Television's old reliable, Saturday Night Live has occupied the same time slot on the same network for longer than much of its fan base has been alive. Over the course of its rocky but brilliant run, SNL's main competitor and quirky Canadian cousin SCTV traveled a bumpy path from syndication to American network television to Cinemax, changing lengths three times in the process.
Too hilarious and brilliant to die, and too weird and smart to achieve SNL-like mainstream acceptance, SCTV now ranks alongside Monty Python's Flying Circus as one of the fathers of contemporary sketch comedy. The show's impact can be felt strongly on almost every great sketch series that followed, from Mr. Show, which shares SCTV's conceptual genius, to The Ben Stiller Show, which drew heavily on its pop-culture-saturated satire and channel-flipping sensibility.
In a conceptual masterstroke, SCTV took the form of a fictional low-budget network where the on-air programming reflected backstage chaos among the channel's troupe of extroverted oddballs. SCTV featured a wonderful cast of characters, like Joe Flaherty's sleazy station bigwig, who uses a wheelchair just "for respect," as he cryptically insists. Then there's Flaherty's hapless vampiric host and his Monster Chiller Horror Theater, a third-rate kiddie horror show whose title only begins to suggest the lengths it travels to overcompensate for its less-than-terrifying content. SCTV could easily have coasted on its wonderful characters, but in sharp contrast to SNL, the SCTV performers always serve the scene, rather than the other way around.
In one of this DVD set's documentaries, Harold Ramis calls improv the jazz of comedy, and it's easy to see SCTV's prodigiously talented cast (John Candy, Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O'Hara, and Dave Thomas) as brilliant musicians constantly pushing each other to reach new heights. The show's most gifted soloist was Moranis, whose background in radio made him uniquely well-suited to play frog-shaped narcissists in love with the sound of their own creepily soothing voices. In the ultimate Moranis skit, his dead-on Dick Cavett interviews his all-time favorite guest, Dick Cavett.
SCTV spoofed a lot of obvious targets, from Borsht Belt comedians (like Levy's inspired, Krusty The Clown-like super-hack) to game shows, but it trusted its audience's intelligence enough to take on less accessible fare, like O. Henry, the British Angry Young Men movies of the early '60s, and Ingmar Bergman's Persona.
The episodes' inaccessibility has only fed SCTV's cult. Its tangled history made it more or less unavailable on video during the VHS era, and its first DVD release covers not its first season, but the first nine-episode cycle of its first season on an American network. With five discs retailing at just under $90, the SCTV box is both pricey and unwieldy, but the show's endless rewatchability makes that a bargain. For lovers of smart comedy, subsequent installments can't come soon enough.