FROM GAGS TO RICHES
The defector paces nervously about the motel room. Parting the Venetian blinds with his fingers, he casts a wary glance out the window. Beads of cold sweat stand out across his brow as he turns to the documentary camera and reveals the source of his fear. “We’re talking a massive, tightly knit organization, ” he says in a trembling voice. “From the moment you enlist, they control every detail of your career—your clothes, where you sleep, your choice of limo, who you take lunch with. ... It’s impressive. ”
The defector is Toronto actor Eugene Levy, a veteran of the TV comedy series SCTV, who is now among the legion of Canadian comic actors making movies in Hollywood. And his deadpan testimony is part of The Canadian Conspiracy, a mock documentary to air on CBC on June 8. Presented as an alarmist exposé by the fictitious American News Network, the 90-minute program satirically investigates the pervasive influence of Canadians in American show business—especially in comedy. Although the conspiracy is a jokescripted by Toronto’s Robert Boyd— the influence is real: Canadians have developed a special talent for making America laugh. In the 1920s Canada’s Mack Sennett created The Keystone Kops and won the title of the King of Comedy. In the 1950s and 1960s comedians Wayne and Shuster played Shakespearean baseball on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show—and became his most frequent guests. In the 1980s actor John Candy, rebounding a squash ball off his head in the hit movie Splash, established a beachhead on the big screen with his SCTV colleagues. Meanwhile, Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film, Ghostbusters, became the biggest box office hit in the history of screen comedies.
New: Recently the Canadian comic invasion has conquered new terrain. Reitman (page 42) has enhanced his reputation as one of Hollywood’s top film-makers by teaming Robert Redford, Debra Winger and Darryl Hannah in Legal Eagles, a comedy-thriller set for release later this month. Ottawa-born Dan Aykroyd, who recently starred in the commercially successful Spies Like Us, serves as executive producer for One More Saturday Night, another comedy feature scheduled for test release in Canada this month. At the same time, a record number of Ca-
nadian actors have won starring roles in big-budget screen comedies this year—including the frenetic Howie Mandei, the gnome-like Martin Short and the corpulent Candy.
Emerging from the improvisational
firing line of the cabaret stage, Canadians sharpened the edge of television comedy during the 1970s with such hits as SCTV and Saturday Night Live. Now, as TV success catapults them onto the big screen, their audience—and their humor—is becoming broader. Andrew Alexander, the Toronto-based owner of The Second City comedy company, which created SCTV, describes I Canada as a “phenomenal training
ground—everyone talks about the Canadian edge in Hollywood.”
Live: Cornering the market on
screen comedy, Canadians are colonizing American humor from the live stage as well. Alexander spent last
month in Los Angeles preparing to open a new theatre. Toronto laughbroker Mark Breslin—who owns Yuk Yuk’s, the world’s largest chain of stand-up comedy clubs —was also there, scouting L.A. real estate for a new club. Yuk Yuk’s cabarets already entertain audiences in Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Edmonton, Buffalo, Rochester and Calgary, where a club opened last week. Declared Breslin:
“There is a tremendous over-representation of Canadians in comedy here. I like to think of it as Canadian cultural imperialism.”
What is so funny about Canadians? Possibly very little. And that may be the reason why they had to invent a sense of humor—to relieve the mildmannered sobriety of a nation lying in the shadow of the United States. Gazing across the 49th parallel from a sane distance, some Canadians have become droll observers of American culture. North America’s most devastating impressionists over the past two decades have been Canadians: Rich Little, Jim Carrey and, most recently,
André-Philippe Gagnon. With the focus of a social perspective, mimicry becomes satire, a Canadian specialty.
Observed Toronto’s Martin Short, a veteran of both SCTV and Saturday Night Live: “It helps to
have a distance from what you’re satirizing.”
Most Canadian comedy stars in Hollywood are from SCTV, the television parody that is still in syndication two years after its cast disbanded. Four SCTV alumni —Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin,
Joe Flaherty and Eugene Levy—are costarring with Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole in Club Paradise, which opens next month. Filmed in Jamaica, it is a comedy about tourists trapped in a resort under shady palms—and shadier management. Also, SCTVs Candy and Levy star as two bumbling security guards in Armed and Dangerous, which ended production in Los Angeles last month. Another SCTV graduate, Catherine O’Hara, will appear in Heartburn this summer, providing comic relief with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. And Short is now filming his first feature, Three Amigos, a $38-million comedyadventure in which he shares top billing with Americans Steve Martin and Chevy Chase.
Fertile: One of the writers behind Three Amigos is Lorne Michaels, the Toronto-born creator and producer of TV’S Saturday Night Live, which became one of North America’s most fertile sources of comic talent in the past decade. While the New Yorkbased Michaels revolutionized latenight television with a live show that
defied network censors, Reitman mastered a formula for making blockbuster film comedies in Hollywood. In fact, between Michaels in TV and Reitman in film, Canadians who scarcely knew each other became two of the most influential comedy moguls in America. And Michaels’s show became Reitman’s favorite farm team: after SNL made Americans John Belushi and Bill Murray cult heroes, Reitman’s films helped to turn them into movie stars.
The original source for much of the talent harnessed by Michaels and Reitman was The Second City, the theatri-
cal company based in Chicago which Time magazine called North America’s “temple of satire.” Founded in 1959, The Second City established a Toronto colony in 1973 in a century-old firehall. Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Eugene Levy and Joe Flaherty
were among the actors who formed that first company. SNL’s renegade comedy—imbued with the drug culture’s taste for the bizarre—was tantamount to a practical joke played on television by the rock ’n’ roll generation. It redefined the boundaries of what was permissible. When Michaels created the controversial Saturday Night Live in 1975, he recruited actors from both the Chicago and Toronto troupes.
Acid: Michaels was born and raised in Toronto’s affluent Forest Hill neighborhood. He was Lorne Lipowitz then, the son of a successful Toronto furrier who died when Lorne was only 14. A friend of his recalled that the boy grew up with a passion for “the Beatles, acid and mushrooms.” He also grew up with a close connection to one of TV’S most venerable comedy teams —Wayne and Shuster. Lome’s high school sweetheart, and later his first wife, was Rosie Shuster, daughter of comedian Frank Shuster, who became a surrogate father to him. Recalled the older comedian: “Lorne used to pracy tically live at our house.” In fact, it § was the Shusters who suggested Lorne change his last name: Lipowitz struck them as impractical for their son-in-law’s intended career in show business.
With his SNL cohorts, Michaels overturned the safe conventions of TV sketch comedy that Wayne and Shuster established in the early years of television. Said Johnny Wayne: “They considered themselves a lot more revolutionary and more irreverent than we could be—or wanted to be.” Still, Wayne and Shuster were innovators in their own time. Trained as dramatic actors, they brought realistic costumes, cinematic sets and elaborate scripts to Sullivan’s otherwise barren vaudeville stage. As Wayne recalled, “It was fairly literate compared to the kind of comedy he used to have on— some guy in an Italian suit telling wife jokes in front of the curtain.”
Like Wayne and Shuster, Michaels launched his career on CBC Radio, where he wrote and performed a satirical comedy show with partner Hart Pomerantz in 1967. The two men then worked in Hollywood as writers for several comedy shows, including
Laugh-In, before returning to Toronto in 1969 to produce and perform 10 variety specials for CBC TV. Airing under various titles, including The Hart and Lome Terrific Hour, they occupied the same Sunday-night time slot that Wayne and Shuster had traditionally filled. Said Michaels: “The CBC was the best training I could have had. I was given tremendous freedom and very little budget. What we couldn’t afford, we had to make up.”
Still, unlike Wayne and Shuster, Michaels considers the issue of staying in Canada “irrelevant—as interesting as whether you should live in New York or L.A.” (He lives in New York.) Asked if there is a Canadian sense of humor, he replied: “It just comes from spending too much time indoors.”
Huddling around their TV sets in the 1950s and 1960s, many of Canada’s future comics grew up watching Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason on American TV shows. But they also saw some British exports—including the cerebral and irreverent Monty Python's Flying Circus. In creating SNL, Michaels fused Monty Python's surreal sense of satire with the broad physical style of American sketch comedy. He said he deliberately broke a cardinal rule of network television “by gearing our shows to those at the top of the class, the bright ones.” The show lost its edge in the 1980s, but in the early years, said former SNL writer Rosie Shuster, “we were video guerrillas. And some of the satirical stuff came from having a foot in both Canada and the States.” Shuster, now living in New York and writing a screenplay for Hollywood’s Goldie Hawn, still relies on her Canadian perspective. Said Shuster: “I’m always proud to be an alien. As an outsider, you can always be a little more absurd or surreal.” Wave: While Michaels rode the crest of SAL’s popularity, Toronto’s Second City troupe unleashed a new wave of television satire without leaving home. Its locally produced SCTV was first broadcast on the Global network in 1976, then on the CBC. In 1981 NBC picked up the show and it became the first Canadian series to air on an American network. Stranded in an unfavorable time slot (12:30 a.m.), SCTV performed poorly in the U.S. ratings but received 13 Emmy nominations, two Emmy Awards and critical raves. The Los Angeles Times said that it was the “best comedy show on TV—maybe the best one in TV history.''
SCTV parodied television from a distinctly Canadian viewpoint. Set in a mock TV station in the fictitious backwater of Melonville, it satirized show business by reducing it to a petty scale. The show was full of parochial characters: leopard-skin-suited Andrea Martin as cackling station manager
Edith Prickley; Levy and Flaherty as flappable anchormen Earl Camembert and Floyd Robertson bickering over the news; platinum-wigged Catherine O’Hara as self-obsessed torch singer Lola Heatherton; John Candy in a smoking jacket playing drunken lecher Johnny LaRue; and Martin Short with his hair in a quiff as grimacing Ed Grimley—“going mental,” as he described it, after his triangle lesson.
Of all SCTV characters, the most popular were The Great White North's McKenzie Brothers (Thomas and Moranis). They went on to make a record album and a movie—and at the height of their popularity the two men celebrated their “Hosermania” cult by leading a parade through Toronto. The McKenzie Brothers were created as a fluke of Canadian culture when the CBC asked SCTV for an extra two minutes of Canadian content in 1980. Explained Thomas: “The show was al-
most exclusively written, performed and produced by Canadians, so we said, ‘What the hell do you want us to do? Sit in front of a map of Canada, put on tuques, drink beer and eat back bacon?’ And we did. Both of us were surprised when it caught on.” In fact, it took off—and its success, Thomas added, “became a pain in the ass for the other performers.”
Cocaine: Unlike SAL—where cocaine-fed egos cracked under the pressure of producing a live show from New York—SCTV maintained some harmony. Because they taped their series in Canada, said Levy, “you could go to work, do a network show and come home to dinner without coming in contact with all the showbiz hoopla.” Now that the show’s cast has disbanded, its members remain a closeknit family, in some cases literally: Short is married to Nancy Dolman, sister of Andrea Martin’s husband,
Bob Dolman, who was a writer on the show—as was Short’s brother, Michael. Said Hollywood producer-director Harold Ramis, former chief writer at SCTV.: “These people are really close, and the bonds of friendship go back a long way. Everybody has dated everybody else.” Most of the SCTV alumni— Candy, O’Hara, Martin, Levy, Short— continue to live in Canada while commuting to Hollywood. Even Thomas, who now lives in Los Angeles, says that he will never sell his Toronto house. He added, “I consider myself a Canadian in the sense that if there’s an earthquake in Los Angeles, I’ll be able to go home.”
Effort: Meanwhile, Second City Inc., the corporation that fostered SCTV, continues to expand under new Canadian management—Toronto’s Alexander, 42, bought Second City Inc. from its Chicago owners last year. Second City stages in Chicago, Toronto and
London, Ont., gross $7.5 million a year, while SCTV syndication revenues from Canada, Australia and the United States add another $15 million. As well, about 5,000 students participate annually in the theatres’ workshop programs. Said Alexander: “That’s
how we find our talent. Nobody else is making that kind of effort.”
Canada seems to possess an inexhaustible supply of comic resources. The Frantics’ highly rated CBC TV series, h on the Floor, was recently sold to the American pay-TV channel Showtime. Meanwhile, Yuk Yuk’s fast-laugh franchise, with annual revenues of $6 million, continues to create new outlets for stand-up comedy. Yuk Yuk’s clubs are due to open in Victoria this month and in Halifax in July. And stand-up comedian Jenny Jones, a 39-year-old former singer from London, Ont., has received numerous U.S. offers since she won a $100,000 (U.S.) grand prize on the TV amateur contest Star Search.
The theory most commonly advanced to explain Canada’s comic edge is that the country is a nation of observers. Said Yuk Yuk’s owner Breslin: “Comedy has always been the province of the outsider. It has been dominated by Jews, who were both within the system and outside the system.” Canadians are now in a similar position: “We have enough ironic distance that we don’t feel morally bound by the conditions of the American empire. But we’re close enough to know what we’re commenting about.”
Coin: Comic relief and serious commentary seem to be two sides of the same double-headed Canadian coin. One face might belong to comic actor Leslie Nielsen, the other to his brother Erik, Canada’s deputy prime minister: The Canadian Conspiracy includes a clip from the movie Airplane showing the pilot (Leslie Nielsen) sprout a Pinocchio nose as he assures his passengers that everything is under control— and a second clip shows a poker-faced Erik Nielsen stammering for an inordinately long time while trying to parry a question in the Commons. The Conspiracy alleges a connection.
Ultimately, Canada’s sense of humor hinges on the country’s institutional sobriety. Said SCTV’s Catherine O’Hara: “There’s so much going on in the States, it’s hard to parody. In Canada, because things are taken seriously, there is something to rebel against.” Canada, she added, “is a good straight man.”
-BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Los Angeles