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?”
“I drank beer with Tom Jones in Edmonton,” offers Moranis, who, with his glasses on, looks more a bookish intellectual than a pint-addled hoser. “Tom comes into this bar, and he’s everything you ever imagined. His waist is this big [making a circle with his thumb and forefinger]. Two o’clock in the morning in this Rose and Crown bar and everyone’s singing, “Show me the way to go home…,” and Tom’s going, “Hey! I’m tired and I wan-na go to bed….”
“He’s a foon-luvin’ Welshman,” chimes Thomas.
“And his son, who travels with him, is legendary in Edmonton, because there’s a restaurant where, if you eat the seventy-two-ounce steak, you don’t have to pay for it. And the rumor is he ate it. But you can’t do that anymore.”
“The restaurant burned down.”
“Somebody asked for it well done,” they chorus gleefully. Howls of laughter send beer foam flying across the table. “Rim-shot heaven,” rhapsodizes Thomas through the mist.
And though rim-shot heaven doesn’t seem to be either man’s idea of paradise, the success of The Great White North is the welcome culmination of two substantial careers in comedy. Thomas, thirty-one and just married, began by hawking scripts to the Canadian Broadcasting Company. (“One day, someone bought five out of the eight I’d written for seventy-five bucks each, and I thought, ‘Not a bad way….’ “) He followed that with a stint in Godspell (“You know the two prodigal sons? I was one of them. The fat one”). Eventually, he joined the Second City stage show in Toronto and progressed from there.
Moranis, twenty-eight years old and single, began adopting different characters when he was still in school. “Friends call me now and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing what we used to do as kids.'” After a series of jobs in radio, Moranis hooked up with SCTV in its third season. “From what I could see, they were producing their own pieces. That’s all the free rein I needed.”
Ironically, one of SCTV‘s few restrictions — a Canadian ordinance requiring that each show filmed in the country possess some uniquely Canadian content — spawned The Great White North. Confronted with this regulation, Moranis and Thomas concocted Bob and Doug McKenzie at a script conference. Since the Canadian shows were two minutes longer than the American versions, The Great White North became a two-minute offense for northern consumption only — until the letters started pouring in.
The Great White North is taped in marathon sessions until as many as forty shows are in the can. “Most people don’t know it’s improvised,” says Moranis, “but, boy, if you ever saw the sixty that haven’t been aired….” Even the forty minutes of material on the LP was culled from more than ten hours of freewheeling in the studio.
So, what makes these guys so funny? Perhaps Bob and Doug represent a change in comedy, a change both from the standard stand-up fare (“You know what gets me? Drugs. You ever tried rolling a joint…”) and from the neurotically zizzy flailings of a John Belushi or an Andy Kaufman. Instead of being wackily unpredictable, they are completely predictable. Their humor doesn’t savage an ethnic group — it brings you into that world, a world of back bacon, beer and pineapple-filled doughnuts. In doing so, it raises a sneered-upon subculture into an art form. In their own way, the McKenzie brothers encompass everything in Canadian humor from Wayne and Shuster to Newfie jokes, producing comedy so gently self-deprecating as to be utterly compassionate — one sentiment that much recent humor has sorely lacked. “They’re like Muppets,” Thomas says of Bob and Doug. “They’re smaller than life and very vulnerable.” Moranis adds, “Those guys are proud of their little show.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Canada, which some commentators have suggested ought to be livid over The Great White North, has taken to the McKenzies as if they were long-lost sons. “We’ve had people on the street stop us and say, ‘You guys have done so much for Canada,'” Thomas notes. “And we’re scratching our heads, thinking, ‘Oh really? Fine, okay.'”
Where we come from, cop cars are yellow,” explains Doug McKenzie to a flock of back bacon-chomping New York journalists who’ve turned out in droves for the brothers’ press conference at — where else — the Canadian consulate. “I took one look at the street and said, ‘Let’s get outta here! There’s cops comin’ at us from every direction!’ ” Bob and Doug have come south to promote their new LP, and this day’s topic, they inform the media crowd, is the Big Apple.
“We love your beauty subways,” Doug enthuses. “When we get home, we’re gonna paint ours up, too.” What, someone asks, is the difference between Molson in the blue label and Molson in the red label? The McKenzies are momentarily speechless. “After three or four,” states Bob with certainty, “there is no difference.”
That kind of humor has taken The Great White North LP to the top in Canada. Equally significant in the LP’s rise has been the single “Take Off,” with Rush’s Geddy Lee on vocals. “We heard that Rush were taping the segments and playing them while they were on tour,” says Moranis. “I had gone to public school with Geddy, but I hadn’t seen him in years. We had somebody call him, and he agreed to do it. So he walks into the studio with his baby and his wife — and his baby has a toque on — and he says, ‘Listen you guys, I really want to apologize in advance — my voice just isn’t there until nighttime. I’ll do the best I can.’ Anyway — one take.” Indeed, Lee’s inimitable yawp (“Take off to the great white north/Take off, it’s a beauty way to go”), combined with the mutterings of Doug and Bob (“Decent singin’, eh?” “Ya, he’s good”), makes the cut irresistible.
Other hilarious moments include “School Announcements,” where the brothers become principals for a day (“We have a long day ahead of us, so we should begin with a two-hour recess. Everybody, run outside”); “Peter’s Donuts” (“Hey cops, don’t give us tickets, we’ll give you doughnuts.” “Yeah, we’ll mail ’em to ya”); and “Elron McKenzie,” where Doug steps into the pulpit for a religious talk: “My topic today is, don’t kill bugs….Sooner or later, no matter how good you are, somebody will hate you and will think of you as a bug. And then the next thing you know, you’re gone.”
And speaking of gone: will success force the heretofore-stable SCTV cast to disintegrate? Thomas is not optimistic. “I think the show has a built-in burn-out factor. It’s only a matter of time before it’ll exhaust itself or people will get offers that’ll drag them away. I think both things will happen, and probably this year.”
“Dave and I had an opportunity to do our own show at CBS,” says Rick. “Two-man, half-hour, 11:30, Fridays. And we turned it down to do SCTV. We’re glad we did, you know? In the future, I don’t know; we may go back to it after we do a picture or two.” Plans are already in swing for Bob and Doug’s big-screen debut. “We wouldn’t want to do a vignette movie with these characters,” says Dave. “We’ll wanna do something really new. We’re gonna do it this year, if we can fit it in.”
Both Thomas and Moranis think there’s a long life in store for the McKenzies. “Working alone is just the shits in comedy,” declares Moranis. “But Dave makes me laugh more than anyone else I’ve ever met. It’s like all the fun of working with the funniest person, and none of the politics of working with six other people.”
One recent Bob and Doug sketch, described by Moranis, suggests that both he and Thomas have enough perspective on their success to keep from following in the footsteps of their swelled-head forebears. “One time we opened the show with Bob and Doug finishing up their show with a really lame topic. And then we pulled back to a wide shot of the studio and the floor director coming across, saying, ‘Okay, that’s a wrap. Now strike the set and get something good up.’ And then he came across and said, ‘Oh, by the way, guys, real good show.’ And then the whole crew burst out laughing.
“And we just like, slithered, bowed our heads and left the studio, arguing with each other, ‘Well, it’s your fault, we didn’t have a good topic.'” Yes, the life of a hoser is never easy. Good day, eh?