Second City's second city: Edmonton gets kudos for helping SCTV really take off, comedian says

To hear Dave Thomas tell it, Edmonton was a dark, cold and friendless place in the early ‘80s. But he's not complaining.

'Edmonton branded the show and the look that it had, that ultimately resulted in it getting picked up by NBC'

The comedy legends behind SCTV will reunite for a special directed by Martin Scorsese. Seen, from left, are Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Scorsese, Dave Thomas, Martin Short and Joe Flaherty. (Netflix)

To hear comedian Dave Thomas tell it, Edmonton was a dark, cold and friendless place in the early '80s.

Not that he's complaining. If anything, those true northern realities contributed to some great television during the year-and-a-bit that Thomas and the cast of the Canadian sketch comedy SCTV were based in Alberta's capital city.

"We were out-of-towners come to Edmonton, we didn't really know anybody, we didn't have a social life there. And that the show was so demanding on us … that we just worked all the time," Thomas said Tuesday on an interview with CBC's Edmonton AM.

"We didn't have time for anything but work."

SCTV, or Second City Television, ran from 1976 to 1984 and helped launch the careers of many comic legends, including the late John Candy and Harold Ramis.

Now Hollywood director Martin Scorsese is working with Netflix to make a documentary about the show, which will include a reunion show — moderated by Jimmy Kimmel — next month in Toronto.

Rick Moranis, left, and Dave Thomas developed the Bob and Doug McKenzie characters for an SCTV skit in 1980. (CBC)

Former cast members including Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short and Thomas are all expected to be at the May 13 show at Toronto's Elgin Theatre, which will be recorded in front of a live audience.

Thomas said the match with Scorsese, best known for gangster movies like Goodfellas, only seems out-of-character.

"It turns out he's quite hilarious," Thomas said. "Marty Short approached him [about the project] and he apparently is a big fan of the show and he jumped at the chance."

SCTV came to Edmonton in 1980, one year after the Global television station in Toronto dropped it due to high production costs. Show producer Andrew Alexander secured a deal with Edmonton broadcaster Charles Allard, who owned CITV and the Allarcom studios.

"It wasn't so much that the cast wasn't thrilled about going to Edmonton," Thomas said when asked about the move from Toronto. "I think some of the people just didn't take it that seriously at first."

Back to show business, in a big way

In its first two seasons, "the cast had been confronted with rejection and semi success-slash-failure" and after it was cancelled in 1979, the cast  scattered in search of other projects. But Thomas and Flaherty agreed to make the move, Moranis was added to the cast and others agreed to participate on a part-time basis, he said.

After a year-and-a-half off the air, SCTV moved to Edmonton and got back into show business.

And as the saying goes, the show — largely thanks to Allarcom — took off.

"That little studio in Edmonton really rose to the occasion of helping us produce the show," Thomas said. "The crew and the director ..., they really worked hard to make the production values on the show really sing.

"And that first season in Edmonton showed, I always thought, a remarkable difference in production value and the quality of what we were doing."

It wasn't just the cast that noticed. "Edmonton kind of branded the show and the look that it had, that ultimately resulted in it getting picked up by NBC," Thomas said.

SCTV aired until 1984 on NBC, securing several Emmy wins along the way.

Why make a documentary?

But why make a documentary about a little Canadian comedy program that poked fun at long johns, bacon and two-fours of beer and added the phrase "Take off, eh" into the national lexicon?

Thomas said it's partly because the sketches — which, he pointed out, were written far in advance so couldn't be topical — didn't have the limited shelf-life of sketches today on the likes of Saturday Night Live.

The show also had a powerful effect on the careers of the comedians who were on the show, or who just learned from it.

"One of the things I've noticed over the years is a lot of young comedians and young comedy writers [who] talk about the show and seem to indicate that they were in some way influenced by it," Thomas said.

There's not much known yet about the final documentary, which will eventually stream on Netflix. Some of Scorsese's other acclaimed documentaries include The Last Waltz, the final concert of rock group The Band, and Bob Dylan's No Direction Home.

Thomas said the May 13 live event with Kimmel will include clips of old material and — "despite our advancing age" —  some new performances.

"Old people getting together remembering the old days," he said with a laugh.

"Doesn't get any better than that, right?"