10 episodes that make the argument for SCTV as one of TV’s all-time greats

10 episodes that make the argument for SCTV as one of TV’s all-time greats

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Is SCTV the greatest sketch show in the history of television? As Dan Duryea says in Winchester 73 when Shelley Winters contemptuously calls him the fastest draw in Texas: “Texas? Lady, why limit me?” During its peak in the early ’80s, it wasn’t considered too off-the-wall to call the critically beloved, perennially low-rated show the greatest series ever made for commercial TV in North America. In 1983, critic James Wolcott called it “the only entertainment show on TV that matters.” A year later, David Marc published Comic Visions, his landmark critical study of TV as it was before cable and home video fully changed the landscape, and argued that it was an essentially comic medium; the commercial pressures and the narrative limitations that the networks imposed on creators because of those pressures, and viewers’ awareness of those limitations, made it impossible for writers and directors to create real drama, or for viewers to really take anything they saw on TV seriously. 

At the same time, comedians who’d grown up with TV looked at it differently from older comics, like Bob Hope or Johnny Carson, who “spoofed” popular TV shows by dressing up as Columbo or Batman and then reeling off the same old cookie-cutter one-liners they might use in any sketch. Marc suggested that it represented a new artistic maturity for the medium when young comedians began using TV to do satire that had an informed attitude about what was on the box and the relationship that audiences had with it. Saturday Night Live may have gotten there first, but SCTV used this approach to construct its own universe through its parodies, its regular cast of characters, and the behind-the-scenes glimpses of life at the network. “SCTV,” wrote Richard T. Jameson in Film Comment, “builds on the recognition that we don’t so much watch TV as live with it.”

The show got off to an undistinguished start. In 1976, Andrew Alexander, the operator of the Toronto branch of the Second City improv company, decided to plow some of the local talent into a half-hour syndicated TV show. Second City people were brought in from Chicago as consultants during the planning phase, and one of them—some reports give the credit to improv legend Del Close—suggested using the idea of an imaginary, struggling TV network, situated in the tiny town of Melonville, as a framework that could support a lot of different gags. The first “season” consisted of 26 episodes that turned up sporadically on late-night TV over the course of more than a year, and the earliest ones look as if the people who’d made them weren’t sure they’d ever get to make another. But gradually, the budget got a little better, the makeup and other production values got a lot better, and the cast of writer-performers really began to relish the possibilities of the mock-“broadcasting day” format. 

The cast also began to create peerless impressions of TV and movie celebrities and familiar TV types, as well as original characters trapped in the ninth circle of show-business hell: mealy-mouthed station chief Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty), who looked like Gregory Peck playing Josef Mengele in The Boys From Brazil and rode a wheelchair “for respect”; singer-comedian Bobby Bittman (Eugene Levy), who might have been exiled from Vegas for lowering the tone of the room; failed sexpot “entertainer” and eternal candidate for an intervention Lola Heatherton (Catherine O’Hara); and sweat-soaked, beady-eyed hedonist hustler and one-man media conglomerate Johnny LaRue (John Candy). In their strange way, these characters became the heart of the show. They were created by high-flying, creatively ambitious young artists who wanted to do work they could be proud of, but who, to pay their rent, had done time in terrible sitcoms and squalid movies—and would do so again. They had every right to look down their noses at the Bobby Bittmans and Lola Heathertons of the world and despise them for the mediocrity, and worse, they inflicted on audiences, but they were too honest not to also, on some level, relate to them.

SCTV hit its full stride during its third syndicated season, which premièred in the fall of 1980. NBC, looking to plug a hole on Friday late nights after the cancellation of its rock show Midnight Special (and reclaim some of its reputation for hip comedy after the fiasco of the 1980-81 season of Saturday Night Live), snatched it up, and the expanded 90-minute (including commercials) version ran from 1981 to 1983. There was a final, 18-episode season of 45-minute episodes produced for Cinemax in 1983 and 1984. Working for pay cable freed the troupe from worrying about ratings and enabled the members to turn to ever stranger and more personal sources of inspiration: singing-cowboy serials, Black Like Me, a mash-up of Porky’s and Das Boot, and, in the last episode, clips from Of Human Bondage given the What’s Up, Tiger Lily? treatment, interspersed with SCTV characters begging viewers to send money in to keep the show alive a little longer, so they wouldn’t have to return to the salt mines. But by then, half the cast—Candy, O’Hara, Rick Moranis, and Dave Thomas—were getting Hollywood offers and were too busy (or exhausted) to return to regular active duty, and by the time the curtain fell for the last time, the seams were starting to show. (The best thing to come out of the Cinemax period was a one-shot special, The Last Polka, starring Candy and Levy as the musical brothers from Eastern Europe, Yosh and Stan Shmenge.)

Even if the show petered out in the end, these 10 episodes display its comedic prowess at its height.

“On The Waterfront Again” (season two, episode 19): One of the most useful devices on SCTV was the talk show, a handy way to raise any topic or drag in any celebrity the show wanted to skewer. The unchallenged king of SCTV talk-show hosts was Sammy Maudlin (Flaherty), whose show was modeled on Sammy And Company, a syndicated celebration of the art of ass-kissing hosted by Sammy Davis Jr. in the mid-’70s. In this episode, an entire episode of The Sammy Maudlin Show is devoted to letting Bobby Bittman (in the Brando role) and his co-stars plug their TV-movie remake of On The Waterfront, complete with clips of Bobby and his leading lady, Lola Heatherton, in action. Making entertaining fun of terrible acting is a tough trick to pull off, but Levy and O’Hara make it look easy.

“Play It Again, Bob” (season three, episode seven): At a time when Woody Allen was being celebrated for having moved “beyond” comedy, SCTV arranged a fantasy meeting between Allen (Moranis) and the comedian he’d credited as an influence on his early screen persona, Bob Hope (Thomas), resulting in a classic study of the push-pull attraction of two wildly contrasting types. This was Moranis’ first season on the show, and his genius for parodying dithering, self-styled intellectual types (as also seen in his genius impressions of Dick Cavett) gave the show a whole new line of attack. His performance as Allen is as perfect as would be expected, but Thomas’ Bob Hope impression is a thing of uncommon beauty: No one else who’s tried imitating Hope has come close to it.

“Midnight Express Special” (season three, episode 19): An early example of SCTV’s special genius for grafting different parodies into a head-splitting whole, this rock-concert show starts off with the concert series that the show would soon be replacing, allowing the performers to take off on various musical entertainers. It also serves as a takedown of the Turkish-prison movie Midnight Express and somehow manages to work in Abbott and Costello. (Serving as hosts, they do a version of “Who’s On First?” with the names of bands in place of the nicknames of baseball players.) The references to hashish here are the closest SCTV ever came to the drug humor that was popular on SNL and its imitator, Fridays, at the time. But then, the imaginative conceptual leaps the show brought off could put the best chemical high to shame. 

“Moral Majority” (season four, episode six): SCTV was quick to use its enhanced major-network profile to get political, with an uncharacteristically direct hit on the conservative culture wars. The running thread here involves Guy Caballero being leaned on by advertisers who are leery of offending right-wing religious scolds. (He folds like a cheap suit.) It’s all very smart and noble, though what lifts this episode into the highest reaches of the canon is “The Merv Griffith Show,” a visit to Mayberry with everyone’s favorite unctuous talk-show host. (Actually, Merv wasn’t anybody’s favorite anything, but there are plenty of people who never saw his show but who, thanks to Moranis, think they know how to do an impression of him.) Forced to choose between historical accuracy and satirical comprehensiveness on the one hand, and that piddling concept called “good taste” on the other, Levy does the right thing and performs both pre- and post-stroke versions of Floyd the barber.

“Bouncin’ Back To You” (season four, episode eight): The backstage tragicomedy really takes over in this episode, about Lola Heatherton’s attempt to pull herself together in time for her big primetime variety special. She fails, and the show is yanked after Guy tunes in to see himself included in her on-air litany of disappointing lovers. She is quickly replaced onstage by the Tubes, who—in accordance with NBC’s dictum that the show include musical guests, and SCTV’s insistence on giving them a reason for being there—have been visiting Gil Fisher, host of The Fishin’ Musician.

“Walter Cronkite’s Brain” (season four, episode 13): A strong patchwork of sketches showcasing some of the best from such recurring favorites as Merv Griffin (trapped in an acid flashback of ’60s episodes) and horror-movie host Count Floyd (plugging a flick called Slinky… Toy From Hell), this episode is lifted high by the inspired derangement of the title sketch, which starts out with Cronkite (Thomas) and David Brinkley (Moranis) using a trip to the golf course to explain how the brain works, and ends with them battling with light sabers over which of them will someday reign supreme over the network news. Moranis and Thomas were so great together that the breakout popularity of their beer-swilling, back bacon-chomping brothers, Bob and Doug McKenzie—created as an inside joke, in response to demands from the Canadian broadcasters for “Canadian content”—almost makes sense.

“SCTV Staff Christmas Party” (season four, episode 16): One of the best Christmas episodes ever, featuring sweet but unsappy glimpses of the staff toasting the holidays. It concludes with the long-awaited happy ending nobody knew was coming to the story of Johnny LaRue’s fall from show-business grace, and his yearning for the one pricey crane shot that would make his sordid life and career worthwhile. Stuck in the center of it all, like a plum, there’s “Neil Simon’s Nutcracker Suite,” a sketch so perfectly inspired that it must have been the cast’s Christmas present to itself.

“Battle Of The PBS Stars” (season four, episode 25): This take-off on the celebrity athletic showdowns that networks used to put on back when they had to offer their shareholders an explanation for having Robert Conrad under contract features Moranis as Dick Cavett, as well as Flaherty as William F. Buckley, Candy as Julia Child, and Martin Short as Mr. Rogers. But for hardcore SCTV freaks, the most startling element may be Levy’s impersonation of Howard Cosell. On a show that specialized in impressions of people not often impersonated on TV—Dave Thomas is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—there’s something almost surreal about seeing an impression of the most-impersonated TV celebrity of his generation. He nails it, of course.

“Sammy Maudlin 23rd Anniversary/ CBC” (season five, episode three): Now, here’s some Canadian content: For reasons beyond the viewers’ control, the regular SCTV transmission is interrupted during Sammy Mauldin’s anniversary show, and is replaced with Canadian broadcasting, thus giving the Canadians who worked on the show a chance to educate the American viewing public about the kind of weird shit they were stuck watching while growing up. The centerpiece is a long, loving parody of Don Shebib’s 1970 film Goin’ Down The Road, featuring a member of that movie’s cast, Jayne Eastwood. Canadians of a certain age tend to get very excited about this sketch, because the movie used to be on TV so often there that they’ve all seen it 50 times, but good luck finding an American who’s even heard of it.

“Midnight Cowboy II” (season five, episode 14): Martin Short joining the cast was the last happy development for SCTV, and this was the show’s final episode for NBC. There may be better episodes, but this one features the sketch “Whatever Happened To Baby Ed?,” co-starring Short as Ed Grimley and John Candy as his menacing, psychotic brother. If the sight of Candy making a crazy face with his hair in an Ed Grimley uplift doesn’t make viewers laugh, then they’ll know that they’re probably dead and can stop spending so much on groceries.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Lust For Paint” (season one, episode 26); “Whispers Of The Wolf” (season two, episode 12); “My Factory, My Self” (season three, episode four); “Lunchtime Street Beef” (season four, episode five); “I’m Taking My Own Head…” (season four, episode 11); “The Godfather” (season four, episode 15); “People’s Golden Global Choice Awards” (season four, episode 21); “3D Stake From The Heart” (season four, episode 22); “Melonvote” (season five, episode five); “2009, Jupiter And Beyond” (season six, episode 13)

Availability: The best way to watch SCTV is to get the DVDs made available by the sainted pop-culture archivists at Shout! Factory. All the NBC episodes—which incorporate copious amounts of the best material from the earlier, syndicated episodes—are contained in four box sets, and Best Of The Early Years contains 15 of the best pre-NBC half hours. For a taste, skim the clips available at the YouTube channel devoted to the show. None of the Cinemax material has been released on home video, but the curious can also find several whole episodes on YouTube

Next time: TV Club 10 moves to a biweekly schedule, returning Wednesday, February 13, when Noel Murray looks at The Twilight Zone.

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