For the Comedy Iconoclasts of ‘SCTV,’ a Joyful Reunion Tinged With Loss

Posted May 14, 2018 5:33 p.m. EDT

TORONTO — On a warm Mother’s Day afternoon here, sunlight streamed into the gold-filigreed lobby of the Elgin Theater, where traveling vaudeville acts passed through a century ago. A troupe from the more recent past, though also tinged with nostalgia, would soon take the stage: the cast of the cult TV show “SCTV.”

The afternoon of clips and conversation, hosted by “SCTV” fan Jimmy Kimmel, will be part of a Netflix comedy special directed by Martin Scorsese, set for release in 2019. As a sellout crowd of 1,300 pushed by, 40-year-old friends Jeff Maus and Eric Makila stood finishing their beers, having a fanboy moment about the show, which debuted more than 40 years ago.

“This is hometown love,” Makila said.

“I gave a speech to my class on ‘SCTV’ in Grade 3,” said Maus, who grew up in nearby Paris, Ontario. “It was the only hip Canadian show we could lay our hands on back then.”

Well, “The Beachcombers” — a show about a log salvager named Nick who looks for loose logs and also solves crimes on the coast of British Columbia — did start airing on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in 1972, but point taken. Clearly, there was room for another kind of TV in Canada when “SCTV” sprang from the Toronto outpost of Chicago’s Second City improv club in 1976. Iterations bounced among broadcasters (first at Global in Toronto, then to CBC, NBC and Cinemax), critically adored and commercially ignored, until “SCTV” finally ended in 1984.

Nonetheless, the show secured comedy touchstone status not just for the impressive number of stars it graduated — including John Candy, Martin Short, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara — but because it was the weird Canadian cousin to the slicker “Saturday Night Live” at a moment when sketch was becoming the strongest currency in comedy. The “SCTV” brand was much higher concept than that of “SNL.” The conceit was that the sketches were “shows” for a low-rent TV station set in the fictional town of Melonville, and traded in more absurdist, character-driven, pop-savvy satire.

Targets were often unabashedly highbrow (Dick Cavett, Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona”), as in “Battle of the PBS Stars,” during which Julia Child faced off in a boxing ring against Mr. Rogers, with a puppet cheering ringside. Movie parodies — “Polynesian Town,” “Chariots of Eggs,” “An Officer and a Gentile” — were constants. But sillier, outsize characters got equal airtime, like O’Hara’s pill-popping, heartbroken lounge singer Lola Heatherton and Ed Grimley, the narwhal-haired man-child created by Short. Perhaps the best-known sketch was “Great White North,” improvised when CBC requested two minutes of cultural promotion — “Canadian content.” Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas shot back by poking fun at Canadians as back-bacon-eating, beer-chugging hosers, and the bit eventually turned into the movie “Strange Brew.”

The rangy, oddball sensibility of “SCTV” made way for “The Kids in the Hall” and “Mr. Show,” and the big-idea narrative premise of Upright Citizens Brigade. The comedy ringleaders Judd Apatow and Conan O’Brien revere “SCTV,” and the host for Sunday’s event, Kimmel, said that he grew up in Las Vegas watching it on a black-and-white TV. “In my bedroom, it was No. 1,” he told the crowd.

Before Kimmel could finish introducing the cast, who filed in one by one, the audience was on its feet. The back of the stage was wallpapered with “SCTV” stills. A row of cushy chairs awaited the actors: Levy, O’Hara, Short, Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, Thomas and a recent addition, Moranis. The participation of Moranis, the “Ghostbusters” star who has largely been out of the public eye since the late 1990s, had been a surprise announcement a few days before, and he received an extra long round of applause.

Onstage, the group remained true to Canadian stereotypes (although Martin and Flaherty were born in the United States): unflaggingly polite, sharing the air and responding more enthusiastically to “Who’s your favorite character that someone else played?” than “Who’s your favorite character that you played?”

Moranis, in a bright yellow tie, graciously ensured that the hair, makeup and wardrobe people who worked on the show were pointed out in the crowd and acknowledged by name. Both Martin and O’Hara brought a dash of movie stardom, high-heeled and glamorous, while their male castmates in suits and ties could have been a row of 60-something bankers. At one point, apropos of nothing, O’Hara removed an annoying cushion from behind her back and flung it behind her, to Short’s delight.

Cutting the joy slightly were the much-noted absences of two alumni. Harold Ramis, the director and co-writer of “Groundhog Day,” was the show’s first head writer, for his experience selling jokes to Playboy magazine, Levy pointed out. Ramis left the show to write “Animal House.” He died in 2014.

Twenty years earlier, Candy, the series’ beloved breakout star whose signature characters included the horror movie staple Dr. Tongue, star of 3D House of Cats and other House-of classics, and the polka clarinetist Yosh Shmenge, died at 43. When the conversation veered his way, various cast members teared up. Thomas described exhorting a staff writer to follow Candy with a yellow notepad and listen closely as he ran errands; the staffer would return with fully written sketches. “He was exactly what you think he was — that funny, that passionate, that generous,” Short said.

When clips rolled on a giant fake TV, to deafening laughter, the cast watched, too. O’Hara often looked incredulous: “We did that?” Comedy doesn’t always age well, but “SCTV,” rarely bound to the politics of its moment, remains fairly timeless. There are bumps, however: Perhaps “Indira,” an “Evita” spoof starring Indira Gandhi, played by Martin, would not fly today. Even Kimmel remarked on the whiteness of the crowd, hard to achieve in today’s Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities. The show’s references, like the crowd at the Elgin, are firmly rooted in baby boomer and Gen X lore. I asked 13-year-old Christopher Pinnington, in line for snacks with his mom, if “SCTV,” which he watches on YouTube, resonated with his friends. “I don’t know if they know about it,” he said. “I appreciate it because it’s way out there. I don’t get some of the old humor from before my time, but it’s cool that it’s Canadian.”

Still, Netflix appears to believe the show will draw new fans. “This is a dream project,” Lisa Nishimura, the vice president for original documentary and comedy programming, said via email. “'SCTV’ is one of the most influential comedy series of all time.”

The impetus for the documentary came in 2015, when after the 40th anniversary special of “SNL,” most of the cast gathered at O’Hara’s house to discuss the possibility of their own special. O’Hara mentioned that Scorsese was a fan (“SCTV” did many Scorsese parodies over the years, including a running gag of “Taxi Driver” promos with the likes of Woody Allen, Bob Hope and Gregory Peck in the Travis Bickle role), so Short called him. In the Elgin, a massive crane and at least four cameras documented every moment, which will be interspersed with other footage, though Netflix is tight-lipped about details.

The show’s enduring mythos is largely drama-free. “SCTV” was always the underwatched underdog, highly collaborative show that ducked most of the debauchery and cutthroat competition that defined “SNL." Levy and Short described it as the creative highlight of their careers.

As the three-plus hours wound down, and the crowd readied itself to bookend the standing ovation, Flaherty looked out and said he’d been unsure about the reunion at first, wondering: “Does anybody remember the show? Does anybody have a reference for it?” That got a big laugh. “I just didn’t know if anybody would show up.”