Shout! Factory // 1981 // 750 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // September 29th, 2004
Take off, eh?
It's late 1981, and despite questionable ratings SCTV is once again on the air, as NBC orders another nine-episode run of the critically acclaimed sketch comedy series. Airing in a 90-minute format at 12:30AM on Friday night/Saturday morning (after The Tonight Show), SCTV is struggling to find viewers. However, a solid core of die-hard fans -- some who lovingly remember the original syndicated Canadian version of the show -- swears by the ensemble cast and their stories of a small "TV network" based in the fictional town of Melonville.
Now, 23 years later, the good people at Shout! Factory continue their ongoing effort to bring SCTV to DVD (its first release in any home format, actually). This Volume 2 collection contains the second nine-episode arc of the NBC phase of the show, which aired from October 11, 1981 to February 19, 1982.
SCTV is an independent television network -- albeit one much smaller than its rivals NBC, CBS, ABC, or even PBS -- based in Melonville, a city situated somewhere in the greater North American continental region. (Signs point to it being in the U.S., though. At least in this incarnation of the show.) Owned by the slightly suspicious Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty, Freaks and Geeks) and run by the inimitable Edith Prickley (Andrea Martin, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), the station concentrates on providing local programming. Not quality local programming, mind you -- just cheap local programming.
The network has a few talent assets on hand to fill its programming day. But not many -- and "talent" is a relative term. It has a two-man news crew -- nebbishy Earl Camembert (Eugene Levy, Waiting for Guffman) and on-again, off-again alcoholic Floyd Robertson (Flaherty) -- who have a tenuously civil professional relationship. Robertson also serves as "Count Floyd," host of Monster Chiller Horror Theater, a low-budget Saturday afternoon horror movie show for the kiddies. It has solid talk show host named Sammy Maudlin (Flaherty). Maudlin, along with sidekick William B. Williams (John Candy, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), hosts The Sammy Maudlin Show, where high-profile celebrities like comic Bobby Bittman (Levy) and singer-actress Lola Heatherton (Catherine O'Hara, Beetlejuice) come to pitch their latest projects. Local critic-at-large Bill Needle (Dave Thomas, Grace Under Fire) can always be counted on to be mad about something, which makes for...well, it fills airtime. Neurotic feminist Libby Wolfson (Martin) hosts You!, a show by women, for women. Odd Asian nerd Lin Ye Tang (Thomas) hosts Doorway to Hell, a poor (but cheap) rip-off of The Twilight Zone. A pair of backwoods Canadian brothers, Bob (Rick Moranis, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) and Doug (Thomas) McKenzie, host a show called Great White North, which is the original "show about nothing." Finally, there's Johnny LaRue (Candy), a John Derek wannabe who's neither handsome, nor talented, nor particularly dignified. But for some reason he's still allowed to make unexpectedly expensive and/or blatantly exploitive movies for the network, and hosts a man-on-the-street show entitled Street Beef.
But there's airtime to fill, and this crew is all the network has to fill it...
Let's get this out of the way right now: SCTV is not Saturday Night Live. Although the two shows draw heavily from the same original wellspring of talent -- the improvisational comedy troupes of the early- to mid-1970s, such as The Second City, the Groundlings, and their ilk -- the shows are profoundly different. SNL is a live show written in under a week and performed in under two hours. SCTV is a taped show, constructed from individual recorded sketches, and usually built with an overarching episodic storyline. Characters recur because there's a persistent history within in the show -- not, as is the case with SNL, because the characters work well in a live format. Comparing the two shows is like comparing a rock concert to an opera. They're both music -- but that's pretty much where the similarity ends.
Now, getting back to SCTV...This show drew its talent from The Second City, a Chicago-based improv theater (originally founded by, among others, Alan Arkin, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May) that expanded into Toronto in the 1960s. The television cast was composed of Canadians and Americans who had performed in the Toronto Second City troupe, giving the show a decidedly Canadian tone. (Unfortunately for the original show, the "stars" of the Toronto troupe -- Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner -- had already been poached by SNL.) Most of the cast had some Hollywood experience, thanks to their friend and former castmate Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Stripes, Animal House), who would get them cast in small roles in some of the films he had written. By the time this set of episodes was taped, the television show had been in production, off and on, for five years. The show was firing on all cylinders -- the cast was experienced and comfortable with the format, the characters they had created were richly developed and finely honed, and (unfortunately for them) they were virtual prisoners in far-off Edmonton, Alberta, where there was nothing to do but work on the show. And freeze.
What resulted was one of the most stunningly consistent, fully-realized, and intelligent comic series in television history. The characters were so developed, the sketches so finely crafted, and the talent level so high that Melonville almost became a real place, with SCTV serving as merely a documentary of its everyday travails.
SCTV takes a very different approach to satire and topical humor when compared to its New York-based sibling. SNL (at that time) relied on very pointed and specific satire, which required the viewer to have some knowledge about the intended target. You had to understand Nixon to understand why Aykroyd's Nixon parodies were funny. SCTV, on the other hand, created parodies that weren't so much attacks on the subject as they were an exploration of what, specifically, made the target funny, or worthy of parody. You don't have to know that The Sammy Maudlin Show is a parody of Sammy Davis Jr.'s short-lived syndicated variety show Sammy and Company (which really did have the real William B. Williams, a New York disc jockey who first dubbed Frank Sinatra "The Chairman of the Board," as Sammy's sidekick!), where Davis had a tendency to obsequiously compliment his guests (all of whom were just fantastic human cats, man -- and I mean that, babe, ka-chonk ka-chonk) in order to enjoy it. Sammy Maudlin's very obsequiousness is what's funny about him -- not the fact that he's supposed to be Sammy Davis Jr. He could be any vapid celebrity talk-show host; he just happens to be based on a real one.
And so it is with virtually every character on SCTV -- they become archetypes of comedy; entities that anyone, whether "in the know" about the parody or not, can enjoy on some level. It is this universality of the humor that makes SCTV required viewing for anyone who truly loves contemporary comedy. As former Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg puts it in the essay he composed for this set -- "even my cats laugh."
I was eleven years old when my mother, a night owl like myself, first discovered SCTV late one Friday. We became devoted fans, much to the annoyance of my father -- who just wanted to sleep, but was often awakened by the hysterical laughter that came from the den. I knew most of the parodied figures as names, not as real people -- I knew that Marsha Mason, James Coco, and Orson Welles existed, but I didn't know much about them. (Although I was pretty sure that the latter would sell no wine before its time.) Did it affect my enjoyment of the show? Not in the least. I've carried these sketches, characters, and gags around in my head for years. Do I have a greater appreciation for them now, when I actually know some of what was being parodied? You betcha. (Not to be confused with SCTV character Hugh Betcha, of course.) But it's the rare show that can appeal to the same person to the same extent at age 12 and at age 34.
But enough about me. What has kept SCTV off of home video and DVD for so long? Why haven't I seen it? There's actually a simple answer to both questions. The latter is simplest of all: NBC purchased the rights to the entire show -- including the original Canadian syndicated shows and the brief Cinemax post-NBC run -- some time ago, and has been holding it in reserve for years. Rumor has it that the show was NBC's "ace in the hole" if SNL were ever to be canceled. NBC would simply air SCTV packages until they figured out what to put in the Saturday time slot. The downside to this is that NBC never wanted to syndicate the show, lest it lose its value as an SNL replacement. So, except for a brief period when NBC showed episodes extremely late at night, U.S. television viewers were out of luck. Ironically Canadian viewers, and some U.S. satellite customers, could catch the show for a while -- the Canadian network Trio had the Canadian rights to the show for a while, and packaged the entire run into half-hour shows that were aired back-to-back. (I stumbled across this accidentally back in 1997 or so -- about 12 VHS tapes later, I now have a pretty impressive and thorough SCTV collection...)
The first issue is a bit more complex. Ultimately, it comes down to this: the producers of SCTV never bothered to "clear" the music used in the show. For those who aren't in TV or movie production, "clearance" is the process in which you obtain permission to use copyrighted material (songs, images, etc.) in your production from the owners of the copyrights. In other words, every piece of music on the show -- except for the performances by the musical guests -- was used illegally. It has taken years to obtain all the proper clearances for the show. But it's finally done, which is why we're now finally getting SCTV on DVD, allowing fans of the show to circumvent NBC's deathgrip on the reruns.
This crop of shows, the second "cycle" of the fourth production season, is a very strong set. Nine episodes are spread across five discs, with at least one extra added to each disc. The shows available are as follows:
* "CCCP 1" -- 10/16/81
Musical Guest: Al Jarreau
A Russian satellite maneuvers near, and jams, the SCTV satellite. The residents of Melonville are forced to watch dogmatic Communist programming, such as "What Countries Could Fit Into Russia?" and "Uposcrabblenyk." A Jaws-like satellite rescue mission, using the spaceship Dr. Tongue (Candy) and Woody Tobias Jr. (Levy) have been building, somehow turns into a parody of both Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove.
Key sketches: "Perry Como -- Still Alive," "Benny Hill St. Blues," "The Jazz Singer" (with Jarreau -- who plays an R&B singer's son who really wants to be a cantor)
Great White North topic: "Economics"
Commentary track with Dave Thomas and writers Dick Blasucci and John McAndrew.
* "I'm Taking My Own Head, Screwing It On Right, And No Guy's Gonna
Tell Me That It Ain't" -- 10/23/81
Musical Guests: Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics
Libby Wolfson writes, directs, and stars in the titular play, her first. Friend and local volunteer worker Sue Bopper-Simpson (O'Hara), the daughter of the late The Big Bopper, co-stars. Bill Needle, suddenly forced onto the "Theater Beat," absolutely hates it, as does the entire audience. Libby doesn't handle failure well. Nominated for an Emmy, this show could just be the best in the entire SCTV canon.
Key sketches: "Ricardo Montalban School of Fine Acting," "Power Play," "My Bloody Hand"
Great White North topic: "Mice in Beer Bottles"
Commentary track with Andrea Martin and Catherine O'Hara.
* "Zontar" -- 10/30/81
Musical Guest: Natalie Cole
Special Guest: Conrad Bain
SCTV is the target of an invasion by evil cabbages from space, assisted by human traitor Bonar Bain (brother of Conrad). Humankind is doomed, until the ultimate deus ex machina solves everything. This entire show is an extended spoof of/homage to the obscure 1966 C-grade science fiction film Zontar the Thing from Venus (a remake of Roger Corman's B-grade It Conquered the World, a film familiar to Mystery Science Theater fans as "the one with the giant space pickle"), which Flaherty had seen late one night on a Monster Chiller Horror Theater-like show.
Key sketches: "G. Gordon Liddy visits Mrs. Falbo's Tiny Town," "DeForest Kelly in 'The Julia Child Story,'" "Money Talks with Brian Johns: Henna Claire Graham," "Tex and Edna Boil's Prairie Warehouse and Curio Emporium"
Great White North topic: "Shortcuts"
* Walter Cronkite's Brain -- 11/6/81
Musical Guest: Rough Trade
A collection of sketches without any real underlying "story," this show reflected the intense time pressures (and quick exhaustion of material) the 90-minute running time was beginning to generate.
Key sketches: "Walter Cronkite's Brain," "Monster Chiller Horror Theater: Slinky, the Toy from Hell," "Gangway for Miracles," "Pre-Teen World," "Merv Griffin Revisits the '60s," "Screen Acting with Dr. Tongue and Woody Tobias Jr."
* "Doorway to Hell" -- 11/20/81
Musical Guest: concert violinist Eugene Fodor
Due to a lack of money that could be used to actually produce something new, Guy Caballero forces Doorway to Hell host Lin Ye Tang to pad out his show to a ridiculous extent. Tang has to pretty much make everything up as he goes along. A surrealistic trip through Hell ensues -- but it sure does fill up airtime. An odd show.
Key sketches: "SCTV Afterschool Special: Pepi Longsocks," "The Sammy Maudlin Show with Bobby and Skip Bittman," "New York Rhapsody," "Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written"
Great White North topic: "Carpets"
* "The Godfather" -- 12/11/81
Musical Guest: James Ingram
Special Guest: John Marley
As the title suggests, an elaborate and impeccably detailed spoof of Coppola's film, right down to the lighting of certain scenes, that takes up the first two-thirds of the show. Guy Caballero inadvertently triggers a Network War, and...well, you know the story. It's all there. Even the horse.
Key sketches: "3-D House of Beef," "The Vikings and the Beekeepers"
Great White North topic: "Long Underwear and Back Bacon"
* "SCTV Staff Christmas Party" -- 12/18/81
If "I'm Taking My Own Head..." isn't the best SCTV episode, then this might be the one. The staff gathers for a party celebrating the holidays -- except for Johnny LaRue, who's forced out into the bitter cold to do his "Street Beef" show. Don't miss Lola Heatherton's touching rendition of "White Christmas"!
Key sketches: "Dusty Towne's Sexy Holiday Special," "Neil Simon's Nutcracker Suite," "Liberace's Musical Tribute to the Holidays"
* "Teacher's Pet" -- 2/12/82
Musical Guest: The Boomtown Rats
No real storyline -- the title reflects a "Movie of the Week" that spoofs To Sir, with Love (but not the Doris Day/Clark Gable film of the same name), but with Ricardo Montalban in the Sidney Poitier role. Bob Geldof, fresh off Pink Floyd The Wall, does a good job as the "bad boy" in the class. Apparently, the time pressures had reached an extreme by this point, since the show recycles two Canadian-era sketches, the lengthy "Ben Hur" and "The Lone Ranger Show."
Key sketches: "Teacher's Pet," "Monster Chiller Horror Theater: Dr. Tongue's Evil House of Pancakes," "Farm Film Report"
Great White North topic: "Geography"
Commentary by Andrea Martin and Catherine O'Hara.
* "Midnight Video Special" -- 2/19/82
Musical Guests: Talking Heads and The Plastics
Again, no real storyline, and even more recycled Canadian sketches ("Lust for Paint" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Murder Is Bad For Your Health"). Still a good assortment of comedy, however. Video guru Gerry Todd (Moranis) hosts the "Midnight Video Special," featuring extremely early music videos by Talking Heads ("Once In a Lifetime") and Japanese band The Plastics ("Top Secret Man"). Remember -- this was before MTV. Moranis was definitely ahead of his time.
Key sketches: "Midnight Video Special," "Johnny LaRue's All-Girl Friday Night Pajama Party," "One On the Town with Earl Camembert: Singles Bars," "Monster Chiller Horror Theater: Blood-Sucking Monkeys from Pittsburgh"
Great White North topics: "Canadian Space Arm / Snow Routes"
Once again, Shout! Factory includes some quality extras in the package. The best of the bunch is "Larger than Life: The Norman Seeff Photo Sessions," a documentary constructed from footage taken when Seeff photographed the cast for Life magazine. Seeff attempts to get his subjects to relax in front of the camera by talking to them about their work -- hence, we get what amounts to a series of impromptu interviews in the documentary footage. Sadly, seeing John Candy in this footage -- gentle, polite, and somewhat shy, but astoundingly talented -- makes his untimely loss all the more painful. A roundtable discussion among the writers of the show is another interesting addition, as is the brief piece done with costume designer Juul Haalmeyer, who became an on-screen legend as the head of the "Juul Haalmeyer Dancers." The dancers consisted of pretty much anyone available who was willing to put on a set of tights, and were repeatedly called in to a sketch whenever some really bad dancing was required. Some footage of SCTV winning their Emmy award in 1982 is also included; this piece only serves to illustrate why the world is much better off without the unfunny, arrogant, and highly overrated Milton Berle.
Only three commentaries are included, with the Martin/O'Hara commentaries being the most fun. This pair -- two of the funniest women ever to grace the small screen -- are just as funny today as they were back then.
Two volumes down, and so far Shout! Factory gets stellar marks for their efforts. Also, don't forget that the best is yet to come. Volume 3 (scheduled for February 2005, according to the disc's packaging) will see the introduction of the first new cast member since the early days of the show. You may have heard of him...Does the name "Martin Short" ring any bells? Yes, we have yet to see Ed Grimley, Doug Henning, Irving M. Cohan ("Give me a C! A bouncy C!") and Short's other banner characters (many of whom later showed up during his one-year stint on SNL) come to the world of SCTV -- but we will soon. Unfortunately, this period also saw the first major exodus from the show -- after the next cycle, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis left to pursue Hollywood fame and fortune, spurred in large part by the unexpected popularity of Bob and Doug McKenzie. Catherine O'Hara left not long afterwards. Things were never quite the same after that -- but there's still a lot of quality material there. Plus, there's always the early Canadian material -- hours and hours of it, including some fantastic Harold Ramis work that's as funny as anything that was ever aired on the NBC show. For true SCTV fans, the fun has only begun.
But what about for everyone else? Well...If you enjoy comedy, you owe it to yourself to at least sample this show, which has deservedly achieved "legendary" status. SCTV: Volume 2 is as good a place as any to start.
The dark side of this set -- something that isn't Shout! Factory's fault, mind you -- is the abysmal quality of the original source material. SCTV was shot straight-to-video using fairly low-quality broadcast-level equipment. Plus, a lot of the video for sketches was intentionally "degraded" to give the impression of old film stock or consumer-level video equipment. The net result? In digital form, the show has the visual impact of a moderate-quality VHS tape (at best) or a low-quality porn tape (at worst). There's essentially nothing that could possibly be done to rectify this -- there's no film stock that could be restored, digitally printed, and enhanced, as could be the case with filmed television of the time. SCTV is genetically doomed to look awful forever. But it's strong enough material that the visual problems don't in any way make this set skip-worthy.
Sound is also a slight issue. The audio was originally a mono track, which has been split here into an adequate 2.0 mono mix. Again, the source material is iffy, and I'd say the shows sound about as good as they can.
One thing that puzzles me (two sets into this process) is the continuing absence of Rick Moranis. Apparently, he's chosen to not participate at all in these DVD releases. That's a shame, since Moranis is responsible for some of the more vivid characters on the show (Gerry Todd, Richard Dreyfuss, Bob McKenzie), and is clearly a brilliant improvisational comic. Plus, he's the only one missing. Something's up here...I just don't know what. Rick, please do some commentary or something. We beg you.
SCTV is not Saturday Night Live. It's better. Trust me.
Given that they've now released two volumes (to date) of SCTV AND the Freaks and Geeks set, Shout! Factory could probably whack a guy right in front of this here judge and still get off scot-free. Needless to say, not guilty for everyone!
Review content copyright © 2004 David Ryan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 750 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* The Juul Haalmeyer Dancers
* The SCTV Writers
* SCTV Remembers Part 2
* SCTV at the 1982 Emmy Awards
* Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery
* Larger than Life: The Norman Seeff Photo Sessions
* Commentary Track (one episode) by Writer/Actor Dave Thomas and Writers Dick Blasucci and John McAndrew
* Commentary Tracks (two episodes) by Writer/Actors Andrea Martin and Catherine O'Hara
* The SCTV Guide
* The Second City