and Shuster, who won international acclaim for their distinctive
gentle satiric sketches, were the founding fathers of English Canadian
TV comedy. Appearing fairly regularly on CBC radio and television
from the 1940s until Wayne's death in 1990, they helped to pave
the way for such successful Canadian acts as the Royal Canadian
AirFarce and Kids in the Hall. At the same time, however,
their near-monopoly on the CBC's commitment to TV comedy for many
years may also have hindered the growth of other comedic talent
in Canada. During their early years, they wrote all their own material,
but later made use of other writers as well.
television, initially, they were a bigger sensation in the United
States than in Canada. They made a record-setting 67 appearances
on The Ed Sullivan Show and edited versions of their many
specials for CBC TV were highly popular in U.S. syndication. Over
the years, they also made frequent appearances on the BBC and won
numerous awards, including the illustrious Silver Rose of Montreux.
The son of a successful clothing manufacturer who spoke several
languages and the eldest of seven children, Johnny Wayne was born
John Louis Weingarten on 28 May 1918, in the heart of downtown Toronto.
Though also born in Toronto, on 5 September 1916, Frank Shuster
grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where his father ran a small
theatre called the Colonial. Most evenings of his childhood were
spent watching silent movies (and learning to read the intertitles),
until his father was put out of business by a larger operation down
the street. Failing to join other relatives in the United States
(Frank's first cousin, Joe, who drew the Superman comic strip, lived
in Cleveland), the family returned to Toronto.
future comics first met in Grade 10 at Harbord Collegiate--seated
in the same class alphabetically, S happened to be close to W. Under
the influence of Charles Girtler, who taught ancient history at
Harbord and set up the Oola Boola Club to teach students how to
do sketches and variety, they wrote a series of comedy dramas for
the school's dramatic guild. One of Wayne's long-standing characters,
Professor Waynegartner, originated in a geometry lesson written
by Girdler poking fun at one of the other teachers. To take the
sting out it, Girdler suggested that it be done with a German accent.
Both men completed degrees in English at the University of Toronto
where they wrote, produced, and starred in a number of variety shows.
They also edited and wrote for the university newspaper, the Varsity.
In 1941 they began a show on Toronto radio station CFRB called Wife
Preserves, which paid them $12.50 each per week to dispense
household hints for women over a network of Ontario stations. They
were then contracted to write and perform on the Shuster and Wayne
(sic) comedy show on the CBC's Trans-Canada Network for a year.
In 1942 they left the CBC to join the infantry and were soon writing
and performing for the big Army Show. They toured military bases
across Canada and later, when the show was split into smaller units,
took the Invasion Review into Normandy after D-Day. Later they wrote
a 52-week series for veterans and spent six weeks entertaining the
Commonwealth Division in Korea.
In 1946 they returned to CBC Radio on the Wayne and Shuster Show,
broadcast live at 9:30 P.M. Thursdays. It was one of the few Canadian
programs to compete successfully against American imports. Among
their radio creations were the undefeated Mimico Mice who competed
against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Legendary radio sports announcer
Foster Hewitt did the play by play using the names of real Leaf
players, but only Wayne and Shuster played for the Mice.
Although they began appearing as guests on various American TV programs
as early as 1950, their biggest television success came in 1958
when Ed Sullivan, whose ratings had slipped, invited them to appear
on his Sunday night variety show. He insisted that they stick to
the kind of comedy they were doing in Canada and gave them a one-year
contract with complete freedom to decide on the length, frequency,
content, sets, and supporting cast of all their sketches. Jack Gould
of the New York Times described them as "the harbingers of
literate slapstick." Sullivan, who became very fond of them both
personally and professionally, said they were his biggest hit in
ten years. In fact, his ratings shot up whenever they performed
and their contract was renewed again and again. So too was their
CBC contract, which had been on the verge of being canceled before
their American success.
Wayne and Shuster
Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Canada
1961 Wayne and Shuster unwisely agreed to do a dreadful thirteen-week
sitcom called Holiday Lodge, written by others as a summer
replacement for Jack Benny on CBS. But they soon returned to the
sophisticated sketches they did best and in 1962 and 1963 were ranked
as the best comedy team in America in polls by Motion Picture
Daily and Television Today.
over-exposure, they avoided doing a weekly show for CBC TV, and
instead contracted for a certain number of hour-long specials each
year. Their style, which consisted of a mixture of slapstick, pantomime,
and groan-inducing jokes, depended heavily, at times excessively,
on sets and props. Many or their early sketches were take-offs on
classic situations, such as putting Shakespearean blank verse into
the mouths of baseball players. In their first appearance on Ed
Sullivan, Wayne played a Roman detective investigating the murder
of Julius Caesar in "Rinse the Blood Off My Toga." His use of "martinus"
as the singular of "martini" quickly became a catchphrase (some
New York bars began advertising "Martinus Specials"), as did the
line "I told him, 'Julie, don't go'," uttered several times by actress
Sylvia Lennick playing Caesar's wife. Even Marshall McLuhan complimented
them on their word games, as when the hero of their western version
of Hamlet refused a drink from the bar and ordered "the unkindest
cut of all."
of the most memorable moments on their TV shows for CBC arose from
tricks of the camera--they would walk down an apparently infinite
number of stairs or defy gravity as painters on the Tower of Pisa.
Although Shuster tended to play the straight man, both played a
variety of characters. In general, their comedy was literate, middle-brow,
and up-beat. They always disdained cruel humor, preferring the "send-up"
to the put-down. Wayne thought that the best description of their
style was the phrase "innocent merriment" from Gilbert and Sullivan's
the late 1970s, some Canadian critics were complaining that the
comic duo were merely going through the motions, that their comedy
was hopelessly out of date, more sophomoric than sophisticated,
and often embarrassingly bad. It was suggested that they had become
too comfortable with the world, that they had lost the anger or
frustration necessary for good comedy. There was also some criticism
of their decision to do commercials for U.S.-owned Gulf Oil. Nonetheless,
they remained quite popular, especially among the under-30 and over-55
age groups. The syndication of 80 half-hour specials in the United
States, South Africa, and half a dozen other countries in 1980 was
the CBC's largest dollar sale of programming to that date.
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. In 1978, for example, Wayne
told a joint luncheon of the Ottawa Men's and Women's Clubs that
"an imbalanced television system has made us a nation of American
watchers, totally ignorant of our own way of life. We are being
robbed of our national identity. We've put Dracula in charge of
the blood bank."
Paul. When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-1957.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.
Programming in English; Ed
Sullivan Show; Kids
in the Hall; Royal
Canadian Air Farce