In television comedy, few shows have been more influential than SCTV. So says Jeff Robbins, and he would know. The Cottage Grove resident is the author of Second City Television: A History and Episode Guide (McFarland & Company, Inc.), a new, exhaustive handbook to the Canadian sketch-comedy show that ran, in various formats, from 1976 to 1984. The book features summaries and analysis for each of the 135 episodes of SCTV, which spawned comedy luminaries John Candy, Martin Short and Eugene Levy, among others.
"SCTV has a high regard in what you'd call the comedy world," says Robbins, 36, citing Conan O'Brien and the Kids in the Hall funnymen as fans. Robbins himself has been a devotee since age 9. A first-time author and father of two, he is an assistant program director at Television Wisconsin, the parent company of WISC-TV, My Madison TV, channel3000.com and Madison Magazine.
Robbins conceived of the book years ago, at a Borders bookstore. "I noticed a book similar to this written on the program Laugh-In," he says, naming the 1960s comedy series, "an episode guide with information on the various shows and running gags."
SCTV needed a similarly thorough treatment, he believed. "At that point it hadn't -- and still hasn't -- had much written about it," he says. "The material is so dense that it really deserves a book to explain all the references, and things that were being satirized."
The debut of SCTV came a year after Saturday Night Live first aired, and the shows had much in common. Both aired late on weekend nights, and both had topical humor. And both shows drew their young performers from Second City, the storied, Chicago-based comedy troupe. (Cast members of SCTV came from Second City's Toronto satellite.)
But the comparison is not wholly apt, says Robbins, especially because SCTV was taped, not live. "Because they weren't having to produce shows in studios, they could be more ambitious, go on locations, labor for weeks," he says. "Versus SNL, where they'd have to do a show in two days."
SCTV centers on a fictional television network, and many of the show's sequences are about the backstage antics of the network's employees. But many more sketches are the programs and commercials aired by the imaginary network. In these, the SCTV team lampooned a variety of subjects, from Mother Teresa to Sigmund Freud. The writers and performers saved their sharpest barbs for the entertainment business itself, and especially the shlocky, self-congratulatory world of network television.
If SCTV never found a mass audience, that was in part because viewers had trouble even finding it. Over its eight years it shifted restlessly between syndication and various networks. The show's greatest success came during a two-year run on NBC, thanks in part to the breakout characters Bob and Doug McKenzie, boozy Canadian talk-show hosts played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas.
"Certainly Bob and Doug were the most accessible characters," says Robbins. "The odd thing was that those characters were so vastly different from what most of the show was. The show really was more cerebral than the McKenzie spots. But they were hilarious, and they brought the show some much-needed attention."
For his research, Robbins amassed a complete collection of the show's episodes, including both Canadian and American versions. He also reviewed the show's source material. "I rented a ton of movies to compare them to the parodies," he says. SCTV specialized in film spoofs, like "My Factory, My Self," a sketch -- starring the inestimable Andrea Martin -- that parodied Norma Rae, The China Syndrome and An Unmarried Woman, among other films.
Robbins hopes one day to give a similar treatment to the shows of David Letterman, to whom he paid loving tribute last year. But don't look for a new book by Robbins right away. "When I started this book," he says of Second City Television, "I had no children."