The Host:Blame Buck Henry. According to Saturday Night Live legend the seeds of a thousand obnoxious recurring characters and endlessly recycled catchphrases were planted when Buck Henry noticed that the very first Samurai skit had gone well and asked Lorne Michaels when he was planning on bringing the character back. Michaels reportedly had a "Eureka" moment. Why bother creating an hour and a half worth of original comedy every week when you can fill airtime with very minor variations on a few established themes?
Appropriately enough today's Buck Henry-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live features perhaps more recurring characters and tried-and-true bits than just about any episode of the show up until that point. The notorious 1977 Halloween episode is consequently a strange, fascinating combination of the soothingly familiar and the bizarre and unexpected. Henry here solidified his standing as one of the show's most resilient troopers when he was struck with John Belushi's Katana (that's a fancy word for a Japanese sword) during an early Samurai skit yet doggedly soldiered on to the end of the show like a consummate professional.
Henry has always had a weird dual legacy: he's at once a comedy legend and a journeyman. He co-created Get Smart and wrote or co-wrote a handful of classic films (The Graduate, Heaven Can Wait, What's Up, Doc? and To Die For) yet he's seldom credited with their success. He guest hosted Saturday Night Live ten times yet he's seldom ranked in the upper echelon of popular guest hosts. Watching this episode it's easy to see why; he's less a great host than a "good enough" host. He never embarrasses himself and always brings his A game yet he never elevates the show the way a Lily Tomlin or Richard Pryor did. And he was apparently a joy to work with, which certainly can't be said of some of the more mercurial talents drawn to SNL during its iconic early years. Plus, the guy takes a licking–or sword to the head–and keeps on ticking. You gotta admire that. He's a fucking trooper, with all the good and bad that entails.
The Good: What this episode lacked in non-accident-related novelty it made up for in good, solid laughs. The cold open brought back Chevy Chase's Land Shark, setting the template for a show loaded with greatest hits, from yet another Samurai skit–this time it's Samurai Stockbroker with Henry as the Samurai's enraged/wounded client–to Gilda Radner's Baba Wawa to another Presidential debate skit, this time doubling as a goofy parody of beauty pageants. The comic conceits behind the Samurai skits and Baba Wawa are beyond simple–that Barbara Walters sure does talk funny and has an awfully high opinion of herself and it sure is zany to see Samurai shenanigans in incongruous settings!–yet Radner and Belushi sell the bits on the basis of personal magnetism and enthusiasm alone. A commenter a while back warned me about the ostensible awfulness of an elaborate Omen parody but I found it a hoot. Then again I also suffered through the dreadful original The Omen (it's just like The Exorcist only, you know, awful!) and its even-worse remake so I was excited to see the show tear into the hilarious gullibility of the Gregory Peck character, who doesn't seem to realize that anything is amiss even as he drowns in a shit storm of Satanic freakery and weird happenings. Buck Henry, the rich, thinking man's Tim Kazurinsky, doesn't make much of an effort to recreate Peck's famously stentorian tones but it's hella amusing to watch him stiffly inform wife Jane Curtin ""You stay here with dead nanny, live nanny, Stuffy the Devil Dog (and) big Satan baby or whatever his name is. You'll be safe with them." Yes, you will. I also enjoyed Dan Aykroyd in motormouth pitchman form as a sleazeball selling a witch-friendly Roncomatic product called "Super Bat-O-Matic" that slices, dices and purees "faster than you can knife a goat". Also, the motherfucking Band. I found it strange that The Band didn't get to play until forty minutes in but was pleasantly surprised when they more than made up for it by playing four songs, including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and a show-closing take on "Georgia". The Bad: I'm seriously starting to hate Gary Weis, something I feel vaguely guilty about. Of course it's not easy following Albert Brooks. Brooks' short films were easily the best part of SNL's rightly revered first season whereas Weis' films are consistently and predictably the worst part of the show's second season. In theory Weis is awesome. Why can't more network television shows devote precious airtime to quirky slice-of-life documentary shorts and oddball conceptual humor? In practice Weis always makes me want to reach for the fast-forward button. His work is almost never funny and oftentimes not even funny-strange or kinda-funny/sorta interesting. That's certainly the case with his short film in today's episode, another time-waster about Buck Henry getting into female drag for Halloween. That's about all there is to it. I also wasn't crazy about a skit about Garrett Morris' famous ancestors, a long, hilarity-free gag with not much of a punchline. It did include a line about one of Morris' ancestors being "gang raped by all the signers of The Declaration of Independence" so it wasn't a total waste. Final Verdict: The Buck Henry Halloween episode marked Chevy Chase's very last show. He went out on a high note even if he seemed both high and distracted, and not just when he was playing Gerald Ford. In solidarity with Henry Head Wound, Chase slapped a bandage on his forehead, a cheekily endearing All-For-One gesture that paid off in the end credits when the entire cast sported bandages. And if all that weren't enough we were also treated to one of Michael O'Donoghue's "Least Loved Bedtime Stories" yet even at this relatively early date the show was started to lapse into formula with lots of recurring characters and proven impersonations. Grade: B+ Stray Observations– –Man, I've gotta buy me some Band albums. They're one of the many blind spots in my musical education. –Oh Chevy, I'll miss you most of all –Up next: Dick Cavett and Ry Cooder. Wonder if he'll tell any stories bout' Woody or Groucho? I understand they're his good friends. –I'm very strongly considering doing "Wired" as my first post-My Year Of Flops My Year of Flops entry. Has anyone seen it? It's supposed to be unutterably awful. It's got Michael Chiklis, though, in the role he'd like everyone to forget.