Wayne and Shuster
(Photo credit: New York Times/Toro Magazine)
Wayne and Shuster are widely acknowledged as the founding fathers of English Canadian television comedy. Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster met at the Harbord Collegiate Institute in Toronto. They both studied at the University of Toronto where they wrote and performed for the theatre, and in 1941, they began their first radio show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
They enlisted in the Canadian army during World War II, and performed for the troops in Europe. In fact, they wrote and starred in The Invasion Review, the first show to hit the beaches of Normandy after D-Day. They returned to Canada to create the Wayne and Shuster Show on CBC Radio in 1946.
In 1958, they got their real big break when they appeared for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan's ratings had been slipping and it is widely believed that the injection of Wayne and Shuster's intellectual slapstick saved the show. They were given a one-year contract, which was renewed repeatedly, allowing them complete freedom for their sketch writing. They set a record there by appearing 67 times over the next 11 years. In 1962 and 1963, Motion Picture Daily and Television Today ranked the duo as the best comedy team in America.
They performed "literate" comedy that was peppered with slapstick. They often used classical or Shakespearean settings and characters; on their first Ed Sullivan appearance, for example, they performed a modern murder investigation using Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in a sketch called "Rinse the Blood off My Toga." Many fans can still recite the lines from that skit, in which a rubber-faced Johnny played the toga-ed detective to Shuster's handsomely devious Brutus. Throughout the skit, Caesar's widow Calphurnia cries out: "I told him, Julie, don't go, but he wouldn't listen."
They always came back to Toronto and produced their own television specials for the CBC. The Wayne and Shuster Show was a perpetual favourite with Canadian viewers from 1954 to 1989. Frank Shuster played the perfect straight man to Johnny Wayne's manic man. While their humour started feeling dated by the '80s, they were still an influence on future Canadian comedians like Lorne Michaels (Shuster's son-in-law) and The Kids in the Hall. The syndication of their shows around the world remains the largest grossing profit from programming sales for CBC.
Johnny Wayne died in 1990. Frank Shuster, who passed away in 2002, was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 1997 and lived to see his star on Canada's Walk of Fame in 1999.