Ah hah! Yet again once more, a seasonal Christmas post for this time of the season, Christmas! For the three of you paying attention at home, I started off on this journey with the iconic TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, then jumped into a holiday comedy with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, then examined a classic musical with White Christmas. And now, dear readers? Well, we’re back to the lovely land of television again!
But unlike standalone Christmas TV specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, I’m switching gears a smidge to talk about an individual Christmas episode of a TV show. After all, Christmas episodes during a TV series are a staple of the medium because of the need for ratings…I mean, the need for holiday fun! Yeah, that’s it. Fun!
And there are some bone fide classics to be had in series like The Bob Newhart Show (the one where Bob gets stuck in the office during a snowstorm) and Dragnet (where Friday and Gannon discover that a little boy only stole the baby from the church Nativity scene so he could give Jesus a ride in his new red wagon…oh, it tugs at the heartstrings, I tell you!) M*A*S*H had about seven or nine Christmas episodes, which is even more amazing for a show that took place during a war that only lasted about three years.
Permit me with the courtesy of the season the indulgence to shine a light on my favorite of all Christmas episodes from one of my favorite shows: SCTV. And if you don’t know about SCTV, all I can do is keep you in my prayers since you have been unknowingly quite deprived of joy and happiness throughout your life up until this point. SCTV stands for Second City Television. Second City is an improv theater group that originated in Chicago, when that toddlin’ town was considered the second city to New York. (Since the invention of Los Angeles, Chicago has since slipped to three, but talk to any Chicagoan and they never shut their yap about the glories of the Windy City being the best city in the country if not the entire Milky Way, blah, blah, blah…) Second City later started up a group in Toronto, which is where the seed of SCTV was planted.
When Saturday Night Live took off in the mid-1970s, producer Lorne Michaels recruited some of his key cast players away from Second City, namely John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Gilda Radner. Later, Second City alums Bill Murray and his brother Brian Doyle-Murray were also caught up in the SNL wave. Seeing their talent being plundered and not to be outdone, Second City decided to start up their own comedy TV show. While they didn’t have NBC dollars at hand, they did have Canada and quite the group of talent to get this thing started: Harold Ramis, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O’Hara. The show was gloriously overloaded. (And that’s before Rick Moranis and Martin Short both joined SCTV at later points!)
The premise of the show was the Canadian town of Melonville had SCTV, a local television station airing their own original programming. There were behind the scenes moments with the fictional SCTV production staff along with the parodies of commercials, television shows, and movies. Fortunately, the cast could not only do a myriad of dead-on celebrity impressions, but they also had a wide selection of their own original characters as well. Gracing SCTV’s halls at various moments throughout the show’s run were Guy Caballero, Johnny LaRue, Edith Prickley, Lola Heatherton, Bobby Bittman, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Tommy Shanks, Bill Needle, Floyd Robertson, Earl Camembert, Gerry Todd, Tex and Edna Boil, and so many, many, many others.
SCTV had no dead weight, no one just phoning it in. The cast and writers were holed up in the not-cosmopolitan city of Edmonton, focusing on nothing but work. They were in a very creative bubble and the output simply shone. (If it seems that I’m waving the fanboy flag for SCTV, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Thanks for noticing! You’re welcome!) So here are some scattershot thoughts and notions and thoughts about the “SCTV Staff Christmas Party” episode.
- First off, I want to give some love to Shout! Factory for putting sets of SCTV out on DVD. Five box sets plus a DVD that focused on their Christmas episodes was more than I ever thought I’d see. My battle worn Best of John Candy on SCTV VHS tape was glad to catch a breather. And it wasn’t enough that the episodes were released, Shout also added some bonus featurettes as well as commentaries on certain episodes. These box sets were an oasis in the desert of SCTV availability. I thought Shout couldn’t do wrong with their sets of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and then they went ahead and gave us glorious SCTV. I think I’m going to cry Christmas tears of joy!
- It is quite a testament to the cast, crew, and writers of SCTV that even if this show didn’t have any parodies, it would stand firm due to the interactions amongst the original characters. Seeing Flaherty’s Guy Caballero boss around John Candy’s Johnny LaRue or watching Candy’s Dr. Tongue talk shop with Catherine O’Hara’s Lola Heatherton or any of the other mingling going on during the party is just plain joy. There’s some obvious improv going on as well and seeing these veteran performers bounce off each other is a treat.
- I’m torn on how to address this show. Do I go by performer? By character? By individual parody or vignette? By my own personal favorite highlights? Also, can I do it in a way that overexplains the show and therefore simply kills the humor contained within? Oh, I think I can!
- The Liberace holiday special is a prime example of what made SCTV work. It isn’t even an entire show, just a fake promo with highlights of the not-forthcoming special. The impressions are quite good, the production value is spot on. Dave Thomas playing Liberace is just inspired and his dueling “Carol of the Bells” with Rick Moranis’ Elton John has the individual musical touches that I’d expect if that battle ever really happened. Andrea Martin just belting out “Silent Night” as Ethel Merman and John Candy’s indignant Orson Welles both shore up this fabulous segment. (And yes, Candy is doing a parody of a behind the scenes moment where Orson Welles had issues filming an actual commercial. That’s a lot of layers to convey, do try to keep up, will you?)
- Let’s talk about Andrea Martin. Frankly, I don’t think she gets nearly the love that she should. She has an ability to just go for it because it’ll be funny. Watching her as a Solid Gold dancer is a prime example. Martin has some ridiculous expressions as she contorts around the stage with Juul Haalmeyer and one of his “dancers”, but she doesn’t hold back at all. Her station manager Edith Prickley character was a cornerstone for the show. Her Marsha Mason in the Sammy Maudlin Show and Neil Simon’s Nutcracker Suite portions are both brilliant too, going from a face full of sad tears to a face full of happy tears. Andrea Martin is flat out great.
- I would buy that Frank Sinatra air freshener device in a heartbeat. As the commercial states, think of the money I’ll save on baking soda!
- Let’s talk about Eugene Levy. Levy’s always been incredibly solid and here he’s SCTV newscaster supreme Earl Camembert and Catskills comedy legend Bobby Bittman. He does a fine Judd Hirsch for the Nutcracker Suite segment too. Like Martin, Levy was with SCTV through to the end when there was half a cast and nothing but spit and prayer holding the show together. After seeing him for years in SCTV as well as popping up in National Lampoon’s Vacation, Armed and Dangerous, and Splash, I was so happy to see him get some much belated attention for his roles in Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show and beyond.
- Since I’ve mentioned it twice, that Neil Simon’s Nutcracker Suite segment is a tour de force of comic impressions. Aside from Levy’s Judd Hirsch and Martin’s Marsha Mason, there’s Flaherty as Alan Alda, Moranis as Richard Dreyfuss, O’Hara as Maggie Smith, Thomas as Michael Caine, and John Candy as not only a smartarse hotel desk clerk but also as James Coco at the end. An all hands on the deck parody like this is just a marvel to watch. (By the way, yes, it is fun to say “Martin’s Marsha Mason” out loud repeatedly. Try it!)
- Let’s talk about Rick Moranis. For someone who never went to Second City, you’d never know it seeing him here. I believe it was Dave Thomas that brought Rick along for the SCTV ride. From video obsessed Gerry Todd to Dusty Towne’s abashed drummer to impressions of Pre-Sir Elton John and Richard Dreyfuss to the epitome of Canadian citizen Bob McKenzie and many other impressions in other episodes, Moranis exuded a comic confidence that certainly helped him to excel in other projects as well. His track record is assured and from all accounts, he is a very pleasant fellow indeed. Of course, I’m sure if he received a dollar for every time someone called him a hoser, he’d be multi-trillionaire. Not much of a cross to bear, eh?
- The joy of oblivious insincere celebrity is in full force with regular intervals of The Sammy Maudlin Show on SCTV. Flaherty’s Maudlin is a pastiche of Sammy Davis Jr. combined with talk show hosts who are only famous for being hosts. John Candy’s William B. William is a prince among second bananas. Such blithering posturing of celebrity is on in full force here. And as a capper, the show’s Season’s Greetings title card when things go to hell on the air is spectacular.
- Let’s talk about Joe Flaherty. A Second City alum from back when Harold Ramis and Brian Doyle-Murray were fresh faces, Flaherty has an incredible ability to undermine a sketch while taking it over at the same time. He’s another fearless performer to be sure and Flaherty’s rapport in scenes with John Candy is evident. SCTV’s head honcho Guy Caballero is such a wonderful shameless money-grubbing character, with the marvelous touch of his demanding respect by going around in a wheelchair even though he is fully capable of walking perfectly fine. And Flaherty’s turn as the drunken member of the Five Nice Guys at the company party still cracks me up.
- By the way, that’s Joe Flaherty’s brother Paul playing the organ in the Dusty Towne special. And writer Dick Blasucci is on bass! Yep, those budgets were tight, people! “Hey, do you play bass? Get on that stage! Do you ice skate? Great! We’ve got something for you! Go!”
- Let’s talk about Catherine O’Hara. Another brilliant member of this group. Forgive me if my platitudes get repetitive, but then again, I don’t care about being repetitive repeatedly. As Dusty Towne, O’Hara is paying tribute to the comedy albums of Rusty Warren, telling dirty jokes with glee. O’Hara was another SCTV member who got pulled into the Christopher Guest films along with Eugene Levy and she shines there as well. Her Lola Heatherton is another shallow show business character (aren’t they all?) who leads the cast in a rendition of “White Christmas” at the end. It is such a heartfelt moment that I can almost forgive her for leaving her son behind in Home Alone. And in Home Alone 2.
- I would not recommend following the recipe suggestions for beer nog from the McKenzie brothers. I know that the items covered on the Great White North segments are fairly accurate, but let’s just say, buyer beware when it comes to this one.
- Let’s talk about Dave Thomas. I always view him as an engine of SCTV. Thomas was a head writer, ensuring quality control. He also played a variety of characters in this show: eager organ salesman Tex Boil, the eternally crotchety Bill Needle, Doorway to Hell host Lin Ye Tang, and the other epitome of simply being Canadian, Doug McKenzie. He also does a very good Neil Simon, who certainly doesn’t get a flood of impressionists knocking at his door. Thomas isn’t as flashy as his co-stars, but his comic sensibilities were dead on and served SCTV well. His book on the history of SCTV is rather good too, so be sure to go to your local library, get frustrated, and then order a copy from eBay.
- I should find something negative to talk about, right? Hmmm… How about the show is too short? Nah, that’s lame. How about getting Bobby Bittman on the Sammy Maudlin Show to panel before bringing Dave Thomas’ Neil Simon on? I know that makes the sketch longer, but Bittman works so well doing insincere sincerity in that format, I kind of miss him there.
- Let’s talk about John Candy. Yeah, I saved the best of the best for last. Candy was a special sort. Beloved as a person and performer by so many that when he passed away, we all felt the loss. For me, it wasn’t like so many other celebrity deaths that result in a quick pause to acknowledge their passing and maybe an obligatory review of whatever media they put out. Candy was family, everyone’s beloved uncle. His death stung, it just sucked. Here in this single episode of SCTV he has quite a few moments to shine. Above all else, quite literally shooting a crane shot, is Candy’s Johnny LaRue, told by Guy Caballero to do a live holiday edition of his show Street Beef on Christmas Eve on the most frozen night that Melonville/Edmonton had to offer. No matter how cold it is, Candy goes for it, even getting down on the snowy street in a pile of cigarette butts to drunkenly make snow angels at one point. By the way, throughout that whole section, Candy is acting his ass off while freezing his ass off. Despite the cold, despite the discomfort, despite everything, Candy found a sweet spot and showed off to us all. I just rewatched it recently and it never fails to affect me. John Candy, thank you. You are missed. (Now can Second City start offering JLaR smoking jackets to purchase? I’d snag one in a heartbeat!)
I apologize if this post is a bit more uncritically indulgent than others and that my fan flag is flying tall and proud, but then again, I won’t apologize for doing so! Never mind. Look at the SCTV Staff Christmas Party episode and do please heartily enjoy it. If you don’t like it, I express sincere regret that your defective taste is what it is. SCTV is a desert island show for me, meaning that if I were on a desert island, I would gladly eat the discs to survive because there’s nothing else for sustenance. Because I’m on a desert island, you see. Yes, the show is that good.
And that brings us to the end of a remarkable renewed streak of posting from me! It is almost like my fingers were amputated and then I grew new ones to suddenly burst forth with some tedious energy! I hope to maintain this clip going forward with stunning insights, pointed takes, piercing humor, and perhaps, effervescent tawdriness, to use two words together that have never been in such proximity to each other before.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year! You’re welcome!