Hey you guys,
When I was a child adulthood meant the following things to me: drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, having sex, building a sweet-ass video game arcade in my basement, not having to sneak into R-rated movies like "Beverly Hills Cop" and being able to stay up late enough to watch Johnny Carson and "Saturday Night Live". Throughout my pre-pubescence I was unhealthily obsessed with "Saturday Night Live" (I'm big on unhealthy obsessions. Even my healthy obsessions are unhealthy). To my eleven-year old self it represented the epitome of a glamorous adult world I desperately wanted to be a part of.
"Saturday Night Live"'s vaunted place in my imagination was solidified when I read "Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live" as an impressionable young person away from home for the first time at Camp Interlocken. I was gobsmacked by the heady, combustible mix of elements at Saturday Night Live's inception: the egos, the drugs, the rampant personal and professional competition, sexual tension and backbiting of insanely talented, attractive and volatile twentysomethings simultaneously stumbling uncertainly into the spotlight together.
I was intoxicated by the idea of "Saturday Night Live" even before I watched a single skit. I was seduced by the glamour of live television, of New York City, of the inhuman challenge of coming up with ninety minutes of new material every week to satiate a hungry and demanding audience at home and in the studio.
I think it's safe to say that I'm not the only one entranced by the fantasy of "Saturday Night Live". Judging by "Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip" Aaron Sorkin appears infatuated with it as well. To me "Studio 60" is more about the romantic fantasy of "Saturday Night Live" that exists in the minds of impressionable young people dreaming of someday breaking into the Not Ready For Prime Time Players than it is about the real-life SNL.
In "Studio 60"'s romantic fantasy world a preternaturally talented gang of comic geniuses put out an hour and a half of devastating social and political satire that has the nation riveted and sparks furious water-cooler debate every Monday morning. On "Studio 60" putting together a live sketch comedy show every week is like running the country, only infinitely more important. "Studio 60" is all about Important Artists Seeking Grand Satirical Truths, which is probably why it's devolved into leaden, stilted self-parody so quickly.
In sharp, refreshing contrast "30 Rock" is about nothing more profound than funny, crazy, arrogant, neurotic and often socially retarded people trying to put on a funny show. Unlike Sorkin, Tina Fey has spent too much time in the trenches of "Saturday Night Live" to nurse any grandiose notions about its artistic or social significance. She's a laugh whore pure and simple, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as "30 Rock" is one of the funniest half-hours on television. I've always been a huge Alec Baldwin fan, especially as a comic actor (see "Miami Blues" is you're not convinced or even if you are) but who knew Tracy Morgan was such a comic genius?
Of course no aspect of "Saturday Night Live"'s venerable and checkered history is more clouded in legend and myth than its seminal first season, which has just been released on DVD. On one level, releasing "SNL"'s first season is a no-brainer. After all, is there any more celebrated season of television this side of "Fawlty Towers" or the British "Office"? At the same time putting out "SNL's" first season represents a huge risk because it means SNL's first season will have to compete with the legend that's built up around it.
So how does "Saturday Night Live"'s first season fare? Surprisingly well. If all "Saturday Night Live" ever did in 1975 was expose the world to the timeless comic genius of Albert Brooks and Andy Kaufman it'd be performing an invaluable public service. But "SNL"'s first season did so much more than that. For starters it definitively answers a question that's been nagging at me for years: what the hell did anybody ever see in Chevy Chase?
Decades of sleep-walking through one terrible movie after another (Cops And Robbersons, anyone? Man Of The House) have largely stripped the luster off Chase's career but "SNL"'s first season reveals what a refreshing and seductive presence Chase was at the start of his career. A lot of it was looks and attitude: it seems appropriate that much of Chase's screen test (one of the only special features on the box set) consists largely of him flashing a big shit-eating grin. In 1975 at least Chevy Chase was class clown, head jock and class president all wrapped up in one. He had a matinee idol's lean good looks and a virtuoso gift for physical comedy.
From the very start a huge amount of unevenness was hard-wired into "Saturday Night Live"'s creative DNA. I think it's enormously telling about Lorne Michaels' much-dissected personality that he'd dream up an almost inconceivably risky, unpredictable and spontaneous program–a ninety-minute live sketch comedy show with a different host each week–and then do everything in his power to make it as non-risky, predictable and unspontaneous enterprise as possible by banning improvisation, and cultivating a preponderance of audience-friendly recurring characters and catch-phrases.
"Saturday Night Live"s format would become rigidly codified soon enough but in the first season there was still a thrilling sense that anything could happen epitomized by the infamous Louise Lasser episode. Part of SNL's appeal is that things could go could horribly awry at any moment. Just as NHL fans secretly pine for fisticuffs and Nascar junkies sometimes get a queasy voyeuristic thrill from spectacular crashes SNL die-hards often a harbor a dark desire to see everything go flamboyantly to hell that's seldom satisfied.
But the Louise Lasser episode is one of those rare instances in which SNL's dogged professionalism dissipates and fissures of ugly humanity bubble to the surface. Watching the seldom rerun episode on DVD is like watching a train crash in slow motion. Lasser begins with a rambling, self-pitying and borderline incoherent monologue that sets an appropriately excruciating, unbearably uncomfortable tone for the episode ahead. At some point in her monologue Lasser appears to have a breakdown though it's hard to tell what's scripted and what's spontaneous. Is Lasser riffing irreverently on her reputation for craziness for a strange extended bit of Andy Kaufmanesque conceptual comedy? Or is she genuinely suffering an on-air nervous breakdown? Is it all about booze? Pills? Drugs? Garden-variety crazyosity?
I honestly can't say though I suspect that the episode is dealt with extensively in one of the two Saturday Night Live books. What does the Tom Shales book have to say about the incident? How about "Saturday Night: A Backstage History"? I lent out both books and don't remember what either book says about Lasser's ill-fated stint as host. Fll me in, people, fill me in. Please.
The Muppets' stint on Saturday Night Live has been pretty much expunged from the historical records of both Saturday Night Live and The Muppets and for good reason. The newfangled Muppets look like a cross between rejects from "Dark Crystal" and something Frank Frazetta might have nightmares about. But even the Muppets' ill-fated stint was salvaged somewhat by having the felt creations leave their hermetic little fantasy-world set and interact with cast-members and their presence in the show's first season represented the show's willingness to throw all sorts of crazy shit against the wall and see what stuck.
Even in its fabled first season "Saturday Night Live" sometimes chafed under the pressure of putting on a new ninety-minute comedy program every week. Only six weeks into the show's run Chevy Chase began a show by riffing on viewer's concerns that the show was hopelessly padded and loose. And the cast and crew's energy and vitality clearly seemed to flag well before the season ended.
I watch "Saturday Night Live" fairly religiously not so much because I anticipate an hour and a half of timely, hilarious satire every week–at best I hope for a few funny sketches–but because I am a creature of ritual and repetition and, for better or worse, so is "Saturday Night Live". That's what its recurring characters are about: the comfort and security of predictability and repetition. The hooting and hollering that accompanies each recurring character sends out a Pavlovian message to the home audience: "this is good. We like this. We've seen it before and it's funny". But it goes beyond that. If you look through SNL's history you'll see all kinds of patterns and themes. Every cast generally includes a handful of types: the fat guy, the black guy, the impressionist, the hot girl, the handsome goofball and so on. Then there are types of skits that recur over and over again, like the cheesy lounge singers who perform incongruous covers of current hits and the public-access losers hosting a show seen only by relatives. And I can't be the only one to notice that the most popular idea for recurring characters involves them meeting characters (often relatives) who behave exactly like them.
I watch it because Saturday Night Live has been on the air for longer than I've been alive and will probably still be on the air long after I'm dead. I watch "Saturday Night Live" because I've always watched it. I watch it less for what it is than for what it was and what it could once again be. I watch it on the off chance that something great or spontaneous or genuinely dangerous will happen. I watch it because the eleven-year-old me feels I have a solemn obligation to watch SNL as long as it's around.
I watch it because the Bill Murray or Gilda Radner or Phil Hartman of the future might be waiting in the wings, ready and eager to make their mark upon this most venerable of comic institutions.
How about you guys? Do any of you have similarly strong emotional attachments to SNL? What do you think of the show's first season? Does it live up to your expectations? Am I the only one who can't wait for the DVD release of some of the show's bleakest years (honestly how bad could the 1981 SNL really have been?) Am I the only one who's geeked that we're finally going to get to see the unedited versions of damn near every SNL ever made? Any ideas/comments/theories/facts about the Lasser episode? Please do feel free to discuss.
Hey you guys,