Tuesday 2 April 2024

Joe Flaherty

Was there a more brilliant comedy show to come out of Canada than SCTV?

What started out as a half-hour, made-in-Toronto, low-budget, sometimes-set-less parody of a day of a television station blossomed into 90 minutes of running sketches with layers of satire, populated by a cast of characters who interacted perfectly, played by a young troupe of stage actors.

Most of them were from Ontario. One was from Pittsburgh, and older than the rest. He was Joe Flaherty, who passed away on April Fools Day at the age of 82.

The show, originally called Second City Television, had a Canadian flavour at first. Flaherty played serious newsman Floyd Robertson, a play on CBC-later-CTV newscaster Lloyd Robertson. As time progressed, he became more rounded. He was an alcoholic who was forced to host a late-night horror show as Count Floyd, where the movies were anything but scary (finally admitting to his kid audience they were not after trying to sell them, using the lamest imitation of Bela Lugosi possible, on their nightmarish quality). Using one person to perform several jobs was a money-saving device used by cash-poor SCTV owner Guy Caballero, also played by Flaherty. (Multiple jobs done by one person is not unheard of in broadcasting).

Flaherty was talk show host Sammy Maudlin, full of Hollywood B.S. He was Big Jim McBob, a farmer who liked to blow up things real good just for the sake of it (such as Dustin Hoffman playing Tootsie). He created other roles, too, and wrote them as well. Much of that time the show was shot in Edmonton, because that’s where their financial angel had his base of television operations (and a medical practice).

You never see it on the screen, but creative people are bound to clash. Flaherty told Ron Base of the Toronto Star in 1981:

“People get short fuses—we’re paying a price for doing a 90-minute show...One other producer came here for the first segment, and we sent his ass out of town. This group can freeze you pretty damn fast, make you feel uncomfortable. We’ve had some high-ranking (NBC) officials up here and it’s a question of fighting them off.
“So in came Barry [Sand, who went on to produce Late Night With David Letterman]. All he does is mediate the fights between us. It’s tough to take criticism from fellow cast members. We do a scene, there’ll be a playback. Someone will say do it again; someone else will say no. It’s worked somehow, but it takes its toll. You’ve got to develop a tough hide, and I don’t think any of us have. Yet you can’t do good stuff unless it’s held up to scrunity.”

Even the best shows come to an end, and SCTV petered out. Here’s Flaherty being interviewed by his home-town paper after the series was cancelled. This was published Dec. 27, 1984.

Joe Flaherty ponders TV
By Barbara Holsopple
The Pittsburgh Press
The question mark in Joe Flaherty's future creeps into his voice as he ponders various fates.
The Pittsburgh-born comedian-actor-writer spent a comfortable, if hectic, eight years with "SCTV," but the series is canceled now.
Just as he must examine his own future, another constant in Flaherty's life faces uncertainty. It is as if fate dealt him a double blow.
"The Pirates are for sale," he says, a quizzical look on his face. "I have season tickets. My accountant thinks I'm crazy, because I don't get back here that often."
But how could he not have season tickets?
"We used to catch the streetcar from Homewood into Oakland, buy a hot dog and wait for the seventh inning, when they raised the gate at Forbes Field and we could get in for free. Frank Thomas was my idol.
"I loved baseball . . . it drove my family nuts. If the Pirates leave, it's gonna be traumatic for me. I come to Pittsburgh and get off the plane and go right to the ballpark."
It is as if the Pirates' uncertainty symbolizes his own life.
"I'm doing odd jobs here and there," he says, a sense of wonder in his voice. "I was asked to be the grand marshal in WPGH's Thanksgiving parade and I thought might be fun.
"I'm a presenter for the Juno Awards, which are like Canadian Grammies for recording artists. I've never done that before.
"I find myself . . . I've never considered myself a personality, but television is a business of personalities, so I'm trying to refine that, to get out more in public . . ."
His words taper off, as he struggles with a definition for himself. The interviewer is tempted to help: Does he consider himself primarily a writer or an actor?
"I don't know. I really don't know," he says, the words emerging slowly. "I guess both. I don't think I could depend on either one, to make a living. I like doing both, so neither gets boring. It's hard for me to separate the two."
Until recently, Flaherty never had to separate the two. He enjoyed the happy status of writer-performer on one project, with occasional forays into one job or the other. But for nearly a decade, Joe Flaherty's being was tied into one major effort.
First he was a member of Second City, Chicago's improvisational troupe famed as a springboard for such stars as Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Gilda Radnor and others. He is co-author of a Second City 25th anniversary show to air next year on HBO.
Second City spawned "Second City TV," a syndicated series spoofing television. Flaherty was a moving force behind the formation of Second City's Canada troupe and the TV production, first in a Toronto studio and then in Edmonton.
For five years; the show was syndicated weekly on U.S. stations. In 1981, NBC picked it up for late-night runs as ''SCTV Network 90."
NBC canceled "SCTV" after two seasons, but the show was eagerly embraced by cable TV's Cinemax.
This summer, "SCTV" ceased production. It remains in reruns, shown here on WPGH weeknights at 12:30 a.m.
Flaherty blames the death of "SCTV" on the "erosion of cast members" and escalating salaries and production costs.
"When NBC dropped us, that sort of led to the erosion. We lost John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis. Cinemax was good, but Lord, that's a small audience.
"We were down to four cast: members Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Martin Short and myself. The workload was tremendous. We couldn't do as many characters as we wanted because there was not enough time in the makeup chair.
"I think the problem with 'SCTV’ ultimately was our failure to get new cast members. They always said 'no' to new members.
"Most producers wouldn't ask, most producers would run the show totally, but Andrew Alexander was never one to do anything without asking us. The 'SCTV' cast had so much autonomy. It worked in our favor creatively, but in the long run it hurt us.
"It was the strength and weakness of the show—a cast so strong and a producer who wouldn't come in and lay down the law.
"The cast was always conservative. When we had the offer to go to NBC, they (the cast) balked. Once we did it, NBC discussed musical guests and they (the cast) balked at that.
"And Andrew put himself in a bad position because he never had people under contract. People began making outrageous salary demands. You can't keep renegotiating salaries at the end of every season.
"From a business point of view, the show must have been unlike any other. We kept getting saved. We shut down for a year in 1979 and then that guy from Edmonton came along. Then NBC came along. And then Cinemax.
"We'd been doing the show since 1976 and when we went to Cinemax I thought we'd open it up and get some of that pay-TV feel in it. I was disappointed.”
But Flaherty is quick to point out that he's "generally pleased" with the work he's done for the past eight years. "I watch the reruns and it's not a show that makes you want to cringe and hide."
When "SCTV" expired, Cinemax issued a statement saying that its remaining cast was working on a new series.
"Cinemax asked for a show, but they wanted the best of our show," Flaherty said. "Andrew and I got called in and they said, 'Those movie parodies really worked.’ Andrew and I kind of liked the idea, but then Cinemax wanted a continuing element that could be carried over from week to week.
“We tried it, but I couldn’t come up with anything that was satisfying. The Cinemax deal isn’t dead yet, I don’t think, but . . . I would rather let 'SCTV’ go. If I'm going to write to order, I'll go to a (film) studio for big bucks.
"Brandon Tartikoff (president of NBC Entertainment) wanted us to write a baseball movie. It was his idea and we pitched some stuff and it just sort of died." Flaherty mixes his discussion with "we" and "they" when talking about "SCTV." Loyal to his fellow writers and performers, he does not say he argued with them about the need for new cast members or contracts. It is evident only as he separates "we" from "they.”
He takes pleasure in listing the new projects of his fellow "SCTV" staffers.
Two of the non-performing members of the "SCTV" writing staff, Flaherty's brother Paul and Dick Blasucci, "just had a meeting with Mel Brooks to help punch up a film Brooks is writing," he says.
"They're also writing a movie with Moranis and Don Rickles, about an aging Clint Eastwood-type who does all these action films he's too old to do.
"Another 'SCTV’ writer, Bob Dolman—he's Andrea Martin's husband—has written some pilots. John Candy is shooting a movie, ‘Volunteers,’ with Tom Hanks. Dave Thomas has a kids' show on Canadian TV called 'Rocket Boy.’ Andrea is doing a series pilot for Ed Weinberger (“Taxi”).
"John Candy and I and Dick and Paul have a project, a comedy mini-series that's sort of a take-off on 'Masterpiece Theatre.’ We're also talking with Graham Chapman and we may do it in conjunction with the Monty Python people."
Flaherty also is "still working on" a film about the Pirates' Roberto Clemente, who lost his life in a plane crash. Like other writers and producers before him, he's finding the Clemente personality elusive.
Aside from the Clemente script, Flaherty hopes to remain a writer who acts in own work as much as possible.
"If you can do a project and act in it, see it through, that's best. Of the two, writing's more difficult because of the discipline involved. And both are pretty low on the totem pole in the industry. Actors are treated like the proverbial beef and writers are even lower.
"The system won't change. It's been like that forever and it won't change and I like it."
Even the memory of the movie he wrote and lost to a big studio's interpretation does not dim his enthusiasm.
"Even when I was doing 'Berserk,’ as bad as that experience was, I thought, ‘I used to sit in movie theaters in Pittsburgh wanting to do this, and now I’m doing it.”

Flaherty went on to other things, somewhat quirky and cultish as befitting a graduate of SCTV. Shows like Maniac Mansion and Freaks and Geeks. (For other projects, consult your local search engine). They were lesser shows, but SCTV would have been tough to surpass.

Some years ago, in my voice-over days, I was asked to do a commercial sounding like Count Floyd. I thought I had done a pretty good imitation of Flaherty deliberately doing a bad Lugosi. I asked the spot’s writer about my steller performance, and he paused to choose some diplomatic words then said, “Well, you got the essence of Count Floyd.”

I should have known better. There was only one Count Floyd. And there was only one Joe Flaherty.


  1. RIP, Joe. Please post at Tralfaz more often.

  2. His imitation of the local horror movie host was spot on. From selling 3D glasses, " These glasses are only 25....er...35 dollars kids! " talking about the movie; " Ooooo..Scary!! " Count Floyd was one of my favorites. Joe will be missed.

  3. R.I.P. and thanks for the laughs, Joe. SCTV is still my all-time favorite sketch comedy show, with Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine and Your Show Of Shows/Caesar's Hour in a close competition for second.

  4. Thanks for the laffs, Joe. My fave moment is in HAPPY GILMORE,1996,an early Adam Sandler hit, is as the hench man of the Christopher McDonald champion rival,saying, JACKASS! Now we know how the MTV show
    got its name..

  5. Hate to see these great comedians go! Here's Joe interviewed on the show hosted by John Candy's daughter Jen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhGgbKyRX4I

    1. Paul, I'd link to it if I could find it again, but Joe was on a podcast not too long ago. It was an enjoyable interview.