Buck Henry is that rarest of show-biz anomalies: an apparently egoless comic performer. Watching Henry in his many, many stints as guest host on Saturday Night Live you never get the sense that he's hungry for laughs or eager to advance his career. No, he's always there to serve the material, to play the non-descript straight man content to set up flashier, needier talents.
Part of this comes from being a writer first and a performer second. The cast and crew of Saturday Night Live loved having Henry host because he was game for anything. Accordingly, today's Golden Classic episode of Saturday Night Live was filled with the kind of quirky, conceptual, sorta-funny pieces comedy writers love and the general public grudgingly tolerates. In today's singular episode of SNL Henry very gamely plays straight-man and second fiddle not just to the Not Ready For Prime Time Players but to the Governor of South Dakota, a Vassar co-ed, an unemployed freak from Oregon, a housewife from Peoria and an adorable old granny.
Why? Because all of the aforementioned civilians are finalists in the show's fabled "Anyone Can Host" contest. Today's episode was part amateur hour, part variety show and part proto-reality-show competition. The contenders are an unlikely, eclectic lot. The Governor of South Dakota bears an unfortunate resemblance to Mr. Magoo and yammers on and on about his family. The Vassar co-ed brags awkwardly about being a Saturday Night Live "groupie" and hints in no uncertain terms that she is more than willing to exchange sexual favors in exchange for a chance to host her favorite show. She's so damned eager in fact that she seems prepared to exchange sexual favors for a brisket sandwich or cab fare home. Sadly, the whole "I will so suck Buck Henry's cock for three thousand dollars, ephemeral fame and a trip to New York" vibe proves more off-putting than seductive. That was apparently not a message that resonated with the American public.
The fuzzy freak from Oregon proved even more embarrassing. He looked like a werewolf and indulged in heavy-handed shtick that just seemed to embarrass Henry, like a labored bit about how he was an interior decorator for a turkey farm who demanded a raise only to have his boss angrily sqwawk "Gobble, gobble, gobble". The mom from Peoria did little more than cheerfully admonish folks to vote for her if they like their own mothers, or motherhood in general.
This allowed granny Miskel Spillman to win by default. While her fellow finalists, decked out in bright blue varsity letter sweaters, embarrassed themselves out of competition, Spillman killed with self-deprecating quips about her age and the ever-looming specter of death.
On the non-amateur front, Henry once again played straight man to John Belushi's Samurai in a "Samurai Psychiatrist" sketch. There's something beguilingly pure about the Samurai sketches. They're almost like silent movie routines, with Belushi's wildly expressive face, eyebrows and body language conveying great volumes while his nonsensical uttering convey absolutely nothing.
As for musical guest Leon Redbone: as the old saying goes, if you like that sort of thing then that's the sort of thing you'll like. I seriously think the perpetually sleepy, seemingly tipsy Redbone could die in the middle of a performance without anyone noticing. With Henry presiding over the festivities, the show took on a distinctly dark tone. In a sketch a commenter crowed about last week, Bill Murray played a smarmy television director who replaces a precious baby actor with a disposable "stunt baby". Henry takes great pleasure in abusing the hapless stunt baby in the most abusive manner imaginable.
In an even darker conceptual bit, Michael O'Donoghue, the dark prince of early Saturday Night Live introduces a feral parody of the Mickey Mouse Club called The Rickey Rat Club with a message that cuts straight to the heart of Mr. Mike's bleak worldview. As Ratkekeeter Phlegma guilelessly cheers the Ratketeers observe "Anything Bad Can Happen Day" to teach audiences that "real life is full of horrible things and the faster we learn to like it, the better!"
I am on record as disliking the early Franken & Davis sketches almost as much as I hate that monster Gary Weis. On the short-movie front Weis has been replaced by the infinitely more talented Tom Schiller, who contributes a funny short about how when people die they experience the obligatory heavenly lights and feelings of transcendence only to eventually end up in a room where they're asked to take a number and patiently wait their turn. God, I hate that Weis motherfucker. Just thinking of him and his stupid face and his stupid short films makes my blood boil. So I was shocked and delighted to find myself very much enjoying a sketch that once again tapped into the comedy duo's long, distinguished, non-existent history together alongside special guest Jackie Onnasis. I particularly liked the part where they tell Onassis what huge fans they were of her late husband and that nobody forgets exactly where they were when they found out Aristotle had died. Hi-yo! It's funny because it's not true.
All in all, today's episode was a lot like Henry himself: funny, solid if not particularly mind-blowing. Incidentally I totally got in Saturday Night Live's fourth season, which features such high/lowlights as Frank Zappa and Milton Berle's notorious episodes, in addition to such promising pairing as Fred Willard and musical guest Devo and the Rolling Stones with special guest Ed Koch. The afterparty at Studio 54 for that one must have been insane! So it looks like there is much to look forward to, friends.