Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 25, 2005)
For SCTV fanatics like myself, the fun continues with this newest DVD release. As with the first two sets, this five-disc package focuses on the 90-minute NBC shows that initially aired in the early Eighties. Referred to as SCTV Network/90, we get nine of those programs from their third cycle.
When I mention SCTV to non-fans, the easiest way to get them to remember it is to mention Bob and Doug McKenzie. Those characters gave the show its greatest fame, a subject at the heart of Great White North Palace (aired October 11, 1981). Rather than simply exploit their popularity, SCTV chose to mock the phenomenon.
Many of the “Network/90” shows featured “runners”. These were ongoing themes or stories that were told sporadically throughout the episode. “Palace” presents possibly the most dominant of the runners, as very little addition material appears. We get a couple of advertisement spoofs plus hilarious episodes of “You! With Libby Wolfson” and “Nightline: Melonville”, but otherwise it’s all connected to the McKenzie craze.
That’s a daring choice, and one that succeeds terrifically in this fine episode. We get a deft look at the crass exploitation of a fad, and the use of the station regulars works well. I always like the episodes that focus on the alleged “behind the scenes” operations of SCTV, and this one fares particularly well as owner Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty) ruthlessly uses the McKenzies for all they’re worth. It’s a strong show and a good start to this cycle.
One reason SCTV worked so well was because its creators rarely pandered to the audience. They made shows that amused themselves; if anyone else liked it, that was gravy. Unfortunately, this led to a few examples of self-indulgent sketches, a problem that mars Pre-Teen World Telethon (aired April 23, 1982).
One of the more mediocre episodes, this one lacks any great pieces. Its runner offers some laughs, as we see the youngsters behind a kiddie show run the “First Annual Pre-Teen World Telethon For Pre-Teen World” when they lose government funding. I always liked “Pre-Teen World” concept, so although this one doesn’t ever soar, it presents a fair number of good moments.
However, it also demonstrates my idea that this episode suffers from self-indulgence. At one point, we get a musical performance from the “Recess Monkeys”, a band of alleged pre-teens played by Rick Moranis, John Candy and Eugene Levy. Though they sing in character and muck up the instrumentation a bit, they actually sound pretty decent – much better than we’d expect from kids, and the song itself is catchy. The sequence is cute but feels like an attempt by those involved to get themselves a spot in which to play.
Another sketch suffers from indulgence: Maudlin’s Eleven. This parody of the original Ocean’s Eleven is a fun concept, and it has some good moments. However, it goes on too long and is just too obscure for something this extended. (I will applaud the amazing production design. It’s amazing what the show did on a regular basis, and here we get cool elements like Bobby Bittman’s car and even a Hofner bass for a stripper’s band!)
Overall, “Pre-Teen” remains mediocre. “The Adventures of Shake ‘n’ Bake” exists mostly for its title, as the sketch mostly flops. A newscast that deals with Earl Camembert’s (Levy) hyping of a possible kidnapping is funny, and the trailer for “Prickley Heat” also works. It’s not a bad episode, but it fails to maintain any consistency.
In early 1982, unknown Pia Zadora won a Golden Globe award for “New Star in a Motion Picture” over talent like Kathleen Turner and Elizabeth McGovern. This bizarre choice caused an uproar; folks questioned the veracity of the awards as some thought the fix was in for Zadora. That incident allowed for the set-up to the runner in The People’s Global Golden Choice Awards (aired May 1, 1982). We watch SCTV’s inferior programming win scads of prizes over better choices It’s an inspired concept that fares nicely, partially because we get to see so many of the “station regulars” interact with each other and with impersonated celebrities like Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) and Elizabeth Taylor (Catherine O’Hara).
Much of the rest of the show rebounds from the mediocrity of “Telethon” with a number of good sketches. We get one of the better “Fishin’ Musician” sketches, as we meet Gil Fisher’s (Candy) wife Whitey (O’Hara) and they take reggae band Third World antique hunting. In a fun continuation of the cycle’s first episode, we see the fallout of the “GWN Palace” flop; here, the McKenzies get back their show, but with only half the airtime.
If forced to pick a dud, I’d go with “The Merv Griffin Show – the Extended Edition”. Reworked versions of films were a novelty in 1982, so this one makes fun of Spielberg’s longer cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like the film’s reissue, this one goes on too long and beats a good concept into the ground. Despite that misfire, “Globe” stands as a solid show.
SCTV never emphasized topical humor, but it involved enough then-current subjects to mean that the comedy’s occasionally difficult to understand for anyone not around during its era. That problem affects 3D Stake From the Heart (aired May 14, 1982), a show that focuses on Francis Coppola’s largely-forgotten bomb One from the Heart. The program’s main sketch includes enough funny stuff with Dr. Tongue and Bruno to offer some entertainment, but it relies too much on Heart-related issues to become sufficiently universal.
”Stake” suffers from another negative distinction: it marks the debut of SCTV’s running soap opera, “The Days of the Week”. Had “Days” existed as a one-off sketch, it might have been a decent little spoof. However, it kept going… and going… and going. Granted, that became part of the gag; it acted as an ongoing parody of the genre. However, “Days” consistently provided little return for all the time invested into it. Don’t get me wrong - it did have its amusing moments, and I know it has some fans who adore it. Nonetheless, I’ve long considered “Days” to be SCTV’s biggest flop due to its over-extended run.
Possibly the oddest – and most entertaining – part of “Heart” comes from a sketch called “Just for Fun”. Its premise involves a talk show with many very notable names, but the host (Thomas) only wants to discuss babes. Here he chats with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Aaron Copland, and Betty Friedan. It’s a one-joke sketch, but it’s a good one.
We also see the end of the marriage between Tex (Thomas) and Edna Boil (Andrea Martin), as he leaves her in the middle of a commercial. This leads Edna to search for a replacement, with amusing results. Despite that winner, “Heart” is one of the less exciting episodes.
We can tell that no really prominent runner shows up in Pet Peeves/The Happy Wanderers (aired May 21, 1982) since it presents two titles. “Pet Peeves of the Stars” indeed acts as a runner in that those spots pop up occasionally throughout the show; we hear the petty annoyances of Morgan Fairchild, Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Hope, and Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a good bit but not anything amazing.
We do find the debut “The Happy Wanderers”, the polka show led by Yosh (Candy) and Stan Schmenge (Levy). It’s a funny concept brought out successfully.
Indeed, this episode comes chock full of good sketches, though not many great ones. On the negative side, we get more “Days of the Week”. Actually, that series will continue through the rest of the cycle, so I’ll stop griping now. Otherwise, we get a nice “Donahue” spoof in which he looks at porn, and the wonderful “Second Nose Job”. One of the better newscasts comes from a “Nightline: Melonville” in which a drunken Floyd Robertson (Joe Flaherty) angers Mayor Tommy Shanks (Candy). Outside of “Days”, nothing here flops.
Due to their usual refusal to license their songs, Led Zeppelin significantly mar this episode. It’s four or five minutes shorter than normal because some bits had to be removed. We lose the musical performance by Linsk Minyk (Rick Moranis) on the “Wanderers” since he played “Stairway to Heaven”, and an entire ad called “Stairways to Heaven” – in which many different acts play that classic – also gets the boot. It’s too bad the DVD can’t include this stuff, but if they don’t have the rights, there’s not much they can do.
Musical guest stars became a prominent part of SCTV when they moved to NBC, but none of their efforts ever worked as well as Chariots of Eggs (aired June 5, 1982). Hall and Oates show up here to play “Did It In a Minute” and also chat on “The Sammy Maudlin Show”. There they interact with director Bobby Bittman (Levy) as they promote their new flick, “Chariots of Eggs”. This leads to a deft parody of both Chariots of Fire and now-forgotten semi-lesbian movie Personal Best. It’s an inspired affair across the board.
On the negative side, we get one of the series’ odder – and more misbegotten – sketches with “Murder in the Cathedral”. This purports to be a NASA production of the TS Eliot work. I guess that’s an intriguing concept, but in reality, the sketch drags miserably and never goes anywhere.
The remaining aspects of “Eggs” all fall solidly in the “mediocre” category. The episode of “Mrs. Falbo’s Tiny Town” in prison is pretty decent, and the “Revenge” TV show gets some laughs. Otherwise, there’s not much that stands out here.
Although SCTV went through a number of cast changes over the years, it stayed stable for its first 24 “Network/90” episodes. That’s no longer the case once we get to Battle of the PBS Stars (aired July 16, 1982), as it brings in Martin Short to the group. “Stars” finds Short tossed into the mix actively from the very start, as he pops up in many of the show’s sketches.
Rather than ease Short into the show, he gets a lead character for “I Was a Teenage Communist”. A wonderful spoof of both the Fifties’ Red Scare as well as the era’s cheesy horror flicks, this one neatly integrates musical guest Dave Edmunds. (Trivia: the song he plays doesn’t come from the Fifties, though it might sound like an oldie. It was a then-new composition from a Mr. B. Springsteen of New Jersey.) Short shows no signs of intimidation and blends with the cast immediately.
Unusually, “Stars” includes additional guests, as Pittsburgh Steelers Joe Greene and Rocky Bleier appear in a couple of sketches. First they spoof enormous meals with the “Big Dude TV Dinner” sketch; that’s an odd one since no SCTV cast members appear in it. Then we get “The Big Dude and the Kid”, a spoof of “The Pittsburgh Steeler and the Kid”, a TV movie spun off from Greene’s hit Coke commercial. Greene and Bleier couldn’t act well, but the regular cast – with Short in another prominent part – make it amusing.
Add “The Battle of the PBS Stars” to the list of successful sketches. Back in the Seventies, we got a series called “Battle of the Network Stars”; TV actors would compete in various fluffy activities. “PBS” deftly mocks that series and gives us indelible moments like a boxing match between Mr. Rogers and Julia Child.
It’s good stuff, and it illustrates the generally high quality of this episode. A couple of the sketches meander a bit; “Wok on the Wild Side” isn’t a classic by any stretch. Still, the show stays positive most of the time.
Unfortunately, we head back to self-indulgence with Rome, Italian Style (aired October 15, 1982). The title sketch is a lot like “Maudlin’s Eleven”: it offers a great concept but not much else. This parody of Italian flicks rambles badly and feels more like a triumph of production design than anything else. The participants make it look like an old Italian flick, but it usually ain’t funny.
A few elements elevate this episode, though. It’s a one-joke sketch, but “Mr. Know-It-All: The Life of Nostradamus” is consistently funny due to an obnoxious performance from Dave Thomas. It’s also amusingly self-referential, as it actually discusses its one-joke nature.
We get our first taste of Short’s Jerry Lewis in “Martin Scorsese’s Jerry Lewis Live on the Champs Elysees”. Slightly mean-spirited, it’s still damned funny, especially when Lewis berates his musical director (Thomas). Another slam of a personality comes via a look at photographer “Norton Sheeff”. This parodies Norman Seeff, a shutterbug who shot the cast for Life magazine – and apparently didn’t endear himself to them. This is an obscure reference, but it’ll make much more sense for fans who watched the extras from the Volume Two set of DVDs.
Overall, “Italian” is a spotty episode. The major elements like the title sketch are weak, and the smattering of successes aren’t quite enough to make it a good program. There’s some good stuff here, but not a lot.
Finally, we head to The Days of the Week/Street Beef (aired October 22, 1982). Unusually, this one includes no musical guest. However, we get a kindred spirit on board, as Bill Murray guests in many of the sketches. He starts with a winner via an ad for “DiMaggio’s on the Wharf”, a San Francisco restaurant run by Joltin’ Joe; strike him out and win a free dinner.
Murray also makes a Graduate-style turn in this episode’s “Days of the Week” and plays a major part in the show’s main runner: Caballero’s programming changes and the “Street Beef” program with Johnny LaRue (Candy). LaRue meets hoodlum Donny (Murray) at a bar and picks him up as a bodyguard. It’s fun to see LaRue finally turn the tables on Caballero, and it creates a true sense of continuity throughout the episode.
Otherwise, this is a pretty average show. On the positive side, there’s an ambitious and clever spoof of movie serials that takes some cues from Raiders of the Lost Ark but goes down strange alleys. “Carl’s Cuts” presents a great spoof of Deliverance, and “How Nosy the Short-Haired Terrier Dog Got His Name” is a weird but hilarious “Afterschool Special” parody. A couple of the sketches fall flat, and not much of it really soars, but it’s a generally decent show.
Fans didn’t know it at the time, but the end of Cycle Three would mark the end of an era. After “Days/Beef”, three cast members formally left: Moranis, O’Hara and Thomas. O’Hara did a couple of return appearances as a guest, but I don’t think Moranis or Thomas ever returned to the show in any capacity.
But all of that’s an issue for the next set of DVDs. Volume Three presents a high level of good comedy. I must admit it’s not quite up to the standards of the first two sets, as a few more duds creep into the mix here. Nonetheless, average SCTV beats the best work done by almost everybody else, and there’s a lot to enjoy in this package.