Canadian Comedy Act

Wayne 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.

On 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.

The 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

In 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.

Fearing 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."

Some 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 Mikado.

By 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.

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. 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."

-Ross A. Eaman


Rutherford, Paul. When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952-1957. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.


See also Canadian Programming in English; Ed Sullivan Show; Kids in the Hall; Royal Canadian Air Farce