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Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Anthony Perkins”

Illustration for article titled iSaturday Night Live (Classic)/i: “Anthony Perkins”
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“Anthony Perkins” (season one, episode 16; originally aired 3/13/1976)

Psycho may have been the best and worst thing that ever happened to Anthony Perkins. The role of Norman Bates made him more famous than he’d been before, but there’s a pretty fair chance that if he’d never played that role, the slender, gentle, boyishly good-looking Perkins never would have gotten typecast as a dangerous lunatic. Eight years after Psycho, Perkins had his second-best starring role in a movie, playing a man recently paroled from a mental institution after accidentally killing someone. Alienated, lonely, and living in a fantasy world, he gets sucked into the vortex of a high-school girl (Tuesday Weld) who seems deceptively naïve and innocent. The movie gave Perkins the chance to grow up a little onscreen and to play a character victimized by someone crazier than he was. (Just to make sure there’s no base left untouched, Weld’s character is also matricidal.)


If that movie didn’t put the ghost of Norman Bates to bed for Perkins, nothing could, and nothing ever did. He played a wide variety of roles in the course of his career, and he was often brilliant, but he kept getting cast, again and again, as one kind of twitchy, violent nut or another. Every so often, a high-profile triumph of one kind or another would result in headlines saying that Perkins, who had an unconscionably prolonged period as a juvenile, had “matured” and would no longer be living in Norman Bates’ shadow, but at some point, even Perkins must have stopped believing it.

Not long before he hosted Saturday Night, he had been the subject of one of those articles, in Newsweek, timed to his taking over the role of the psychiatrist in Equus. This episode includes a running gag involving the host being repeatedly besieged by the Muppets, who can feel themselves being crowded out of the show and beg him to do something to help. Perkins tells them that he doesn’t have as much power as they seem to think, and anyway, he has his own problems: “Three weeks ago, I was on Broadway in Equus. Now, they’ve got me swallowing flies on live TV.”


The fly-swallowing comes in Perkins’ opening monologue, whose theme is that, despite the impression you may have formed from seeing his movies, he’s not creepy in the least little… excuse me, gulp! All in all, the episode does a pretty good balancing its opportunities to exploit having a capable, stage-trained actor-host who can play a lot of different parts—a “theater therapist” who sings “Hello, Dolly!” with his patient, Jane Curtin; an office Lothario proposing to Gilda Radner that they have an affair; a stern college professor in a skit with Laraine Newman’s sorority-house airhead—and, at the same time, keep making jokes about that one kind of role he’s done so goddamn often.

In addition to the monologue, Perkins also introduces a selection of mock trailers for cheesy horror movies, an idea that the writers got such a kick out of that they used it again two years later, for much the same reason, when Christopher Lee hosted. But the jewel in this episode’s crown is “The Norman Bates School Of Motel Management,” a classic script by Michael O’Donoghue that’s executed with the kind of satirical precision that really set this show apart from what was passing for parody in mainstream TV comedy. I suppose it’s not outside the full range of possibility that Johnny Carson or somebody might have roped Perkins into doing it. But would anyone else have insisted on the cutaway shots of the stuffed birds?


Stray observations:

  • The opening titles finally include photographs of each of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. In the history of respect shown to the cast members, this is the equivalent of legislation establishing the five-day work week.
  • It is entirely possible that, even though I know I’ve seen the movie, I have never really listened closely to the lyrics of “Hello, Dolly.” Do they really include the line “Forget the entrance tax, fellas”?
  • There ought to be an AVQ&A on the subject of SNL skits that the respondents first saw when they were way too young to make head or tails of what was supposed to be going on, only to see them again many years later and go, “Oh.” Maybe it’s been done, and I missed it; maybe it’s just waiting for someone to find a more pithy way to say all that in the headline. In any case, mine is the sketch here where square housewife Gilda Radner hires Jane Curtin (from an ad in the back of the Village Voice) without realzing that Curtin—done up in black leather, and as perfectly cast as anyone on this show has ever been—is a dominatrix  (“All forms of S & M. ‘Scrubbing and cleaning,” I guess.”) who torments her clients with both physical abuse and slogans borrowed from now-forgotten TV commercials.  “You miserable insect,” she hisses when Radner begs her to teach her to be more like her. “Do you think you could ever possibly be like me? In 22 years of marriage, I’ve never wrecked the rice!”
  • Short-film maker Gary Weis continues to be mysteriously fascinated by marginal figures on the New York creative scene—including, tonight, writer Dan Greenberg and returning guest Taylor Mead—and their pets. Introducing his latest waste of time, Weis looks to be about 18 years old, which might help explain it. The people sending in amateur short films continue to be obsessed with live-action animation involving food, and that could probably be explained by taking a deep whiff of the album jackets of their copies of The Dark Side Of The Moon.
  • Musical guest: Betty Carter. Was this at Perkins’ insistence? Unless Al Jarreau counts, and so long as I’m the one writing these reviews, he doesn’t, he’s one of three musical guests who appeared during the first season who could be labeled “jazz” artists (as opposed to rock and soul), and the two others, Gil Scott-Heron and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, were there because they had ties to and the blessing of the hosts, Richard Pryor and Louise Lasser, respectively. In retrospect, it’s too bad that the show didn’t mix it up a little more with their musical guests; the show was in a position where it might have done more to introduce jazz and blues musicians to its target audience, but then Lorne Michaels didn’t always seem that interested even in presenting a wide and exciting range of rock and pop acts. At least, not until he tried to branch off 15 years later with the Sunday Night/ Night Music series, by which time the battle had been won decisively

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