Wayne and Shus­ter: the iconic com­edy team that de­lighted au­di­ences for years

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - News - — PAUL LUNGEN

For decades, Wayne and Shus­ter was one of the most pop­u­lar com­edy teams north – and south – of the bor­der.

With their unique brand of whole­some, lit­er­ate hu­mour, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shus­ter were a fix­ture on Cana­dian tele­vi­sion. They also ap­peared a record 67 times on The Ed Sul­li­van Show, which was, at the time, the pre­mier va­ri­ety show in the United States.

They made their de­but on Sul­li­van’s show in May 1958, with their per­for­mance of Wipe the Blood Off My Toga, a sketch that turned the as­sas­si­na­tion of Julius Cae­sar into a de­tec­tive story. The skit was fa­mous for its sig­na­ture line, in which Cae­sar’s wife, in a heavy New York ac­cent, tells Wayne, who was play­ing a Ro­man de­tec­tive, that she warned her hus­band not to go to the Se­nate: “I told him, ‘Julie don’t go. Julie don’t go.’ But he wouldn’t lis­ten.… I said, it’s the Ides of March. Be­ware al­ready. I told him don’t go. But he wouldn’t lis­ten. I told him don’t go.”

Over the years, the most pop­u­lar TV shows un­der­went the Wayne and Shus­ter treat­ment, from their ver­sion of Star Schtick, to The Six Hun­dred Dol­lar Man, in which the or­ga­ni­za­tion SHLEP re­builds a Cana­dian as­tro­naut for the bar­gain-base­ment price of $600.

At their peak, they were hugely pop­u­lar – not bad for a cou­ple of high school bud­dies who got to­gether at Har­bord Col­le­giate and went on to de­velop their craft at the Univer­sity of Toronto, where they were English ma­jors.

Wayne, who was born John Louis Wein­garten (a sur­name he would use in var­i­ous skits through­out the years), and Shus­ter, came into the world a few months apart in 1918.

They met at Har­bord Col­le­giate, then in the heart of Toronto’s Jewish com­mu­nity, and be­gan writ­ing and per­form­ing com­edy skits to­gether. In 1941, they ap­peared on a ra­dio show in Toronto, dis­pens­ing ad­vice to house­hold­ers. Af­ter en­list­ing in the Cana­dian Armed Forces in the Sec­ond World War, they were put to work writ­ing and per­form­ing in The Army Show.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to Canada, they worked to­gether at CBC Ra­dio. Later, they per­formed on tele­vi­sion, de­vel­op­ing sketches that were de­scribed as “an ami­able mix­ture of slap­stick, pan­tomime, vis­ual tricks, sheer corn and some­times in­ge­nious twists on clas­sic sit­u­a­tions.”

Shus­ter gen­er­ally played the straight man, while Wayne played his mis­chievous buddy with a twin­kle in his eye. Shus­ter was the cousin of Joe Shus­ter, the creator of Su­per­man. His daugh­ter, Rosie, was a writer on Satur­day Night Live and his son-in-law, Lorne Michaels, was the creator of the show.

Their com­edy skits were nu­mer­ous, and while they weren’t al­ways the crit­ics’ cup of tea, they re­mained enor­mously pop­u­lar around the world. In 1980, 80 half-hour spe­cials were syn­di­cated world­wide, in­clud­ing in the United States and South Africa.

Of all their skits, their favourite was one that com­bined their love of lit­er­a­ture with base­ball and com­edy.

The Shake­spearean Base­ball Game: A Com­edy of Er­rors, Hits and Runs was first per­formed in 1958 and fea­tured mem­o­rable pseudo-shake­spearean dia­logue, such as: “Lay on Macduff! And watch out for that break­ing stuff!”

When Macduff hits a ball down the line that the um­pire calls foul, the catcher says: “You, sir­rah, that ball was fair!” The um­pire replies: “That ball was foul!” “So fair a foul I have not seen!” the catcher re­sponds.

Ed Sul­li­van hand picked Wayne and Shus­ter to per­form on his show, which was a fix­ture on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion for years. Sul­li­van de­scribed them to the CBC as “lit­er­ate, they are truly amus­ing and gay,” the lat­ter de­scrip­tor a ref­er­ence not to their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, but to a feel­ing of light­heart­ed­ness.

He also told them to “please stay in Canada and don’t be con­tam­i­nated by any of our gag writers down here.”

It’s ad­vice they took, re­main­ing in Canada and per­form­ing un­til Wayne’s death in 1990. Shus­ter passed away in 2012.

On a per­sonal note, this re­porter in­ter­viewed them early in my ca­reer at The CJN. In my house­hold, they were ma­jor tele­vi­sion stars, so I was some­what ner­vous be­fore the in­ter­view. The two turned out to be the friendli­est, warm­est, most con­sid­er­ate stars one could ever hope to meet. They were un­pre­ten­tious and full of fun, ap­par­ently do­ing their best to give me ma­te­rial for a story. When I told my mother I had in­ter­viewed the pair, she was awe struck. It wouldn’t have im­pressed her more if I’d in­ter­viewed John Wayne or Kirk Dou­glas.

For their fans, Wayne and Shus­ter were al­ways fresh, funny and even gay.

Johnny Wayne and Frank Shus­ter per­form in a CBC Ra­dio broad­cast.

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