Sunday, February 17, 2008

BIZARRE (Canada/USA; 1980-85)

Apropos of nothing, I thought I'd take a look back at one of the great viewing pleasures of my youth, one of the last great sketch comedy revues and one of the few things televisual that Canadians should rightfully be proud of, even if their American cousins got the version with all the boobies.

Bizarre has aged much more gracefully than one might expect, and a series of DVDs issued in recent years as THE BEST OF BIZARRE should attest to this fact. Sure, it dates from a time when names like Bella Abzug, Henry Kissinger, Tom Snyder were punchlines in and of themselves (though barely, and more often because they simply sounded funny as punchlines), and sure, host/cast leader John Byner was probably given too many opportunities to run through a surprisingly (for his talents) limited range of impersonations that had been serving him well since THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW in the 60's (Paul Lynde, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Marlon Brando, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Mathis, John Wayne to precise, and usually in the form of "audition reel" sketches for famous movie and TV characters like THE GODFATHER and FANTASY ISLAND's Herve Villechaize), but when I transferred several season's worth of old Betamax tapes to DVD-r for safe keeping not long before the DVD series started appearing (figures!), I can safely say I still found myself reeling with laughter despite knowing much of this material from heart. (this piece references some of the sketches contained within the DVD volumes, as well as many others)

The show's writers, directors and cast had a remarkable collective ability to spin old jokes into seemingly fresh full length sketches that would usually feature heavy padding via Byner's antics and asides. Distill just about any sketch down to it's raw elements - minus sets, cast, and the usual digressions for time - and you've got jokes that had been done on any number of variety shows in the decade before this one - BIZARRE reformulated the brew in large part by added healthy doses of cynicism, sexism and slapstick violence - and of course the naked women (keen eyes would be right in noticing a thankfully mute Ziggy Lorenc—later a vee-jay for Canada's MuchMusic channel—as a piece of furniture, clad in a bikini just like four other "pieces" placed in a slum apartment rented out by crotchety landlord Byner).

And, of course, the inimitable Super Dave Osborne (played by series producer Bob Einstein, the brother of Albert Brooks).

Cast lists at places like IMDB fail to give credit to the contributions of many bit players who went on to greater things, most notably Canada's own Mike Myers (as Byner's nephew in a show closer in which Byner reacts to a review that claims he stuffs the audience with relatives, only to learn that all but one audience member is family!) and future CROW villain Michael Wincott (look closely at the Mexican Nephew seated beside Luba Goy in the legendary Bigot Family sketches). Donnelly Rhodes, another Canadian mainstay who had a memorable run on the U.S. sitcom SOAP, plays one of Super Dave Osborne's stunt coordinators in a second-season sketch involving a mechanical bull. There were others including early, popular appearances of a young Howie Mandel, though guest stand-ups were generally more along the lines of Willie Tyler and Lester. For whatever that's worth.

In the first and, to a lesser extent, the second seasons, BIZARRE would include sketches filmed outside of Toronto, including an amusing bit filmed in an L.A. cemetery in which "priest" Redd Foxx sends bad TV shows to their rightful resting places surrounded by a platoon of LET'S MAKE A DEAL contestants), and a peculiar filmed segment where a gorilla holds up a grocery store and speeds off in a stolen Mercedes.

When something clicked on BIZARRE, viewers could rest assured the idea would be tweaked and repeated on a future episode. Witness the ever-increasing insanity of the Super Dave Osborne stunts, or the "Byner Originals," in which the host would claim to be introducing some new comedy creation - Boy John, Johnny Jackson - that were blatant ripoffs of actual personalities of the day which would prompt producer Bob Einstein to interrupt the sketch, calmly berate Byner, and then suffer a litany of insults in return ("it's called the wandering Jew and it'll be here in about 5 seconds", went one memorable line from a similar sketch). Or better yet, it might involve yet another unsuspecting audience member and end with something like this:

The aforementioned Bigot Family proved popular enough to fill several repeat sketches with well-delivered ethnic humor (although 90's syndication episodes oddly removed what few Asian gags there were and cut several watermelon gags). Other popular returning characters included: the Reverend T.V. Seewell, who broadcast from the Enzlo Veal Animal Healing Pavilion (the location of which changed from bit to bit); a Yoga For Health instructor with fake stretchy legs who invariably closed his sketch to Devo's "Whip It"; and a perennially bottom-rated news team featuring a sportscaster who only favored black athletes, a drunken film reviewer (Saul Rubinek in some sketches) kept on a leash, a clueless weatherman (Don Lake) with an atrocious toupee and a lead anchor (Byner) who took exception to his female co-host's bitter digs by punching her out of her chair.

Another great repeat gag was often played on regular Tom Harvey (another Canuck), who would be whisked from a sketch to correct a "makeup problem", only to return to the re-shoot and discover doors nailed shut, breakaway furniture and real booze in the drinking glasses. Audience members were often used to supplant "underwhelming" actors, or to heap further indignity on Tom Harvey. And finally, long before Conan O'Brien thought he came up with the idea, the creators of Bizarre used the process of superimposing real lips over cardboard celebrity cutouts to often delirious effect (politicians of the time singing lite-FM love ballads, for example)

BIZARRE's peak seasons were probably 1982, 1983, 1984 and even most of 1985-86, after which other comedy shows on then burgeoning cable networks (and regular broadcast TV) started to steal their thunder, signaling and end to the sketch comedy format as many had known it throughout the 60's and 70's. Nonetheless, these shows represent one of the last bastions of political incorrectness in broadcast comedy, particularly for something shown on a major Canadian network during early prime time hours!

At long last available on DVD, BIZARRE might not provide the hearty laughs it once did to those of us who were there to witness it during its initial run, but there are still many fond memories to be savored in these volumes.