Dave Thomas has a reputation for being a guy quick to temper who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, going all the way back to his Second City days and the landmark comedy show that grew out of them, SCTV.
As is my wont, though, I didn’t care about whatever reputation he may or may not have - I viewed him as a comedy icon and someone who would probably be fascinating to chat with.
And, after you read the interview below, I hope you’ll agree.
He’s also known as one half of that most-Canadian of duos, Bob & Doug McKenzie, alongside Rick Moranis (you can read my in-depth interview with Rick Moranis HERE).
I’ve since stayed in touch with Dave, and my own personal opinion of him hasn’t changed in the time I’ve known him - he may seem gruff and succinct, but he’s smart, funny, and a genuinely good guy. He’s got an amazing comedy mind, and he’s also one of those writers who has a knack for mentoring the next generation.
Oh, and if you ever talk to him, ask him about his car.
KEN PLUME: Tell me a about your background, growing up in Canada.
DAVE THOMAS: Well, I didn’t grow up just in Canada. I was born in Canada near Niagara Falls in a place called St. Catherines. Then I lived in Toronto till I was six. Then we moved to Durham, North Carolina. We were there in the early 60’s. My Dad was doing a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Duke, and ended up becoming a philosopher, lecturer, teaching college, and ultimately a medical ethicist. Then we went to Britain. Both my parents were British. We had relatives in Scotland and Wales and my father ’s parents lived in Birmingham, England and we spent time with them all. After that, we came back to Canada when I was twelve, so I was gone for awhile.
PLUME: Sounds like you had quite a global childhood.
THOMAS: Yeah, it was interesting. We went to Britain every summer, pretty much, when I was a kid visiting relatives. My brother and I got pretty good at the British dialect, and it was primarily so that they wouldn’t think we were Americans or Canadian and therefore rich.
PLUME: Wouldn’t want that misunderstanding.
THOMAS: Then they (slipping in to cockney accent) “wont you ta pay feh every’ting, see? An that’s not nice.” My parents - my father particularly - were kind of comedy aficionados, so at that time I was exposed to a really wide swath of comedy, from Peter Sellers and the Goons - which came out of my parent’s British background - to Andy Griffith when we were in Durham, North Carolina. This was before he did The Andy Griffith Show, and in fact before he did No Time For Sergeants, when he used to do comedy radio stuff and comedy records. Also Jonathan Winters and Tom Lehrer, who was actually kind of an academic’s comedian.
PLUME: So you had a rather eclectic and widespread comedy background.
THOMAS: Absolutely. No question about it.
PLUME: Was there any disappointment in going back to Canada?
THOMAS: No, actually. It was just all part of life. I think kids are very accepting. “What? We’re moving here now? Oh, okay.” I don’t think they turn into moaners and complainers until they’re teenagers.
PLUME: Did it have any impact on your teenage years?
THOMAS: No, I was settled by that time. I found myself sort of restless and wishing we would move again when I was a teenager, but I was kind of settled in Canada by that point. Canada is sort of like a looking glass into the United States. It’s like a balcony seat in a theater. Marty Short’s father was Irish, and he used to describe the US as “The Excited States” - that there was always stuff going on there and everything seemed bigger and people reacted in a bigger way to things. Canada, by comparison, is much more conservative and reserved. Anyway, when I got to college, I ran into Martin Short and Eugene Levy and Ivan Reitman -we all went to McMaster University. There was no theater or film course at this school, so we just started our own theater and film stuff, because it was what we were all interested in. We were all general arts students. The McMaster Student Council funded some things, and we talked them into funding films, theater groups, and plays - in some cases out own plays. So we just spent our undergrad years putting on shows. It was a lot of fun. Then, right after college, Marty and Eugene got roles in the Toronto production of Godspell and I took a job as a copywriter for McCann/Erickson. I wrote ad copy for about six months, and then I did some low-level promotional campaign for Coca-Cola. The campaign hit big, and I ended up being the head writer for Coca-Cola Canada out of McCann in Toronto, and then they sent me to New York to work with this guy named Bill Backer, who was creative director for McCann worldwide at that time. Around this time they were opening a Second City Theater in Toronto.
PLUME: The initial troupe was in Chicago, right?
THOMAS: Yeah, that’s right. They started out in Chicago in about ‘58 or ‘59. That was the Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Paul Sills crowd. A decade-and-a-half later, they opened up a branch in Toronto. I wasn’t in the first cast that they put together, and it’s a good thing, too, because they ended up closing that theater because they couldn’t get a liquor license, but it was a great cast. Joe Flaherty, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Candy were all in it. All very funny people, and I went and saw that show and thought, “This is what I really want to do!”
PLUME: But you were firmly entrenched as an ad guy.
THOMAS: Yeah, making a lot more money with McCann/Erickson than the Second City Stage salary which was $145 a week. By comparison, I was making about $50,000 at McCann/Erickson as a successful copywriter. In fact, my creative director said, “In another three years, you’ll be a creative director,” This compliment was in fact the straw that broke the camel’s back, because then I realized that was as far as I want to go in advertising, and that would be well before I was 30, so I realized I’ve gotta get outta here. Anyway, I saw this Second City Show, and I saw these very funny
people, and thought, “I’ve got to be part of that.” So when they closed the show on Adelaide Street and opened six months later at the Old Firehall, I auditioned and got in.
PLUME: What year was this?
THOMAS: This was 1974. It was just before Lorne Michaels started his recruitment program for Saturday Night Live.
PLUME: How did you miss out on that?
THOMAS: Very simple, really. Danny had been doing this improvising stuff for quite some time, and he’s a very unique talent, so he got scooped from the Toronto company, and Gilda (Radner) got scooped from the Toronto company, and then Lorne went to Chicago and grabbed Belushi. Lorne knew Chevy from other shows as a writer. And candidly, I think he just didn’t think I was as funny as those guys. Anyway, at that time, I was a relatively new addition to the Second City Stage cast and happy to have the job there.
PLUME: Was there any disappointment amongst those who were left behind?
THOMAS: Some. I remember some good-natured bitching. But, for the most part we were all happy to have jobs. I think. I know I wasn’t disappointed.
PLUME: But they didn’t know how big SNL was going to be anyway.
THOMAS: Yeah, nobody knew. It was just some new show that some Canadian producer was putting together in New York. We had no idea it was going to be big. Within six months of SNL starting, the guys who ran the Second City theater in Toronto decided to start up SCTV. So, for me, getting into the cast of SCTV was just a miracle of good timing. First I’m in the right time and the right place to get the stage show, and then just as that’s getting kind of ripe, they start a TV show. Again, in the right place at the right time.