From Parody To "Parenthood"

Former McKenzie brother Rick Moranis comes home to host the 19th annual Juno Awards

By Bill Brioux

It was Juno night in Toronto, 1976. Future hoser Rick Moranis wasn't a performer, the host or even a nominee-- just a part of a warm-up act hired to get the hotel audience up for Juno emcee David Steinberg.
"I was in a $60 rented tuxedo-- my last $60-- and I had really good material. I knew I was going to do well," says Moranis.
And then came every performer's worst nightmare: "I was cut at the last minute. The band wasn't ready, and the producer came up and said, 'I'm sorry, it's not going to work out'." To top it all off, Steinberg later used one of Moranis's jokes-- "and got his biggest laugh too!"
Moranis tells the story from a modish Manhattan studio where he's sitting for publicity photos as host of the 19th annual Juno Awards (March 18 on CBC). He's also a past Juno winner-- for the 1983 hoser hit "The Great White North"-- and a former Juno writer. "We like to have a comedic host who has some connection with music," says CARAS president Peter Steinmetz, who's had ex-SCTVers Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, and Martin Short hosting previous Juno shows and has been trying to line up Moranis for years. "But the No. 1 consideration is that he's an internationally successful Canadian."
At 36, the former McKenzie brother is now a bankable Hollywood star. The diminutive actor went from science nerd to yuppie perfectionist in three of last year's biggest hits (the combined box-office for "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids", "Ghostbusters II", and "Parenthood" has passed the $400-million mark).
A new film, "My Blue Heaven", directed by Herbert Ross and starring Steve Martin (who worked with Moranis on "Parenthood" and "Little Shop Of Horrors"), opens in July. A sequel to "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids", Disney Pictures' biggest money-maker ever, is being talked about, along with numerous other film projects that a cautious Moranis refuses to discuss. "He's pursuing his movie career cleverly right now," says former SCTV costar Dave Thomas. "He's on a roll, and naturally he wants to keep it going."
And despite the dizzying cinema success, Moranis's film schedule fits in with his own parenthood. Gone are the killer SCTV days out in Edmonton churning out 90 minutes a week for network television. "During my 20's, I was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. I wouldn't be able to do that now and have a family life," says Moranis, who lives in New York, his wife's home town, with their 3-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son. "I'm starting to get a different kind of opportunity to be in situations where I'm learning a great deal. I'm going to continue that as long as I can. Perhaps I'll go back to TV and directing when my kids are a little bit older and I have more time."
With family and films taking priority, how do the Junos fit into Moranis's busy schedule? "No. 1, I think it will be a lot of fun," he says, preppy casual in jeans and a black Juno sweatshirt.
"And the fact that it's a music show. If I wasn't hosting it, I'd watch. I'm a fan of music," he says, especially jazz, although he warns his interviewer-- on the verge of parenthood himself-- that having a child means big changes. "It's a fantastic, but forget about sleep for a few years. In the morning, you won't see The Today Show or Canada A.M.-- it'll be Sesame Street." And in the brief space between their bedtime and yours, "that's when you do mail, make phone calls, maybe read last week's books. I used to hate to fly, and now I love it-- five hours! I go on with my backlog of New York Times Sunday magazines, and I finally get a chance to read."
Not that Moranis has ever stood still long enough to wear out a library card. While still in high school, the Toronto native worked as an engineer at a local radio station. Before he was 20, he was cueing records as late-night DJ Rick Allen at CFTR and later at rock station CHUM-FM. Moranis then "wrestled with the existentialists" for two years at York University before returning to radio, writing and performing a comedy series on CBC with partner Ken Finkleman.
Next came television. "Before joining SCTV, I made my living as a writer for CBC," says Moranis, who wrote monologues for Juno host Burton Cummings in 1978 and '79. He also wrote and produced short films; Thomas spotted Moranis in one, and invited him to join SCTV on the brink of its NBC success.
"Those were the 18 hour days," says Moranis, dark eyes widening behind his owlish specs. "We were writing next week's show, shooting this week's, and in between long makeup processes we were slipping into editing rooms and working on scripts... and it was fantastic. We had no idea that we were connecting with the audience-- it was too early. It was so primitive and so small."
Ironically, award shows were a favourite target during those heady years. One memorable SCTV skit spoofed "55 or so" Hill Street Blues winners stampeding a stage to grab a cheesy "People's Golden Global Choice Award". The next year, when SCTV's large ensemble won its first of two Emmys (for comedy-variety writing), Moranis stayed home in Toronto "because it was Passover, and I didn't want to be one of 35 people getting up on the stage-- which is what I saw actually happen to us. We had parodied our own awards show. And that's when I knew we had crossed the line and become establishment."
Further proof was the unexpected outbreak of Hosermania: the cult of Bob and Doug. A two-minute ad-libbed SCTV sketch suddenly took off, eh, and Moranis and Thomas cashed in with a movie, "Strange Brew", and the Juno-winning album. But did success spoil SCTV? "Once we moved to Toronto, all of a sudden people had brunches to go to and voice-over commercials; it was the beginning of the end."
For Moranis, it was time to move on. "I think as soon as you get some degree of success-- the kind that we had on SCTV-- you wind up absorbed in the industry. And at that point you're no longer a late night sniper-- as Dave Thomas used to call us-- you become establishment." The duo said good day to SCTV in 1983.
Nearly a dozen feature films later, Moranis is at the other end of the shooting gallery-- and loving it. He was just on the phone with the editor of Mad magazine asking to buy some drawings from their recent "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids" spoof. "I love that they did a parody of it," says Moranis, who couldn't be more honoured with an Oscar. "As soon as you're in the public eye, especially with a success like that, you're grist for their mill. I know that another generation of comedians will come along and parody all of the movies and TV that we do, but I can't wait to see it-- I think it will be great."
Does success make Moranis feel he may have been too hard on some of his old SCTV targets? "When I look back, almost without exception I'm comfortable with what I did," says Moranis, who once neatly skewered Dick Cavett by mimicking the talk show host interviewing his favourite subject: himself. When the two finally met in New York, Cavett gamely approved. "We made fun of some of the pretence of his show, but he understood that we were doing parody and that the nature of the satire is exaggeration. We got along just fine."
These days, except for a recent Saturday Night Live appearance, Moranis turns down TV requests to dust off his Woody Allen or David Brinkley imitations. :SCTV is in reruns; why repeat yourself?" So don't look for any of Moranis's quirky SCTV music characterizations (like slick VJ Jerry Todd), or even excerpts from his satirical solo album, "You, Me, The Music, And Me", on the Junos. "We'll try to have a good time," says Moranis, "but we're not going to do any unconventional performance or anything like that- - not with the acts they've got (including Alannah Myles, Rod Stewart, Milli Vanilli and Cowboy Junkies). I'll probably just be the Ed Sullivan of the show."
Ed who? "I had this amazing experience last year on the streets of New York shooting 'Ghostbusters II'," Moranis recalls. "We were surrounded by little kids wearing their ecto- packs and their paraphernalia, and the only person they wanted an autograph from was Ernie Hudson-- because he had the best character on the cartoon show. They don't know Bill Murray, or Saturday Night Live, they don't know Dan Akroyd, they don't know the Blues Brothers, they don't know me-- they just wanted the black Ghostbuster, Ernie Hudson, because they love Winston on the cartoon show"
That was last year. Those same kids and their families are probably amongst this year's six million buyers of "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids"-- the biggest first-quarter video shipment ever. So this year, when the street kids are out hunting autographs, Rick Moranis had better be packing a pen. He's going to need it.