Monty Python, Wayne and Shuster, SCTV, and Saturday Night Live owe a lot to the Dumbells, who are considered the pioneers of sketch comedy. The Dumbells were born in the muck and mire of World War One trenches, forming in 1917 near Vimy Ridge, France. The troupe was banded from members of the Canadian army's Third Division—and named for the dumbbell in the division's emblem. The Dumbells bolstered troop morale during the war with live “concert parties” featuring irreverent humour that often skewered senior officers and the military system itself. They carried with them their curtains, sets, costumes, and upright piano, even to the front lines, and often had to perform on makeshift stages.
Canada sent over 600,000 young men to fight in the First World War. It is a huge number considering there were only four million men in all of Canada, and that most of them were either too young or too old to serve in the military. Around 2,500 Canadian women also served. Many Canadians were wounded, and 66,000
never returned from the war. The Dumbells, who were
soldiers themselves, performed a service by
entertaining many of these brave young Canadians on
the front lines. In some cases, the Dumbells also
entertained wounded soldiers.
CBC: George Stromboulopoulos Tonight
Feature of Scott Thompson Remembering The Dumbells
Watch this video of Kids In The Hall's Scott Thompson speak about the legendary comedy troupe, The Dumbells.
The Dumbells were the most popular of the concert parties and were hugely successful. When the war ended, the Dumbells’ popularity continued; they played to sold-out houses for over a decade, performing in twelve cross-Canada tours. The Dumbells also staged a run in London’s West End and scored a hit on Broadway—the first Canadian production to do so.
The original ten members included Merton Plunkett, Al (Albert) Pluckett, Ted Charters, Ross Hamilton, Allan Murray, Jack Ayre, Bill Tennent, Bert Langley, Frank Brayford and Leonard Young. The group quickly grew to sixteen members, with Bill Redpath, Elmer Belding, George Thorne, Andrew Catrano, J. McCormick, and D.L. Michie.