TELEVISION

Handyman’s special

DIANE TURBIDE March 28 1994
TELEVISION

Handyman’s special

DIANE TURBIDE March 28 1994

Handyman’s special

TELEVISION

DIANE TURBIDE

For a guy dressed in suspenders, plaid shirt and a fishing hat, Red Green has attracted some sophisticated company. Created and played by Steve Smith, Red Green is the proprietor of Possum Lodge, the setting for a wacky weekly program that is part sitcom, part parody of an outdoors show—and quite unlike anything else on TV. Actor Gordon Pinsent shows up regularly at the rustic lodge as Hap

Shaughnessy, general layabout and chronic liar. Graham Greene, best known as the Indian leader in Dances with Wolves, recently told Smith that he wants to be invited onto the show—the first entirely Canadian comedy series to run on U.S. prime time—to play a plumber. And Tim Allen, star of the top-rated U.S. sitcom Home Improvement, ran into Smith at a TV industry convention and asked

Smith’s success as the laconic, spectacularly inept handyman proves that, along with wooden shingles, hoser humor may be one of Canada’s strongest exports. A distant cousin of Charlie Farquharson, Don Harron’s corny but politically astute hayseed, Red also subscribes to the same fashion school as Bob and Doug McKenzie, the flannel-shirted, beer-guzzling brothers made famous by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis. But Red’s genius for living—a strong conviction that you can do anything with a bit of duct tape—is unique. His credo, “If women don’t find you handsome, they should find you handy,” has inspired legions of aimless tinkerers and basement boat-builders.

him, “Should I be worried about you guys?” All that is extremely gratifying to Smith, 47, a 20-year veteran of comedy. Now, with an 8,000-member fan club, North American exposure, a French-language pilot and a deal with Scottish Television to develop its own version of the program, The Red Green Show has achieved cult status.

Red Green’s success proves hoser humor is a leading export

What’s more, Smith’s dogged determination to be master of his own lodge has resulted in a homegrown success story. Starting in the late 1970s, he and his wife, Morag, wrote, produced and performed several TV comedy shows, including Smith & Smith, Me & Max and Comedy Mill, for which they won a Gemini Award for best variety series. (The three shows aired on the Hamilton-based independent station CHCH.) When Comedy Mill was cancelled in 1989, Smith collaborated with Rick Green, host of TVOntario’s Prisoners of Gravity, to create 72 episodes of The Red Green Show. The series made its debut on CHCH in March, 1991, and ran until last August, when it was picked up by the cable

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network YTV, Baton Broadcasting and a number of other independent stations across Canada.

Then, with partners Bill Johnston and Ron Lillie, principals of Toronto-based Lauron Productions, Smith crusaded—Red Green-style—for a U.S. sale. Last year, he visited dozens of U.S. TV distributors dressed as Green and carrying a hockey bag full of fan mail. “I figure they see a hundred suits every day, so at least they would remember me,” Smith recalls. “I could see them thinking, ‘Who the hell is this Gomer?’ ” Smith recalls. He and his partners chose Hearst Entertainment, which sold the show to Detroit’s Public Broadcasting System station WTVS. WTVS moved the series to prime time in February. The program is now carried by 31 U.S. stations, 26 of them part of PBS, as well as airing in six other countries. Red Green costs about $70,000 per half-hour episode, a pittance by U.S. TV standards. Red himself is a master of thrift, but his schemes invariably end up floundering. Each show features Red pursuing some dubious enterprise—tapping “syrup” from oak and birch trees, or trying to get a government grant to develop the swamp known as Possum Lake. Meanwhile, his nerdy nephew, Harold (Pat McKenna), annoys his uncle and acts as a giddy commentator on the inevitable disasters. In between are regular spots such as “Handyman’s Corner”—where Red demonstrates remarkable ingenuity and plain stupidity as he assembles a bizarre new contraption. Peopled with an all-male cast of dreamers and eccentrics, each show illustrates Red’s maxim that “if you can’t stay young, at least you can stay immature.”

Smith says his real inspiration came from The Red Fisher Show, a nationally syndicated fishing program that began airing in the late 1960s. “He had the attitude that nothing he said could bore you,” Smith recalls. “In a way, he was years ahead of Seinfeld: doing a show about nothing at all.” Theories aside, the show is clearly working. Recently nominated for three Geminis in comedy (writing, performance and best series), Red Green inspires loyalty among an amazingly diverse audience. At a “Fan Appreciation Day” held in London, Ont., last June, 2,000 people showed up. ‘We were expecting maybe 200,” Smith marvelled.

And at each live taping of the show in a London, Ont., studio, a few audience members participate in a mock meeting of the International Possum Brotherhood and to give the “possum salute,” Red’s ludicrously complicated greeting. Says Smith: “At one of these sessions, there was a bank president right next to a 17-year-old kid with a ring through his eyelid.” The motto of Possum Lodge is, “When all else fails, play dead.” Keeping a low profile for its first few years, The Red Green Show in a sense played possum—and is now a TV sleeper hit.

DIANE TURBIDE