SCTV in Edmonton: notes toward an FAQ

There’s a movement—it’s a clever piece of magazine marketing, actually, but we’ll call it a movement—to build some sort of local monument in Edmonton to the SCTV television series, which was produced here from 1980 to early 1982. Why would Edmonton build a monument to SCTV?

Three reasons. First of all, it was Charles “Doc” Allard, the Edmonton broadcasting magnate, who revived the show in 1980 after it had been off the air for a year and a half. Global, then an Eastern regional network, had dropped SCTV because of the high production costs; Allard saved it and gave the show a much bigger budget that allowed it to stretch out artistically and visually. With the superior production values, the show got picked up as a mid-season replacement by NBC.

That’s point two, the most important point: namely, the inconceivable miracle of a show being made in Edmonton that became a hip, vastly influential late-night cult success on American network television. A few young Edmontonians, some of them deeply ignorant and parochial, are sneering at the idea of a monument: the show didn’t start here, the people weren’t from here, what does it all mean to us? They don’t understand that SCTV’s international success wasn’t like Corner Gas’s success. SCTV was not only popular, with critics and with a cult audience, but it was more inside and more avant-garde than what Lorne Michaels was creating with Saturday Night Live. It was funnier, as the staffs of both shows tacitly recognized, and it has aged incomprehensibly better. It was the show the SNL writers were watching, the show that made them ask “Who are these guys?” (an acknowledged fear that was eventually expressed in the shameless theft of bits and cast members).

This might not amount to much if Edmonton were just a glorified back lot. But (point three) Edmonton was integral to the success. It’s universally agreed that the best SCTV episodes, the early so-called “Network 90” shows, were made here. “Made” means “written, planned, shot, edited, fought over”…the whole nine yards. “Polynesiantown”, “Moral Majority”, “CCCP-1”, “The Godfather”, “Staff Christmas Party”—these shows are the core of the series’ legend, and were the first ones selected for DVD release. When SCTV pulled off the famous Emmy coup of 1982, snapping up four of the five nominations for “Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program,” three of the four shows chosen (including “Moral Majority”, the winner) were Network 90s created in Edmonton. The staff went five-for-five the next year, but with inferior Toronto-made material: “Towering Inferno” and the second Christmas show have their moments, but they aren’t as good or as cohesive as the best of the Edmonton shows.

The cast of the show agrees that Edmonton was a superior working environment—partly, of course, because it was cold, boring, isolated, and ugly, which kept everybody focused (especially the easily-distracted John Candy) and the NBC brass out of the way. But partly, too, it was because of the superior technical facilities that the Allarcom studios made available to the writers. They had time and freedom to create sketch comedy on a scale that few others have even attempted, and they had the free use of a technical palette that became important to the show. (No other television series is so full of technical references to television itself, sly jokes about Chapman Nike cranes and videotape formats.)

And the Edmonton episodes of the show are, for better or worse, particularly Edmontonian. The famous Christmas episode is predicated on a joke about the difficulty of renting equipment in northern Alberta, and would not work so well if it had not been shot in a bitingly authentic Edmonton winter. The “CCCP-1” episode, perhaps the best in the whole run of the series, is an extended riff on the architecturally brutalist, Siberia-like environment of ’80s Edmontogorsk. Viewers in the U.S. seeing that episode wondered how the group had managed to nail the Soviet Union so well, even working Russian-looking church domes into the backgrounds of sketches. To Edmontonians, it’s just a snapshot of home.

Does any of this matter? Yes, because, leaving aside the Emmys, SCTV is to the history of American comedy what the Velvet Underground or the New York Dolls were to the history of rock music: cult objects that came out of nowhere and played to small audiences for an all-too-short time, but managed to inspire future generations and serve as a shibboleth of discernment among the cognoscenti. Pick your favourite comedy writer of today and Google his name alongside “SCTV”; if he or she is worth a crap, you’ll probably score a hit. Bob Odenkirk, Conan O’Brien, Judd Apatow, and Ben Stiller all practically grovel when SCTV is mentioned. Will Ferrell got his first laughs doing SCTV material at schoolMatt Groening says the fully-realized, hermetically sealed world of Melonville inspired the creation of The Simpsons’ Springfield, which would be obvious even if he hadn’t admitted it. Here’s an interview with Robert Smigel in which he, tellingly, all but apologizes for having been influenced by SNL more than by SCTV.

Or consider the significance of this quote from Dana Gould about his days on the Ben Stiller Show: younger comedians, he says “were watching us same way we were watching SCTV. It’s funny because you’ll see some guitarist trying to play like Jimmy Page, when (Page) was just trying to play like Howling Wolf.” SCTV, in other words, is not just an ’80s relic that some people remember fondly; it’s a pillar of the canon, our country’s strongest rejoinder to Monty Python.

These future comics were all exposed to SCTV for the first time in the polished, ambitious form the show attained in Edmonton. This is not to say that Toronto should not be erecting its own monument to the show; it’s not to say that SCTV isn’t fundamentally Torontonian. It is not even to say that there shouldn’t be a hundred-foot equestrian statue of Bob and Doug at the North Pole. But it’s Edmonton, judging from my local discussions, that could use a token of what was once accomplished here. Historical monuments, plaques, and markers are usually placed with the triple mission of reminding, educating, and inspiring. This is the rare example of one that would actually do all three.

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