Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 1, 2004)
During the week of February 10, 2004, the announcement that the original three Star Wars, flicks would finally come out on DVD garnered the most excitement and attention. I do adore those flicks and also feel pretty pumped up about those discs, but for me, another press release more strongly captured my eye.
Long rumored, we finally got confirmation that we’d soon be able to see SCTV on DVD. Originally launched in 1976, the sketch comedy series originally looked like little more than a rip-off of Saturday Night Live, but it soon developed its own name. SCTV never reached the level of success enjoyed by SNL, though when it started to air on NBC in the early Eighties, it found a wider audience and even presented two nationally popular characters via Bob and Doug McKenzie; they did so well they wound up in their own feature film.
I’ve loved SCTV basically forever. I embraced it well before it hit NBC and adored it throughout that run. Heck, I dug the show so much that in the late Eighties, I got cable solely so I could tape episodes off of Nickelodeon!
This puts me in the prime demographic to embrace SCTV on DVD, and I found myself tremendously excited by the announcement. Unusually, the first set doesn’t start at the beginning with half-hour programs from the Seventies. Instead, this five-disc package focuses on the 90-minute NBC shows. Referred to as SCTV Network/90, we get nine of those programs.
Episode One (aired May 15, 1981) starts off the broadcasts. As with some of the subsequent shows, much of the material comes from prior seasons. We get bits that go as far back as the first season from 1976, and the clips run the gamut of eras.
As for new material, most of that stems from interstitials with SCTV employees. We hear from station owner Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty), station manager Edith Prickley (Andrea Martin), and others. NBC insisted that the series incorporate musical guests, so we start with Levon Helm. Unlike Saturday Night Live, SCTV didn’t just stop the show to have them play. Instead, it blended the performers in via sketches. Here we see newsman Earl Camembert’s pathetic attempts to interview Helm.
Because it features such a mix of eras and themes, Episode One is a little bit of a mess, but it includes a lot of good material. It starts well with “High Q”, a classic spoof of game shows. We also get a great version of the “Merv Griffin Show” that features Rick Moranis’ wonderful impression of talk show host Griffith as well as one of the best appearances from immigrant Pirini Scleroso (Martin) on “English for Beginners”. The rest of the show varies from pretty good (“The Millionaire”) to not-so-hot (“Leave it to Beaver” 25th anniversary), but overall the program starts the NBC series well.
Some more good stuff shows up in the fairly positive Episode Two (aired May 22, 1981). Highlights of this program include the “Tim Ishimuni Show”, in which Japanese host Ishimuni (Dave Thomas) interviews a giant radioactive monster named Grogan (John Candy). It’s a hilarious spoof of talk shows and the Japanese monster movies all in one; not exactly politically correct, it’s a blast anyway.
Other standouts include “The Larry Seigel Show”, in which Rick Moranis provides a hilarious impression of Hollywood producer Joel Silver. “Polynesiantown” also works very well, as Johnny LaRue (Candy) creates his epic; it doesn’t actually resemble Chinatown all that much, but it integrates musical guest Dr. John quite well. He holds his own as an actor, and “Polynesiantown” is a funny sketch. (And make sure you remember it, as it’ll cause ramifications for episodes to come.)
As for duds, the “British Film Festival” includes some moderately funny bits, as Thomas provides a great spoof of the English Angry Young Man, but it goes on way too long. “The Rosemans” is also fairly pointless. Still, most of the show works well and provides some good material. Even a spotty piece like “G. Gordon Liddy’s Will: The Movie” tosses out funny bits like Liddy’s obsession with eating rat meat. Episode Two is a very good program.
Most of the shows include “runners”, which are recurring themes or bits. For Episode Three (aired May 29. 1981), the runner is the program’s best part. Here we see Guy Caballero introduce Pirini Scleroso as the network’s Vice President in Charge of Coordination. Pirini has always been one of my favorite characters, and it’s very amusing to watch her shtick with Guy and on her own.
The show’s biggest weakness comes from the extended sketch that includes the musical guest, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. “The Fracases” presents a combative family whose daughter gets married. It goes on way too long and feels like little more than an excuse to get Southside to play the reception. After the cool way that Episode Two blended Dr. John, the Southside bits fall flat.
Otherwise, Episode Three provides an excellent episode. We get a mix of terrific sketches like “Yellowbelly”, “Speaking of Talk” with Thomas’ Harvey Ktel – one of the cleverest names on the series – and the hilarious “Only For Women”. We even find a fantastic Bergman spoof on “Monster Chiller Horror Theater”. Episode Three is the best of the year so far; its slow moments are few and the laughs are plenty.
While generally good, Episode Four (aired June 19, 1981) doesn’t live up to the prior program’s standards. The year’s first to lack a musical guest, it only presents a few standout sketches. The Fifties talk show spoof “What’s My Shoe Size?” works pretty well, as does a classic take on “Mel’s Rock Pile”. The latter features Thomas’s excellent impression of Richard Harris and gives us the wonderful version of “MacArthur Park” that goes on for days. It’s hilarious, and “Shock Theater” – a holdover from the series’ very early days – caps the episode well. We also find another great Pirini piece with the terrific spoof of My Fair Lady.
Otherwise, Episode Four seems pretty average. “The Man Who Would Be King of Popes” offers a decent premise but runs for days; it’s way too long to succeed. The same issue affects the “Sammy Maudlin Show”; it includes some good moments but goes for such an extended period that it loses effect. Overall, Episode Four qualifies as a fair program but not one of the series’ best.
Remember how I mentioned the ongoing effects of “Polynesiantown”? Those come to bear in Episode Five (aired July 3, 1981), as LaRue deals with its failure. Caballero assigns him a last hope program called “Street Beef”, which suffers from “no budget”. Much of Episode Five features LaRue’s shenanigans as he attempts to flout Caballero’s decree and get some bitchin’ production values. These bits are a lot of fun, and we get more of Moranis’ Larry Seigel.
Otherwise, the program seems pretty average, especially during its first half. A new program that focuses on the space shuttle features Walter Cronkite (Thomas) and David Brinkley (Moranis) and incorporates the musical guest, Robert Gordon. He’s one of the crummier actors of the musicians – he doesn’t look like he wants to be there – and the sketch itself seems forced.
Matters improve with the pretty funny “Bad Acting in Hollywood”, which features a spoof of crummy Forties dramas. The show’s second half also includes a great parody of the old long distance commercials that featured old friends who stayed in touch, and the wonderful Steinbeck satire “The Grapes of Mud” works tremendously well; a carry-over from the first season, it remains one of the better ones. “How to Fake an Orgasm” ends the program on a lame note, unfortunately. It’s got enough good stuff to make it generally fun, but Episode Five isn’t a classic.
Happily, Episode Six (aired July 10, 1981) offers a true winner. Eventually the series’ runners focused on various social issues, and this one provides the first such enterprise, as the network deals with pressure groups who try to influence programming. This thread features critic Bill Needle and his willingness to sell out. The runner gets somewhat preachy at times, but it’s still a good way to tie together the program.
The best moments come from the various sketches, though. We get our first look at “Mrs. Falbo’s Tiny Town” plus a hilarious tabloid TV spoof in the “National Midnight Star”. Catherine O’Hara’s take on the then-young actress makes “The Brooke Shields Show” terrific, and “The Merv Griffith Show” puts the talk show host in Mayberry to great effect. The second half peters out a little, but it ends on a great note due to “The Gerry Todd Show”. It mocks the omnipresence of singer Michael McDonald on the era’s pop charts and scores with wonderful bits like the Doobie Brothers’ jingle for a carpet store. Episode Six provides a terrific program with only some minor flaws.
While pretty good, Episode Seven (aired July 17, 1981) doesn’t live up to the prior show’s standards. This one’s runner deals with the ramifications of the last program’s loss of advertiser revenue, as SCTV runs their first pledge week. Bizarrely, this comes to incorporate the Elephant Man (Thomas) and goes down some strange paths. Highlights include our first look at the “Farm Film Report”, in which Big Jim McBob (Flaherty) and Billy Sol Hurok (Candy) discuss which flicks “blowed up good” as well as another fun episode of “Mel’s Rock Pile” that celebrates the show’s 20th anniversary. It also incorporates this week’s musical guest, Roy Orbison.
Otherwise, Episode Seven seems pretty average. The sketches run from fairly good but not special – like the “Fireside Chat” with Mayor Tommy Shanks (Candy) – to rather spotty. “Hugh Betcha’s Short Story Playhouse” may be the slowest sketch found in this nine-episode package. It takes forever to go anywhere and never pays off well. Ultimately, Episode Seven is decent but unspectacular.
Despite a good runner, Episode Eight (aired July 24, 1981) comes across about the same way. This show’s theme relates to singer Lola Heatherton (O’Hara) and her substance abuse problems. This pays off with a hilariously terrible TV special called “Bouncin’ Back at You” that climaxes with an angry and bitter song in which Lola names names of all the men at SCTV who done her wrong. A parody of the film The Oscar, “The Nobel” provides some fun, mostly due to a rambunctious lead performance from Thomas. Finally, our first look at “The Fishin’ Musician” neatly fits in the Tubes, this show’s musical guests. The concert of rock musicians who fish with homey host Gill Fisher seems inspired, and the execution adds mirth.
Unlike the prior show, Episode Eight doesn’t include any real duds. It just fails to feature many standout sketches. All of the other bits seen in this episode seem pretty good, but they don’t come across as great. Even the better bits I mentioned above don’t compare with real classics. Overall, Episode Eight is consistently fun but not sensational.
Finally, we head to Episode Nine (aired July 31, 1981). Although this one also seems generally entertaining, it fails to present much that stands out from the crowd. The show’s runner depicts the McKenzie brothers as they try to find a good topic for their show. They wind up landing “rock star” Ian Thomas, the episode’s musical guest. I put “rock star” in quotes because Ian never exactly threatened to become a household name. Not coincidentally, Ian is Dave Thomas’s brother, so his presence seems to result from a little of the old nepotis. Ian does do a funny job as he flips between normal talk and “hoser speak”, though.
Our first look at “Money Talks” with Brian Johns (Levy) is amusing, and the extended take on “Fantasy Island” has some good moments, primarily due to Candy’s hilarious take on Herve Villechaize. The show’s best bit comes at its very end, as Moranis provides an amazingly funny rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” ala Mel Torme. That caps the episode well, but it remains an average program.
Trivia: Episode Nine includes the oldest sketch found in this DVD set. “The Johnny La Rue Exercise Show” comes from season one, episode one!
Note that Episode Nine includes a couple of edits. In “Fantasy Island”, a rock band originally played a disco version of the I Love Lucy theme, but this program cuts out that bit almost entirely. I know music rights were a problem for SCTV on DVD, so that may have been one snippet they disc’s producers couldn’t clear.
In a more disappointing note, however, one line from the “Harry Filth” parody gets mangled. Originally renegade cop Filth’s boss told him that “the Pope is coming to town next week”; Filth replies, “You want me to off him?” It’s a funny bit that now makes no sense. The first line remains, but “pope” has been mangled to become nonsensical. Now it comes out as “the (gibberish) is coming to town next week.” If you don’t know the original line, this gag doesn’t make the slightest amount of sense. I don’t know the reasons for the alteration, but it feels like political correctness and excessive sensitivity to me.
Update: since I first ran my review, I've received some notes that indicate
these changes remain true to the original NBC airings of the show. Do they
alter the versions seen on the syndicated editions? Yup, but when the
program was broadcast on NBC in 1981, apparently it contained the changes I
mentioned. That makes Episode Nine both altered AND true to its source!
Anyway, I still don't like the alterations, but since they're what NBC ran
in 1981, I won't complain.
As I noted earlier in this article, I’ve adored SCTV for most of my life. That leaves me with an inability to view it in a fully objective manner, and at times I fear that my affection for it may stem more from nostalgia and familiarity than from the quality of the material itself.
However, I honestly don’t think my fondness for the series connects just to memories of my youth. After all, I’ve reviewed plenty of faves from my earlier days that I’ve subsequently panned; nostalgia certainly didn’t help them. I laughed plenty during SCTV, and despite the fact I’ve seen most of the material many times, I still found new bits that amused me.
Admittedly, some parts of SCTV may not play as well for audiences who didn’t live through the era in which the shows were created. Many of the bits connected to then-current events and attitudes, and the humor may work better if you get the references. For example, the National Midnight Star sketch includes a comment about Carol Burnett that requires a pretty good memory to get.
However, I don’t think one’s entertainment depends on understanding of the references. For one, many of them span eras and deal with material from well before my birth. I wasn’t around when The Oscar hit screens, and I definitely never saw game shows from the Fifties. That didn’t make “The Nobel” and “What’s My Shoe Size?” any less entertaining, though.
A lot of the reason for the show’s success comes from the incredible talent of the performers. To be sure, the writing seems excellent, as the sketches seem very incisive and creative. They rarely delve into obvious topics and they largely avoid the easy laughs often found on SNL. You won’t find cheap gross-out gags here, as SCTV aims higher, and the shows largely avoid mean-spirited laughs; the sketches often hit hard, but rarely below the belt, unlike the nastier work often found elsewhere.
Even when one doesn’t get a reference, though, the show works because of the performers. They display incredible versatility not seen anywhere else. On SNL, most of the cast members develop one or two types of characters and stick with those. On SCTV, however, all of the performers present great breadth for their characterizations. Even Candy – the least adaptable of the actors – still found the ability to lose himself in his characters. Much of his personality still came through, but given roles like Yosh Shmenge, Dr. Tongue, Tommy Shanks, William B. Williams, and Johnny LaRue, he got the opportunity to play a wide range of characters and make all of them seem unique.
The rest of the cast did even better, as most were stunningly good mimics. O’Hara and Moranis probably did the best work when it came to losing themselves in parts, but everyone managed to bring off multi-dimensional roles with aplomb. SCTV boasted a genuinely dynamic and multifaceted cast who made the already excellent writing better with their characterizations.
I could go on for hours about my adoration for SCTV, but I think I’ve babbled enough. I don’t claim to view the show objectively; I’ve loved it for too long to be able to see it in a truly clear and untainted light. Nonetheless, I think the series continues to earn all of its plaudits and affection, for it remains awfully well executed and damned funny. Is SCTV the greatest television series of all-time? Could be.