Lorne Michaels got his start in obscure CBC comedy
Public broadcaster should celebrate hits, but let’s not forget the success of its failures
Lorne Michaels and Hart Pomerantz from The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour
It’s the CBC’s 75th anniversary this year, and the public broadcaster is celebrating with the requisite hoopla. Most likely, they’ll trot out the usual suspects: Wayne and Shuster, Royal Canadian Air Farce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Kids in the Hall and Just For Laughs — not exactly a shabby history. These shows have been the centrepiece of Canadian humour. But the CBC has also been responsible for some obscure, under-the-radar comedies that aren’t mentioned in the official Canadian comedy canon.
I’m thinking first of Nightcap — arguably the first Canadian topical sketch comedy series, running from 1963 to 1967. Hosted by a very young Al Hamel, on a very limited budget, the show legendarily offended everybody.
Although the topics, including Bobby Kennedy, miniskirts and hippies, are dated, the general tone of insolence is not. Neither is its general smuttiness, which seems tame today but caused an uproar at the time. In fact, when the critics called for its cancellation, Nightcap upped the ante and produced a show within a show, Flemington Park, a mock soap opera entirely obsessed with the sexuality of its swinging characters.
Nightcap was produced by Chris Beard, who, after the show was cancelled, moved to the U.S. and helped create Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. It’s a pattern that would repeated on CBC time and time again, legendarily including the career of Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live fame.
In 1970 and 1971, CBC aired a show called The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, a sketch and variety show that felt like the first draft of what would become SNL. Of course: Hart was Hart Pomerantz, a lawyer and comedy writer, and Lorne was Lorne Michaels.
The show, which could now get laughs on the hairstyles and groovy fonts alone, was a mix of sketches, blackouts and soft rock music. (One show had Lighthouse and James Taylor!)
Watching it now, the blackouts seem silly and dated, but the sketches still hold up well. Most of them are mock interviews with Michaels as the straight man and Pomerantz getting the big yucks. Their most famous sketch was a running gag with Pomerantz playing the beaver on the Canadian nickel. The duo mesh well together, and Pomerantz once told me that Michaels was the best straight man he’d ever worked with.
The cast included Andrea Martin, Dan Ackroyd and other actors who would become staples of Canadian comedy.
Pomerantz would later appear on many seasons of This Is the Law and create and host Grumps, a series in the tradition of Politically Incorrect. But it’s interesting to watch Lorne Michaels on camera before he completely transitioned to a world-renowned producer, especially with his weird ’70s hair.
And then there’s Stay Tuned from 1976. CBC needed something to fill the time slot after the hockey game on Saturday nights, so they put together a live sketch comedy show starring Eugene Levy.
The cast — Levy, Mary Ann Macdonald, Jayne Eastwood and the underpraised Ben Gordon — made watching the show like a visit to Second City in its golden era.
So kudos, CBC. We’re proud of the accomplishments and stars. But don’t forget the unsung shows that gave us hours of viewing pleasure, along with many of those stars.
Post City Magazines’ humour columnist, Mark Breslin, is the founder of Yuk Yuk’s comedy clubs and the author of several books, including Control Freaked.