The McCann Time Capsule: SCTV’s Dave Thomas

The McCann Time Capsule: SCTV’s Dave Thomas

Director Martin Scorsese’s comedy special about “SCTV,” the cult Canadian sketch comedy TV show, will not air on Netflix until 2019. But just reuniting the 1976-1984 show’s cast last Sunday for the initial filming turned out to be a special event in its own right. With Jimmy Kimmel hosting and before a packed house of 1,300 people in Toronto’s Elgin Theater, such well-known SCTV alumni as Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Joe Flaherty and Rick Moranis gathered together for clips and conversation.

The group onstage also included Dave Thomas, who some four decades earlier had abandoned his promising career as a McCann copywriter in Toronto and New York to join the comedy troupe instead.

The troupe began as the Toronto comedy stage outpost of Chicago’s famous Second City improv club, and the Emmy-winning TV show then aired on various U.S. and Canadian networks between 1976 and 1984. In addition to the performers mentioned above, John Candy, Harold Ramis, Dan Ackroyd and Gilda Radner (the latter two were among the original cast members of “Saturday Night Live”) were also alumni. Candy, Ramis and Radner are all deceased.

Dave Thomas became most well-known for being paired with Rick Moranis as Bob and Doug McKenzie (Thomas, right, in photo), a pair of stereotypical, beer-drinking Canadian brothers hosting a segment called “Great White North.”  The running satirical skit began as a mocking response to the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s actual request that SCTV include two minutes of Canadian-specific content.  

Thomas attended McMaster University in Hamilton along with Martin Short and Eugene Levy.  In an interview with IGN Entertainment in 2000, Thomas explained how this led him first to McCann in 1974 and then into comedy two years later. 

“Then, right after college, Marty and Eugene got roles in the Toronto production of Godspell and I took a job as a copywriter for McCann-Erickson. I wrote ad copy for about six months, and then I did some low-level promotional campaign for Coca-Cola. The campaign hit big, and I ended up being the head writer for Coca-Cola Canada out of McCann in Toronto, and then they sent me to New York to work with this guy named Bill Backer, who was creative director for McCann worldwide at that time.

“[I was] making a lot more money with McCann-Erickson than the Second City Stage salary, which was $145 a week. By comparison, I was making about $50,000 at McCann-Erickson as a successful copywriter. In fact, my creative director said, ‘In another three years, you'll be a creative director!’ This compliment was in fact the straw that broke the camel's back, because then I realized that was as far as I want to go in advertising, and that would be well before I was 30, so I realized I've gotta get outta here.

“Anyway, I saw this Second City Show, and I saw these very funny people, and thought, ‘I've got to be part of that.’ So when they closed the show on Adelaide Street and opened six months later at the Old Firehall, I auditioned and got in.”

Thomas became friendly there with Dan Ackroyd and found a way for the two of them to leverage his McCann background to supplement that low performer’s salary.

“He was really into making money, and so was I. We had to augment that miserable $145 a week salary somehow. That connected us for sure.

“And I had all these connections from my stint in advertising, so we started writing ads for local retailers and CBC scripts for television shows while we were doing the stage show. Typically, we would work all day writing and then do the show at night. The show became kind of an afterthought to our other entrepreneurial efforts.”

Ackroyd and Gilda Radner were soon hired by “Saturday Night Live,” which was starting up at NBC that time, and Thomas lucked out when SCTV was launched.  

“Within six months of SNL starting, the guys who ran the Second City theater in Toronto decided to start up SCTV. So, for me, getting into the cast of SCTV was just a miracle of good timing. First I'm in the right time and the right place to get the stage show, and then just as that's getting kind of ripe, they start a TV show. Again, in the right place at the right time.”

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