Joe Flaherty, comedian known for work on SCTV and Freaks and Geeks, dead at 82

Comedian and writer Joe Flaherty, well known for his roles on SCTV and Freaks and Geeks, has died. He was 82.  (Jim Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images - image credit)
Comedian and writer Joe Flaherty, well known for his roles on SCTV and Freaks and Geeks, has died. He was 82. (Jim Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images - image credit)

Joe Flaherty, the comedian and writer known for his roles on shows like Freaks and Geeks and SCTV, has died. He was 82.

"After a brief illness, he left us yesterday, and since then, I've been struggling to come to terms with this immense loss," his daughter Gudrun Flaherty told CBC News on Tuesday, via SCTV producer and close family friend Andrew Alexander.

"I take solace in the memories we shared and the incredible impact he had on those around him. His spirit, humour and love will be a part of me forever."

An improvisation expert with an iconic voice and gift for the guest spot, Flaherty's credits run the gamut from movie blockbusters such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy to TV staples such as Frasier, Freaks and Geeks and Family Guy.

Even with a career spanning more than four decades, he was perhaps best known for a small role as a heckler in the Adam Sandler film Happy Gilmore and as a writer and performer in the Canadian comedy series SCTV.

E Pablo Kosmicki/Associated Press
E Pablo Kosmicki/Associated Press

He was one of the show's original members, working alongside comic legends such as John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Martin Short, and stayed on for the show's entire six-season run. Though he never attained quite the same blockbuster heights of some of his castmates (or made the move over to U.S. competitor Saturday Night Live as did some of them), his was a familiar name both in front of and behind the camera — especially to fellow comedians.

"Joe was always there in the background, pulling the strings, initiating things, making things happen. And I got the benefit of it," said Dave Thomas, well-known as one half of SCTV's Bob and Doug McKenzie duo.

"He was a pioneer and created a kind of comedy that a lot of comedians after us — like Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler and Conan O'Brien — credit him for being a kind of an innovator."

Larger than life

Thomas cited Flaherty's use of dark comedy "before it was hip to be dark," and his writing: a larger-than-life talent that brought him into the orbit of countless other comedians.

Alongside writing, directing and starring in the Levy-created Maniac Mansion from 1990 to 1993, Flaherty pulled the same multi-hyphenate duty on his comedy-anthology series Really Weird Tales alongside O'Hara, Candy and Short.

While on SCTV, Flaherty won Emmys for outstanding writing in a variety or music program in both 1982 and 1983.

With all that shared history, Thomas said hearing about Flaherty's death through a short text almost didn't seem real.

"You're never really prepared when you get 'Joe passed today.' Three words," he said. "And it's almost like, not, that's not fair — that all the experiences, all the laughs, all the performances, all the jokes, all the shows can be condensed like that into three words. It's sad."

WATCH | Flaherty on creating Really Weird Tales

Flaherty looked on his successes with humility. According to The New York Times, he joked to a huge crowd at SCTV's 2018 reunion that it was surprising anyone remembered them at all and that, before the event, he "just didn't know if anybody would show up."

But the group continued collaborating on and off, Flaherty said, because of what they could do together.

"I'd say the SCTV people bring to Hollywood a certain — I would say it's an ability to get the most out of a script ... as well or better than anybody else in the biz." Flaherty told CBC News in 1986.

"It's simply a matter of knowing how... your part fits in with the rest of the characters, and then how to get the most out of it. That's the bottom line, is to just milk it for everything it's worth."

After the show ended in 1984, Flaherty went on to star in a host of other comedies, but established himself as a consummate performer with another iconic role: Harold Weir in the comedy-drama Freaks and Geeks in 1999. Though that series ran for just one season, like SCTV it went on to gain cult status and launch the careers of a generation of other comedians.

'So cool we thought he was Canadian'

Fans and former co-stars shared their condolences on X, soon after news of his death broke.

"Worshipped Joe growing up. Always had me and my brother laughing," wrote Sandler. "The nicest guy you could know. Genius of a comedian. And a true sweetheart. Perfect combo."

"I was so thrilled to be able to work with him," said actor Jennifer Tilly, who played Flaherty's daughter in 1997's The Wrong Guy. "His performance was pitch perfect. A great comedian. Gone too soon."

"Joe Flaherty, an American so cool we thought he was Canadian. Thanks, Floyd Robertson," wrote Ontario comedian Stewart Reynolds — referencing the iconic news reporter character Flaherty played on SCTV.

Pittsburgh to Toronto

Flaherty earned his honorary Canadian status from a long-running association with the country and some of its most successful series.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1941, Flaherty served with the U.S. air force for four years before joining Chicago improv group The Second City in 1969 — where his time would overlap with future Saturday Night Live star John Belushi and Ghostbusters actor and Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis.

He eventually moved to Toronto, where he would help establish the Canadian arm of the troupe, paving the way for a career that would be perpetually affiliated with Canada and Canadians. He would play Kirk Dirkwood on CTV's David Steinberg Show, Mayor Andrews in the Canadian sitcom Call Me Fitz, and held a recurring role in the Vancouver-shot Robson Arms. He also made a guest appearance on Royal Canadian Air Farce.

He later became a faculty member at Toronto's Humber College, serving as an artist-in-residence and participating in the college's first comedy workshop in 1997. That workshop, said author and fellow instructor Andrew Clark, would later evolve into Humber's current comedy program.

"Joe was a very important part of that, because he brought other comedians of his level, you know, in to meet with students," Clark said, while reminiscing on how compassionate and committed Flaherty was with those students, despite his legendary status.

"I knew he was terrifically talented. But that's when I realized that he had this whole other realm to him, which was as a kind of mentor and an instructor," he said. "And then when it was over, I immediately went to a pay phone and called my parents and said, 'Guess who I was just in a room with?'"

Flaherty was married to Judith Dagley for 22 years until the two divorced in 1996. The couple had two children, Gudrun and Gabriel Flaherty.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images