Welcome to our new column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite television writers to choose any sketch – one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated – to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.
For our very first installment of Sketch Anatomy we reached out to Bill Oakley, whose television work extends from TripTank to Portlandia back to serving as writer and showrunner for classic ‘90s Simpsons episodes like “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” and “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy.” Oakley chose an old sketch from SCTV starring Joe Flaherty, John Candy, and Eugene Levy in which Flaherty plays a character-within-a-character late night horror show host named Count Floyd who introduces one of his many subpar scary 3D features “Dr. Tongue’s Evil House of Pancakes.”
You’ve chosen an old sketch from SCTV. Can you give a general introduction to it for those who aren’t familiar?
First of all, I suspect most of the people who read Splitsider were probably born after SCTV went off the air, because it was on from the mid-late ‘70s to the mid-late ‘80s. It began from sketch shows in Toronto’s Second City, then there was a half-hour show, then it became a 90-minute show which was its most famous incarnation that was on after SNL, then it was on Showtime. Most of the people became the most hilarious people of their era, but a totally different camp of people than SNL. I don’t think SCTV people became quite as famous, but at least among comedy people, they were heroes, and that includes people like John Candy, Dave Thomas, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara…they all went on to various successes, although no one became quite as successful as, say, Bill Murray or John Belushi.
The other thing that was weird about SCTV was during its best incarnation, which in my opinion was the 90-minute show called SCTV Network 90, is that it was on after Saturday Night Live. So it wouldn’t start until one in the morning and it’d go until after two in the morning on Saturdays, and this was before most people even had VCRs. So it was just a weird coterie of people who were fans of the show because you really had to stay up and watch it, and it became kind of the ultimate cult thing, although it got a lot of success and actually got a couple Emmys beating SNL.
The reason I selected this particular sketch – the minute-and-a-half version of 3D “Dr. Tongue’s Evil House of Pancakes” – is because it boils down everything that’s great about SCTV. It’s really a culmination of seven different “Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of [Blank]” sketches. The first one was actually the “3D House of Wax,” which is parodying stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s that I never even saw as a kid growing up in the ‘80s. It’s a parody of those late night horror movies with a cheesy local host that was such a big thing in the ‘50s through the ‘70s and became sort of a comic trope of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like the late night TV host of horror movies. It’s also parodying 3D movies, specifically House of Wax, which wasn’t nearly the best of the sketches, but it was the first one. And according to Dave [Thomas] it introduced the idea of Joe Flaherty being Count Floyd. Then the next one, which was on SCTV Network 90, was “3D House of Stewardesses.” Then there was “3D House of Beef,” and somewhere in there was this, which was really just an ad for the “3D House of Pancakes.” There were more, but anyway…I could go on forever about this topic.
So it was parodying the crummy late night horror movie host and the crummy movies that he’d show. Again, as a kid at that time I had never seen any of those things but I still found it hilarious. Looking back on it, one of the things that’s crazy is I don’t think I even realized that first of all, Joe Flaherty is supposed to be a vampire but he’s howling like a werewolf. [laughs] I just took that for granted, and it must’ve been years until I saw it and was like “Wait a minute, that’s a joke!” Furthermore, Count Floyd’s always wearing a turtleneck, which is the least vampire thing ever. So it was just a number of things I didn’t get the first couple times I saw it, and it didn’t dawn on me until years later all the layers of humor that’s in it.
One of the things SCTV had that you didn’t see on other comedy or sketch shows was that the characters all had a history. It’s kind of like Mr. Show but it wasn’t being done at that time where the more you watch, the more you appreciate the different layers of it. Dr. Tongue [John Candy] had a history, and the real-life version of Bruno [Eugene Levy] was also a character Woody Tobias Jr. who took himself as a really serious actor – he still looked like Bruno and was all hunched over with those crossed eyes – so occasionally Woody Tobias Jr. would show up in other sketches. Count Floyd [Joe Flaherty] was also Floyd Robertson, the newscaster on SCTV, and this was apparently his night job – hosting these crappy horror movies. I guess there was some explanation at some point that the station just bought these movies in a package and nobody really cared about the quality of them, so they were all grade B horror movies. Very often the joke would be Count Floyd watching and going “oh I’m sorry kids” and apologizing for how crummy it was, then he’d show a clip of it. Which was a brilliant strategy, because he didn’t have to show the whole movie, he just showed the funniest parts. The 3D joke which they did in every single “Dr. Tongue’s” is someone shoving something at the camera with this crazy horror music stab playing as they move it back and forth in front of the camera, and the “3D House of Pancakes” was just that joke combined with all the other sketches of the “3D House of [Blank],” so it’s a very simplified version of the joke. It’s basically a promo that boils down all the best elements of “Dr. Tongue’s Monster Chiller Horror Theatre” tropes. [laughs] And thank you for listening to my crazy rant about this.
As a recurring sketch, how do you think “Monster Chiller Horror Theatre” avoided getting flak for doing the same joke over and over the way, say, recurring SNL sketches do a lot of the time?
They didn’t do it quite so often. The first one was on in 1977, and I think the next one was on in like 1981. They didn’t run them into the ground multiple times a season, they’d often be just once a year. That’s one thing. The other thing SCTV had that SNL never had was behind-the-scenes elements. Usually there would be a wrap-around story about the TV station characters; Guy Caballero [Flaherty] was the owner of the TV station, and Johnny LaRue [Candy] and Earl Camembert [Levy] were on it, so a lot of times the sketches were between the elements of the stories. I think by giving many of the characters in the TV parody a life outside of just that sketch, it gives more depth to that universe, which is entertaining.
You mentioned earlier how you didn’t get all the references when you first watched it but discovered the sketch’s different layers of humor over time. I think that’s the case with a lot of the references or cameos on Portlandia too, which you’ve written for before. Is creating those kind of layers something you do intentionally as a writer, or is that more just a natural result of a good sketch?
You know, that’s a good question, and I think it’s true that Portlandia has a little bit of that as well. I don’t know whether SCTV invented that – I suspect there were some shows that probably did it in the ‘50s – but it was definitely something that wasn’t being done by SNL. At least for these two decades, SCTV was the only place that was providing a layer, a texture, a richness that made you feel like – especially given the fact that it was one at one in the morning – it was definitely kind of a cult thing. You grow a body of knowledge of this universe each time you watch it, which you didn’t get from shows that just had sketch after sketch like SNL.
Before the interview you mentioned that you reached out to Dave Thomas for more of the “Monster Chiller Horror Theatre” origin story. What did he say?
Well, the “3D House of Wax” was the first one and it was very primitive, then there were all the others. Dave says John Candy was conceptually behind all of them but not always the writer. Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty wrote the first one with John and Dave Thomas had a hand in the later ones because he was head writer, but the way writing these worked was that Joe Flaherty and John Candy usually grouped up with Harold Ramis or Dave Thomas and then Joe or Dave Thomas would write it up. He also said the key to this is that there would be no Dr. Tongue without John Candy – it was his baby, and it was one of his Second City stage pieces where he brings a girl back from a date to show her all his stuffed animals and he’s got parents and friends and so on, so Dr. Tongue was definitely born in that stage piece. So that’s a little behind-the-scenes stuff and this is all ancient history I suspect, but I think it’s one of those things like Mad magazine where they formed the humor and sensibility of all the people who ended up writing for shows in the ‘90s and ‘00s; it became part of the popular consciousness.
So the key is that the characters have dimensions beyond what you see in the “Monster Chiller Horror Theatre” segments, not necessarily the “story” in each sketch, since there isn’t one.
Right, and specifically that Dr. Tongue has his own history, Bruno has his own history as actor Woody Tobias Jr., and Count Floyd is also the respected newscaster of his TV station and this is his night job and he does it really badly – those things are all additional facets you’d never get just watching that, but with that knowledge, the sketches are all that much more enjoyable.
I had never seen these before you chose them, but when you said the words “3D House of Pancakes” I was instantly interested.
[laughs] Yeah well I’m sure if you’re watching for the first time you’ll be like “What the fuck is this?” But then as you start watching the others you see it’s a parody of these bad movies and late night horror movie shows, and you just get more layers as you discover more about the universe. It’s weird because I don’t know if there’s any place where anyone can see SCTV these days without buying the DVDs, and it was so informative to such a large number of comedy writers, it’s weird that it’s so forgotten, you know?
But on the other hand, do you see SCTV’s influence on today’s sketch shows? Obviously Mr. Show is known for threading sketches together in a similar way, but are there any shows on now you think at least attempt the same approach?
I bet you every single one of them has some kind of SCTV influence, going back to Kids in the Hall, The State, even Portlandia – I suspect they all have some SCTV in them, even if it’s just infused in the minds of the creators and the writers. SCTV was one of those things that comedy writers are always talking about that regular people don’t. [laughs] Even this morning someone tweeted out something saying something was like “an early SCTV but with a British sensibility,” like it’s such a cultural touchstone to all comedy writers of a certain age and most people don’t know what you’re talking about, including television executives. I suspect there are a lot of comedy pitches that have references to SCTV and the people listening to the pitches have no idea what that is.