Remembering Joe Flaherty, an American Comedian Who Became a Legend in Canada With ‘SCTV’

Joe Flaherty

Joe Flaherty, comedian and founding star of 'SCTV,' pictured circa 1982. Flaherty died this week at age 82. Photo: Jim Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Rarely has the loss of an American been so keenly felt in Canada. 

Joe Flaherty blazed such a trail as part of Canada’s most successful comedy series, SCTV, most Canadians think he was from the Great White North. For many, his death on April 1 at age 82 feels like a death in the family.

The eldest of seven siblings, Flaherty was originally from Pittsburgh. His work with the original Second City comedy troupe in Chicago led to him to Toronto in 1973 to help launch a similar stage comedy ensemble. That’s where he met up with the SCTV “Dream Team” he would forever be associated with: John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short and Dave Thomas. There was something intimate about those late-night SCTV shows and their unique comedic sensibility. As comedian Conan O’Brien once noted, they seemed to have been made “just for me and my friends.”

Short, whose friendship with Flaherty spanned 50 years, was performing in the landmark Toronto production of Godspell when the two first met in 1973. Flaherty wasn’t in that musical – which co-starred Levy, Martin and Thomas and is the subject of an upcoming Judd Apatow documentary – but was already part of the flowering Toronto comedy scene.

Upon news of his friend’s passing, Short told CBC News that Flaherty was known as “The Anchor” at SCTV, the one who could always be relied upon, as a writer and a performer, to bring a sketch home and make it hilarious. 

SCTV cast, clockwise from top left: Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Catherine O’Hara and Joe Flaherty, circa 1980. Photo: Everett Collection/Canadian Press


Short and the others were all aware that their friend was in poor health. The surviving SCTV-ers got together virtually over a Zoom video call a week before he died. For an hour and 20 minutes, while Flaherty lay in bed, Short says they were all laughing and “reflecting on all the characters we wouldn’t be allowed to do now on television.”

Flaherty took part in the 2018 SCTV cast reunion at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. Fans are still wondering if that documentary project, to be directed by Martin Scorsese, will ever happen. When Flaherty himself cast doubt in an errant 2021 tweet, reassurances came fast and furious. That was three years ago.

The only reunion that is scheduled will take place on Season 4 of Short and Steve Martin’s series Only Murders in the Building, where Levy – also busy now as The Reluctant Traveler – is scheduled to appear. Meanwhile, Andrea Martin guest-starred last season.

Reunions or not, Flaherty’s best work lives on. Some of his biggest SCTV fans went on to produce their own shows and movies, and they knew he would make whatever they were working on funnier and better.

That’s why you’d see him as a guest star on other still-cherished comedies. He would pop up on big American sitcoms such as Frasier or Married…with Children. And he would brighten fondly remembered Canadian shows such as Maniac Mansion or Puppets Who Kill. 

One all-star Canadian project was the 2002 CBC Christmas special, Dave Foley’s True Meaning of Christmas Specials. Flaherty killed it as Bing Crosby (wearing giant Dumbo ears) mocking Foley as David Bowie (or “Boowie” as der Bingle kept mispronouncing it).

He also served up comedy gold in several movies, including Stripes, Back to the Future II and Happy Gilmore. He was exactly what the cult comedy The Wrong Guy (1997) needed opposite Foley and Jennifer Tilly.

Had Flaherty been born in an earlier era, he would have fit in nicely opposite The Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields or Laurel & Hardy. He had a keen sense of the absurd and was instinctively funny no matter what the character or assignment. On SCTV, he was as at home in overalls as Big Jim McBob, blowin’ celebrities up real good on the “Film Farm Report;” goofing on pundit William F. Buckley on “The Battle of the PBS Stars;” or as Slim Wittman yodelling over Andrea Martin’s cross-eyed Barbra Streisand in a mock rendition of You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. You just had to see Flaherty in a sketch to know that, for the next few minutes, you were going to laugh.

I encountered Flaherty on a couple of occasions. One was back in 1999 in Los Angeles when he was joined by Apatow and other cast members at a Freaks & Geeks press conference. Flaherty played a hilariously over-agitated dad on that cult sitcom and, on one Halloween episode, he dressed up in his Count Floyd Dracula costume, a howling good Easter egg for SCTV fans.

Another time I happened upon him at the L.A. airport where we were both by the carousel, waiting for our luggage. I’ve met and interviewed a lot of TV stars but, at that moment, I was simply a fan telling him how much I loved all his SCTV characters. I’ve never been happier to wait for luggage.

Flaherty was down to earth and friendly and delighted when I singled out an early character – the sketchy Greek character Alki Stereopolis – as one of my favourites. I’m sure I mentioned many others, including Arthur Andrew Leggett, the putty-nosed, dum-dum from “Half Wits.”

Each one of these characters must have been based on somebody he observed and stored in his mind. The characterizations never seemed mean or spiteful. When Flaherty did Don Knotts as Barney Fife spoofing The Andy Griffith Show, it just made you want to re-watch the real series. And when he and Candy teamed up for a spot-on send-up of the quintessential Canadian flick of the early ‘70s, Goin’ Down the Road, you wanted to jump in an old Plymouth convertible with “Moncton or Bust” spray-painted on the side and head for Yonge Street.

There was an innocence about Flaherty, something very Canadian, a quality that maybe took an American to reflect back to the rest of us. Flaherty would probably think that was a bit Sammy Maudlin, but dammit, he always made me laugh.