'Saturday Night Live' vs. 'SCTV': Which Show Rules?
Good luck finding two shows with closer comic bloodlines than Saturday Night Live and SCTV. It’s not exactly what happens when cousins marry, but let’s just say the two shows share a lot of the same comedy gene pool.
When SNL launched in 1975, “half the creative element came out of Second City (the improvisational comedy group with locations in Chicago and Toronto) and the other half out of National Lampoon,” remembers SCTV cast member Eugene Levy. That scared Second City’s owner, Bernie Sahlins, who said, “Hey, they’re taking our Second City (performers), and now they have a big hit TV show. We should get our show off the ground before we lose any more people.”
And thus SCTV was born. Quite a Canadian beauty, eh? (Let’s get this out of the way: The show was never called SCTV. First, it was Second City Television, then The SCTV Television Network, followed by SCTV Network 90, SCTV 90, and finally, SCTV Channel. But for our purposes? SCTV it is.)
Starting with minuscule budgets and a limited audience, SCTV took some time to grow. But after a few years, SCTV got its comedy green card and the Canadian sketch show aired on NBC, the Friday night, slightly younger sibling to SNL. “That’s the moment that we realized,” says Levy, “this show can compete with any show anywhere in the world because it’s that good.”
SCTV was good. But Saturday Night Live good? Yeah, maybe that good.
It’s time for the Sketch Show Brawl to End Them All. Let’s put Levy’s claim to the test and pit one show against the other in a completely unfair, totally arbitrary competition to determine which one was truly (OK, subjectively) the best.
Here’s where we admit that comparing SNL and SCTV is somewhat of an apples-and-oranges game. While both shows are built on the backs of their comedy sketches, the presentation styles are completely different animals.
Saturday Night Live sketches, by definition, are performed live, by comedians mostly reading cue cards, featuring material that was written only days before. What the show loses in polish, it makes up for in spontaneity and the buzzy rush of performing in front of a live audience. There’s a reason stand-up specials aren’t filmed in empty rooms -- the electric give-and-take with real people makes a difference.
SCTV sketches were filmed for later editing, giving the cast and crew more time to fine-tune the laughs. And unlike its New York cousin, SCTV’s Canadian bona fides came with at least two extra restraints: 1) The first episodes were produced for a budget of $5,000 per show. Good luck buying a used car for that kind of cash. 2) The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) required SCTV to devote at least two minutes of each episode to content exclusively aimed at a Canadian audience. That turned out to be somewhat fortuitous -- Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas thumbed their nose at their Canuck overlords with a “mean-spirited joke” in the form of Great White North doofuses Bob and Doug McKenzie, who of course became the show’s most popular characters.
Regardless of sketch style, both shows had their hits and misses, satiric masterpieces mixed with overlong duds. So do you like your chicken Original Recipe or Extra Crispy? At some point, it just comes down to personal taste.
Hollywood Launching Pad
Both shows launched the film careers of some of our biggest comedy stars. But let’s face it -- this category isn’t close. Here are the movie stars launched by SCTV: John Candy, Eugene Levy (really more of a TV success than a movie star, but we’ll go with it), Catherine O’Hara, and Rick Moranis. We would be stretching it to call Martin Short a movie star (and he was also on SNL), but for grins, let’s throw him on the SCTV list. Oh heck, let’s put Harold Ramis on there too, even though he made a bigger impact as a comedy film director. That’s six.
As for SNL stars of the screen? How about Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Mike Meyers, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Kristen Wiig -- for starters?
Sure, sure -- it’s not fair to compare numbers when one show has aired for nearly fifty years and the other for only six. But if we only count Belushi, Murray, Aykroyd, and Chase from SNL’s first five seasons, you still have to give the movie category to SNL on box office alone.
As for sketches that made it to the big screen? SCTV has long-forgotten Strange Brew, the Bob and Doug McKenzie movie. SNL has certified blockbusters Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, plus about a dozen of the worst comedy movies ever filmed. At least they got made?
Use of Musical Guests
SNL has a storied history of amazing musical performances (Bowie, Nirvana, Kendrick Lamar), as well as legendary disasters like the studio-destroying anarchy of Fear and Ashley Simpson’s lip-sync implosion.
But for a pure synthesis of cool music and comedy, SCTV had it going on. In John Candy’s recurring sketch The Fishin’ Musician, host Gil Fisher invited guests like the Plasmastics, Third World, and Joe Walsh to join him at the Scuttle Butt Lodge for outdoor fishing adventures. Who wouldn’t want to watch the Tubes go trolling for large-mouth bass?
Producing a live weekly show has at least one advantage -- if something crazy happens in the world, the comedy can respond in real time.
Or is that an advantage? Some argue that by largely avoiding world events, SCTV’s comedy has remained timelessly hilarious. Come on, Five Neat Guys is going to be funny in 2050.
But as for lasting impact? Gerald Ford blames losing an election (at least in part) on Chevy Chase’s weekly skewerings. Research shows that Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin had a real effect on the 2008 presidential voting.
But SNL’s topical humor and its cultural impact goes beyond politics. Whether its pandemic anxiety, the #MeToo movement, or pop-culture phenomena like The Bachelor, viewers watch SNL in anticipation of the show holding up a funhouse mirror to our weird world.
Would You Want To Work There?
SNL’s production schedule has never made sense to us here at ComedyNerd. A typical work week goes like this: Monday, meet the host and pitch ideas. Tuesday, wander in during the afternoon and then stay up all night to write sketches. Wednesday, sleep during the day then gather around a table for up to three hours to read forty or so half-written scripts. Thursday, build sets, gather costumes, and rewrite. Friday and Saturday, rehearse. Finally, of course, showtime.
Um -- why not come in at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday and write during the day? The main answer is because the all-night version is the way Belushi and Aykroyd did it. To people who’ve never produced a show this way, the schedule seems kind of … nuts?
“I was so conditioned from SCTV to be doing the same kind of work but just having endless fun,” says Martin Short, one of the handful of performers who appeared on both shows. “At SCTV, you would write for six weeks, then you would shoot for six weeks, then you would edit as you were writing again. So it meant that if for two weeks you didn’t have an idea, it was okay.”
So adjusting to the SNL method? “Oh, it was terrible. You went home, slept for a couple hours, and came back,” recalls Short. “I always thought it was like final exams. I was always exhausted and never home.”
Another SCTV alum, Catherine O’Hara, was hired to join SNL but that didn’t last long. At her first meeting, out-of-his-gourd writer Michael O’Donoghue went off, proclaiming that the show was sh** and spraypainting the word DANGER on the wall. His actions “scared (O’Hara) right off the show,” remembers producer Dick Ebersole. “She packed up her stuff and went home to Canada that night.”
The Canadians just had a nicer time.
The Martin Short Factor
As mentioned earlier, Martin Short is one of the only comic talents to appear on both shows. (The other two dual cast members -- Tony Rosato and Robin Duke -- didn’t make a memorable impact on either program.)
So Short is in a unique position to help us determine which show was actually best.
Ugh. Short is too Canadian -- er, too nice -- to make a definitive judgment. If you didn’t take the time to watch the video, here’s the gist: He preferred “both of them.” A live performance by the raucous Rolling Stones, he argues, is better on SNL than taped on SCTV (although this viewer wouldn’t mind seeing Mick and the boys angling for trout with Gil Fisher). Subtle comic performances may work better with SCTV’s nuanced approach vs. SNL’s shouting to the cheap seats vibe.
In the end, Short gives us a “both shows have their strengths” non-answer. Will ComedyNerd cop out in the same way? It’s tempting, but we’re going to give the crown to …
Saturday Night Live. Sure, the show is always uneven, it can rely on overused characters, and the political cold opens are tiresome. But in a close race, the show that’s kept it going for nearly fifty years has to get the nod over the show that had to do it for six.
(But Canadians are still nicer.)
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Top image: NBC/CBC