Sometimes you want to analyze a comedy sketch that deconstructs racist power structures in media or points out the insidious nature of sexism, and other times you just want to watch a bunch of hilarious people goof around. We’re going to look at a different type of sketch today, a commercial parody from the character comedy powerhouse that was SCTV that reduces me to giggles every time.
There’s a lot of backstory to SCTV, the Canadian show that went through multiple incarnations and was at one point an entire fictional TV channel filled with quirky behind the scenes antics, recurring bits, and admirably obscure pop culture references. They’re most famous for spawning the empire of laid back Canadian toque-heads Bob and Doug McKenzie, but it was also a feast of weird, wacky, and often quite sophisticated takedowns of visual culture. I’ll save an overview of the show for another day and instead focus on this sketch specifically.
Just as my generation is still in the midst of 80’s and 90’s nostalgia, the 80’s themselves were crammed with media harkening back to the glistening 50’s and 60’s, laying the groundwork for anyone who wanted to tee off against the squeaky clean white bread stereotypes of the Baby Boom. And I’m almost certain there were actual ads very similar to this sketch, milking rosy memories of tight harmony groups for every bit they were worth.
It’s hard to really describe this sketch in words because it’s so fleeting. The entire thing is basically just a faux commercial for a compilation of the hits of the “5 Neat Guys,” a bunch of cheesy-looking dudes in sweater vests who apparently used to sing about mundanities like clip-on ties and penny loafers. There’s a few wrinkles that add serious rewatch value to this bit, though, and I’m impressed that the sketch is far more layered than it seems.
The most obvious joke is that all of the songs sound the same, which makes the inane song titles like “Who Made The Egg Salad Sandwiches? and “Let’s Have A Party in My Rec Room” all the funnier (the Guys would return in a future sketch with more songs like “Put A Little Extra Relish on My Hot Dog” and “Mom Pressed the Crease in My Chinos”). That’s Level One, and it would have been enough to sustain the whole sketch, but then you get a few songs that subvert expectations by being surprisingly raunchy (the line that follows “I won’t date just any girl around” was quite the shock the first time I heard it). The more you watch this sketch, too, the more you’ll notice little lines crammed into the nooks and crannies, or how some of the tunes cut off right when things start getting suspect (“and when she wears tight sweaters/my hands begin to sweat…”).
And then there’s the acting going on here. The SCTV players took their character work seriously, even when those characters were joyously goofy or one dimensional. In addition to the songs, there’s the added joke of the gang being clearly over the hill and still trying to do their old schtick with graying hair and paunchy bellies. As Stephen Fry once said, “a young person playing an old person is always funny”. Probably not literally true, but hard to refute in many cases.
Here, each of the group’s members has a trait that they keep up throughout the commercial, so much so that it’s almost worth watching this five separate times just to focus on what each of them is doing: Rick Moranis is a deer in the headlights, Dave Thomas is over-emoting out the wazoo, Eugene Levy is a skeezy dork, Joe Flaherty is apparently a recovering alcoholic and John Candy nearly steals the entire sketch with a walrus mustache and a ridiculous smile. I remember listening to a DVD commentary for this where Flaherty lamented that his specific acting choices, looking drunk and being off-beat, were never noticed because of Candy’s fake facial hair. To me, that’s actually a bonus, since it gives you more reason to watch this sketch in the first place.
Not a lot more to say about this, I think. Commercial parodies can be formulaic, so it’s nice to see one that actually works and doesn’t rely on too many of the trope’s cliches (celebrity impressions, “if you order now, you’ll also get a free…”). The boys got a lot of mileage out of these characters, and it all started from this dumb, beautiful little bit. Keep an eye out for whatever version of this the Millennials get, probably coming soon, and almost certainly featuring Jimmy Fallon.