Take off, eh! Eh?
Bob and Doug McKenzie are back, maybe for the last time, for a 'two-four' anniversary
JONATHON GATEHOUSE | May 7, 2007 |
Time is a stern brewmaster. It's been 24 years since most Canadians have seen Bob and Doug McKenzie, the buffoonish, ale-swilling brothers that Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas transformed from throwaway SCTV filler to a comedic franchise. And you'd best be advised to strap on the beer goggles to soften the blow.
The toques and parkas are the same, or at least lovingly and expensively recreated: always convinced that these clowns couldn't possibly have any more life in them, Moranis and Thomas have thrown away the costumes at least three times now. But no amount of makeup will turn the clock back to the early 1980s. Sitting in a darkened studio, watching the rushes from last week's closed-set reunion in Toronto, even Thomas seems a bit taken aback. "I look at my face and Rick's onscreen and I know it's time to quit." He tries on a few jokes about quintuple chins and the ages of man(he's almost 58, Moranis just turned 54), finally nailing the appropriate comparison -- a pair of pumpkins left on the porch for three months after Halloween. "We've milked this franchise enough. It's not cute anymore."
But if this really is the end for Bob and Doug -- they have, after all, already survived robot hockey goons, immersion in a giant tank of beer, sniffy film critics, and chiselling Hollywood studios -- at least the funeral will be televised. Bob & Doug McKenzie's Two-Four Anniversary, a one-hour tribute, to be broadcast on CBC later this spring(probable air date the May long weekend), will be filled with celebrity eulogies. Former prime minister Paul Martin has taped an introduction-cum-plea for Canadians to finally and firmly bury the stereotype("I'll never forget the four-year-old girl in Buenos Aires who looked up at me with her pretty eyes and asked, 'Where's your beer, you knob?' "). Ben Stiller talks about standing in line for two hours at a Lincoln Center record store to get Bob and Doug's autograph. Matt Groening, Tom Green and Dave Foley talk about the influence the characters had on their own work. Negotiations are still under way with Demi Moore for an interview about how she was passed over for the female lead in the McKenzie brothers' movie.(The part went to Toronto actress Lynne Griffin.)
The tribute also promises a short comedy history lesson for those who have forgotten just how huge Bob and Doug once were. Born out of a caustic reaction to the CRTC's demand for more "Canadian content" on the proudly Canuck SCTV, the McKenzie brothers' free-form two-minute riffs on smokes, beer and back bacon caused a national sensation. An appearance in Regina saw the airport crammed with hundreds of screaming, toque-wearing "hosers." Police in Toronto shut down the Don Valley Parkway as thousands of well-liquored fans staged an impromptu parade.
And for those who have never outgrown flannel shirts and the music of Geddy Lee, the special offers a rare, if visually distressing treat: Moranis and Thomas once again perched between the beer cases in front of the cheesy Great White North backdrop, channelling their inner hosers. Like the original SCTV skits, there was no script. "It was like trying to start an old outboard motor," says Thomas. But eventually the "topics" came. A riff on designated drivers featuring an oversized golf club. The NHL's attempts to attract an American audience. An explanation of why everyone in the movie Predator, except Carl Weathers, has become a state governor. Alas, Doug's joke about "nappy-headed hosers" ended up on the cutting-room floor.
The purported occasion for the reunion is a celebration of the "two-four" anniversary of Strange Brew, the feature film the pair released in 1983 at the height of Bob and Doug mania. In Canada, where their fame had already been cemented by the TV show and a chart-topping comedy album(which sold a massive 350,000 copies domestically, and 650,000 more south of the border), the movie was a bit of an afterthought. But in the U.S., where it still regularly appears on TV, it lives on as a campus cult classic, functioning for a generation of drunken frat boys as their sole source of knowledge about Canada.
But Thomas, who is executive-producing the special in conjunction with Toronto's Me Jane Films, isn't hiding his and Moranis's real motive for one last kick at the beer can -- money. When the pair signed on to co-write, direct and act in the $5-million film production for MGM, they thought they were getting 48 per cent of the net profits. The film rights have since changed hands twice, but they've never seen a dime. "I've always wanted to audit the bastards, but it's too difficult with three studios and all this time," says Thomas. The hope is that the reunion might entice Warner, the current owner, to cut a new deal, in advance of a planned 24th-anniversary DVD.
The McKenzie brothers have always been a mixed blessing for their creators. SCTV was known for smart satire and devastating impersonations. Moranis captured Woody Allen in all his nebbish glory. Thomas nailed Walter Cronkite and Bob Hope.(He still has the chops, offering up, on this afternoon, a slightly slurred rendition of the comedy legend to illustrate a story of a late-in-life encounter.)Bob and Doug were more like Cheech and Chong for beer drinkers: a mile wide and an inch deep. Their sudden, intense popularity also caused rifts in SCTV's ensemble cast. Joe Flaherty and the late John Candy were particularly resentful, accusing Thomas of using his position as head writer to advance his and Moranis's careers. Things hardly got better when the pair left the show in the spring of 1982 to film their movie. Without its most bankable asset(at least in the U.S.), SCTV floundered and went off network television the following year.
Then there were the fans. Gone were the intellectual appreciations of their work. Bob and Doug's audience were, "for the most part, drunks, jocks and heavy-metal rockers," Thomas wrote in his 1996 history of the show, SCTV: Behind the Scenes. "They didn't care what we said. They just wanted us to chug a beer."
Today, enjoying life as a comedy éminence grise, Thomas says he's made his peace with all that. "It's odd that the stuff we worked hardest on on SCTV had nowhere near the commercial value or the longevity that these two basically throwaway characters did." Still, if they had the power to create another similar comedy franchise, he and Moranis wouldn't hesitate.
The principal reason is that, despite the money fights with the studios, Bob and Doug have proven very lucrative for the pair. Pizza Hut, Jiffy Lube and Molson have all engaged the services of the spoke-hosers over the years. And Disney gave the characters new animated life as bickering moose in the 2003 feature Brother Bear, its sequel, and attractions at the company's various theme parks.
As creations, the doofus brothers have given Thomas and Moranis something most comedians lust after all their careers -- lasting fame(at least in a certain male demographic). Almost a quarter-century later, it's still not uncommon for the parking valet or bellboy to greet them with "Take off, eh!", exultations they've learned to embrace as a compliment rather than some strange curse.(Or at least Thomas has. Moranis, who turned his back on a successful Hollywood career after the death of his wife to concentrate on raising their two children, won't be doing any Bob and Doug publicity. Thomas says his friend simply isn't willing to put himself under the microscope anymore. "He just got fried.")
And beyond all that, there's a sense of pride that their crude characters have somehow, improbably, become Canadian icons. Dumb-like-a-fox bumpkins with a subversive streak, always ready to pull one over on the rich and powerful, even if it means stuffing a poor mouse in a beer bottle. Ask Thomas for his favourite Bob and Doug memory and you don't get a tale about hosting Saturday Night Live. Instead, he relates a U.S. commercial shoot they did for Molson a few years back. The concept was the brothers' bumbling stab at "fly-fishing," complete with sticky paper on the end of their lines. Thomas and Moranis convinced the director to film an additional scene with Bob and Doug in their tent, filleting the bugs and cooking them up on the Coleman stove. Everything was great until an executive showed up and realized that the pair had just hijacked a half-million-dollar shoot for a sequence that would firmly link the sponsor's beer and the taste of flies in the minds of viewers. Moranis and Thomas ran away like a pair of giggling schoolboys.
As Thomas talks and laughs the afternoon away, it gets easier and easier to buy the vision of the McKenzie brothers' continued success as a cosmic cultural joke that we can all share in. Tony Bennett -- the one and only musical guest ever to appear on the Great White North -- apparently credits the show with reviving his popularity among young people. Crusty Wilford Brimley of the Quaker Oats commercials is a huge fan and has a pair of mules named Hoser and Knob.
If the two-four anniversary is indeed Bob and Doug's final adventure, Thomas, for one, won't shed any tears. "This whole thing for me has been just one great ride. I've golfed with Bob Hope. I've had lunch with Johnny Carson. I acted with Max von Sydow. I've done scenes with Charlize Theron." In the darkened studio, he pauses to answer his cellphone, holding it at arm's length to see the number. There's a cast on his right foot -- a stumble in the parking lot during taping for the special has resulted in a ruptured Achilles tendon. As he jokes, it may well be time to put away the beers and smokes and wait for a sitcom role as a lovable grandpa. Not that it's any guarantee, but Moranis and Thomas have already given away the toques they wore on the shoot. Rest in peace, you knobs.
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