Saturday, 27 December 2008

Saturday Silliness Cinema: Wayne & Shuster

I hope everyone has had a Merry Christmas.

Today we're going to take a look at two of the most influential sketch comedians of the 20th Century that most Americans either don't remember, or have never heard of in the first place.

I'm talking Wayne & Shuster, Canada's most prominent comedy team.

Johnny Wayne was the comic, delivering punchlines and slapstick with a decidedly un-Canadian cocky nudge and a wink. Frank Shuster was the straight man, the much tougher job of setting up the jokes, and keeping the sketches moving. They first met in high school in Toronto, performing not as a team, but as members of the school's theatre company, which led to memberships in the University of Toronto's theatre company, then early jobs in radio, and their first show as a team on CBC radio Shuster & Wayne, in 1941.

However, it was World War 2 that cemented them in the Canadian consciousness, joining the Canadian Army and performing for the troops in battlefields all across Europe (and later for troops in Korea in the 1950s). They returned from the army and started the Wayne & Shuster Show on CBC Radio in 1946. Then came work in TV, not only doing 40 years of series and specials in Canada, but a record 67 appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, and while they had been offered American shows, and even did a summer replacement sitcom for CBS, they decided to stay in their native Toronto.

While some considered their comedy style hokey and old fashioned, they were a direct inspiration on Saturday Night Live, especially creator Lorne Michaels (Shuster's son-in-law & protege) and writer Rosie Shuster (Shuster's daughter) and even the obsessively edgy Kids In The Hall.

Now Wayne & Shuster didn't really do skits, but mini-epic movies, that were noted for their combination of highbrown literacy, and lowbrow puns and slapstick. Many of their sketches became like jazz standards, being revived, updated, and expanded for new audiences. Like their combination of William Shakespeare of sports with this sketch:

Shakespearean Baseball

They also weren't above mixing history, Shakespeare, and film noir with this alternative take on the death of Julius Caesar.

Rinse the Blood Off My Toga

But they weren't above skewering the pop culture of their time, like this skewering of that ever-present phenomenon of the late 70s and early 80s, the K-Tel Records ad.

K-Tel Record Ad

I hope you enjoyed this little trip in Canada's comedy history, and I'll be back to my usual rants and raves soon.

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