[Happy New Year to everyone!]
Last week's TMF Thursday featured a Bonus Fact with a link to Bob and Doug McKenzie performing an over-the-top-stereotypical Canadian version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." I am a fan of stupid comedy in general, and of the McKenzie brothers in particular, and thought that their origin story would make a good TMFW in its own right.
But first, because of the M in TMFW, let's get some music facts (as they say in Canada) "covered off." Bob and Doug were a pop culture phenomenon in the early 80s, hitting their crescendo in 1983 with the release of the classic movie Strange Brew. The film was a (very) loose adaptation of Hamlet (if you can believe that - they've even written papers about it) in which the McKenzie brothers contrive to place a mouse in a beer bottle so that they can complain to the beer store and get some free two-fours. But before Strange Brew, the McKenzie Brothers had a comedy record called The Great White North. Released in 1981, the record featured comedy skits and songs, including the aforementioned "Twelve Days of Christmas" and a track in the "hit single section of [the] album" featuring Geddy Lee from Rush called "Take Off." The Great White North was a hit in the US, spending 12 weeks on the album charts and reaching number 8. It was an even bigger hit in Canada, where it was triple-platinum and made #1 for six weeks.
OK, there were your music facts. Back to Bob and Doug's origin story. The McKenzie Brothers sketches started on SCTV, which itself grew out of The Second City improv club. The Second City started in Chicago in 1959, and in 1972 it opened a club in Toronto. In time, the Toronto location amassed a talented group of performers in its main troupe that included John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, and Dave Thomas. In 1976, that group - along with Catherine O'Hara and Andrea Martin - made the first cast of SCTV. The show was able to find a production and distribution arrangement in part because of "Canadian content" regulations, which require that television broadcasters in Canada must air a certain percentage of "cultural and creative content that is Canadian in nature." For the first two seasons, the show was recorded in Toronto for a small regional network.
By season 3, Rick Moranis had joined the cast and the CBC network picked up the show for national broadcast. Production moved to Edmonton, and the show started syndication in sporadic places in the U.S. Here's where it gets interesting: due to less commercials in Canada, the Canadian version of SCTV was two minutes longer than the syndicated version. To satisfy their duties under the content regulations, the CBC required those two extra minutes of the show to be specifically Canadian material.
At the time of the CBC's request, Dave Thomas was the head writer of SCTV. He and his colleagues bristled at the idea that a show recorded in Canada, with a Canadian cast and Canadian writers, somehow created content that was not "Canadian" for the purposes of broadcast regulations. So as a shot at the network they came up with the most stereotypical, offensive caricature of Canadians that they could - dimwitted guys in parkas and toques, sitting in front of a map of Canada drinking beer, calling each other hosers and saying "eh" over and over again - and made that their submission to the CBC. As Thomas recalls, the skits were very loose: "the rest of the cast would go home after a hard shooting day and Rick and I would stay an extra hour and just shoot some Bob & Doug McKenzie. They were all exactly two minutes long so we'd have the floor director count us in and we just improvised. If we shot 10 and two were good, that was a pretty good shooting ratio compared to the rest of the show to get four minutes of programming in one hour."
The rest, of course, is history. Canadian audiences loved Bob and Doug; they quickly were the favorite and most-anticipated bit of each episode. When the show started including "The Great White North" skits on the American syndicated broadcasts, they were similarly well-received. By time SCTV ended, Bob and Doug had made over 40 skits together, in addition to their hit record and cult movie. Not bad for an idea that started as a middle finger to network suits.
BONUS FACT: Though Rush has enjoyed great success in North America - 40 million records sold, 24 gold and 14 platinum albums - they have amazingly had only four (!!!) top-20 singles in Canada, and none on the US Hot 100. Geddy Lee's only top-20 hit on the Hot 100 was for "Take Off," which hit number 16 in March 1982. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
(OBSCURE, THROWAWAY) BONUS FACT 2: If you have ever wondered about the voice of Geddy Lee, and how it got so high, and wondered "if he speaks like an ordinary guy," my fact-checkin[g] cous[in] knows him, and he does.
BONUS FACT 3: After his time on SCTV, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas's castmate Joe Flaherty was brilliantly cast as the dad to Sam and Lindsay Weir on the excellent 1999 TV show Freaks and Geeks. Mr. Weir's principal job seemed to be telling his kids about various cautionary tales in the hopes of steering them straight.
CORRECTION: Last week's Bonus Facts included a bit about my friend Ross's dad. I reported that he played flanker at the University of New Brunswick, when in fact he played for the Thunderbirds of the University of British Columbia. TMFW regrets the error.