At 8:00 pm, a drug deal goes down in a poorly-lit room. There’s a knock at the door. The cops? One of the dealers opens the door, and sees it’s just another anonymous guy trying to score some drugs, except he’s on a horse, with his head too tall for the door frame. Yes, it’s a new season of…Undercover Mountie! And at 9:00, the next show, Dan Money, is about a police detective who has to bribe everyone to get information. When a Judge in one of Dan’s cases asks the foreman of the jury, “Has the jury reached the verdict,” and the foreman says, “Well, your honor, maybe we have…and maybe we haven’t,” Dan Money is ready to pull out his wallet and tell the Judge, “Your honor, if it pleases the court, I might be able to shed a little light on the subject.” At 10:00, a medical drama which focuses on a key member of the emergency room team overlooked in other medical dramas, Emergency Orderly. These great shows and more when you tune in to SCTV.
Comparisons are natural between Second City Television (SCTV) and Saturday Night Live (SNL). SCTV came a few months later, and to some of us…shall we say “socially challenged” viewers…it was funnier than SNL and just unpopular enough for us to call it our own. It’s arguable whether it actually was funnier than the more popular series. SNL’s been around so long—its first musical guest was Beethoven–and throughout those years, it’s had about a hundred classic bits. Few skits on any show compare with Phil Harman as evil genius Reagan, or Alec Baldwin as a soap opera star in a medical drama mispronouncing medical terms (walking past a Yale Pennant on his wall, he complained to a patient, “There was no course at Yolley which taught me how to deal with this.”) And really, who’s funnier than Will Farrell?
SCTV was a different kind of sketch show. Based in the fictional tv station SCTV, the entire show had a theme, a parody both of stale television programming and the behind the scenes business-side of television. A great example of the latter was when SCTV hosted a PBS-like fund drive. The phones weren’t ringing, so station manager Guy Caballero got on the air and threatened that if people didn’t pledge, he would devote the tv station to soccer, “Hours and hours of soccer.” Every phone behind him began to ring.
Both shows featured players who would go on to great success. The SNL grads are too famous to mention, but consider John Candy; Catherine O’Hara (who Conan O’Brien once called the funniest woman in the world); Rick Moranis, Martin Short (who Jay Leno once called the funniest woman in the world), just to name a few. The improvisation of O’Hara, Short, Eugene Levy, can’t be touched. (And why isn’t Joe Flaherty famous?)
SNL had one huge flaw which SCTV shared to a lesser extent. The tagline, the lazy stamp on a pointless sketch, was one technique SNL used to suck the humor out of a sketch, like a tired singer who sings one more song for his tenth encore, but makes it a slow one to get people to go home. There was nothing funny about an unsurprising punch line, the close-up of Dana Carvey as he twisted his mouth and said, “Isn’t that special” for what seemed like the thousandth time. The tagline was so humorless, I suspect it was developed by..oh, I don’t know…Satan?
SCTV had its own Church Lady characters. I never did get the farm film review bit (“it blowed up…it blowed up real good.”), and the McKenzie Brothers were ah’ight at best. But the characters in SCTV seemed to have more than one dimension. For example, Caballero, who sat in a wheelchair not as a result of a disability, but because he believed it earns him respect; Mayor Tommy Shanks, who rambled non sequiters during a fireside chat while petting or offering food to a stuffed dog; serious newsman Floyd Robertson, who barely tolerated his idiotic co-anchor Earl Camambert and then donned a vampire cape to scare kids as “Count Floyd.”
SCTV was like the Velvet Underground of comedy. Huge influence on the people who did it later; not a huge influence on people who just listened. The unimpeachable Wikipedia cites the Simpson and Mystery Science Theater 3000 as shows hugely influenced by SCTV, and of course, the Christopher Guest comedies (and recent HBO series) have to be included as well. Go rent The Best of… and enjoy.