A new theatre production is reviving Wayne and Shuster’s sketch comedy for a younger generation who don’t know the famous duo

Wayne and Shuster
Wayne and Shuster perform a Second World War skit mocking Adolph Hitler.

Brian Wayne credits a conversation he recently had with some university students for the idea to bring his late father’s classic sketch comedy to a new generation of young, diverse audiences.

Wayne is the son of the late Johnny Wayne–who together with partner Frank Shuster–were the first big Canadian comedy television stars from the 1950s through to the 1990s.  With weekly variety shows and appearances in the United States and Europe, Wayne and Shuster won legions of fans for their literate comedy routines such as “A Shakespearean Baseball Game” and “Rinse the Blood off my Toga.”

But Brian Wayne was dismayed to learn that the young people he was talking with, had never heard of them.

“I said, ‘My father was Johnny Wayne of the comedy team of Wayne and Shuster.’ And they said ‘Who?’,”he recalled in an interview with The CJN Daily.  

He told them Wayne and Shuster were famous Canadian comedians who were on television for a long time, like Burns and Allen, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and The Smothers Brothers. 

“And they said, ‘Who’?”

“And so it became apparent that people didn’t know Wayne and Shuster very well, the new generation,” said Wayne, 71, a retired CBC Sports producer.

New theatre show to revive Wayne and Shuster’s repertoire

But he’s hoping that will change this week with the world premiere of a new stage show based on their parents’ original skits. It’s called “Wayne and Shuster Live”, produced by Bygone Theatre, with four performances at Hart House Theatre in Toronto. 

Wayne and Shuster
A Toronto theatre troupe has teamed up with the children of iconic Canadian sketch comedians, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, to mount a revival of the cultural icons’ brand of comedy and introduce it for a new generation. (Photo by Bygone Theatre)

From May 25 to May 27, the Wayne and Shuster weekend also includes a cocktail reception, and meet-and-greets with Brian Wayne and his older brother Michael, plus Frank Shuster’s daughter Rosie Shuster, a comedy writer and actor based in California. Rosie, a comedy writer in her own right, was one of the original creatives on Saturday Night Live. She was married to Canadian SNL founder Lorne Michaels.

The new stage show will re-recreate some of the classic skits from the Wayne and Shuster archives, using the original scripts.

Careers began at Toronto’s Harbord Collegiate high school

Johnny Wayne, (born John Louis Weingarten in 1918), and Frank Shuster (born in 1916), grew up in Toronto’s historic Jewish district around Harbord Collegiate, where the pair met. Later, as undergraduates at the University of Toronto, the young creatives wrote and starred in fraternity skits and began appearing on CFRB Radio. 

During the Second World War, Wayne and Shuster enlisted in the Canadian Army, and were sent overseas as part of the entertainment units. They toured England with singers and dancers, then landed in Normandy a mere 40 days after the Allied invasion in the summer of 1944. They tried to bring comfort to the Canadian troops in battle against Hitler.

“What [my father] always used to say, when he was performing, they were the only two people that were shot at from both sides,” said Brian Wayne, with a laugh.

Wayne and Shuster in uniform in the Second World War
Wayne and Shuster perform a Second World War skit mocking Adolph Hitler while overseas in France with the Canadian Army in September 1944 (wearing uniforms captured from the Germans). Ken Bell photo, Library and Archives Canada.

After the war, the veterans returned to Toronto, where they were offered their own radio show on CBC. With the advent of television in the mid-1950s, Wayne and Shuster’s weekly shows on CBC-TV were must-see viewing in countless households. Their routines married commentary on pop culture of the day with their literary background as English majors at the University of Toronto. 

Among their more famous creations was Frontier Psychiatrist and Star Shtick, a takeoff on Star Trek, with elaborate costumes and a large cast.

Soon, they received offers to appear on CBS’s popular variety broadcast The Ed Sullivan Show, and even to relocate south of the border permanently for their careers. They chose to remain in Canada. They did perform on that show a record 67 times.

Jewish heritage woven into their material

The Jewish comedians found they had to dial down their cultural identity in postwar Canada while they navigated the very gentile world of show business in the corridors of the CBC, which meant their material was different from your typical Catskill Borscht Belt humour, said Rosie Shuster. 

“It wasn’t United States show business, you know, where there were a lot more Jewish people,” she said. “There was a sensitivity not to lay it on too thick.”

Still, her father and Johnny Wayne would weave what their children call Jewish “winks” into their comedy scripts.

“He did do jokes, winks and nods to my grandmother and he’d sort of give us a little nudge when he used some Yiddish words and things like that, and he said, ‘You know, that one’s for Bubbie,’” said Brian Wayne.

Their parents wanted to produce comedy that spoke to all Canadians, not niche communities, insists Michael Wayne, a professor of history and the author of several books on American politics and race relations and the American South. Wayne and Shuster shows were designed for the “blue-haired ladies in Victoria” and the “poor guy in Saskatoon” but also people from many faiths and cultures who used to watch their shows, according to Michael Wayne.

“And that’s so special to us that our dads really wanted to say to the people in Canada, ‘You’re all part of this country’ It’s not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant alone. It’s everybody who’s here,” he said.

Material will resonate with new audiences

Which is why the producers (and the family) are confident that their fathers’ material – which aired when Canada was emerging as a postwar nation seven decades ago – will resonate strongly with today’s audiences, as well as with their original fans who are now today’s parents and grandparents who remember hearing Wayne and Shuster growing up.

Bygone Theatre’s artistic executive director Emily Dix, who is in her 30s, fondly recalls watching old VHS tapes of the Wayne and Shuster specials with her grandfather. She and producer Conor Fitzgerald, combed through the comedy scripts carefully to ensure there were no tasteless jokes or offensive scenes that would not go over well in modern times.

They didn’t find anything problematic, and Dix chalks it up to the type of comedy Wayne and Shuster wrote. It wasn’t picking on anyone or insulting anyone. Rather it was showing how ridiculous something is, such as their spoof episode “Question Time” from 1977 when Canada’s House of Commons attempted to bring television cameras into Question Period for the first time.

In the skit, the comedy duo suggested the Speaker of the House wears sequins, to make the broadcast more exciting for Canadians.

“There’s some little references that are, you know, pop culture things that maybe people wouldn’t get,” Dix said. But anyone who knows Shakespeare, or gritty crime dramas, can find the humour in the classic skits.

The producers and director have updated some of the scripts to make it fit the 21st century, including adding diverse cast members to the roster of actors, and ignoring gender when it comes to who gets to recite what lines. But Dix feels audience members will enjoy the material no matter what generation they come from.

“And when you have something that can be enjoyed by different ages, by people with different understandings of the material, I think that’s pretty rare and pretty special, and when you’re in a group and people are laughing and you feel like ‘I get the joke’ whether you get every level of it or not, that’s great,” she said.

Family frustrated by CBC

Johnny Wayne’s sons and daughter-in-law are seen at the Wayne and Shuster Lane. From left to right Michael, Jamie and Brian Wayne and Sandra Tychsen-Wayne. (Barbara Silverstein photo)

There have been many tributes to Wayne and Shuster over the years for their contribution to Canadian comedy and culture, including even posthumously, in 2019, when the City of Toronto named a lane in their honour in the Bathurst and Harbord streets area. They were inducted into the Canadian Comedy Hall of Fame. Frank Shuster received an Order of Canada. Both the Stratford Festival and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival have held celebrations of the pair’s achievements in comedy.

However, for years, the families have been trying unsuccessfully to convince the CBC that their fathers’ comedy shows are important pieces of Canadian cultural heritage that should be showcased widely on CBC television. The CBC still owns all the film rights to decades worth of Wayne and Shuster television shows, while the families own only the scripts. 

But negotiations with the CBC have not born fruit, and are complicated, according to Bygone Theatre’s producer Conor Fitzgerald. There are old copyright provisions still in effect even though almost all of the musicians and other members of the cast and crew are long dead.

Fitzgerald worked for the Wayne and Shuster families as an intern during the pandemic while he was doing his joint MBA and law degree at York University. He attempted to find out what inventory the CBC still has, and what condition the tapes are in, and whether any are missing. Eventually, he was sent a list. Fitzgerald also learned that the CBC has insufficient funds to digitize its entire collection of classic Canadian content.

“I think there’s a bigger question in Canada when it comes to rights and especially rights to things like Wayne and Shuster about how impactful they are for our heritage,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that’s a really big moral question that we have to ask ourselves as a nation about whether or not there’s some reason, apart from this legal reason, to share these stories with the nation.”

“It’s quite simple,” said Michael Wayne. “The CBC can make them available, or they can’t. Or they don’t want to.”

The children have been frustrated over this impasse. They want the CBC to broadcast their fathers’ shows, but if not, then to release the tapes and let a third-party licence them, for a reasonable fee. It has already been done once, with much success. 

From 2017 to 2022, as part of a project for Canada’s 150th birthday, some Wayne and Shuster episodes were aired on the Encore+ YouTube channel. It was an initiative of the Canadian Media Fund, which also found the funding to help rights holders, including the CBC, digitize over 3,000 shows of Little Mosque on the Prairie, Due South, Degrassi Junior High, Street Legal, Da Vinci’s Inquest and Mr. Dressup. Before Encore+ was shut down last November, the channels in French and English boasted 200,000 subscribers and 50 million views.

“So there’s the legal aspect of it that’s muddy and weird and hard to navigate, and then there’s that other moral aspect of it that we’re combating, too, with like, what should we just have? What belongs to Canada?” Fitzgerald said. 

It also rankles Emily Dix that the CBC gave some of Wayne and Shuster’s old TV shows to the Library and Archives Canada, to preserve for posterity.

“What’s the point in keeping something if it’s just locked away, you know?” Dix asked. “We can realize this is something important that we need to keep, and find a way to grow and continue to share the parts of our past that are good, while also encouraging new things.”

Touring stage show and documentary planned

For Rosie Shuster, who likens the roadblocks with the CBC to “knocking my head against the wall,” being able to come to Toronto and attend the world premiere of the Bygone Theatre’s new stage show will be a “beautiful perk.” 

“It’s fabulous,” said Michael Wayne, who feels that being able to see his father’s material performed live on stage, and not on screen, will be quite special.

But it will also be a test to see whether their fathers’ legacies can attract a paying crowd. The theatre company launched a Kickstarter campaign. There are still tickets available.

If the show is a success, the producers have plans to stage it across Canada at summer theatres and other venues. A documentary is also in the works.

Several well-known names in the Canadian comedy scene have signed on to the production including the director, Paul Bates, a Second City comedy alumnus who appeared on Kim’s Convenience; Matt Baram, who had roles in CTV’s Carter and Supergirl on CW; Aurora Browne, of the CBC’s Baroness von Sketch show and The Great Canadian Baking Show; and Darryl Hinds, who played Yousef on Little Mosque on the Prairie and was on the Royal Canadian Air Farce New Year’s Eve TV specials.

The producers were excited to recently locate some of the original Wayne and Shuster costumes at a Toronto theatre supply store, Bermans, which the cast actually wore for the classic Shakespearean baseball game skit.

In that episode, which first aired in 1958, Johnny Wayne plays a slumping catcher of a fictional baseball team from Stratford. As he always did, Frank Shuster played the straight man, and was the exasperated team manager. The lines are all delivered in iambic pentameter.

The producers are also promising to revive the famous “Rinse the Blood off my Toga” skit which is Wayne and Shuster’s 1954 take on the assassination of Julius Caesar. The episode was done as an ancient Roman police drama, with Johnny Wayne playing hard-boiled Brooklyn detective Flavius Maximus, while Frank Shuster played Brutus, one of the actual killers of the doomed emperor. 

Although one line from the show was perhaps the duo’s most enduring contribution to Canadian pop culture, “I told him, ‘Julie! Don’t go!’, it wasn’t either of the fathers of Canadian comedy who said it. Instead, the line was recited (in a thick New York accent) by Sylvia Lennick, the actor playing Julius Caesar’s widow, Calpurnia.

The Bygone Theatre producers predict people who were born from 1930 to 1989 will enjoy tapping into their nostalgic feelings for the Wayne and Shuster material, while younger patrons who like vintage movies and clothes will also appreciate the new stage version.

“It’s satire and it’s clever and it’s deep comedy but then you have, interspersed in it, these goofy fun moments that are just funny,” Conor Fitzgerald predicts.