Splitsider

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Wayne & Shuster: Canadian Comedy Cornball Supergods

It’s a lazy, trite comedy trope to make fun of Canada, at worst presenting it as an icy, bland, over-polite backwater, and at best, presenting it as a slightly dulled-down America Lite. Yes, they have Mounties and socialism and we share English and team sports and gravy-based foodstuffs, but Canada’s best offering, as far as the greater Splitsider community is concerned, is its plentiful offerings of sketch comedy and sketch comedians. They’ve given us so much: SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, and most everyone from Saturday Night Live ever. (And Will Arnett.) We could project this and assume, then, that if we dig a little deeper into Canadian comedy, we'd find even more excellent sketch comedy, like that really, good, weird obscure stuff only the comedy nerds would enjoy and appreciate it, just waiting for us to salivate over it and desperate scour for on YouTube.

I’m sorry, but Canada does not have any old, obscure, and awesome sketch comedy for us. We’ve seen all the best stuff. The sketches heretofore overlooked and/or forgotten are the comedy stylings of Wayne & Shuster.

Their stuff isn’t “funny” in the modern sense of the word; it’s definitely comedy from another time, not so much comedy from a foreign country. It was a mixture of toothless parody, slapstick, pantomime, and cheese. Oh, and a crapload of literary and Shakespeare references. Up until the mid-20th century, before the dawn of screen-based monoculture, Shakespeare references were commonly understood among the masses the way catchphrases are today. Wayne & Shuster got immensely popular, in the mid-20th century, in both Canada and the United States, doing corny parodies of TV shows with Shakespeare jokes, or corny parodies of Shakespeare with modern corny jokes. This is baffling.

Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster (cousin of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster, and eventual father of original SNL writer Rosie Shuster) met in high school, in Toronto, where they wrote sketches for the drama guild. Both went on to attend the University of Toronto before landing a CBC radio show in 1941 called Wife Preservers. The format: household hints for housewives, with comedy thrown in. Similar to how David Letterman debuted on and didn’t fit in with daytime entertainment, Wayne & Shuster moved on to the nighttime Shuster and Wayne Comedy Show on CBC. It ended a year later when the duo went into the military, where their service consisted of performing their skits for the troops on bases around Europe. After the war, their popularity having grown exponentially, they got another CBC show, the properly titled Wayne and Shuster Show, which beat imported American radio shows in the ratings, a rarity in Canadian radio then and Canadian television now. When CBC debuted television in 1952, The Wayne and Shuster Hour became one of its inaugural programs.

Like any massively popular somewhere-else phenomenon, somebody tried to make Wayne & Shuster big in America. Unlike soccer, Fanta, and Robbie Williams, Americans actually responded. After appearing dozens of times on dozens of different American variety shows, Ed Sullivan, the biggest star-maker in entertainment at the time, took notice. He loved Wayne & Shuster, effusively and publicly praising them. In 1958, he contracted the duo to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show 26 times over the next few years, and paid them more than any other act he’d ever had on the show ever, including Elvis Presley. Your grandma loves Wayne & Shuster, probably.

They were one of Sullivan’s three favorite acts (along with the also inexplicably popular hand-puppeteer Senor Wences and Italian mouse puppet Topo Gigio), although Wayne & Shuster hold the record for most appearances of any act on Sullivan: an astounding 67 times between 1958 and 1969. That’s an average of once every seven episodes. The ratings even had a slight uptick on the nights they were on. Television Today readers voted them the best comedy team in America two years running. In the summer of 1961, CBS gave them a sitcom called Holiday Lodge. It was a generic sitcom written by neither Wayne nor Shuster in which the duo just played parts and didn’t do much of their famous act. And because of that, the show was a total bomb. Believe it or not, this totally dated old people comedy from another land and time making really obvious jokes on easy, obvious targets was really popular.

Though not to everyone. In Right Here on Our Stage Tonight, Gerald Nachman’s exhaustive history of The Ed Sullivan Show, Wayne & Shuster merit only about three mentions. Two of them are nasty quips from Dick Cavett. “Wayne and Shuster are the only comedy team in which you couldn’t say either one is the funny one,” and “Ed was [partially] deaf, according to some, which is the only thing that would explain why Wayne & Shuster were on 15 [sic] times.”

Back in Canada, rather than commit to another weekly comedy show, they signed on for a series of specials, a format they stayed in through the 1980s. Here they are in “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga,” a Julius Caesar parody done in the style of Dragnet. (Junior high skit based on historical figure or book you just read filled with ham-fisted jokes: that’s the Wayne & Shuster esthetic.)

And here’s “The Brown Pumpernickel,” a very literal parody of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

They did some pop culture satire, too, such as Star Schtick…

…as well as things like “Sam of Green Gables” (an old man gets sent to the quaint Prince Edward Island village rather than a spirited little girl) and “All in the Royal Family,” which was a mash-up of All in the Family with characters from Hamlet.

Wayne & Shuster were a part of Canadian entertainment (their empire also includes a bunch of comedy records) from the 1940s through to 1990, when Wayne died. (Shuster died in 2002; in the 12 years of solo work, he did mostly introductions for Wayne & Shuster specials and videos, that kind of thing.) We don’t have anything like this in American culture. We’ve had broadcast institutions that last for decades, like Johnny Carson, and we’ve had comedy teams, but there’s no current long-lasting icon on TV, certainly none whose career dates to radio, and the comedy team format hasn’t been popular since Nichols & May (the last one I can think of is Shields and Yarnell, and they were mimes).

That’s not to say Wayne & Shuster were always widely popular in Canada. By the late ‘70s, the ratings of their quarterly specials continuously fell as the duo rested on their laurels, performed new versions of old routines, and performed new routines with the same cornball jokes and gentle tone, years past its freshness date. It was okay for a comedy act to be hokey and innocuous in the relatively peaceful 1950s; by the ‘70s, times were tough, and comedy was dominated by edgier personalities (Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Saturday Night Live) and Wayne & Shuster kept things slight. Hell, they even made a commercial for an oil company. However, as the ‘80s began and Boomers around the world began to nostalgize their youth in earnest for the first time, the secondary TV (reruns) market exploded — the CBC repackaged old Wayne & Shuster bits for TV syndication and sold them to Canadian, American, and Australian TV stations. At the time, it was the biggest payday in CBC history.

Shuster died in 2002, a few years after receiving the Order of Canada award. Modern audiences are probably most familiar with Wayne & Shuster via the 2001 Avalanches hit “Frontier Psychiatrist.” The dialogue about the “boy needs therapy,” and “he’s a nut!”: that’s an old Wayne & Shuster routine, the flavor of which is recreated in the video.

Brian Boone is a one-quarter Canadian, which is why he thinks Wayne & Shuster are just a little funny.

  • http://shatnerian.wordpress.com jduncanhansen@twitter.com

    As a Canadian, I grew up watching W&S specials. As a Canadian, I was too polite to say they weren't very funny. As was the rest of Canada. But clearly, they did have longevity and Ed Sullivan and his viewers saw *something* in those guys that many people did not. In a sense, they remind me of The Two Ronnies from the UK, except the Two Ronnies were funny. I'd say their spiritual successors were The Royal Canadian Air Farce, a spoofy, toothless political satire sketch comedy thing that, again, wasn't terribly cutting edge or hilarious but had a solid following in Canada.

    This isn't to say that this style of sketch comedy isn't funny. Ronnie Corbett's "My Blackberry isn't Working" from last year was textbook sketch comedy from ages ago but it's still damn funny:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAG39jKi0lI

    (edited because I posted twice)

  • Manfred Yon@facebook

    I am not a Canadian, and his was the first time watching W&S for any length. I dunno…it still seems pretty funny. Certainly not worthy of these words.
    Canadian comedy always seemed light and bookish (Codco, The Frantics, Kids in the Hall), if it was satire its with a lower case s. This Hour has 22 Minutes signiture joke was calling their prime misister a cheesy dish for instance. W and S seems to fit right into that mold I reckon. And that francis bacon joke was pretty clever….

  • Manfred Yon@facebook

    if you are interested in Canadian comedy, I particularly like Jon Dore, Mark Forward, Levi Macdougal and Nathan Fielder. If you are interested.