In 1980, when the producers of the syndicated Canadian comedy show SCTV asked the cast to add two minutes of “Canadian” material to comply with government TV regulations, writer-actor Rick Moranis, 28, was disconcerted. “Our first reaction,” he recalls, “was, the show is done in Canada and we’re Canadian; isn’t that enough?” Happily, he and partner Dave Thomas, 33, had a second reaction. They fought politics with parody by creating the parka-clad, beer-guzzling, ski-capped brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie, a pair of Canadian bumpkins with an imaginary TV talk show, Great White North. On North, the brothers end their sentences with “eh?,” fry slices of back bacon and meander dimly over topics like the shortage of parking spaces at doughnut restaurants and how to raise baby mice in beer bottles to scare the manufacturer into a free case. “They wanted Canadian,” says Moranis, “they got Canadian.”
What Thomas and Moranis got is a snowballing cult. Their first LP, Great White North, already has sold some 350,000 copies in Canada (equivalent to 3.5 million in the U.S., where it has just been released), and their catch phrases (“g’day,” “eh?” and “take off”) are on adolescent lips from Halifax to Victoria. In the U.S., too, they have emerged as the hottest duo among the seven gifted young satirists of SCTV. Despite a tight budget (NBC kicks in about $200,000 per show) and an arctic time slot (12:30-2 a.m. Saturday), SCTV has replaced Saturday Night Live (not to mention ABC’s Fridays) as arguably the tube’s funniest show.
It’s no surprise that Rick and Dave are rapidly becoming the Blues Brothers of the North. The Blues Brothers themselves, fellow Canadian Dan Aykroyd and Chicagoan John Belushi, are graduates of the same Second City troupes that bred SCTV (Second City television). Thomas and Aykroyd remain close from their comedy days together. “Belushi is my performing partner, and Dave is my principal writing partner,” says Aykroyd, who recently scripted a comedy spy movie with Thomas that they hope will unite the four of them. “I think we’ll also be doing a TV special with Dave and Rick, and I hope that there will be an alliance between the SNL core group and the SCTV guys in the next few years.”
Thomas points to a shift in Canada’s cultural contributions to the U.S. “In the 1960s it was musicians—Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell—who went down. Now it’s comedians.”
“Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Jack Benny—they’re all Canadians,” jokes Moranis. Aristophanes? “He was Canadian, too.” Why is Canada a hotbed for comedy? “The cold is good for preserving ideas,” Moranis claims. “In Mexico they preserve old jokes by adding really hot spices. In parts of Mexico you can still get Bob Hope routines from the thirties, but they’re really hot.”
So are SCTV’s satirical send-ups of standard television fare. Every member of the cast does impressions of showbiz types that go beyond parody to perfection. Moranis, for instance, does Woody Allen, Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin. Thomas shines as Walter Cronkite, Liberace and Bob Hope. When Hope played Toronto last summer, Thomas cornered him backstage and “forced” him to sit through “a tape of me doing him,” Thomas recalls. “Real nervy. But when else was I going to get to him? He liked it. It was one of the finest moments of my life.”
Born in St. Catharines, Ontario, the son of a philosophy professor and a music instructor, Thomas lived in North Carolina from age 6 to 12 while his father earned his Ph.D. at Duke. After returning to Canada and graduating from high school, Dave spent a year “growing long hair and flipping out” in Vancouver before enrolling at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He performed in plays and moonlighted as a radio and TV sketch writer while earning an M.A. in English. After graduation he worked as a copywriter, quit in boredom, and auditioned his way into Second City.
Moranis took a different route. His father was a Toronto liquor salesman, his mother a job counselor. Rick began working at a radio station in high school and quit college at 19 to become a late-night deejay and producer. A year later he returned to college at Toronto’s York University and “wrestled with the existentialists” for two years. Then he quit again to write for radio and TV and do stand-up comedy. Thomas, who had seen him perform, invited him to join SCTV in 1980. “When Rick came along, something clicked—instant partnership,” Thomas remembers. “He has this attitude: Even though we’re comedians, it’s a job. It’s 9 o’clock, let’s get going, write it, volume, let’s move! I love it.”
Both live in Toronto. Moranis, who recently ended a two-year romance with a student teacher, lives in a bachelor apartment. Thomas and his wife of six months, casting agent Pam Roberts-Thomas, 28, share a cozy three-bedroom house. Great White North mania so far has caused them no major upheavals, perhaps because the first royalty checks have yet to arrive. “No one gets rich in Canada,” notes Moranis, “unless you’ve got oil. But I no longer worry about returning empty beer bottles.”
While waiting for the money, they’ve been trying to figure out what went right. “The public can’t emulate their favorites. They can’t play guitar like Jimmy Page or produce a movie like Star Wars,” philosophizes Rick. “But they can sit around and drink beer and talk like Bob and Doug, eh?”