Saturday, March 22, 2008

Second City Television

Original Cast: John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara, Harold Ramis, and Dave Thomas as the Beaver.
Other Cast members: Rick Moranis, Martin Short, Tony Rosato, Robin Duke.

In the early 70s, a sketch comedy show appears on late night American TV that showcased a group of talented performers (who went on to greater success after they left the show) and which revolutionized TV comedy.

No, not Saturday Night Live.* Second City Television (SCTV for short).

SCTV was, of course, named after the famed Second City comedy troupe. The original cast got their start in the Toronto version of the troupe, with the idea of turning the skits into a TV series. The show was set in a low-budget TV network -- SCTV -- located in Mellonville. The premise was a useful one. It allowed for all sorts of skits satirizing TV shows, moves, actors, and genres. One nice thing was that you could keep a comic idea going for as long or as short as necessary. A one-joke idea would be turned into a one-minute promo instead of being dragged out for ten minutes. In addition, the "low-budget TV network" concept helped because the show had a very small budget.

So they had to do what great talent does when denied resources: they concentrated on the writing. The show was produced in Canada for the CBC, but quickly syndicated in the US.

What was also fun was the many recurring characters each actor played. John Candy did Johnny Larue**, a hard living big star with shady connections. Harold Ramis was Moe Green, the sleezy station manager. Eugene Levy was idiot TV host Bobby Bittman and incompetent newscaster Earl Camenbert, Joe Flaherty was both newscaster Floyd Robertson (who had to put up with Earl's manias) and Count Floyd (host of Monster Chiller Horror Theater, whose films never seemed to be scary at all, with things like Ingmar Bergman parodies). Andrea Martin was Edith Prickley, Moe Green's replacement, dressed entirely in leopard skin. Catherine O'Hara was Lola Heatherton, the insufferably perky singer. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas were the Mackenzie Brothers***, who ended becoming something of a spinoff, with their song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" ("Beer . . . in a tree"), a movie, and essentially a revival of the characters as moose in Brother Bear.

The actors were all great at portraying other celebrities, so they could skewer them at will. Or even take on something like Sesame Street.

Of course, the success of the people in the show was also remarkable. Some names you know -- Candy, Moranis, Short, and now Levy have become comedy stars. O'Hara has played someone's mother in dozens of films, and -- along with Levy -- is part of Christopher Guest's stock company (Best in Show is her most notable role). Ramis turned to directing, with films like Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, and Analyze This and acted, most notably in Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters. Andrea Martin has been a busy character actress, but her biggest success has been on Broadway (she's currently playing Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein).

Of the original group, on Flaherty hasn't had many recognizable roles, but he's been working steadily as a writer and actor since the show ended (most of the people in the cast wrote at least some of the skits, and ended up winning a couple of Emmys for it).

SCTV was a true forgotten landmark of television.

*Back at the time, one TV critic around here said the real reason to watch SNL in those days is to stay up and watch SCTV, which was on right after it.
** When Hill Street Blues came on the air, one character was also called Johnny LaRue, and it took me a little time to take him seriously.
*** Supposedly created when the Canadian Broadcasting Company (who produced the show) required there be more Canadian content.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Hardly forgotten and quite an influence on real actors and comedians who were paying attention. Like the early "MadTV" there was a lot of talent and acerbic wit tied up in it and was worth finding unlike the quotidian repetition of SNL.