As always, Appellate Judge Dave Ryan thanks Mrs. Vilve Yachke for providing the cabbage rolls and coffee.
Our reviews of Christmas With SCTV (published November 30th, 2005), SCTV Network/90: Volume 1 (published June 1st, 2004), SCTV: Volume 2 (published September 29th, 2004), SCTV: The Best Of The Early Years (published November 8th, 2006), and SCTV: Volume Four (published October 12th, 2005) are also available.
"Hey, you crazy beatniks…there's gonna be a
The third nine-episode "cycle" of SCTV's run on NBC was, in hindsight, probably the high-water mark for the show. This was the last time the original cast would be together on the show, and the addition (for the last three episodes) of new cast member Martin Short provided a needed boost of energy and creativity.
But cracks had appeared in the show's foundation—cracks that were already starting to break down television's best sketch comedy show. Despite these problems, the show still managed to live up to its past excellence, thanks primarily to the incredible talent of its cast and writers. Yes, it was still a continuing struggle to fill 90 minutes of airtime, and the show's taste for extremely long sketches was on full display, but there's a lot to love here in Shout! Factory's third volume of SCTV. And—wonder of wonders—the picture quality is vastly improved over the past two volumes!
Facts of the Case
SCTV is still on the air, and still sports the same assortment of behind-the-scenes incompetents and failed celebrities that it has in the past. The slightly shady Guy Caballero (Joe Flaherty, Freaks and Geeks) still owns the network, and the disturbingly horny Edith Prickley (Andrea Martin, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) is still the program director. Sammy Maudlin (Flaherty) and William B. Williams (John Candy, Stripes) still hold down the late-night talk show fort with their obsequious yakker. Backwater yokels Bob (Rick Moranis, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) and Doug (Dave Thomas, Grace Under Fire) McKenzie still have their two-minute "Great White North" show.
New this "season" on SCTV is its first soap opera, "The Days of the Week." Also, SCTV's newscasters, Floyd Robertson (Flaherty) and Earl Camembert (Eugene Levy, A Mighty Wind) now host "Nightline Melonville," a hard-hitting, in-depth news show.
The marriage of NBC and SCTV was always somewhat of a rocky one. NBC had, of course, pioneered the late-night sketch comedy format via its hit Saturday Night Live. Hence, they felt that they had a pretty good idea about how to run a sketch comedy show. SCTV, on the other hand, was almost the equivalent of a family-run business. The core cast—Candy, Flaherty, Thomas, O'Hara, Martin, and Levy—and many of the writers had been together since the show's inception in 1976. The show's unique format relied on the presence of repeating characters, all of whom had deep backstories that had been developed over years of programming. SCTV did things the SCTV way, and that was that.
When NBC bought in to SCTV—mainly as a hedge against a complete collapse of Saturday Night Live after Lorne Michaels' departure in 1980—it naturally assumed that it could dictate the show's content and production and mold it into a new SNL. No fewer than five producers found out the hard way that no such thing was going to happen. NBC would send them up to Edmonton or Toronto, whereupon they'd find a cast that either (a) completely ignored them or (b) were openly hostile to any interference. Inevitably, they'd quit in frustration, since they were literally wasting their time.
When production began on the third nine-show NBC cycle of SCTV in the spring of 1982, it was Don Novello's turn to be sacrificed on its altar. Novello, a Saturday Night Live writer best known for his character Father Guido Sarducci, was heading for a show in flux. Thanks partially to cast jealousy over the titanic success of the Bob and Doug McKenzie characters, Dave Thomas had stepped down as the head writer for the show, a role he had held since the beginning of the NBC era. Thomas and Rick Moranis were fielding offers from Hollywood to bring Bob and Doug to the big screen. (They would indeed leave the show after this cycle to produce and star in the feature film Strange Brew.) SNL, still soldiering on under new producer Dick Ebersol, was always trying to raid the cast for talent. (John Candy was high on their list.) And production of the show had moved from remote Edmonton back to cosmopolitan Toronto, providing (unlike Edmonton) a wealth of non-SCTV distractions for the cast and crew.
Novello, still recovering from the death of his good friend John Belushi, showed up in Toronto to co-produce the show and serve as head writer—and was almost completely ignored. He quit at the end of the nine-show run. (Apparently there were no hard feelings, though, since he returned to co-produce the Cinemax version of the show in 1983.) No, the "suggestions" from NBC (such as "do more pot jokes") would be falling on deaf ears, despite the cachet of the messenger.
And so SCTV rolled on pretty much as it had in the past, with two major exceptions: the "runners" (episode-long story arcs played out in multiple segments) became the full focus of the show (the "broadcast day" format was essentially tossed out the window), and the sketches became incredibly long. More than a few sketches in this cycle run close to 15 minutes—an astounding amount of time in a show that has only 64 total minutes of material, and something that SNL could never think of pulling off.
Toward the end of this run, a fresh face appeared: Martin Short, the younger brother of writer Mike Short. Short was another Second City stage veteran who brought a broad range of stage-honed characters to SCTV. He was also insurance in case Thomas and Moranis left the show. But most importantly, Short brought a jolt of energy to the cast and writers just when it was needed the most.
Some of the best moments of SCTV are contained in these nine episodes, presented almost intact by this set. Cycle Three was composed of the following episodes:
• Episode 97: "The Great White North Palace"
Musical guest: Tony Bennett performs "I Wish I Were In Love Again" and "The Best Is Yet To Come."
Key sketches: "Rev. Dan Ellsmire—Be My Friend!" "You! with Libby Wolfson—Fitness," "Nightline Melonville: Unemployment."
• Episode 98: "Pre-Teen World Telethon"
Musical guest: "The Recess Monkeys" (Moranis, Levy, and Candy) performing "My Girl" (a hit for the Canadian band Chilliwack in 1982) in character. Funny, yet not bad!
Key sketches: "Nightline Melonville: Kidnapping," "Prickley Heat."
A commentary track by Joe and Paul Flaherty and Dick Blasucci is included for this episode. Just a hint for the Shout! folks: Joe hasn't seen these episodes in ages. Show him the episodes first, then show them to him again when you do the commentary track. Otherwise, he's just laughing at everything.
• Episode 99: "The People's Golden Global Choice
Musical guest: Third World performs "Try Jah Love."
Key sketches: "The Merv Griffin Show: The Special Edition" (ooooh…a brilliant parody of Spielberg's Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind…ooooh!), "Tex & Edna Boil: Chuckie" (Tex finally snaps!).
• Episode 100: "3-D Stake From the Heart"
Musical guest: None.
Key sketches: "Dr. X," "The Irv Goldfarb Show," "Just For Fun."
• Episode 101: "Pet Peeves / The Happy Wanderers"
Musical guest: Carl Perkins, performing "Long Way to Go."
Key sketches: "The Days of the Week, Episode 2," "Nightline Melonville: Milk Slush Fund" (Mayor Tommy Shanks snaps and comes to the studio to beat up the obviously drunk Floyd Robertson!), "Stand Up and Be Counted with Bill Needle."
Unfortunately, this episode is the first one that Shout! Factory is presenting in a substantively incomplete form. What's missing? A brilliant sketch called "Stairways to Heaven," a K-Tel-like advertisement for an album featuring 30 musical greats (including SCTV stalwarts 5 Neat Guys) covering Led Zeppelin's classic "Stairway to Heaven." The reason? As everyone in the entertainment industry knows, Jimmy Page absolutely refuses to permit the licensing of "Stairway to Heaven" to anyone for any use. As a matter of fact, the scene in Wayne's World inside the music store—which has a sign stating "No Playing of 'Stairway to Heaven'"—is somewhat of an inside joke relating to Page's notoriously inflexible stance. Page even refused to allow the song's use in Almost Famous—and there, it was his friend Cameron Crowe asking for it. (It took an officially undisclosed—but unofficially obscene—amount of money for General Motors to pry the slightly-lesser-known "Rock and Roll" from him for commercial use.) Since licensing the song would have been prohibitively expensive, if it were even possible, the sketch was cut out for this DVD release. A bit on the "Happy Wanderers" show where Linsk Minyk performed his Leutonian version of "Stairway" was also removed.
• Episode 102: "Chariots of Eggs"
Musical guests: Hall and Oates, performing "Did It in a Minute" on the Maudlin show.
Key sketches: "The Days of the Week, Episode 3," "Ethel Merman's Wake Up and Love Me," "Mrs. Falbo's Tiny Town: Prison" (a send-up of Johnny Cash's legendary prison performances), "Great White North: Twist-off Beer Caps."
• Episode 103: "Battle of the PBS Stars"
Musical guest: Dave Edmunds, performing "From Small Things, Big Things Come." (He also plays a major role in "I Was a Teenage Communist.")
Key sketches: "The Days of the Week, Episode 4," "Comment with David Brinkley: Boredom" (Moranis's last portrayal of Brinkley on the show), "Love Slaves of the Southwest."
The promotional material for this set indicates that this episode should have a commentary track by Joe and Paul Flaherty; however, the promotional disc I reviewed did not have such a track (although there was an unused audio track attached to that show).
• Episode 104: "Rome, Italian Style"
Musical guest: Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band, performing "Slow Boat to China."
Key sketches: "The Days of the Week, Episode 5," "Money Talks with Brian Johns: Condominiums," "Nightline Melonville: Tip O'Neill and Margaret Thatcher," "Norton Sheef's 'The Making of Dr. X'" (Rick Moranis does an impersonation of Life photographer Norman Seeff—whose photo shoot of the SCTV cast was included as an extra on the SCTV Network/90 Vol. 1 DVD), "Mr. Know-it-all: The Life of Nostradamus."
• Episode 105: "The Days of the Week / Street Beef"
Key sketches: "Talking Projector Adventure Series" (spoofing the serial adventure shorts of the '30s and '40s), "Carl's Cuts: Free Delivery" (pig-like butchers Carl and Fred Scutz (Moranis and Thomas) wind up in a very Deliverance-like situation while delivering meat—also the final NBC SCTV appearances for Moranis and Thomas), "Finian's Rainbow Meats," "TV Talk with Bill Needle."
Once again, Shout! Factory loads up an SCTV collection with a flock of worthwhile extra features. There are two of the continuing series of cast/crew interview featurettes, in this case "SCTV—The Producers" and "SCTV Remembers, Part 3"; the latter focuses mainly on Martin Short's memories of joining the show. These have a lot of good, substantive information, and will (as before) be interesting to fans. A John Candy photo gallery is provided, consisting of pictures from the collection of Candy's widow Rose. A segment on Candy from the Canadian show That's Life is also included.
The most desirable extra for fans of the show, though, is a full video of the "SCTV at the Museum of Television and Radio" presentation. This roundtable discussion took place as part of the 1997 William S. Paley Television Festival at the MoTR, reuniting the entire Cycle Three cast (save Candy), plus Robin Duke (who had performed on the show in its Canadian syndication days), SCTV's long-time producer Andrew Alexander, Second City founder Bernie Sahlins, and legendary Second City stage director Del Close. Although roughly the equivalent of the 1999 Aspen Comedy Festival reunion included as part of the SCTV Network/90: Volume 1 collection, the setting and tone of this reunion is a bit more intimate than the former. It's absolutely fascinating for hard-core SCTV fans—just watching the cast and associates all interact in this setting speaks volumes about the friendly rivalries that must have existed behind the scenes. You're left with the impression that this bunch could get together tomorrow and, given a few hours, still produce the best comedy show on television.
An audio CD of improv performances from the Second City stage rounds out the extras. (The CD was unavailable for review.)
Here's another unexpected bonus—the video quality on this set is exponentially better than that on the previous two. Whether it's because of better source material or a better mastering job by Shout! Factory, the results are impressive. Where prior SCTV sets had the general video quality of a poor VHS tape, this set actually looks like a DVD. Don't get me wrong—this is far from pristine, HD-quality contemporary digital television we're talking about here. But it's much clearer, more vivid, and just plain easier on the eyes than the earlier sets. Sound is once again provided in a two-channel version of the original broadcast mono; it's fine for what it is.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even on this, the best that sketch television has to offer, not everything works. And when your sketches often run eight to ten minutes long, something that doesn't work becomes that much more noticeable, and a potential torpedo for a given show. Take, for example, "The Adventures of Shake & Bake." "Shake & Bake" is a high-concept, exceedingly long, cartoonish sketch whose central theme is an esoteric literature topic; specifically, the long-standing belief that Sir Francis Bacon may be the author of some (or all) of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Even Dave Thomas (who wrote the sketch) admits in his book, SCTV Behind the Scenes, that the sketch "should never have made it onto network TV." It was impressive in its scope, and beautifully costumed, but, to quote my mother, "it isn't very funny." It drags an otherwise outstanding show to a sudden and grinding halt for several minutes. Unfortunately, this also was a harbinger of things to come: These creative people were simply starting to burn out, with sketches like "Shake & Bake" the consequence.
Another complaint: there are only two commentaries for the entire set. They're good commentaries…but why aren't Andrea Martin and Catherine O'Hara back this time? Where's Thomas? Hopefully Martin Short will do a few commentaries for the next set of episodes, which contain some of his best work ever. These shows are important enough that all of them should have commentary tracks.
The long-awaited release of SCTV on DVD is proceeding nicely; the task is clearly in good hands. There isn't much to complain about here, other than the occasional lead balloon of a sketch. Volume Four should be heading our way in August—sign me up now.
(And for those of you who want to sample SCTV before owning, TV Land is now airing the half-hour syndication package SCTV shows—which encompass the entire run of the show—in the late-night Friday timeslot!)
Everyone's found not guilty, but Shake & Bake owe me an essay on the use of the Beast as metaphor in "The Tempest."
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