02 January 2007

My Top DVDs Of 2006: Television Pt. 2

SCTV: Best Of The Early Years
(Shout! Factory, 3 discs)

Quick--which do you like better? SCTV? or Saturday Night Live? If "who cares?" is your answer, relax, it's mine, too. Questions like this are just another one of those annoying non-conundrums like choosing between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones devised to express something about who you are but in the end revealing absolutely nothing. Each is an example of how a particular era can inspire movements and expressions that are reflective of their shared births with completely polarizing approaches. But--if I had to pick one, it would have to be SCTV, aka “Second City Television”, a quieter revolution comparable (perhaps) to The Beatles’ cheery mom-friendly subversion, while SNL erupted onto the scene with the showy, hormonal throb of Mick, Keef, and co. (ironically, the latter approach would suggest a quickie rape and pillage burn-out, but here we are in 2007 and the Stones are still touring and SNL continues to plod along in its traditional place).

Okay, I'll just admit it--it's probably my favorite television show of all time. I managed to stumble onto SCTV’s first episode when it premiered on the then-new Global Television Network in Ontario back in 1976, when I was a precocious kid with a wild imagination and a flair for the theatrical who was unconsciously looking for an outlet--as well as validation—for a sensibility I was far too young and unskilled to properly identify and articulate. Of course, it helped that my hometown didn’t get any American television networks—so long “Not Ready For Prime Time Players”—so by default, I could only indulge in what the “free airwaves” of my vast and underpopulated homeland could offer.

And yes, my mother enjoyed watching it with me, and we rarely agreed on programming, even to this day...

Unfortunately, the show’s fractured history wreaks havoc with the possibility of ever owning a complete SCTV catalogue (I’ve been flipping back and forth through Dave Thomas’ superlative backstage history SCTV: Behind The Scenes, which offers exhaustive episodes guides to the series in its original broadcasts, NBC reworkings, and current Canadian syndication package), as the program’s multiple incarnations negate a “definitive” version (if my PVR would allow for a digital output, I could complete the series on my own for want of a event scheduler and a spindle of DVD-Rs). So with the three season run of NBC’s “Network 90” incarnation having released to DVD (after years of having to resolve music rights issues on the producers’ parts), what was to be done with the remainder of the episodes from the series’ early Global and CBC days and post-NBC “Cinemax” incarnation? I think I can speak for most SCTV mavens when I say that I’m not terribly pleased with the direction taken, but anything is better than nothing, especially when the material is so consistently brilliant and for a good long time it looked like we’d never see the Melonville archives on those little miracle platters at all.

Disc One begins with a trio of episodes from the second season which brought about its first major cast shuffle (Ramis left after the first year to write Animal House), with Discs 2-4 comprised of shows from the third season (which resumed after a year-and-a-half hiatus from 1978-1980), which saw the production move to a new network (CBC), a new location (Edmonton, Alberta), and the cast change again to include chameleonic firecracker Rick Moranis (who, unlike his peers, did not hail from the improv theatre) as a performer and writer following the departure of John Candy (who took a hiatus from the series to host the ill-fated “Big City Comedy”, produced by The Osmonds!)) and Catherine O’Hara. As well, Toronto Second City stage vets Robin Duke and Tony Rosato expanded the ensemble further and while neither proved to be as inventive as the show's founding fathers/mothers, their contributions should not be undervalued (both would later join Saturday Night Live in 1981 and remain for a handful of seasons).

While the individual episodes are presented sequentially and in their entirety, this package does not offer complete seasons. This is due to the fact that the Global and CBC years were raided as filler for the expanded “Network 90” re-edits, before the series eventually became comprised of original content by the time Martin Short joined (not until 1982, although he did costar with Candy, Joe Flaherty, and Dave Thomas pre-SCTV on Canada’s The David Steinberg Show, as Johnny Del Bravo, a precursor to his Jackie Rogers Jr. character). Episodes that had sketches lifted from them for the NBC shows have been dropped completely from the collection, which is frustrating for purists who will have to make due with TV recordings from syndication if they want to own sketches like Robin Duke’s first “Krazy Krafts With Molly Earl”, “Grizzly Abrams” (“where do you get turtle soup out here?”), Mel Torme’s Canadian National Anthem, and my all-time favorite Great White North topic, “Name That Smoke”.

So while one regards the latest volume with suspicion and the whiff of finality (there’s an online petition here to pressure Second City curator Andrew Alexander to release more sets, although word has it the collections haven’t been deemed profitable enough and that Volume 4 will be the last—maybe if you dropped the price to under $70 guys you’d sell more?!), one certainly can’t complain about the content: easily some of broadcast medium’s most inspired and enduring comic moments, nuanced characters, pointed satire, and far-reaching lampoons which just blow through 30 minutes in no time.

Here you’ll find parodies of “Gaslight”, Norma Rae (“My Factory, Myself”), and Woody Allen’s “Play It Again Sam” (“Play It Again, Bob”, with the first of Moranis’ bang-on Allen riffs and Thomas in perfect ski-nosed swagger as Bob Hope), Irwin Allen’s disaster plagued talk show, a venomous piss-take on the SNL rip-off “Fridays” (here it’s “Thursday Night Live”), hack comic Bobby Bittman’s sequel to “On The Waterfront” (perfectly skewering Jerry Lewis in his “Complete Filmmaker” phase) and one of the troupe’s truly definitive meta-masterworks: “The Midnight Express Special”, in which Abbott (Levy) and Costello (Rosatto) host a rock revue from a Turkish prison in which MOR musical acts like John Denver and Anne Murray have been imprisoned due to their drug-referencing lyrics (“Rocky Mountain High”, “Snowbird”s snowy mountain…), with Rick Moranis’ Wolfman Jack (literally a howling, Chaney-esque wolf-man) dealing with corrupt officials backstage. And of course, amidst it all abides the town of Melonville, home to SCTV’s broadcast operations, which is a wholly fictional community as internally realized via laughably low-rent commercials, local newsbreaks, and community announcements and thus “real” as Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa or Stephen King’s Castle Rock.

Because the bulk of the sketches for seasons two and three were written in advance in Los Angeles and Toronto, it was hard for the show to be “topical” when the bits were ultimately recorded in Edmonton (as Thomas laments in his book), but I would argue that this worked to the show’s advantage. Because they couldn’t respond immediately to the news of the day, the cast and writers were encouraged to cast their satiric nets wider and focus on crafting their own internal universe, which in the long run, secured a unique timelessness to the material unlike that of its more high-profile inspiration and competitor. TV always sucked and will always suck (even though it’s been pretty damned good lately, prompting me to shell out for a plasma), so broad romps like “Chip Monck, Roadie For The Defense” and the pitch-perfect daytime drama spoof “The Days Of The Week” seem as fresh as this afternoon’s (all too credible) network schlock, while Chevy Chase’s one-note Gerald Ford impersonations seem as quaint and utterly alien today as a Looney Tunes’ Tojo caricature (that being said, this was SNL’s job back in the day, before The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion).

As a youngster, I lwas hooked on the show because it was funny, even though admittedly I didn’t get half the references (who the hell was Jean Luc Godard or William F. Buckley to a 13 year old living in the Ottawa Valley?)--the unique trick of SCTV is that it never neglected the comedic basics even as it mined some pretty heady and baroque stuff.

As with the other collections, the bonus materials here are worth the hefty price alone: commentary on select episodes from Flaherty and Duke, reminiscences from Andrea Martin and Andrew Alexander on Second City’s theatrical roots, and best of all, a vintage CBC “Newsworld” feature piece--cheap telecine’d graphics and bad chroma-keying and all--on the “Bob And Doug MacKenzie”/hosers phenomena, which found Moranis and Thomas paraded (literally) down Toronto’s Yonge Street and recording an album (the first of two) with Geddy Lee of Canadian prog-rock royalty “Rush” (the single, “Take Off To The Great White North”, was quite the hit in its day) before taking their CanCon-mandated schtick to the big screen with the MGM-financed (and Hamlet-inspired) production Strange Brew (on which Max Von Sydow took on the role of the villainous Brewmeister Smith at the insistence of his daughter).

Now, I can only assume that plans are afoot for the Cinemax years? “Lewis Sings Dylan” and “Oliver Grimley” deserve their rightful place in my collection.

Oh yeah!