July 14, 2021

The history of television flashing before your eyes

Nobody, but nobody, could bite the hand that fed them like SCTV could. Some of the greatest, most devastating satire ever produced on television about television came from this show, which began on Canadian television in the mid-1970s before making the move to NBC, and then Cinemax, running for a total of six seasons. (I always thought the smart move on NBC's part would have been to dump Saturday Night Live and put SCTV in the timeslot, but what do I know?)

Increasingly, I find that when I watch highlight clips from television shows of the 1970s and '80s—the reels you see on excellent YouTube channels like FredFlix and RwDT09—I become convinced that I'm actually watching an SCTV rerun. Of course, those were the programs that SCTV was satirizing in the first place, but their ideas were so absurd at yet at the same time so plausible, it really can be hard to tell the difference.

There's a lot more to SCTV than satire, though. The elaborate, occasionally show-length skits are smart and literate as well as funny, and even when they're ravaging television, they manage to show a warmth and respect for it at the same time. This is particularly evident in 1983's "Sweeps Week," an Emmy-winning episode that takes on the practice of loading up the Sweeps period with the most spectacular, titilating, exploitative programming possible. The centerpiece of the episode (besides the absurd The Dallas Cowgirls Salute Copland) is a nearly 50-minute skit entitled Night of the PrimeTime Stars, a ridiculous parody of celebrity-laden variety shows ("starring" Linda Lavin, Lorne Greene, Jamie Farr, Merlin Olsen and Gavin MacLeod), wrapped up in a Poltergeist-like story.

Amid the satire, though, a couple of moments stand out: John Candy's spot-on impression of Jackie Gleason playing Ralph Kramden, and Andrea Martin's wicked take on What's My Line? star Arlene Francis. These, and other references throught the skit (culminating in a "regurgitation" of the history of television) display a true knowledge of and affection for the those old shows and the pioneers of television behind them, an appreciation that can't be faked. Here, take a break and check it out for yourself.

Of course, this familiarity with the medium's history is something that runs through the course of SCTV; how many people know, for example, that Joe Flaherty's private detective character Vic Arpeggio is a takeoff on John Cassavetes' "jazz detective" Johnny Staccico? That takes a real appreciation for history.

It is said that NBC, which saw SCTV as a stopgap until something better came along, was surprised by the show's popularity among young viewers, who presumably wouldn't be familiar with these "old" shows. The same thing they say about why they don't release vintage TV on DVD any more, isn't it? I guess it just goes to show how smart those network executives are, doesn't it? TV  


  1. Totally agree, Mitchell. SCTV was light years ahead of the forced, sloppy humor of SNL. The definition of parody should have SCTV as the prime example. They were able to do deadly and precise parodies of American TV, Canadian TV and even Soviet TV. Throw in the Schmenge brothers and show me anything better....

  2. ..and 1970's TV was the perfect foil for something as clever as SCTV as described in the article. The decade of trash TV was ripe for satire.

  3. "Night of the Prime-Time Stars" was actually based on a specific 1982 ABC special, Night of 100 Stars.

  4. SCTV was consistently funny, and often brilliant! Look for Andrea Martin's spot-on parody of the late 70s Connie Francis Greatest Hits TV commercial, "Connie Franklin's 20 Depressing Hits"

  5. ... and who can forget Martin Short and Eugene Levy's parody of "Sandler and Young"? Some of the younger set don't even realize there really was such a song duo!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!