Now on MBC, the team from SCTV aims to become No. 1 in late-night comedy.
By: Gerald Levitch
On March 6, Andrew Alexander was sitting behind his marble-topped desk
in an office the size of a squash court on the third floor of Toronto’s
Old Fire Hall theatre. When the phone rang, it echoed. On the line was
an NBC executive, calling from New York. He said, “Ok, I think we want
to do a deal.”
The deal was for nine 90-minute TV shows, featuring the cast of SCTV, to replace The Midnight Special on NBC’s Friday night lineup. All Alexander had to do was collect the SCTV comedy troupe, find some writers and get three shows ready by May 15.
“This schedule has got us right behind the eight-ball,” said Alexander. And the ringing telephone has echoed almost constantly in his cavernous office ever since. There were meetings with CBC, which carried SCTV last season, and calls from ITV in Edmonton, whose facilities are being used for the series. Not to mention the nervous executives in New York.
“We could deliver a show,” says Alexander. “Something that maybe we’re not happy with, but we want to make sure that we put something on the air that’s going to work. We want to produce a show that’ll have a long life.”
That’s because the March 6 call has a long history behind it. “We’ve been working on this deal for five years,” Alexander says. “Ever since we started the show, we’ve always been trying to get on a network.”
Before the NBC deal, there was the CBC series; a syndicated series seen on 60-odd U.S. and Canadian stations; a series for Global TV; and before that, Second City’s antic comedy was seen only on the Fire Hall stage, two floors beneath Alexander’s office, where it all started in 1973. Or, at least, started for Alexander.
Second City was founded in the late 50’s in Chicago as an improvisational-theatre company that spawned a remarkable series of stars, including Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Alan Arkin. In the early 70’s, a Toronto company opened. It failed after a few months; then Alexander bought the rights.
The figure most frequently quoted is a dollar. “That’s not true,” Alexander protests. “It was two dollars.” That was back in 1973, when a dollar was worth more, and Second City (or at least its Canadian version) was worth a lot less. “When I heard that were going under, I said, ‘Let me give it a shot.’ From their point of view,” Alexander recalls, “I was completely crazy.” But Alexander was not only not crazy, he was an energetic hustler with a certain knack for spotting talent. “I still have Dan Akroyd’s contract from when he worked here in 1974-75. He was making $145 a week. So was Gilda Radner.” There was also Martin Short, who costars in I’m a Big Girl Now. And, by 1977, he had a cast of veterans and newcomers that included Andrea Martin, John Candy, Dave Thomas, Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty and Catherine O’Hara. He was paying them around $250 a week, which was over Equity scale. And he was worried.
As he explains, Second City got into television as a defense measure.
With Saturday Night Live’s success well established, it was an open secret
that many of its key people were Second City alumni. Alexander quite reasonably
feared that someone would come along and steal his cast right off the stage
for TV. He decided to do it himself.
He created a show that’s become a cult success across the U.S., largely thanks to its ensemble company, who worked together on the stage for so many years. “Ensemble work is a family situation,” Alexander says. “In our theatre, we work as a democracy, where the actors are also the writer, and they get to perform their own material. We took that philosophy to television.” Which is, of course, a different medium; but even there, the Second City gang operated by its own rules.
As Alexander explains, “We started that way, and we sort of continued on, where everybody had a little bit to say; and there’s not one individual who is the final creative authority.” Although he declines to take part in any day-to-day creative control, Alexander ultimately makes the most important decisions: who’s in and who's out. “I always decide on who is going to go into the resident company that appears here every night, and I also decide who is going to be on the TV show.”
Which is why he’s stationed in his office by the phone, while the cast—Martin, Candy, Thomas, Flaherty, O’Hara, Levy, and Rick Moranis—and writers are gathered a mile or so away. It may be noon on Good Friday, but the conference table is crowded in the borrowed board room of a movie production company. The atmosphere is more woozy that tense, but problems are mounting.
For three seasons, SCTV has run in a 30-minute time slot. NBC wants 90-minutes, possibly because Saturday Night Live and Fridays run to 90 minutes. But more likely, it’s because SCTV Network 90 has to fill the 90-minute vacancy left by The Midnight Special and face-off against the lately successful Fridays on ABC. Whether they can stretch the old format of SCTV to fill the time worries most of the cast. “We don’t know,” says Eugene Levy. They’ve thought about guest hosts, musical acts and cameo shots; but, with only a month to air date, they don’t know how the finished show will look.
What they do know is that they’ve been given virtual carte blanche by NBC. “They know what they’re getting here,” Andrea Martin says, “except they’re getting an hour more. But they trust the success of the old show, the limited success of the show,” she amends herself. In Canada, that was limited to about 300,000 viewers on the owned-and-operated CBC stations. Ratings were apparently down a bit in the U.S. this year, but that was attributed to a decline in the audience for Saturday Night Live, which leads into SCTV in many U.S. cities.
The cast is optimistic about maintaining the freedom and control they
had over the syndicated show. “It’s totally open,” Rick Moranis says. “That
really is the beauty of it. Nowhere else can you have this freedom, and
we’re really just trying to hang onto that.”
SCTV may be written in Toronto and produced in Edmonton; but unlike some Canadian produced TV shows that disguise their origins, SCTV has never been ashamed of being Canadian. From their newscasters, Earl Camembert and Floyd Robertson, to their Great White North jokes, to their new opening—which shows them being sent back to Canada and the Edmonton studios—SCTV relishes its Canadian flavour.
But what if the NBC executives find Edmonton on the map and arrive in snowshoes in hand and cleats on their boots? “We’re well protected from that,” Moranis says. “Solidarity and all that. We sort of guard each other. We have the union of the group standing in front of us. It’s also different in that the network came to us.”
The shift to NBC poses a quite different dilemma for Alexander. He’s
gambling, really, with the long-term potential profits of SCTV. Big money
comes from rerunning the show five days a week in syndication. But, to
do that, he needs at least 100 shows. SCTV’s three previous seasons aren’t
enough. Meanwhile, the budget from NBC is less than bountiful. “It’s tight,”
he admits. To be more precise, it’s about $225,000 per show, as opposed,
he says, to the half-million or so allotted to Saturday Night Live. It’s
not that NBC’s being cheap, says Alexander, who insists it’s a fair rate,
given the late-night schedule and the proportionately lower advertising
rates. Saturday Night Live had to earn its present budget, and Alexander
expects to do the same.
On the other hand, if the show flops, everything changes. Or it might. “We could go right back and do the syndicated show,” Alexander says. “But for the case, it might be a case of going to the major leagues and then being bumped down to the minors.”
Some of them have already had a brush with that. Flaherty, John Candy, and Catherine O’Hara were recently invited to joing Saturday Night Live. They turned it down, and Catherine O’Hara still frets about what happened. “I wasted a lot of people’s time,” she confesses, and then blushes. “I feel bad for what I did”
She didn’t work with SCTV last year. “I did some small parts in some bad films. I wrote for Steve Allen.” And she directed the current stage show at the Second City theatre in Toronto.
Then she got the call from the Saturday Night Live people. “I thought, ‘No way do I want to do a third-rung Saturday Night Live’.” They wooed her to New York for a weekend. “It was stretch limos and fancy dinners,” she recalls. “They were awfully flattering to me, and I tried to keep my head.” She knew they were also talking to Flaherty and Candy. They’d already picked up Tony Rosato and Robin Duke, who’d both worked on SCTV last year. “They probably felt it was a good farm club,” Flaherty says.
But O’Hara had no intent in a rescue mission. “That was not my intention,” Catherine says firmly. “I did not think I was going to rescue anything. I thought I was going to do a new show. And when I got there, they kept saying, ‘Death ship’ and ‘Let’s save the thing’. And I thought, ‘Wait a second. It’s one thing to save something that’s been in your life, that you’re really connected with and have strong feelings toward.’ But I’d never been connected with Saturday Night. I wasn’t one of those people. I didn’t feel responsible, and I didn’t feel I knew how to save it. I just felt outside of it when I got there.”
Flaherty understands her feelings and adds, “I told them about the loyalty
factor. We’d spent so much time with this show, and we wanted to see if
we could get it off the ground on a network.” So Joe and John never left
Toronto, and Catherine came home.
Andrew Alexander remembers when Catherine started eight years ago as a waitress, then worked as a coat-check. “We put her in workshops, then in the touring company and, later, the resident company.” She put in her standard four-year honours. And then, like many others, headed south. But she came back. There’s a gleam in Andrew Alexander’s eye. He not only knows how to pick them; he knows how to keep them.