Canadian sketch comedy genius Billy Van.
Reason for Induction:
For manic brilliance while setting the blueprint for Canadian character comedy.
Born Billy Van Evera in Toronto in 1934, by age 12, “Billy Van” and his four brothers were touring North America as a singing act, and by the 1960s he was on his way to becoming one of Canada’s best-loved comedians. Van first gained national attention as a fixture on the 1960s CBC TV series Nightcap, a late-night show known for its irreverent satire, low budget and puerile humour. A chameleon who flipped effortlessly from character to character, he was the show’s comedic fulcrum. While Wayne and Shuster’s “literate slapstick” was restrained, Van’s parodies were wild and brash. He set the prototype for Canadian sketch comedy in the 1970s – broad, over-the-top and painfully accurate.
Van’s best-known project, 1971’s The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, was a bizarre entity – part kids show, part psychedelic trip, part Gothic goof. Its 130 episodes were shot during a mere nine months of production and it featured an American celebrity (Vincent Price, who recorded dozens of skits in four days) and a multi-talented Canadian (Van), who played almost every character, from its star, the pizza-loving Count, to Grizelda, the Ghastly Gourmet. The Hilarious House of Frightenstein was as corny as you could get. Take, for example, this exchange between the Count and his hunchback servant, Igor.
Igor: How do I look, Master?
Count: You look like a million dollars – all green and wrinkly.
While Van beefed up such Yankee Doodle series as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, and starred with Jack Duffy and Dinah Christie on the CHCH series Party Game, he never found the big fame that subsequent Canadian comedians such as John Candy and Dan Aykroyd won. In part, this was a result of timing. Billy Van’s comedy was ahead of the curve. Nightcap’s satire and spontaneity were precursors to Saturday Night Live. His work on Frightenstein lampooning pop culture (hippies, horror movies and music) foreshadowed the parody that made SCTV a hit. When Mike Myers was inducted into that other Canadian Walk of Fame, he credited Van, among others, for helping shape his comedy.
Billy Van died in 2003, in Toronto, after a year-long battle with lung cancer. He was 68. Van’s last screen performance was as “Les” the trainer in the 1995 hockey movie Net Worth. A fitting final role for an actor who performed comedy the way the great ones play hockey – with heart, passion and a hell of a lot of talent.
Andrew Clark is the author of Stand and Deliver: Inside Canadian Comedy.
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