I was suffused by a transcendent insight of cosmic proportions awhile back and it was hard to stop laughing. Surprisingly, not when I saw Glenn Beck’s last show on Fox or Keith Olbermann’s first on Current. Not when the guys who make South Park walked off with all those Tony awards for a musical about Mormons. Not even when a Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice allegedly choked one of his associate justices or Pat Robertson concluded on The 700 Club that gay marriage will lead to the rape of angels.
What all these current events and more have made me realize is that we all live in Melonville now.
You don’t know about Melonville unless you have been lucky enough to have watched SCTV, one of TV Guide’s 50 best shows of all time and certainly the funniest American comedy series ever created in Canada. That’s been hard to do, since the show went off the air in 1983 and only reappeared in DVD form in 2004.
The premise was simple enough: each episode offered a broadcast day from the studios of SCTV, a local TV station serving Melonville and vicinity, presided over by station president Guy Caballero and station manager Edith Prickley. There were news programs with Floyd Robertson and Earl Camembert, editorials by Bill Needle, variety shows hosted by Sammy Maudlin and Bobby Bittman with special guests like Lola Heatherton and Johnny LaRue, plus made-for-TV movies like “Polynesiantown” and “Play It Again, Bob”. For sportsmen, there was Gil Fischer’s “Fishin’ Musician” and for cinephiles, the “Farm Film Report” with Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok. Interspersed among the quality programming were commercials. Lots of commercials.
What made this satirical universe come to memorable life was a cast of performers unexcelled in the history of sketch comedy: Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis, Joe Flaherty, Martin Short, Harold Ramis and the late John Candy. Originally treading the boards for Toronto’s Second City improv troupe (the SC in the TV), these gifted writers and actors wound up in Edmonton with nothing to do but work on their half-hour show.
As Ramis explained in 2003 to Entertainment Weekly, “We had no sponsor, no network, no creative executives telling us what was good and what wasn’t.” In other words, none of the things causing most TV comedy to turn out bland and insipid.
At liberty to mock at will, endowed with devoted technicians, make-up wizards and attentive set designers, the SCTV crew fashioned television parodies that worked on many levels, as in “The Battle of the PBS Stars,” a pastiche of celebrity athletic competitions that also skewered the pretensions of public television personalities. SCTV’s sendup of Evita, “Indira,” deflated Gandhi’s offspring and Andrew Lloyd Webber in one savvy skewering. For my money—and the DVD set costs a goodly sum—this multilayering shines most brilliantly in “Play It Again, Bob”, which takes off on Woody Allen’s 1972 cinematic Bogart fantasy, but replaces Bogie with Bob Hope, the consummate entertainer the real-life Allen always aspired to be. The premise is lovely, dark and deep, but it’s Rick Moranis’s perfectly nebbishy Woody and Dave Thomas’s audacious Hope, enhanced by picture-perfect makeup, that slam the piece home. (Then again, many devotees single out “The ‘Merv’ Griffith Show”, starring obsequious talk show host Merv Griffin as Mayberry’s favorite sheriff. Moranis is deadly accurate as Griffin, but Thomas gives a TV Land-worthy acting clinic as Floyd the barber, able to play him both ways— pre-stroke and post-stroke.)
Improvisation sometimes supplanted high concept, as with the segment called “The Great White North.” The bit evolved from a commercial disparity between U.S. and Canadian broadcasting, which left the show with two minutes to fill north of the border. Killing that time, Moranis and Thomas, as Bob and Doug Mackenzie, would ad-lib mindlessly on Molson beer, back bacon, hockey—anything that might be construed as “Canadian content”—but only for two minutes, and then it was back to regular programming.
The running gag, the quality that gave SCTV its comic continuity, was the earnestness with which each of its characters pursued and maintained a sense of celebrity in Melonville. When Guy Caballero pulled Johnny LaRue off the schedule for going over budget with his film “Polynesiantown,” LaRue was willing to do anything to get back on the air, even if it meant getting only one camera and one microphone for his new show, “Johnny LaRue’s Street Beef.”
When Mother Teresa and Lola Heatherton both appeared on “The Sammy Maudlin Show,” it was only appropriate that Lola would wind up sitting next to Sammy and that Mother Teresa would wind up on the end of the couch. After all, in Melonville, who was the bigger star?
The program was relentlessly topical, so a lot of the references don’t pack the comic wallop they did 30 years ago, unless you actually remember what was so funny about Lee Iacocca and Dick Cavett. Nevertheless, I can’t watch television anymore without being reminded of SCTV. On any channel I choose, reality shows with manufactured celebrities or one-dimensional gabfests with hosts that make Ryan Seacrest and Jessica Simpson seem like Tracy and Hepburn remind me it’s all been done before in Melonville. Is anything on Fuse all that different from “Mel’s Rock Pile”? Doesn’t everyone on Lifetime or WE or Oxygen resemble Libby Wolfson? And isn’t it obvious that every sprayed head chattering news on the several round-the-clock caption channels has studied at the patent-leather-shod feet of Earl Camembert?
The movie Network warned us what TV would do to our society. SCTV merely showed us what it would look like. Current events notwithstanding, the future turned out to be pretty funny after all.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.