career comeback. Sketch comedy giant Carol Burnett did an ad for the show in which an alarm clock goes off next to her bed, she rises up suddenly and advises those who couldn’t stay up late enough (the NBC version aired from 12:30 to 2 a.m.) to go to bed, get some sleep, then wake up to watch the show.

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2 Responses to “Second City Television”

  1. always loved that show…’did you drove or did you flew?’ hahaha

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