SCTV is the archaeopteryx of 20th century comedy, a transitional fossil that emerged at the back-alley nexus of America’s flea-market mediascape circa 1980. Its cast – the softer-hearted Canadian loners to SNL’s slick ‘n’ savvy envoys of Rockefeller Center – built a comedic universe from inside the black box of television, rewiring its circuitry into satiric overload. This was sketch comedy as an intuitive burlesque of the entertainment industry in its gargantuan totality — as a layered cake with commerce as the icing and hubris as the base. SCTV’s effortless hilarity generates from the never-ending free-for-all among conflicting interests – ambitious producers, avaricious advertisers, unimpressed audiences, egocentric stars. The immutable law that all of these people utterly loathe one another is the lynchpin of SCTV’s genius.
The chief architect of Second City Television is one Joe Flaherty, whose total lack of recognition in comparison to his fellow alumni will forever stand as a blemish on the historical record and an indictment of cool kid comedy taste all throughout the hipsterverse. Flaherty is an emblem of the old school, an irascible Irish schtick-loving broad-strokes comic presence whose ability to make anything funny puts him in a league with the WC Fieldses and Laurel & Hardys of the world. With Flaherty you get the sense that no practice or planning – no guesswork, false starts, or fine-tuning – played any role in incubating his virtuosity. He is an absolute value on comedy’s proverbial measurement scale.
Flaherty was SCTV’s elder statesman, the lone consistent cast-member across all of the show’s many iterations. Seemingly devoid of even modest career ambitions, Flaherty probably could have nurtured SCTV’s creative vision for decades had network support not eroded or fellow cast-members not moved on to more profitable ventures. The series was like a child to him, the only conceivable outlet for his prodigious sense of humor. Based on stray DVD supplements and cast-and-crew interviews, Flaherty appears to have had the most idiosyncratic repository of ‘stuff he liked,’ a late-night TV omnivore with Zontar and the Rat Pack and the Godfather movies freely drifting through his media-saturated brain. And given the series’ non-existent standards of what might pass for acceptable, audience-friendly televisual content, these loose scraps of cultural connoisseurship blossomed into symphonic lampoons that transcend the usual strictures of parody to become comedy at its most ineffable.
These awe-inspiring sketches were not rooted in the gimmicky manipulation of a variable or two within an established formula, but rather the sublimation of the parodied work into an already immersive world where slapstick coils around satire and unique, artfully sketched characters bend any and all absorbed material to their manic will. Flaherty tends to anchor these ambitious, multivalent mega-sketches disproportionately, in large part because his characters often form the bedrocks of SCTV’s many lushly furnished sub-environments. The network’s day-to-day operations orbit around Flaherty’s Guy Caballero, a devilish cross-breed of curmudgeonly late 40s Lionel Barrymore and shifty Panama smooth-talker. From afro-coiffed friend-to-the-stars talk-show host Sammy Maudlin spawns the series’ most durable recurring sketch, an all-purpose skewering of showbiz and its not-so-happy family of fragile egos. And out of these two milieus emerge glorious blurred-vision parodies of The Godfather and Ocean’s Eleven respectively, with Melonville’s competitive cable TV marketplace freely integrated into the Corleone crime saga and Maudlin & co. finding seamless reflection in the star-powered passive-aggression among the archaically hip Rat Packers. The latter sketch in particular is a cataclysm of metatextuality, with Sammy Maudlin, Bobby Bittman (Eugene Levy), William B. Williams (John Candy), and the rest of the gang somehow playing themselves in a late fifties context without any indication that they are acting in a movie to be aired on the very network that televises the Maudlin show in the first place. SCTV consistently frazzles the brain with these free-roaming sprees of interconnective lunacy while also machine-gun-firing from the most diversified comedic arsenal that television has ever known.
Now, of course, the rest of the cast are likewise geniuses, and the aforementioned sketches are unthinkable without them. The contention of this essay is two-fold, that 1) Flaherty was the first among equals and that 2) the disparity between talent and recognition that has been an issue for every SCTV cast member has hit him the hardest. The younger cast-members seemed to more easily find points of entry into the mainstream, while Flaherty – who had the temperament of a gruff old-timer as early as his thirties – seems to have just missed the cutoff for mass appeal. He, more so than the rest of the cast, fully occupies SCTV’s irreplicable netherworld where groundbreaking post-modernist satire piggybacks on an outmoded, borderline Vaudevillian comedy cache of pratfalls and spit-takes and base ethnic stereotypes. You get the sense that most of these latter anachronisms – so integral to the unique grin-plastering pleasure of SCTV – flowed predominantly from Flaherty.
Take, for example, Flaherty’s roster of impersonations, more diversified than that of any other cast member and casting a wider net over the history of 20th century entertainment. Just for starters: Gregory Peck, Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, Bing Crosby, Alistair Cooke, Charlton Heston, William F. Buckley, Jack Klugman, and Salvador Dali. Flaherty transplanted these cultural icons, upright leading men, arbiters of erudition from their usual perches of respectability to the gaudy, vulgar, revolving-door TV culture of the 1980s. So here’s Gregory Peck as Travis Bickle lockjaw-ing De Niro’s psychotically playful mirror soliloquy into deep-throated, gear-grinding oblivion. And here’s the perennially civilized Alistair Cooke getting in on the ground floor of producer Johnny La Rue’s (Candy) Z-grade Playboy Channel knockoff, Friday Night Pajama Party. Or William F. Buckley cheating at football in a garish ratings bid that pits the PBS stars against one another in Herculean tests of athletic ability. Or a short-tempered Kirk Douglas as the most ill-fitting guest on Brooke Shields’ saucy new talk show. This is just a meager sampling of such glorious hybridizations that Flaherty routinely orchestrated. Not that Catherine O’Hara did not pull off similar feats with Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, or Dave Thomas with Bob Hope and Walter Cronkite, or Andrea Martin with Lorna (/Liza) Minnelli and Barbra Streisand…but the volume and frequency of what Flaherty did with impressions is unmatched.
And then there are his characters, his one-offs, the unthinkable ideas that only the bravest of comedians would possibly entertain. Vic Arpeggio: Private Eye, a parody of an almost unseen John Cassavetes television program called Johnny Staccato, starring a vintage Flaherty sleazebag named Vic Hedges, who had previously run for mayor after a hit role in Polynesiantown. If any of this isn’t bonkers enough, by the time Vic Arpeggio rolled out its second installment, Flaherty had the bright idea to cross-parody his little riff on cheap, black-and-white detective dramas with John Howard Griffin’s ‘Black Like Me,’ an idea so appalling that only Flaherty could have dreamed it up. And Rome, Italian Style, the Italian film parody to end all Italian film parodies, which has a low-brow blast with the easy targets of bad dubbing and voluptuous women and moralizing priests while also ascending into a wickedly on-point skewering of Federico Fellini’s brand of misogynistic surrealism. There’s the ingenious evolution of news anchor Floyd Robertson from a model of professionalism and straight-man foil for co-anchor Earl Camembert’s habitual incompetence to an embittered alcoholic who dresses up as the pathetic late-night kid’s show host Count Floyd (“scaaaaary stuff kids!”) to help pay the bills.
To continue any further would be to enter an inescapable vortex of indulgent fanboy effusion. At the end of the day, the work speaks for itself, and I entreat all readers of Rio Bravado, whoever you are, to seek out Second City Television and to really follow it through from at least the beginning of the NBC years onward. Famous faces like John Candy’s or Rick Moranis’s may jump out at you at first, but over time you’ll start to recognize the ubiquity of Joe Flaherty, to my mind one of the funniest people who has ever lived.