On a recent episode of comedian Marc Maron's wildly popular WTF podcast, Conan O'Brien spoke of his comedic influences. Chief among his inspiration was Second City Television, otherwise known as SCTV, a Canadian-produced sketch comedy show that eventually made its way to NBC. It served as a launching pad for such legendary talents as John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, Rick Moranis and Eugene Levy. The show, O'Brien said, was particularly awe-inspiring because of its attention to the small details; “What’s that saying, God is in the details?” he said. And it’s true -- you could sense the amount of care SCTV's ensemble cast put into each and every single joke, not resting until every possible angle of a scene or joke was covered.
It's a pretty excellent observation. In fact, O'Brien's remark was so spot on, I'm a little miffed I hadn't thought of it myself, but more on that in a moment.
First, a bit of background. To trace the complete trajectory of SCTV, one must go all the way back to Chicago, Illinois in 1959. That year marked the opening of the original Second City Theater on North Wells street in Chicago. The theater gained ground quickly, known for its novel (at the time) approach to sketch comedy writing. Sketches were written by committee, meaning that actors would get together and improvise scenes based on loose themes. These sessions would be recorded, refined and written into stageable scenes, which then turned into full-length, often thematic shows. By 1961, the theater sent a cast to Broadway where they staged the Tony-award-nominated musical revue: From the Second City. This staggering rush of success led to a swift expansion and in 1973, the Second City opened a second theater in Toronto. This, of course, attracted some incredible performers: the likes of Martin Short, Harold Ramis and Dave Thomas. Much like its Chicago counterpart, Second City Toronto thrived immediately, racking up glowing reviews and sold-out crowds. Andrew Alexander, the then director of Second City Toronto (and current co-owner of the entire Second City enterprise) saw an opportunity with his star-studded cast and began brainstorming potential show ideas. It is said that the cast, along with Alexander, improvisational guru Del Close and Chicago theater veteran Sheldon Patinkin, jointly came up with the original conceit of the show: a sketch comedy show about a poorly-run and poorly-programmed television network. The show began as a once-a-month offering just two years into Canada's Global Television Network's lifespan.
The concept alone was brilliant. It allowed for quite a bit of breathing room in terms of creativity. The show constantly asked the question: what would a terrible television network look like? And, as O’Brien said, it’s all in the details, from Joe Flaherty’s portrayal of the inept and ruthless station owner Guy Caballero — who chose to ride around in a wheelchair because he believed it forced people to respect him -- to the hilariously depressing re-imagining of Leave it to Beaver, where the cast depicts all the original characters, projected 25 years into the future.
Really, though, what makes SCTV such a special program is the way the cast carry themselves. You feel a certain excitement from them -- as though the production of the show itself gives them an ecstatic, palpable joy. Simply put, they were having so much fun up there. And that is indeed something wholly necessary to a successful comedy. If the performers aren’t up there having fun, the audience tends to tune out — boredom breeds boredom.
The most shining example of the SCTV cast having a ball would almost certainly be the recurring and iconic McKenzie brothers sketch. Originally, the sketch was intended to serve as a bridge -- a short, throwaway sketch to keep the show moving -- and was reportedly a tongue-in-cheek response to the CBC requiring a certain percentage of each broadcast to be comprised of “undeniable” Canadian content.
Moranis and Thomas play these two beer-swilling doofuses so well that the characters were spun off into numerous albums, an SCTV special, and a feature-length film called Strange Brew. What made it work so well was the interplay between the brothers and the overt Canadian tone of the entire sketch. The sketch is essentially a carbon copy of "Wayne’s World" (though Wayne’s World came much later). The two brothers, Bud and Doug, sit on a couch with cigarettes and mountains of beer and speak words of wisdom directly to the camera.
In the current compilation airing on Network Awesome, the pair teaches the viewers how to covertly scam beer companies by placing a dead mouse inside a beer bottle, sealing said bottle and then suing a beer conglomerate for selling mouse-laden products. It’s a ridiculous setup and only lasts about two minutes, but the commitment to this joke is astounding. That commitment, of course, comes from a love of the material, the comedy and one another. The “fun” in this scene bleeds through. I could watch those brothers talk about almost anything, all day.
In essence, SCTV keeps things simple. They find the funny and fun thing in a scene and exploit the hell out of it. There are no complex, convoluted scenes. There is very little irony. Really, there is only one consideration, and that is making sure the audience busts a gut consistently. And that’s how it should be.