Sunday, April 3, 2016

How 'SCTV' made the most of its celebrity impersonations

Dave Thomas (left) and Martin Short on SCTV.

One of the delusions under which Saturday Night Live continues to operate is that celebrity impressions are inherently funny on their own. On SNL, it's generally enough for cast members to look, talk, and dress like well-known public figures. Actually doing anything interesting with the impressions is secondary or tertiary at best. The show usually concocts some very contrived reason for its imitations, i.e. "What if [so-and-so] auditioned for Star Wars/James Bond/Back To The Future/whatever? Wouldn't that be wacky?" Sometimes, if they're really desperate, they'll throw together an all-star Family Feud sketch and just burn off a whole bunch of celebrity impressions at once.

The whole point seems to be recognition. We're supposed to watch in utter stupefaction and say, "Hey! That guy sounds just like that other guy! Amazing!" Never mind that celebrity impressions are so commonplace that YouTube has a seemingly endless supply of them or that the IT guy at your workplace probably does a halfway decent Christopher Walken.

SCTV did things a little differently. More so than SNL, SCTV was concerned with developing full personalities and lives for its recurring characters, rather than reducing them to a few easily identifiable tics and catchphrases. It's amazing, in retrospect, how much we learned about Bobby Bittman, Johnny LaRue, Edith Prickly, Guy Caballero, Lola Heatherton, and others.

And that thoroughness occasionally extended to the show's celebrity impersonations, at least the ones that made multiple appearances. It's not enough on SCTV to simply mimic another performer's way of talking; the show's best sketches make a study of the person's thinking and behaving as well.

The supreme example of this is Dave Thomas' Bob Hope impression. Bob wasn't locked into one sketch or format on SCTV, so he could pop up in all kinds of places. He might unexpectedly drop by during The Sammy Maudlin Show, casually ruining Bobby Bittman's set. Or he might be hosting a pro-am golfing tournament in the Middle East or mentoring Rick Moranis' nervous, adoring Woody Allen.

One of my favorite Hope skits from SCTV is a talk show parody called "Stars In One," which teams Thomas with Martin Short as probing interviewer Brock Linahan, a parody of genuine Canadian TV personality Brian Linehan. Like his real world counterpart, Short's character has an eerie talent for keeping his guests off-balance with a combination of flattery and acrimony, buttering them up one moment and undercutting them the next. In the sketch, there is palpable tension between Linahan and Hope, the latter an old-school showbiz lifer who barely speaks the same language as his verbose, wide-eyed inquisitor.

This sketch just floors me. It would be impossible to imagine on SNL. "Stars In One" never goes for an obvious punchline, though SCTV's trusty laugh track chortles away somewhere in the background. It's an honest-to-goodness character piece about two guys with very different ways of looking at the world. Is one right and the other wrong? Are they both right and wrong simultaneously? It's tough to pinpoint a favorite line here, but I'll nominate this beauty from Hope: "You know, you have a way of asking a question that makes you forget what it's about by the time you get to the end. When you stop talking, it's like walking to the edge of a cliff. I have no idea what you just asked."

What's amazing here is that Brock Linahan has managed to rattle Bob Hope a little with his ridiculously wordy query about the Vietnam War. Hope, understandably, wants to rely on glib one-liners, but Linahan is throwing his rhythm off. In just four minutes, the sketch manages to reveal Hope's philosophy about movies, comedy, politics, and more. Anyway, just watch.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, this sketch has disappeared from the internet since I originally posted this article. In its place, here's Dave Thomas doing his Bob Hope impression on The Dave Thomas Comedy Show from 1990. It doesn't go with this article as well, but it's still good.