Taking off with the McKenzie brothers

David Macfarlane January 11 1982

Taking off with the McKenzie brothers

David Macfarlane January 11 1982

Taking off with the McKenzie brothers


David Macfarlane

Without their toques, earmuffs, plaid shirts and cold ones,

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas (AKA Bob and Doug McKenzie) don’t exactly stand out in a crowd. Although a parade in their honor recently stopped all traffic on Toronto’s Yonge Street strip, the two unassuming young men passed undetected

through the noon-hour shoppers on Bloor Street a few days later. Fans had lined up at four in the morning to see them at a breakfast sponsored by a radio station, but the maitre d’ of the hotel restaurant they chose for lunch later that day eyed their blue jeans and open-necked shirts with some distaste. Toronto’s mayor, Art Eggleton, unable to attend the breakfast, had sent his regrets and two City of Toronto neckties; Rolling Stone and Playboy were vying for interviews; and Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show was trying to pin them down to a date. It was becoming difficult to go anywhere without hearing someone say, “Take off, you hoser,” and still the two hottest comedians in Canada were escorted to a table as close to the kitchen door as possible, and then promptly ignored by every waiter. Dave Thomas waved politely for some service while Rick Moranis grimaced and waved the smoke of Thomas’ cigarette away from his face. “Sometimes it’s like being The Beatles,” Moranis said. “And sometimes,” Thomas added,

“you can’t get a tomato juice.”

Moranis and Thomas may not yet command instant recognition, but Bob and Doug McKenzie, the two brew-drinking, back-bacon-eating Canadian stumblebums they play on the comedy series SCTV Network, have become something of a national phenomenon. As the American comedy drought continues—NBC’s once sparkling Saturday Night Live has degenerated to little more than an arid chuckle—SCTV Network, a

Toronto-based, Edmonton-produced and, since last May, NBC program, has attracted an enthusiastic following. A fictional television station, complete with its own shows, ads and programming hype, provides the vehicle for SCTV’sflights of parody.(Where else would a fawning Merv Griffin end up as sheriff of a black-and-white Mayberry?) “Television,” Thomas said, “deserves to be satirized. We grew up with TV— eavesdropping on American stations but always keeping a bit of a distance.” Americana provides much of the grist

for SCTF’smill, but of all the personalities who populate the deranged world of SCTV, the two likable simpletons are the most celebrated. With accents as flat as the Prairies and with more “likes” and “ehs” per appearance than there are Greb Kodiaks in the Ottawa Valley, Moranis and Thomas have tapped a source of raw Canadiana as surely as if it were a sugar maple. Working without a script, Bob and Doug shoot the breeze for 2Vè minutes each week on their talk show, The Great White North, and manage—through the

sheer, uh, inability to say, uh, like very much about anything, eh?—to get absolutely nowhere. A belch (“Beauty, eh?”) is likely to divert the “half-cut” hosts for the entire show. Inevitably, the pointless rambles end with what has become the McKenzies’ trademark: “Take off, eh?” The appeal to Canadian viewers is obvious. As one devotee put it, “You can find 20 Bobs and Dougs in the beverage rooms of every hotel in the country.”

The creation of Bob and Doug was due, as Rick Moranis described it, “to years of disliking Canadian content regulations.” (The very words “Canadian content” elicited a low moan from Dave Thomas. “Those regulations have always struck me as insulting. You can’t make entertainment an issue of nationalism.”) In 1980, when SCTV, then in its third season, moved from Global television to CBC, 2V2 minutes of advertising time were lost in the change of networks. In spite of its Canadian actors, writers and production staff, SCTV was told to fill the gap with “Canadian” content. Shortly thereafter, Moranis and Thomas gave spontaneous birth to Bob and Doug. “They wanted Canadian,” Moranis said. “They got Canadian.” The Great White North is “certified 100 per cent Canadian content by the Canadian Cultural Identity Commission.”

In an article in New York’s Soho News, Thomas let Doug

McKenzie explain his origins. “Like, we never got no complaints from Canadians about it, eh? ’Cos, like, Canadians are so desperate for a cultural identity of their own they’ll take anything, right?” In spite of their much-touted Canadian-ness, Bob and Doug are not recognized as such by American viewers. “Americans think they’re just funny,” Thomas said. “And that’s sort of comforting, in a way.”

Off the set, Moranis and Thomas don’t allow a single “eh” to creep into their conversation. The Great White North, after all, is only a small part of their SCTV repertoire. Dave Thomas’ imitation of Bob Hope, for example, was so accurate that even Hope approved; Rick Moranis’ Woody Allen was described by Time as a “pluperfect rendering.” Indeed, listening to Moranis and Thomas discuss SCTV’s prickly relationship with NBC—“We think this is our show, not NBC’s. We always learn something when we make mistakes, but we don’t learn anything from theirs”— it is difficult to imagine two people more unlike Bob and Doug McKenzie.

Few thoughts have ever passed through Doug McKenzie’s earmuffed head, but Dave Thomas apears to be someone who spends a great deal of his time in thought. The brother of the popular singer Ian Thomas and the son of a university professor, Thomas looks more like the graduate English student he is than an entertainer soon to sit on Carson’s couch. Rough-hewn and solid, Thomas drifted from university into acting and eventually to Toronto’s Second City comedy troupe. He spent three years there and is a founder of SCTV.

Moranis is the only member of SCTV who was not part of the Second City group. As a suburban youngster who at Hebrew camp ran through a shtick that friends remember as being close to the stuff of the McKenzies, Moranis was always “the funny kid. The one who made everyone laugh at school.” Something of a prodigy on Toronto radio, he became “an on-air personality” before he was 20. By the time Thomas asked him to join SCTV, Moranis was making a decent living as a freelance comic—an almost unheard-of achievement.In the year he has been with SCTV Network, he has become a one-man cast of thousands: Woody Allen, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett have all been Moranised.

But it is Bob and Doug who are keeping Moranis and Thomas in the limelight. The First Annual Back Bacon Contest in Regina in October gave them the first inkling of how popular they had become. “We were in a limo,” Thomas marvelled. “You know, with fans banging on the windows. Like being rock stars.” Hoser parties, parades and contests followed. By the time the bestselling album Bob & Doug McKenzie,

Great White North was released last November, they had been nominated for an Order of Canada. Says Perry Goldberg, national promotion manager for Anthem Records, “The whole thing has gone bananas.”

“We don’t know how long things will last at this quality,” said Thomas, who seems genuinely bemused by their sudden celebrity. “In a way all of this is a fluke, but there’s tremendous pressure on us to market it for all it’s worth. We just want to be careful.” Already plans are afoot for a Bob and Doug movie, but as Moranis remarked: “It’s tough to go

from two minutes to 100 minutes. Even on the show we’ve only had Bob and Doug move away from The Great White North set once.”

Still, they seem happy to run with Bob and Doug as long as the laughter continues. “We’d be nutty not to,” said Moranis. “When we originally came up with the idea of Bob and Doug, we weren’t even going to run it every show. Now here we are still doing it, still on the same joke.” Trying once again to flag down a waiter, Thomas sighed. “But we’re still laughing,” he said. “And that’s important.”