National Treasure #98: Wayne & Shuster

“Literate slapstick.”
Uncredited “observer”

“Wayne and Shuster are the only comedy team
in which you couldn’t say either one is the funny one.”
Dick Cavett

“He (Frank Shuster) was like someone’s grandfather.
He had no star attitude.
His kindness and generosity was legendary in the industry.
He was one of those people who exceeded your expectations. . . .
Shuster gave birth to satire in Canada.”
Rick Mercer

Moving from “Who?” to folks that every Canadian of a certain age knows, we turn to Wayne and Shuster.

Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster met in high school, started out together on radio, moved to daytime television, and made their careers in nighttime TV.  They worked together from the early 1940s to the late 1980s.  

“Wayne and Shuster, who won international acclaim for their distinctive gentle satiric sketches, were the founding fathers of English Canadian TV comedy. . . . Despite several enticing offers from the United States, Wayne and Shuster always chose to stay in Toronto. In addition to giving Canadians the confidence to do their own comedy, they spoke passionately on behalf of Canadian cultural sovereignty.”
Museum of Broadcast Communications

I’ve already written about their predilection for Latin jokes.  As this American reviewer notes, they loved corny Shakespeare jokes, too.

“Their stuff isn’t “funny” in the modern sense of the word; it’s definitely comedy from another time, not so much comedy from a foreign country. It was a mixture of toothless parody, slapstick, pantomime, and cheese. Oh, and a crapload of literary and Shakespeare references. Up until the mid-20th century, before the dawn of screen-based monoculture, Shakespeare references were commonly understood among the masses the way catchphrases are today. Wayne & Shuster got immensely popular, in the mid-20th century, in both Canada and the United States, doing corny parodies of TV shows with Shakespeare jokes, or corny parodies of Shakespeare with modern corny jokes. This is baffling.”

Well, maybe it is baffling.  Lest you think he’s mean-spirited, though, he points out that they were on The Ed Sullivan Show 67 times between 1958 and 1969: more than any other act.  More interesting than that, in his mind, is the unique position they hold in the Canadian entertainment industry.

Wayne & Shuster were a part of Canadian entertainment (their empire also includes a bunch of comedy records) from the 1940s through to 1990, when Wayne died. (Shuster died in 2002; in the 12 years of solo work, he did mostly introductions for Wayne & Shuster specials and videos, that kind of thing.) We don’t have anything like this in American culture. We’ve had broadcast institutions that last for decades, like Johnny Carson, and we’ve had comedy teams, but there’s no current long-lasting icon on TV, certainly none whose career dates to radio, and the comedy team format hasn’t been popular since Nichols & May (the last one I can think of is Shields and Yarnell, and they were mimes).

If you were too young or too American to have seen any of their sketches, here are some links to their stuff.

Funny or not.

Rinse the Blood Off My Toga – excerpt – 1 1/2 minutes

Rinse the Blood Off My Toga – 8 minutes

The Six Hundred Dollar Man – 9 minutes

The First 100 Years – 45 minutes

 

 

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