Looking Back at SCTV

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SCTV is kind of the show you didn’t know you knew: hugely influential without being popular. As far as cult sketch shows go, SCTV is one of the best. Begun in 1976 by the Toronto chapter of Second City, the show has featured and influenced some of comedy’s best and brightest. It’s often thought of as the Canadian cousin of Saturday Night Live; both shows starred Second City alumni, both were on late at night and both are hilarious.

SCTV really was kind of the flip side of the coin to SNL. Unlike SNL, SCTV was not produced live or in front of a studio audience. For all of the energy and excitement that live shows like SNL are capable of, there are certain downsides to the format. For the most part broadcasting a show live means you’re limited by time and resources in what type of sketches you can and can’t pull off. You don’t have time to spend hours in a make-up chair perfectly crafting the spitting image of a celebrity or building intricate sets. You’re also not afforded the time to rehearse much or do multiple takes until a bit finds its rhythm. Saturday Night Live has for the most part turned these limitations into strengths with its anything-can-happen vibe, but SCTV shows all the benefits a pre-recorded show can have too. Costumes and makeup are far more intricate than anything SNL could hope to pull off and the time and energy spent getting the perfect take is readily apparent. In this way SCTV was the first time a sketch show was explicitly created for a TV audience and as a result it paved the way for many things to come.

There are actually a number of jokes first appearing on SCTV that SNL would later borrow. Take for example this Half Wits quiz show sketch starring Eugene Levy as “Alex Trebel,” a dignified host that slow loses all his patience with his idiotic contestants, a bit with more than a passing resemblance to Celebrity Jeopardy.

Another aspect of the show that would later be emulated by sketch shows like Upright Citizens Brigade was the show’s unifying fictional premise. In the world of the show SCTV is a low budget TV station in the fictional American town of Mellonville. All the sketches are TV shows and promos for shows from the station. This does limit the range of the show somewhat, but they make up for it with countless send ups of every aspect of the entertainment industry.

The show launched the careers of countless all-stars of comedy. Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Harold Ramis, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas, and many others all got their start on the show. In my mind Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas are really the break out stars of the show. Their Great White North sketches featuring stereotypical Canadians Bob and Doug Mckenzie are probably the most well known bit to come out of the show, but they did so much more than that simple joke. Ironically, The Great White North sketches were originally considered throw-away filler material to satisfy the network’s request that they provide something “identifiably Canadian.”

Moranis would later become typecast as a lovable nerd, but on SCTV he’s really at the height of his powers, it’s a shame that he has since retired from acting. Dave Thomas is probably best known today as Charlize Theron’s Uncle Trevor on Arrested Development, but on SCTV he provided a number of spot on impersonations. Here they both are doing Woody Allen and Bob Hope.

Eugene Levy did a number of great characters and bits while he was on the show too. Here he is promoting The Ricardo Montalban School of Fine Acting.

Finding the show today can be a bit confusing because it was shown on numerous different networks under numerous different names (SCTV, SCTV Network 90, SCTV Channel) and lengths, but if you can find it you’ll be in for a treat.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.