The Universe of Second City Television
How a band of hilarious Canadians remade comedy (and Hollywood).
Comedy would be entirely different today without SCTV. At first glance, the Canadian sketch show may seem like a footnote in television history—a bunch of Canucks acting silly who happened to get a syndication deal in the United States, win a handful of Emmy Awards, and infiltrate the pearly gates of Hollywood.
But the cultishly adored series, which had a remarkable run from 1976 to 1984, created the road map for much of what we would come to think of as funny, on both the small and big screens, in future decades. Without it, we wouldn’t have Ghostbusters; Groundhog Day; Uncle Buck; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Spaceballs; Three Amigos; Home Alone; Best in Show; and the (also Canadian) new sitcom Schitt’s Creek, which has become an unlikely hit on Netflix, one of those things friends and family recommend by breathlessly asking, “Have you seen… ?”
So it’s perhaps no surprise that SCTV is being revived. Not as a reboot—that would be impossible—but rather in a recent reunion of the cast and writers in 2018. Footage from that get-together will anchor a Netflix documentary about the show’s legacy directed by Martin Scorsese, An Afternoon with SCTV, coming out in 2019. Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, the reunion features many of the stars who made SCTV what it was, including Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Joe Flaherty, and Dave Thomas, reminiscing in front of an enthralled live audience.
“It was extraordinary. Getting everybody back together, and having Martin Scorsese involved was very, very special,” says Andrew Alexander, who codeveloped SCTV and serves as the current CEO and executive producer of The Second City, the improv comedy empire that first nurtured the show.Sadly, two of the show’s brightest talents couldn’t join them: John Candy, who died of a presumed heart attack in 1994 at age 43, and Harold Ramis, who passed in 2014 at 69 of complications from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis.
“When we played the film packages, I think everyone felt it—they’re not on stage. Two people are missing,” Alexander says of a tear-filled moment during the reunion. “Particularly with John—I mean, he was so beloved.”
But their impact, and that of the show that introduced them to the world, won’t fade away soon.
SCTV happened largely by accident. The way Alexander tells it, one day in his Second City office in Toronto inside an old fire hall, where he ran the local outpost of the improv company, he was kicking around ideas with director Del Close, who said, “What about a small TV station?” So began the concept of the show, which takes place in a fictional station (which would later become a network in the SCTV universe), where all sorts of things go amusingly awry, starring Candy and other members of the Toronto Second City troupe.
“It was minimalist for a good reason,” explains Alexander, who still keeps an active cab driver’s license from his early odd jobs in case the whole comedy thing doesn’t work out. “We just didn’t have any money. I had borrowed $35,000 from an investor who became my partner, [producer] Len Stuart. The minimalism played into the reality of what the show became.”
The shoestring show about the inner workings of a shoestring station, however, soon expanded into something much greater. The number of episodes and budgets grew, and SCTV secured an American distributor to broadcast it across the US.
The only major drama at the outset had to do with the title. SCTV was originally known as Second City Television, but after a year into getting it rolling, Alexander’s codeveloper, Bernard Sahlins, left. He owned the rights to the name Second City at the time, and since he was backing out, those two words had to go, too. Hence the abbreviation. (SCTV famously has no official creator credit, but Alexander fills the role by default.)
“It was a bit of a stressful moment,” Alexander remembers. “We had to go back to everybody and say, ‘We’re changing our name.’ It’s not the best thing to be doing, but at the end of the day, it all worked out.”
Labels aside, the collaborative spirit of Second City fed directly into the daily operations of SCTV. Performers routinely helped write and even edit their bits, which unlike Saturday Night Live’s sketches, weren’t performed in front of a live audience and went through post-production—an advantage in shaping the show’s sometimes elaborate parodies of American movies. “It was very much an artist-driven project,” Alexander says. Those artists obtained the rarest gift in TV: a legitimate say in how their work turned out.
They also worked shut off from civilization, at least by the standards of what we expect from our stars now. That only helped sharpen their focus and wit. “We did two years in Edmonton. You talk about isolation—the sun went down at two in the afternoon during the winter. We were in a bunker-type environment where the studio was actually below ground, so you never saw the light of day for four or five months,” Alexander says. “And by the way, the best work came out of there… They weren’t in Hollywood or New York, where you’ve got other pressures, you get influenced. This was all just about the work.”
Soon the rest of the world caught up. It didn’t all go perfectly, though. The first two seasons, “taught us what not to do—almost everyone came out of theater, so we had to learn how to produce a show,” Levy commented at the SCTV reunion.
Even later, SCTV was always in a precarious state. Several times it switched networks both in Canada and across the border, where it landed on NBC before moving to Cinemax. Money troubles were never far from mind. “It was always a fight to keep the show on the air,” Alexander says.
The competition from NBC’s SNL didn’t help. “SNL was trying to pick off some of our people,” Alexander adds. “Catherine O’Hara actually went there for a week and then quit. John Belushi was courting John Candy to come to SNL. There was pressure there, trying to keep the group together, and then eventually people did leave, and then it was trying to still keep the integrity of the show together.”
SCTV added new cast members, notably Martin Short (aka one of the Three Amigos, aka Jiminy Glick), who first appeared on the show in 1981, and Rick Moranis (Ghostbusters, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), who started in 1980. They ushered in some of the most well-known moments from SCTV, especially Short’s manic, boyish, greasy-haired Ed Grimley, a character the actor continued when he finally did move to SNL in 1984.
Moranis had his own breakout character in Bob of Bob and Doug McKenzie (the latter played by Dave Thomas), the fictional, dense Canadian brothers who guzzle beer and frequently interject with, “Eh?” playing up national stereotypes. Whatever their charms, they became pop-culture heroes even to Americans, despite the fact that they were simply intended to fill time when SCTV moved to the Canadian network CBC. “We couldn’t believe how easy it was,” Moranis said at the reunion of his first brush with fame. “It was nothing like any of the other pieces in the show—one of those weird things that caught on.”Alexander characterizes the ongoing tug of war with SNL as friendly—for the most part. “We knew a lot of the people [at SNL],” he says. “From my perspective, it did feel somewhat competitive, but I don’t think that was on our cast’s radar.”
Many of the rules of SNL, though, didn’t seem to apply to the rambunctious routines on SCTV, which broke formal conventions and had story lines that carried through episodes. Alternative comedy, which dominated in the 90s, owes a massive debt to its messy formula. Kimmel, who grew up watching the foreign sketch show in Las Vegas, aptly called it, “one of the strangest, greatest things I’ve ever seen.” He also credits SCTV as the reason the US government is, “not building a wall on the northern border.”
He may be only kind of joking. SCTV managed to stand out stateside amid rivalry, and created a legion of fans who became devoted to Candy, Short, O’Hara, and others. “The moment the light bulb went off for me was when we were nominated for multiple Emmys [in 1982 and 83],” Alexander recalls. “We were there at the awards, and they play the clips of the shows that have been nominated, and there was a piece that Eugene Levy had done. It just killed. Most of us are Canadian in this huge theater and getting such a response. I said, ‘Wow, okay, we really have something special here.’”
Indeed, affection for SCTV carried those comedians on to fruitful movie and TV careers far beyond Toronto: Candy in everything from John Hughes films to Cool Runnings; O’Hara as Home Alone’s unforgettable, frantic mom; Ramis as cowriter and a star of the Ghostbusters franchise, plus director orchestrating the gonzo genius of Caddyshack and Groundhog Day. In retrospect, it’s surprising that the SCTV experiment lasted as long as it did. Alexander and his staff were constantly fending off the forces of economics and major studios to keep their ensemble whole.
“Now that I look back, I say, ‘How did we keep it together?’” he laughs.
The whole gang may not be together again, but close enough. Netflix’s SCTV documentary came out of pure coincidence. Alexander had discussed the idea with former cast members, and O’Hara chimed in. “She had worked with Scorsese on a film years ago [1985’s After Hours],” he says. “She threw out, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to have someone like Scorsese involved in a project like this?’ One thing led to another, and we had a fabulous meeting with him and the cast in New York, and he was a huge fan—much bigger than we knew. He was so in.”
SCTV had yet more cast tension around the time of the reunion, when it looked like Moranis wouldn’t participate. He signed on in the last week. “Rick has admitted to me he’s not fond of doing these things where he has to be more of himself,” Alexander says. “He was superb. He really brought his A-game.” The producer for the reunion was equally impressed by Scorsese who, as he was filming, ran around with, “the energy of a 12-year-old.”
Still, nothing could fill the absence left by Candy and Ramis. “Harold was so important from the very beginning of the show because he sort of set the tone. He had the most writing experience so he was the head writer. He was a quintessential Second City guy because he just wanted to make you look better,” Alexander says. Second City recently opened a film school in Chicago named in Ramis’ honor, “which is doing incredibly well. We’re very proud of it and I think Harold would be proud.”
Candy has been gone much longer. But Alexander still talks about his former colleague, who held more promise and was expanding into dramatic territory as in JFK before he passed, with a pained voice. “The death of John was not shocking because we knew he was not in great health, but at the same time it was just such a loss. He was Johnny Toronto. He was the guy on screen that you loved,” the producer says.
“We surely haven’t forgotten them,” he adds of the legends. “They both obviously had a huge impact on SCTV.”
And everyone who had the good fortune to watch them.
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