The Strange Story of SCTV in the USA

40 years ago, a Canadian export came to NBC for a short run that still impacts comedy today.

Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara
Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara in 2018; Shawn Goldberg / Shutterstock

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Second City Television, better known as SCTV, grew out of the Toronto branch of Second City, the legendary comedy stage show and organization in Chicago. Launched in 1976, just under a year after the heavily Second City-influenced Saturday Night Live debuted in the States, the sketch show essentially took viewers through the broadcast day of a fictional TV station. This allowed parodies of any manner of TV shows and commercials, including news, soap operas, and Monster Chiller Horror Theater, a horror movie program hosted by Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty).

SCTV Monster Chiller Horror Theatre: The House of Cats (Uploaded to YouTube by The Second City)

The 30-minute version of the show ran intermittently in Canada for five years and, like its America cousin, would provide a launch pad for future comedy stars. In addition to Flaherty, the show featured the likes of John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Harold Ramis, and Martin Short.

Then things got a little weird.

In the U.S., NBC cancelled The Midnight Special, which ran late on Fridays, and moved producer Dick Ebersol over to try to “rescue” the floundering Saturday Night Live, which was suffering after the exodus of its original cast. The network commissioned a 90-minute version of SCTV as a replacement for Midnight, which led to many episodes reusing bits and repurposed sketches from the first few seasons to pad out the run-time.

SCTV Great White North: Dog Scoops (Uploaded to YouTube by The Second City)

Forty years ago this month in May of 1981, NBC launched the re-branded SCTV Network 90. Though it wasn’t as popular as SNL, SCTV still became a hip, cult favorite. Established characters like Bob and Doug McKenzie became well-known in the States, and the show got positive reviews. Its NBC run would receive 15 Emmy nominations, including wins in 1982 and 1983 for writing. Much of the praise for the show was centered on the sustained gag of everything tying into one TV station, while all of the sketches were laden with knowing references to and subversions of North American culture.

Ironically, the series that allowed Ebersol to move to SNL would be pushed off of NBC by . . . Ebersol. With SNL stabilized and back on the rise thanks to the likes of Eddie Murphy, Ebersol got the itch to do another music program. Rather than revive Midnight, he pitched a cheaper alternative, Friday Night Videos, which would be a hosted program running music videos in the late Friday slot; the idea was attractive to the network because large parts of the country still didn’t have the cable coverage to get actual MTV. As such, NBC unceremoniously dumped SCTV in 1983.

SCTV Tex & Edna Boil’s Organ Emporium (Uploaded to YouTube by The Second City)

The series jumped over to Cinemax for a year as SCTV Channel, but it was over in 1984. By that point, the stars of the show had already spread out into film and television. John Candy was the biggest star initially, but the cast overall have had lengthy and notable careers. O’Hara and Levy just wrapped a hugely successful run on the award-winning Schitt’s Creek, and Moranis recently emerged from hiatus to sign on for a new installment in the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchise.

While SCTV had a bit of a strange run, it became influential for producing its own stable of comedy writers and stars. Most of the series is available on DVD. Perhaps the ultimate affirmation of the show’s influence is An Afternoon with SCTV, an in-progress Netflix documentary and reunion special that was directed by Martin Scorsese. So while the show’s actual broadcast life was short in the States, its effects have reverberated through comedy in all the decades since.

Featured image: Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara in 2018; Shawn Goldberg / Shutterstock

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