SCTV was one of the most fiercely embraced and defended cult successes in the history of television comedy -- in a sense, it was exactly the opposite of its supposed rival, Saturday Night Live. The latter became practically a brand-name trademark to the mass public, the Procter & Gamble of satiric comedy, while SCTV seemed to appeal to a fraction as many people, one or two viewers at a time. Even when SCTV made it out of syndication and onto NBC, which is where the shows on this 13-hour, five-disc set come from, it never found a true mass audience, but the audience it did find was as dedicated as any in television comedy -- the show was virtually an underground hit with an international fan base that included a large percentage of entertainment professionals. This DVD set should satisfy the fans as an initial installment, and might even win over many of new devotees, if they can get past the high list price; even after 13 hours' viewing, it will likely leave one wanting even more. The shows themselves look astonishingly good; the videotape masters have been well preserved to the point that, with digital transfers, they run rings around the original broadcasts, and the volume is set at a healthy level as well. The set is also ideal as an introductory piece, coming midway through the show's history, because the first network program was kind of a bridge installment, made up mostly of re-edited segments from the syndicated version of the show, and setting the stage for the new content that followed specifically for NBC. As a result, you're getting the best of both worlds as an introduction. The sketches on the nine 90-minute programs range from the sublimely beautiful ("Play It Again, Bob," featuring Rick Moranis' Woody Allen and Dave Thomas's Bob Hope) to the delightfully absurd (Mother Teresa [Andrea Martin] as a guest on "The Sammy Maudlin Show," alongside comic sidekick "William B. Williams" [John Candy] and Vegas singer "Lola Heatherton" [Catherine O'Hara]). There are also bits such as the late John Candy in a rubber monster suit being interviewed on a Japanese talk show, the movie satire "Melvin and Howards," a vicious parody of Siskel & Ebert, and "Sunrise Semester" with "Conversational New York-ese 101," which all fall somewhere in between. Disc one includes two major bonuses, starting with a commentary track by Harold Ramis and Joe Flaherty over the second episode; the two are so loose and informal that they come off more like a pair of old friends comparing memories than two professionals discussing their work; listening to that track is a lot like sitting there with the two of them in one of their living rooms, with a few long periods of silence or confusion broken up by very funny revelations. There is also an appended documentary
etrospective, "SCTV Revisited," in which surviving cast members, including Catherine O'Hara and Andrea Martin, recall various aspects of their work on the show. Disc two's bonus is a delightful and thoroughly informative (as well as very funny) documentary delving into SCTV's origins in the 1950s and focusing on performers such as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Ed Asner, and also, strangely enough, touching on the campus boom in modern jazz. Disc three's bonus is worth almost a quarter the price of the set, a compendium and tribute entitled "Remembering John," which is a loving memorial to John Candy, and every bit a funny as one would hope and expect it to be -- and no real fan of the man's comedy will mind that the program reuses clips from some of the same bits that are included at full-length elsewhere in the box. Disc four includes "The Craft of SCTV," which looks at the importance of costuming, hair, and makeup in the look and content of the show; it's worth seeing more than once, although it's also a little unfair to put any behind-the-scenes documentary on the same platter that contains Eugene Levy portraying film critic Gene Shalit in a series of musical numbers with "Siskel and Ebert" and "Rona Barrett." Disc five only has one original show plus the 1999 SCTV reunion sponsored by HBO, featuring Conan O'Brien, plus a trailer for the DVD release of Freaks and Geeks. The musical guests include Levon Helm and the Cate Brothers, the Tubes, and Southside Johnny, although as good as all of them are (especially Helm and the Cates), they get a little lost amid the high-density comedy surrounding them. This is a set that is best watched over a period of weeks -- maybe not ten weeks, but more than one or two; taking in two SCTV shows in one sitting can prove an exhausting experience, just in terms of energy expended laughing. Each disc opens to a simple, easy-to-use menu that breaks each episode into five chapters and accesses the bonus features. The price on this set may seem steep, but it's worth it and shouldn't dissuade fans of the show. Seeing the show again after so many years, one is reminded of just how much funnier it was than almost anything else on television, and the supplemental materials only help -- some of them could almost support themselves as a free-standing release, and all of them enhance what we see. Additionally -- and this is especially encouraging coming from Shout Factory, as an offshoot of Rhino Records, founded by ex-employees and executives of the latter -- there is an unusually elaborate accompanying booklet in this set, with essays and information galore, sufficient to delight the longtime fan and bring the casual viewer up to speed on the SCTV phenomenon.