Articles - SCTV (Series) (1976-1984)

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SCTV

Bob and Doug McKenzie

From the Newfoundland Herald, Feb 20, 1982

Take off to the great white north, eh

By Christopher Connelly

The scene resembles the ruins of an office party. Empty beer bottles everywhere. About two dozen of them are piled atop a low desk, right next to a hot plate. On the wall is a map of North America, and seated in front of the map are two glassy-eyed men. They're clad in unzipped parkas; fannel shirts, whose unbuttoned tops expose white T-shirts; and toques, or ski hats. It's clearly the end of the line for these guys.

But in fact, their fun is just beginning. These are the McKenzie brothers. Bob and Doug, and this is their talk show. The Great White North, about to be broadcast over the SCTV Network. Bob, the foggier-looking of the two, peers into the camera — this is television, after all — and clears his throat.

"Uh, good day. Welcome to The Great White North. I'm Bob McKenzie, and this is my brother, Doug."

"How's it goin', eh?" offers Doug.

"OK, like, our topic today is, uh, lights. Like, why are lights..."

"I don't like that topic," retorts Doug.

There is a pause. One searches in vain for guests or a studio audience.

Bob takes a slug of Molson ale. "Gimme a smoke, eh?" he asks his brother "Take off, hosehead," Doug replies. Two minutes of such bantering go by and the whole thing is over.

This is no ordinary talk show. This is a Canadian talk show.

The Great White North is a major reason SCTV Network now stands as the funniest show on television. A Canadian offshoot of Chicago's renowned Second City theatre troupe, "Second City Television'' first started turning up on American screens in 1977 as a syndicated half-hour of skits. Its central premise has remained unchanged; SCTV presents itself as a TV network, and all of its sketches are to be taken as programs or commercials. With the demise of the Midnight Special last summer, BC picked up SCTV and expanded it to 90 minutes, moving it into the vacated 12:30 slot on Friday evenings.

Curiously, the qualities that have made SCTV so good are absent from The Great White North. SCTV has always featured solid, well-crafted writing, but The Great White North is completely improvised. And the program has always boasted a superb, varied cast from the lanky Joe Flaherty to Catherine O'Hara. But The Great White North stars only Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as the McKenzies.

But the other SCTV skits haven't generated the excitement this one has Sacks of mail, all of it positive, have poured into the group's Edmonton studios. Thousands of people have flocked to "Bob and Doug Days" in Canadian cities. Walter Cronkite has reportedly asked if he could appear on the McKenzies' show.

If that weren't enough. The Great White North LP, just released in the States, has truly made Bob and Doug household names in the land of Wayne Gretzky and Margaret Trudeau. Who would have thought that an album consisting almost entirely of two Canucks mumbling mundanities would sell more than 300,000 copies in Canada (equivalent to selling 3 million in the U.S.)? That the single from the disc. Take Off, with vocals by Rush's Geddy Lee, would hit No. 1? And who would have dreamed that Bob and Doug McKenzie would be nominated for the nation's highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada?

And with the burgeoning success of SCTV in the States, the McKenzie brothers' time would seem to have arrived here as well.

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, the progenitors of Bob and Doug McKenzie, lean over their steins of half-and-half in a New York City bar and chuckle when it's suggested that at least part of SCTV's success is a result of its being filmed in the cultural deprivation tank of Edmonton, in midwest Canada.

"It's a blessing and a curse," says Thomas. "You can't get coke there, that's number one. Let's put it this way: we don't hobnob with Brooke Shields, OK?"

The success of The Great White North is the welcome culmination of two substantial careers in comedy. Thomas, 31 and just married, began by hawking scripts to the Canadian Broadcasting Company. He followed that with a stint in Godspell. Eventually, he joined the Second City stage show in Toronto and progressed from there.

Moranis, 28 and single, began adopting different characters when he was still in school. Moranis hooked up with SCTV in its third season. "From what I could see, they were producing their own pieces. That's all the free rein I needed."

The Great White North is taped in marathon sessions. "Most people don't know it's improvised," says Moranis, "but, boy, if you ever saw the 60 that haven't been aired..." Even the 40 mintues of material on the LP was culled from more than 10 hours of freewheeling in the studio.

So what makes these guys so funny? Perhaps Bob and Doug represent a change in comedy, a change both from the standard stand-up fare and from the neurotic flailings of a John Belushi or Andy Kaufman. Instead of being unpredictable, they are completely predictable. Their humor doesn't savage an ethnic group — it brings you into that world, a world of back bacon, beer and pineapple-filled doughnuts. In doing so, it raises a sneered-upon subculture to an art form. In their own way, the McKenzie brothers encompass everything in Canadian humor from Wayne and Shuster to Newfie jokes, producing comedy so gently self-deprecating as to be utterly compassionate. It's no wonder, then, that Canada has taken to the McKenzies as if they were long-lost sons.

"Where we come from, cop cars are yellow," explains Doug to a flock of New York journalists who've turned out for the brothers' press conference at the Canadian consulate. "I took one look at the street and said, 'Let's get outta here! There's cops comin' at us from every direction!'" Bob and Doug have come south to promote their new LP, and this day's topic, they inform the crowd, is the Big Apple.

"We love your beauty subways," Doug enthuses. "When we get home, we're gonna paintourstoo." What, someone asks, is the difference between Molson in the blue label and Molson in the red label? The McKenzies are momentarily speechless. "After three or four," states Bob, "there is no difference."

That kind of humor has taken The Great White North LP to the top in Canada. Equally significant in the LP's rise has been the single "Take Off", with Geddy Lee on vocals. Lee's inimitable yawp ("Take off to the great white north; Take Off, it's a beauty way to go"), combined with the mutterings of Doug and Bob ("Decent singin,' eh?" "Ya, he's good"), makes the cut irresistible.

Other hilarious moments include "School Announcements," where the brothers become principals for a day ("We have a long day ahead of us, so we should begin with a two-hour recess"); and "Elron McKenzie," where Doug steps into the pulpit for a religious talk: "My topic today is, don't kill bugs.Sooner or later, no matter how good you are, somebody will hate you and will think of you as a bug. And then the next thing you know, you're gone."

And speaking of gone: wilt success force the heretofore-stable SCTV cast to disintegrate? Thomas is not optimistic. "I think the show has a built-in burn-out factor. It's only a matter of time before it'll exhaust itself or people will get offers that'll drag them away."

"Dave and I had an opportunity to do our own show at CBS," says Rick. "Two-man, half-hour...And we turned it down to do SCTV. We're glad we did. In the future, I don't know; we may go back to it after we do a picture or two." Plans are already in swing for Bob and Doug's big-screen debut. "We wouldn't want to do a vignette movie with these characters," says Dave. "We'll wanna do something really new.

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