The scene resembles the ruins of an office party. Empty beer bottles are strewn everywhere. About two dozen of them are piled atop a low desk, right next to a hot plate that’s cooking some unidentifiable meat. On the far wall is a map of North America, and seated in front of the map are two glassy-eyed men who appear to be waiting for a much needed ride home. They’re clad in unzipped parkas, vintage 1958; flannel shirts, whose unbuttoned tops expose ill-fitting white T-shirts; and toques, or ski hats. It’s clearly the end of the line for these guys, and not a moment too soon.
But in fact, their fun is just beginning. These are the McKenzie brothers, Bob and Doug, and this, God help them, is their talk show, The Great White North, about to be broadcast over the SCTV Network. Bob, the foggier-looking of the two, peers quizzically into the camera — this is television, after all — and clears his throat.
“Uh, good day. Welcome to The Great White North.” His flat, nasal voice is redolent of the twang of the Yukon night, of Robert W. Service, of hard-rubber hockey pucks shot from the wing. “I’m Bob McKenzie,” he continues, “and this is my brother, Doug.”
“How’s it goin’, eh?” offers Doug, whose chubby face shows evidence of some heavy dipping into glazed-doughnut boxes.
“Okay, like, our topic today is, uh, lights. Like, why are lights…”
“I don’t like that topic,” retorts Doug. Then, to the camera: “Zoom in on me!”
There is a pause. One searches in vain for guests, or a studio audience, or even phone callers. Phil Donahue this isn’t. Cyndy Garvey this isn’t.
Bob takes a slug of Molson ale. “Gimme a smoke, eh?” he asks his brother. “Take off, hosehead,” Doug replies. Two minutes of such bantering go by and the whole thing is over.
This is no ordinary talk show. This is a Canadian talk show.
The Great White North is a major reason why SCTV Network now stands as the funniest show on television. A Canadian offshoot of Chicago’s renowned Second City theater troupe, Second City Television (since abbreviated to SCTV) first started turning up on American screens in 1977 as a syndicated half-hour of skits that parodied TV with deadly accuracy. Since the beginning, its central premise has remained unchanged: SCTV presents itself as a TV network in toto, and all of its sketches are to be taken as programs or commercials. Though such people as Saturday Night Live producer Dick Ebersol have suggested that this format limits SCTV to lampooning only television, it also allows the program to steer clear of the cheap references to drugs, sex and politics that have plagued SNL and its imitators. With the demise of the Midnight Special last summer, NBC picked up SCTV and expanded it to ninety minutes, moving it into the vacated 12:30 slot on Friday evenings.
Curiously, the qualities that have made SCTV so good are almost wholly absent from The Great White North. SCTV has always featured solid, well-crafted writing, but The Great White North is completely improvised. SCTV has generally avoided comedy based on ethnic stereotypes, yet Bob and Doug McKenzie couldn’t be more stereotypically Canadian. And the program has always boasted a superb, varied cast, from the lanky Joe Flaherty to Catherine O’Hara, who may well be the finest female sketch player of her generation. But The Great White North stars only Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as the McKenzies.
Then again, the other SCTV skits haven’t generated the excitement this one has. Sacks of mail, all of it positive, have poured into the group’s Edmonton studios. Thousands of people have flocked to “Bob and Doug Days” in various Canadian cities. Walter Cronkite has reportedly asked if he could appear as a guest on the McKenzies’ show.
If that weren’t enough, The Great White North LP, just released in the States, has truly made Bob and Doug household names in the land of Wayne Gretzky and Margaret Trudeau. Who would have thought that an album consisting almost entirely of two Canucks mumbling mundanities would sell more than 300,000 copies in Canada (equivalent to selling 3 million in the U.S.)? That the single from the disc, “Take Off,” with vocals by Rush’s Geddy Lee, would hit Number One? And who would have dreamed that Bob and Doug McKenzie, who are to their native land what the light bulb and stepladder are to Poland, would be nominated for the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada?
“Well, like, we usually order in,” Bob and Doug say, “but we’ll go out and pick that up, eh?”
And with the burgeoning success of SCTV in the States, the McKenzie brothers’ time would seem to have arrived here as well.
Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, the progenitors of Bob and Doug McKenzie, lean over their steins of half-and-half in a New York City bar and chuckle when it’s suggested that at least part of SCTV‘s success is a result of its being filmed in the cultural deprivation tank of Edmonton, in midwest Canada.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” says Thomas. “You can’t get coke there, that’s number one. Let’s put it this way: we don’t hobnob with Brooke Shields at Studio 54, okay?”