Sadly, the only current-day reminder of the grandeur that was SCTV are those hoary Bob and Doug McKenzie ads for Molson beers. Even at that, it’s not exactly common knowledge that the brew-addled hosers were once part of television’s most sublimely inspired sketch-comedy ensemble.
”SCTV was the show. Period,” says Conan O’Brien, shortly before hosting an SCTV reunion at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen last month, which reunited cast members Andrea Martin, Martin Short, Dave Thomas, Harold Ramis, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, and Joe Flaherty. (Absent: the late John Candy and an ailing Rick Moranis.) And indeed, their brainy, pop-culture-savvy sensibility inspired every sketch show that followed it, from The Kids in the Hall to Mr. Show With Bob and David to bits on O’Brien’s own Late Night. ”We were trying to rip off SCTV,” said Ben Stiller at a festival tribute to his own ill-fated Fox series. ”We were afraid they’d find out.”
Spawned from Toronto’s improvisational Second City Theatre, SCTV debuted in syndication in 1976. In ’79, financial problems sent the cast cross-country to Edmonton, where the low-rent, backwater surroundings inspired the troupe’s pioneering conceit: not just a show within a show but an entire rinky-dink TV ”station” within a show, set in make-believe Melonville. The format allowed the ensemble inexhaustible opportunities for their specialty, acid television parody, and the obscurity paid off in a remarkable degree of autonomy. ”We had no sponsor, no network, [and] no creative executives telling us what was good and what wasn’t,” says founding member Ramis. ”And I think what people respond to in us is that freedom.”
That and a bevy of unforgettably subversive characters, including Flaherty’s Guy Caballero, the station’s reprehensible president; Levy’s cheeseball talk-show host, Bobby Bittman; and Martin’s station manager, the descriptively named Edith Prickley. ”The show was not so much a TV satire as a character comedy,” says Levy. ”As goofy and cartoony as some of them were, they were very real, and we respected them.”
Although by the late ’70s Saturday Night Live was comedy’s critical and popular darling, the more sophisticated SCTV had amassed a rabid cult following. ”They didn’t do comedy in broad strokes,” says longtime fan Janeane Garofalo. ”They had through lines, very long narratives, sketches that led into each other…. You had to pay attention to get the whole thing.” For O’Brien, being a fan was like being ”part of this little club. They trusted that their audience was as smart as they are.” O’Hara has a less calculated explanation: ”We never second-guessed our audience because we didn’t know we had one.”
They also couldn’t have known how presciently their pseudo-net would anticipate the motley 100-channel cable universe of the ’90s. Fare as varied as MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch (a descendant of SCTV‘s Battle of the PBS Stars) or Danny Bonaduce’s mock-talk show infomercial (a concept straight out of Melonville, in more ways than one), consciously or not, echoes the troupe’s withering take on celebrity.