Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SCTV Reunion

For two nights in early May of 2008, SCTV was on the air. Again.

For the lucky few who were able to attend the live benefit shows held at Toronto's Second City, it was a surreal and hilarious wormhole tumble into Melonville. I was there and here are my thoughts and memories (and pictures) from that amazing night.

I stumbled onto the announcement on the great SCTV Guide website, which I frequent. A link over to the Second City site revealed that the tickets were available in two flavors: regular at $250 and spicy at $500 (including VIP passes to mingle with the cast at the afterparty) – the prices slowed down my spinning head a bit, but yet it did seem like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. After all, SCTV was kind of THE show for me as an impressionable teen in the suburbs of Chicago. So much talent wrapped in a clever, giving premise and funny in a way nothing else was. Melonville was a place that we learned about through its television station and parade of self-absorbed but mostly good-intentioned folk, Raul Withers notwithstanding. And it was for charity.

My girlfriend Liz quickly upgraded my excitement to spicy and the tickets were hastily ordered before doubt knew what was happening. It wasn't long before the tickets and VIP passes arrived in the mail along with another wave of "Jeezum Crow, this is really going to happen!"

We drove from Chicago (in the wee small ones of Saturday), got a bed and breakfast in Old Cabbagetown and played tourist on Saturday and Sunday. Toronto was fantastic (traveling on the streetcars, eating banana-Nutella crepes on Queen street, skulking around the Necropolis...). It felt friendly and mostly familiar somehow.

Monday was showday. After breakfast, we walked about 20 blocks south and west to see the Old Firehouse on Lombard street, which housed the Second City theater from 1973 to 1997 and can be seen at the very end of the SCTV credits. Also the building next door was where much of the writing of the show took place. I kept thinking about John Candy, Levy, Ackroyd walking this same sidewalk and performing just inside. It's now a Gilda's Club, so at least the magnificent building stayed in the family.

Then it was showtime. A finery upgrade and short streetcar ride later, we arrived. Second City Toronto is pretty small. You enter into a very finite bar/waiting area (with a coat room-looking alcove selling off shirts and hats. etc. to the right - I later bought a couple of BOL shirts and a Second City logo totebag).

We pressed into the somewhat tight crowd and wondered what exactly was going on. Apparently they hadn't opened the theater yet, so we were all huddled in the antechamber. I heard an usher tell someone that she had watched the rehearsal earlier that day. I got a shiver of excitement. We enjoyed the bar menu we were handed, which featured a Melonville Martini and Johnny LaRue Cocktail. Before long, the doors opened and we were personally escorted to our table (table #4, about 15 feet from the front left of the stage - the photo to the right shows our view). We were impossibly close to the stage. Could this be right? Now where is Steve Martin going to sit? Or Dave Foley or Dan Ackroyd? I ordered a Melonville Martini and holy crap! - we were really there and it was about to happen! Standing on the improbable. Just then, Martin Short poked his head out of the curtain, looked around and smiled. I don't think too many people even noticed this in the bustle of filing in. His wife sat a couple of tables away, I later realized. He was likely giving the silent shout-out to her.

Sadly, we were told that there could be no photography whatsoever during the performance (a union rule, our usher girl told us). And I had bought a new camera just for this, too. Oh, well, it would come in handy at the party later. Just before showtime, Catherine O'Hara dashed through the crowd and backstage amidst a ripple of crowd excitement. I ran upstairs for a last bathroom stop. For some reason, there was a huge picture from Series 4's Julius Caesar sketch in there. As I left the bathroom before returning to my seat, I sneaked further down the hall and found another huge SCTV mural. I snapped a quick picture and later realized that the very same wall hanging actually appears in the Poltergeist take-off episode (Series 5, Cycle 5). The seam is exactly the same. Check out the pictures to see what I mean. And yes, I am a geek.

Back downstairs, Liz pointed out Victor Garber who had come in while I was gone. This was very cool, since he was in the oft-mentioned Toronto production of Godspell with most of this same cast in 1972. The very dawn of SCTV.

If there was any residue of regret to be found that night, it was in what could have been. Dave Thomas was slated to attend but apparently broke his ankle or something. Dave contributed wildly to SCTV and, while he wasn't my all-time favorite performer on the show (that would be Joe), I had hoped for a Tex and Edna reunion or a fiery Bill Needle editorial. Also, Harold Ramis was briefly listed on the bill, but he was filming a movie and couldn't make it. Moranis was always a long shot, but he was mentioned in the Toronto Star article as a possibility. And of course John Candy's absence was palpable.

Then the lights went down. Catherine scurried out onto the darkened stage, hit her mark, and the lights went up. The applause was huge.

A teacher welcomes several of her troubled students' parents to discuss the children's behavior. Catherine is writing on an imaginary blackboard as Martin Short enters playing a slimy, Nathan Thurm-like character who isn't entirely sure what his son's name is ("I want to say...Ethan "). He sat down and Edith Prickley poked her head in to wild applause. This was doubly cool since this is the original Second City stage sketch that birthed the Prickley character. Levy came in next as a yellow sweater-wearing nerd - think Best in Show's Gerry Fleck, but even more obtuse. Joe Flaherty completed the reunion, entering as a brusque Italian father who, when asked where his son learned his foul language, replied, "How the fuck should I know?!" As I mentioned, Joe is my favorite SCTV performer (and we don't get to see enough of him down here in the States, dammit!), so it was an extra treat to watch him. Joe is quite tall. This was a great choice of sketch to open the show, allowing each performer to enter separately, reap the individual audience appreciation, and let the bit move on. I spent much of this sketch somewhat stunned. To see all of these folks together on a little stage a few feet away was hard to take in for a while. I suspect that if you've read this far in this little opus, you're enough of a fan to know what I mean.

The cast immediately returned to the stage, still in costume (minus Edith's hat). Much applause. Joe finally broke up the long ovation with "The show's going to be long enough as it is." He spoke a little about what was about to happen (some old stage sketches mixed with familiar characters + Women Fully Clothed + Colin Mochrie). He thanked everyone for coming. The others all added comments and it set a nice tone for the evening – we're all in this together and who knows what's going to happen.

This was a hysterical and sharply written Women Fully Clothed sketch about a woman coming out of her Oprah fog. Going into the show, I was concerned that the WFC stuff would water down the proceedings, but this sketch quickly established them as smart and funny writers/performers who were going to fit very nicely into the evening, thank you very much. We spoke with all but one of the Women in the troupe at the afterparty (lovely folks, each one) and they each heard my drunken praise for this sketch. More on that later.

Andrea Martin reprises another classic stage bit (How to Fake an Orgasm), struggling to keep her Dr. Kinsey's composure while hitting the suggestive words during her sex education show. This pretty much followed the original sketch except for an unusually long shiver.

Another stage staple– Floyd Robertson and Earl Camembert trade news stories with Earl's local interest items handily losing out to Floyd's globally profound stories. Again, pretty much verbatim from the original with minor variations on the stories themselves. I thought it was cool that Levy mentioned Yonge Street, where we had been the previous day. Surely only cool since we were from out of town, but it immediately traded Melonville for Toronto and I felt like I was a part of the sketch. Did I mention I am an SCTV geek?

Yep. The origin of Ed Grimley. Short has told how the cowlick gradually went higher with each night's performance of this sketch until one night, the character was there. When I realized which sketch was starting I whispered "Grimley" to Liz, who was particularly hoping he would appear. And he did, coming through the door with requisite energy to interview with Levy (as the head of an accounting firm), against the much superiorly qualified other applicant (Catherine). As much as I enjoy Short, I always felt that we saw a little too much of Ed over the years. So many of his fantastic creations get relatively short screen time and while Ed is a great character, I'd have preferred it to have made room for others. Regardless, it was pretty damn cool to be in the same room with Ed Grimley. There he was, twisting around in those classic moves just a few feet away. Surreal.

A succession of people (Andrea, Martin Short, Catherine) shuffling into a confessional and receiving bizarre and sadistic penances from the unseen priest (Joe). Eventually a priest (Levy) enters the confessional and chases out the janitor who has been dispensing the advice. This is more than likely an old stage sketch, but I'd never heard of it.

Martin Short blows up an inflatable doll (played by Robin Duke). I don't recall too much about this mostly silent sketch. Due to the raucous crowd reaction at times, I think there may have been some politically incorrect touching. Being at a somewhat oblique angle to the stage didn't affect the show except during this sketch, where the action took place at the very front of the stage.

Levy performs a bit as the trainer of a performing amoeba. The conceit is that since you obviously can't see the amoeba, you have to take the trainer's word for it that it has performed the amazing feats. Levy introduces the trick and then checks his imaginary microscope to announce each triumphant accomplishment.

Women Fully Clothed + Andrea and Catherine are a group of secretaries who each sing a song about a relationship.

IMPROV (with Colin Mochrie)
Short and Mochrie and a Second City girl took suggestions (place, first line) from the audience for an improv. It was set in the Amazon and had something to do with virginity. I don't remember a lot about this except to say that it didn't go anywhere, a sad fact that Short kept pointing out. Everyone wanted it to work but it just didn't - the low point of the show. I wonder if it worked better the following night (or if they did it at all - Mochrie wasn't there the second night).

Robin Duke as Mona, an over-aged, but brimming-with-conviction floor salesperson at a youth-oriented clothing store. She stalked the stage like a bug-eyed Elsa Lanchester as she dispensed cruel honesty to the too-old-to-be-shopping-there customer (the adorable Kathryn Greenwood). Later during the party, I told Robin that I thought Mona was a hilarious and unique character – I could completely see her being a recurring character on SNL or SCTV. The sketch featured more sharp WFC writing, but the biggest laughs came when Greenwood's willfully oblivious character, wearing a half shirt and low-rider jeans, emerges from the fitting room with a protruding white paunch. A hugely brave thing to do on a stage, for which she was rewarded with perhaps the night's longest continued hysterics from the crowd.

Short, Levy, Martin and O'Hara (in full costume and wigs) enter as four elderly patrons of a dinner theater, fumbling through the crowd from the back of the theater. They are clueless, obnoxious and loud (hard of hearing, I presume). Flaherty comes out onstage as the actor in the play. The seniors waste little time laying into him as a bad actor, etc. At one point, a loudspeaker voice announces that a car has left its lights on in the parking lot. Levy announces that it is his car and shuffles out, only to return later saying that it wasn't his car after all. The shouting between the stage and the unruly group intensifies until intermission is announced (both within the sketch and for real) – kind of a cool way to blend the show and the reality around us.

The lights went down and the chairs onstage were arranged in a very familiar pattern. I started to realize that we were going to get the sketch I was most hoping for...

There was an announcement saying that we are now joining Maudlin of the Night already in progress. When the lights came up, Joe (in afro) was sitting in the familiar blue suit watching a girl singing. When she left the stage, Sammy introduces Bobby Bittman, who has just written his autobiography. Levy comes out in full costume (red suit, albeit a bit shinier than the original) and wig to wild applause ("How are ya?!"). He looked great and gave it a lot of energy. More energy than we've seen from Levy in a long time. His book is a spin on Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up" called...wait for it..."Born Lying Down." When Maudlin tells him that Martin's title refers to being a standup comic, Bittman pauses and says, "No, I don't think that's what he meant." Bittman and Maudlin both spoke about missing William B, triggering a melancholy wave of applause from everyone in the room who knew full well what was really being said there. Next, Sammy introduces a newly clean and sober Lola Heatherton, who hobbled out on huge heels to sing a medley of Canadian songs with Bittman. I was surprised at the amount of preparation that had obviously gone into this portion of a bit that otherwise seemed largely improvised. Next, Martin Short came out as Jackie Rogers Jr. After a lamentable short stretch of improvisation (the details of which I can no longer recall - sorry), Andrea was introduced as the inevitable fourth guest. I was hoping for Lorna Minnelli (alas). I'm not quite sure who Andrea's character was supposed to be (a reject from American Idol?). She was in a beige bodysuit and bravely did a dance routine that amounted to her crawling around on the floor. Jackie Rogers Jr. joined her for this. It all devolved into an unscripted and somewhat unsatisfying ending to the sketch, but it was perhaps the evening's highlight in the sense that all five performers were in full costume and character, more from the TV version than the stage show. An orgasm of SCTV fan appreciation.

A WFC sketch that begins with three ladies on their annual canoe trip (3 chairs in a line), paddling imaginary paddles and discussing their recently deceased friend, whose ashes they are bringing to scatter. The ladies ruminate on life and whether, unbeknownst to them previously, they might be lesbians. Midway through the skit, I realized that Robin's character (in the front of the "canoe") was none other than Molly Earl. I spoke to Duke after the show and told her how pleased I was to see Molly again after all these years. Molly wasn't a favorite character or anything...I guess it was more the thought of an SCTV character still loose in the world that made me happy.

Martin Short is doing the hair of a patron (Duke) as Catherine is giving a manicure. Primarily a vehicle for Short to improvise, this sketch featured maybe the funniest single joke of the night (and Short has since dropped it in every talk show appearance): "John McCain is so old that the only time he doesn't have to while he's peeing." At one point, he accidentally lapsed into Jiminy Glick. A little surprised by this himself, he said "I became someone else there for a second" before quickly launching back into the hairdresser.

Andrea comes out alone and explains that her friends all wonder why she is single. "You're had a TV show that lasted 4 episodes..." Accompanied on piano, she then sings a sweet, funny little song about her new, very young boyfriend. The lyrics point out the age differences. It was a rare treat to see Andrea be herself. Just a guess here, but I suspect this came from her one woman 1996 show, Nude, Nude Totally Nude.

Levy as a doctor is sharing test results with a patient (O'Hara). Dramatic music swells as we anticipate the worst. Levy pulls out his cell phone and silences the music we now realize is his ringtone.

A very short sketch in which Martin Short plays a bagpipe. Literally. He jumps into the arms of another guy (from Second City perhaps?) and is carried around as he makes the sounds of a bagpipe.

The original, quite short Perini Sclerosa sketch with Catherine teaching the English phrase "Can you direct me to the hotel?" to the hapless foreigner. A fairly straight re-rendering. Ends with the turnabout "You go down two blocks, you can't miss it." I always thought that was a very vaudevillian (or perhaps Bugs Bunnyesque) twist at the end.

Guests arrive for a funeral. The cause of death is eventually revealed through the various guests' dialogue as being an oversized can of pork and beans lodged on the deceased's head. The guests (the entire cast + Mochrie) share in their attempts to pry (but not laugh!) as Andrea maintains a grief-stricken tenor as the widowed wife. Levy portrayed the rabbi – I think he was supposed to be Sid Dithers' son. Apparently Rabbi Dithers did not inherit his father's vertically challenged stature, since Levy did not perform the character on his knees.

Everyone returned to long gales of applause. Joe thanked everyone and talked a little about John Candy. Groans of what-could-have-been were heard when he said that he would have loved to have done a sketch this evening with Count Floyd, Doctor Tongue and Woody Tobias. But John was here tonight, as someone said.

We filed out and surprise!-- some previously unseen doors in the lobby had been opened to reveal that Second City was actually attached to Gretsky's. We walked from the theater directly into the bar area, and grabbed a few cheese cubes from the snack tables that were set up. Monitors overhead were playing SCTV. We walked a little farther, past the front doors and into the dining part of the restaurant. This seemed to be where the party was going to go down. People were still filing in from the show. It seemed like most people there must have had VIP tickets as the crowd stayed about the same size. There were several servers dutifully carrying around trays of delicious appetizers and drinks. By my count, ALL of the servers were effusively friendly and engaging, as if that had been a prerequisite for the job. Soon the place filled up as we scouted for a cast member sighting. Liz and I found a place to anchor ourselves as the drinks kept coming. Robin Duke and Colin Mochrie were suddenly in the crowd. So was Victor Garber. We nervously devoured more appetizers - those servers were relentless - and wine. Before long, Catherine whizzed by and you could feel the air drop out of the room a little as suddenly the entire cast (save for Eugene Levy, who, much to everyone's regret, never made an appearance at the party) was milling around. Ok, Martin Short is right there. Surreal. Joe's right over there, and there's Andrea. This has gotten officially off the chart!

This was the moment that I had both most anticipated and dreaded - being shoulder to shoulder with this talented group of writers and performers who I had known only as actors portraying actors on a fictional tv station on my tv station on my tv. It had had, up until this moment, exactly nothing to do with reality, but yet here we all were. Too many weird echoes for it to be completely comfortable, but it was tingle time for sure. You could feel the buzz in the room. Soon the cast was weighing down the west end of the room, about 15 feet from where we had chosen to stand (note to self: lucky guess, dude). Camera phones and the like were going up so I snapped into fan mode and started rifling off digital shots, hoping that my earlier crash course would help me navigate the trappings of a brand-new camera. As I pushed inward toward the cast (assembled for the official photographer, I now realized), I began to feel my nervousness dropping away for some reason. Maybe it was the wine, but it started to feel like a party with friends and not the idolatry pageant it well could have been.

I think there were a lot of family and extended family there for the cast that night so the fans were able to nestle in a bit more. Still, folks were starting to get shots with the cast and being determined to get at least one before the night was over, I saddled closer. I overheard a guy say to Catherine that this was the highlight of his year, to which she added, "So far!" You gotta love Catherine's humble self-deprecation.

I shot a lot of photos of the group posing for the photographer. I switched my camera to movie mode and grabbed a minute of shaky footage as they posed with Andrew Alexander, and then Juul Haalmayer. You can hear Catherine yell for Eugene early in the clip. Alas. I doubt that I would have mustered up the mustard to talk to Levy, but I would have liked the chance. It was disappointing for sure. Eugene, I still love ya, and thanks for putting on the red suit one more time.

I realized later in looking at my snaps, that Judi Cooper-Sealy (wigs) was also hanging around there. The cast also posed with Martin Short's wife and then with the photographer. I wonder if those official photos are online somewhere...? I'd love to see 'em. Once the photo session was over, things dispersed and before I knew it, Andrea was gone and Joe looked ready to leave. Yep, Joe took off before too long, walking out the front door of Gretzky's. Martin Short did one more round and was gone too. With one chance left, I walked over to Catherine who was still mingling with folks and said hi. She asked if she could sit down; I said yes, if I could squat alongside. "Yes, absolutely," she said, gesturing me down, a glass of white wine in her other hand. Some small talk ensued about it being a great show or something and Liz took a photo of us. Short and sweet.

Next, I walked over to Juul Hallmeyer and bent his ear for a couple of minutes. I told him that when I saw his name on the playbill, I was hoping he'd be appearing onstage so I could witness the famous alternating downward pointing move that marked the exit of all the JH Dancers routines on the show. (Yep, geek.) Anyway, he said "Oh, God, I hope not." I got him to do the move for the camera (actually, I think he offered). I wish I'd had the chance to get a little movie of that but he was kind to do it even for the still shot. Seemed like a very nice guy.

As I mentioned earlier, we spoke to four of the five Fully Clothed women (Robin, Jayne, Teresa, and Kathy). I was impressed with the quick writing on display (especially in the Oprah sketch) and made a point to mention it to each girl. They all seemed surprised and pleased that we had come all the way from Chicago for the show. We repeatedly encouraged them to come play in Chicago. Apparently, that is in the works.

Jayne Eastwood was very sweet and said that when they do play Chicago to please come backstage and see them. I doubt she'd remember us, but it was a very nice offer (and we'll try to take her up on it when they make it here). As the place emptied, we stood around a table with Jayne and her husband David, who, it turns out, is Joe Flaherty's brother. David was a writer on SCTV during the Cinemax season and wrote for the great Six Gun Justice serial parody. He was a very nice guy. He was the one who told us about Dave Thomas's injury. We talked about the other writers a little. When I told him that I was a big fan of Joe's and that I was sorry to have missed him, he tried to call Joe to see if he was still in the area. He told me several times that Joe would have liked to have heard my sentiments. He gave me his card and a few days later I traded emails with him and included a message to Joe. I hope he got it.

At that point, the restaurant was pretty empty. We said goodnight to Jayne and David and shuffled out along with the other stragglers and got in a waiting cab. We were absolutely buzzing all the way back to the bed and breakfast and predictably wide awake for a couple more hours retreading the amazing night we'd just had.

It was a true privilege to have been present for this historic evening. So many laughs and a perhaps illusionary feeling of being a small part of the extended family for one night. Thanks to the organizers and performers for coming together for a good cause. Contrary to what Catherine might say to this, it was a highlight of my life.


The Second City Benefit of Laughter brochure (pdf)
Video from Canadian TV the morning after the show (Martin, Joe, Andrea)
Andrea Martin interviewed after the 2nd show (mp3)
Eugene Levy interviewed after the 2nd show (mp3)
Catherine O'Hara interviewed 4 days before the shows (mp3)
680 News report - Part 1 (mp3)
680 News report - Part 2 (mp3)


Trevor Stenson said...

Very nice, indeed. Well worth the wait for the amazing amount of media and detail. Quite the pro job . . . I'm a bit envious.


Kitschy (Trevor Stenson)

Anonymous said...

Excellent job! I'm a huge SCTV fan and I really enjoyed reading this. Wish I'd have been there.

David Simpson said...

I found your post through your YouTube video post.
Thank you so much. I am a big fan of SCTV, and I think you made a good choice to pony up for tickets to this event. Life goes by so fast and you can't know if you'll have the opportunity again. I am envious! I am grateful you chronicled it like this.
I never had a favorite on SCTV- it was the most amazingly perfect cast that was ever put together. You could make a case for every single one of them as to who was the best- even writing this, I can make a definitive case for Andrea- Catherine- Joe- John- Eugene- Dave-Rick- how could you ever pick one? I remember the first episode where the cast changed, and Martin Short joined. I wanted to hate his guts for representing the new (and unwanted) cast change. Then he became- hilarious. And once again, you couldn't pick out the funniest person if you tried. When you watch "Night School Hi Q" you see the total greatness of the cast (sans Martin).
I would have flipped when they started in on "Sammy Maudlin."
I'm kinda rambling, but thought you would like to know how much I enjoyed your post. THANK YOU.

Anonymous said...

Seems like it was a night to remember.
And I agree: Juul Haalmeyer is a really nice guy.

Christine Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marc said...

thanks very much for the post. I couldn't sleep and got up to google Eugene Levy to see where he was born!..and found this. Great. Wonderful. Yes, SCTV was the best. Honestly, I don't know anything that could touch it, there was just so much talent there, and the format was ingenious taking full advantage of the low budget and turning that into a strength. Wow. I'm in Peterborough Ontario and I see improv is alive and well here, and no doubt the SCTV crew were a huge part of that influence. If I could say thank you to that entire cast for what they did, and the laughs they gave us all. Dare I say, it was a beautiful art form allowing us all to have the best laugh of all: laughing at ourselves. Thanks again for the details of your exciting evening, and recounting of it so those of us who couldn't be there caught a bit of the fun and could appreciate it vicariously.

Anonymous said...

you did a great job. The info is greatly appreciated