Long before Wayne and Garth brought their brand of public access comedy to the world, Canada was celebrating the success of Bob and Doug McKenzie. Starring Rick Moranis as Bob and Dave Thomas as Doug, these two brothers appeared on SCTV (a popular Canadian sketch comedy show that would eventually garner a bit of success across the border). The characters were actually created as a way to fill Canadian content on the show while simultaneously mocking it. Bob and Doug sat on their set, surrounded by cases of Canadian beer, throwing in an “Eh?” at the end of their sentences and calling each other “hosers” while they discussed one ridiculous thing after another.
The sketches played up some of the stereotypes people had regarding Canada and were largely improvised by Thomas and Moranis. When the characters became popular, the opportunity arose to shoot a feature film around them. Thomas and Moranis jumped at the chance, and with additional writing duties provided by Steve De Jarnatt, Strange Brew was created. Thomas and Moranis directed the film and a cult classic was born. While the popularity of the characters helped the film achieve a modest level of success, the idea of whether the film is Essential Canadian Cinema so many years later is the question Toronto Film Scene writers Sean Kelly and Will Brownridge wanted to address. Are the adventures of Bob and Doug McKenzie still as funny today as they were years ago and are they enough to label the film Essential Canadian Cinema?
Will: It’s been years since I’ve seen Strange Brew, but this was a movie my friends and I would watch just about every weekend. We watched until we could act out the scenes from memory, which we would often do just to amuse ourselves and confuse those around us. It was Bob and Doug McKenzie, the greatest hosers around, and it happened to come out of SCTV, a show we also watched as often as possible. I didn’t have the same knowledge of film I do now, so getting to see something that took place just outside of my city was rare. I hadn’t yet watched some of the great Canadian films available, so Strange Brew was this unique beast in the movies we watched. Plus, it’s incredibly hilarious and still quotable, to this day.
I’m not sure if you’ve seen this film previously, so I’m interested to hear how your first experience was.
Sean: This was my first time seeing the film, though I was of course familiar with Bob and Doug McKenzie, who have become ingrained in Canadian pop culture. It is ironic that characters that are the satirical embodiment of every negative Canadian stereotype would end up becoming icons themselves. That said, as I watched, it became obvious they are better in small doses. I could handle the duo’s obsession with beer, donuts and saying, “eh” for five minutes, but once stretched to 90, it became a bit too much.
What it is that you specifically like about this film?
Will: What I specifically enjoy is that I find it hilarious — from start to finish, I’m always laughing. Also, what you think of as negative stereotypes is basically my reality! Beer, donuts and saying, “eh” are basically like living in my house, now and when I was a kid. There’s a weird familiarity with Bob and Doug; it’s like watching a movie about myself or those around me. Bob and Doug always represented the adults in my life and now represent my friends and myself; it’s just what we do.
Of course, all my love for the film doesn’t speak to its quality. I may love it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s well put together. The story starts off relatively straightforward before swerving off into some very strange territory, ultimately ending with Super Dog and Bob (Rick Moranis) drinking an entire brewery tank of beer, with him becoming a giant, balloon-like thing. There are ghosts and very weird hockey tournaments, but the insanity and outrageousness just make it funnier, in my opinion. Only Bob and Doug could find themselves in these situations.
Sean: No, the film isn’t well put together at all; it’s interesting that Moranis and Thomas opted to direct, instead of getting a more seasoned filmmaker, like, say, Ivan Reitman. This results in the film having a very amateur-like quality. That said, I do think it was amazing that they managed to get Max von Sydow to play the antagonist, especially since he’s the only actor in the film that would have been well known to audiences at the time. That plot is really just a mishmash of “what gag can be put here?” There’s even an intermission titlecard that appears at the midpoint of the film for no reason whatsoever. I’m not saying that I didn’t like it; it’s just the film didn’t completely mesh with me.
Will: Apparently their bits on SCTV were always improvised, so directing and writing would be a natural fit for Moranis and Thomas. That amateur quality is a part of that entire creative process, in my mind. Those characters are Moranis and Thomas, so when they’re behind the camera it’s as if Bob and Doug have finally gotten to make the movie they’ve always wanted. For me, it’s just another piece of the Bob and Doug attitude.
It’s great that Max Von Sydow is in there, but there’s also Lynne Griffin, who worked on Black Christmas previously and was featured in Curtains the same year as Strange Brew. While she may not have been as instantly recognizable as Max Von Sydow, she’s a familiar face to viewers, like myself, who grew up on horror films. I think they also go oddly hand in hand. Comedy and horror not only work well together, but garner strong reactions. For Canadian audiences, Bob and Doug were very recognizable characters as well; it’s the Wayne’s World of Canada.
When you talk about the idea of them trying to fit gags in wherever possible, you can definitely see that in the film. They may be strange, but I found that they at least worked together as a whole; it’s what I’d come to expect from the characters, except on a larger, more outrageous and ridiculous scale. I think it’s a film that works because you’re familiar with the characters. If you had never seen them before, you’d wonder, “what the hell’s going on?”
Sean: It’s ironic that you would call Bob and Doug the Wayne’s World of Canada, since this film predates Wayne’s World by at least a decade, even though I think Mike Myers began performing as Wayne a few years after this film. If there was anyone Bob and Doug were inspired by, it’d be Cheech and Chong, except with beer instead of pot. In fact, Strange Brew is more of film for people to watch while drinking, so they can better laugh at the ridiculousness of the plot.
It’s also interesting that Strange Brew is one of the few Canadian films distributed by a major Hollywood studio. Part of this likely has to do with the fact that Bob and Doug became a crossover hit when SCTV played on NBC in the early ’80s. I do have to say that I liked the gag with the MGM lion at the start of the film, along with the other fourth-wall-breaking material. I only wish it was more obvious that the film took place in Canada. It’s meant to be assumed, though other than a couple shots of TTC streetcars, there’s no real landscape in the film that’s indefinably Canadian.
Will: I didn’t mean that Bob and Doug were inspired by Wayne’s World — if anything, it’s the other way around. Bob and Doug could definitely be the Canadian version of Cheech and Chong, and there’s no better way to represent Canada than through our love of beer!
I think part of the distribution deal had to do with the previously released album by the duo, which was quite popular as well — even featuring Rush’s Geddy Lee. Comedy is an easy sell, so it likely wasn’t hard to find someone to take the film, especially considering the popularity of the pair, at the time.
I’m a bit surprised to hear you say it’s not obvious the film takes place in Canada. Even as a kid, with limited experience with Canadian film, I knew exactly where this movie was transpiring. The opening credit sequence of them escaping the movie theatre and driving through the city is filled with very Canadian shots, not to mention the fact there are Canadian flag stickers all over the inside of their van, they’re constantly drinking out of those old, stubby beer bottles — many of which are Molson Canadian — and there is a shot (although it’s obscured by some of the credits) of the CN Tower at night. They also make a trip to the Beer Store, which you wouldn’t see in an American film. In the States, characters can just go to a mini-mart or a liquor store to buy alcohol. I don’t think they could make this movie more Canadian, unless they constantly used the word Canada in the dialogue. I think they even sing “O Canada” in the movie!
Is Strange Brew Essential Canadian Cinema?
Sean: Strange Brew is a film that’s hard for me to classify as Essential Canadian Cinema. Sure, Bob and Doug are considered Canadian cultural institutions, but I would rather people watch old episodes of SCTV. Like the many failed SNL film adaptations, Strange Brew is an example of a popular sketch not really working in feature-length form. The film was made to cash in on Bob and Doug ‘s popularity in the early ’80s, and while it can be classified as a cult film, it’s far from essential.
Will: I have to completely disagree. Comedy is one of the things Canada does best and Strange Brew remains hilarious. Sure, it’s packed with all the strange stereotypes people think of when it comes to Canada, but they’re really not that far off from the truth. There’s also the fact that this movie is proudly Canadian and its characters are ones that are now a part of our culture. They may not be as popular today, but few films like this are. In terms of Canadian comedy, Strange Brew is absolutely Essential Canadian Cinema.