Host: In Bob Woodward's John Belushi biography Wired Candice Bergen cites the third show she hosted Saturday Night Live as the moment she grew bitterly disillusioned with the show and vowed never to host again. For Bergen, it was the point where the good vibes, solidarity and infectious enthusiasm of the show's first season morphed into something darker and more alienating. Why? Drugs of course, mainly cocaine, but also competition and the increasing pressure to maintain the show's high standards. Bergen was such a delightful host in Saturday Night Live's early years that there was even talk of making her a permanent host. She was game, she was funny, she was likable, she was pretty and she was more than a little infatuated with John Belushi and the rest of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. She loved Belushi like a fat, coked-up brother but by the time her third hosting gig rolled around drugs and success had altered the very molecular structure of the show. They had transformed something good and upbeat into something dark and sinister. This is particularly surprising since Bergen's third show as host is just about perfect. It's arguably one of the greatest episodes in the show's history. It's got everything: Emily Litella calling Jane Curtin a bitch, Frank Zappa jamming with Don Pardo and John Belushi, Killer Trees, even Michael O'Donoghue in semi-Victorian garb ice-skating up a storm. The Good: Bergen may have been disappointed and a little freaked out by the drug-crazed madman Belushi had become but it's hard to think of an episode that showcases Belushi's far-ranging talents so brilliantly. An early Casablanca parody casts Belushi as the suave, romantic, exquisitely cynical leading man he longed to be before getting typecast as the wild-eyed, eyebrow-wriggling madman. It's more moving than funny, despite some killer lines, like when Belushi tells the lovestruck Bergen "We'll always have Paris. And the Muppets" with just the right sense of world-weariness. Later Bergen and Belushi re-team to announce the "Adopt Belushi For Christmas" contest to determine which lucky family will have the opportunity to open their doors to Belushi that Yuletide season. Belushi doesn't ask for much, just a "a roast goose stuffed with drugs" and an underage groupie or two. Like much of the episode it rings disconcertingly true and highlights the vulnerable, squirmy, lost little-boy element of Belushi's persona that helped make him such an enduring icon. Sporting a Samurai top-knot and a Joliet Jake suit Belushi indulges in a gonzo bit of scat singing and berserk physical comedy during Frank Zappa's performance of "Lagoon" while a long but funny "Killer Trees" casts Belushi–or "Beloosh", as his close personal friend Chevy Chase likes to call him–as stone-faced cops facing down an epidemic of murders by kill-crazy Christmas trees.
Yes, today's episode truly offered an embarrassment of riches, from the legendary unsafe toy skit with Aykroyd as the sleazebag behind such questionable kiddy favorites as "Mr. Skin Grafter", "General Tron's Secret Police Confession Kit", "Doggy Dentist", "Johnny Switchblade" the popular Bag O' line–"Bag O' Glass, Bag O' Vipers, Bag o' Sulphuric acid–and of course "Teddy Chain Saw bear"–to a touching performance of the all-time holiday classic "Let's Kill Gary Gilmore For Christmas" by the entire cast in cozy Christmas sweaters. Even the fuck-ups were crazily entertaining. During a skit about the stupidity-rights movement Candice Bergen breaks character something awful by bursting into an endless, uncontrollable giggle fit that puts the extended laughter spasms of Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon and Adam Sandler to shame. Then there's Frank Zappa's wonderfully theatrical performances, which are nothing less than kooky interactive countercultural be-ins. Does humor belong in music? Zappa's riotous performances and scene-stealing cameo as a man in a line-up with two Christmas trees in the "Killer Trees" skit answer that question affirmatively.
The Bad: I've come down hard on Gary Weis in the past. For example I've accused him of being worse than Hitler, which may be unfair. But I've finally figured out the ultimate point of Weis' films: they provide a much-needed respite from all that laughter and fun, a chance for viewers to catch their breath and maybe take a nap before laughing again. Also they make everything else on the show seem much funnier by comparison. Weis stopped trying to be funny long ago. With today's short about a marathon swimmer and her acolytes he's not even trying to be quirky anymore. The short wouldn't feel out of place on a PBS. It does feel a little out of place on a comedy show though Weis shows signs of growing as a filmmaker, transforming the story of this water-loving iron-woman into a rapturous appreciation of the female form. Grade: A Final Verdict: Saturday Night Live struggled to find its footing after the departure of Chevy Chase but with today's sublime episode it gets its groove back Angela Bassett-style. Stray Observations– –I just realized that I've consistently given 30 Rock episodes higher grades than classic Saturday Night Live episodes. Does that mean it's a better show? Of course not. I suspect that if 30 Rock were 90 minutes long it'd be filled with unfunny bits and gags that just don't work as well. –Is it Pollyannaish of me to be disappointed when people I admire fall into the trap of hard drugs? Reading Wired I was deeply saddened at how thoroughly cocaine permeated every facet of Belushi's existence. – From the "Bring Belushi home for Christmas" skit: "With his swarthy good looks John will look right at home with any family with a depressed Eastern European background" –Oh, if only we could kill Gary Gilmore for Christmas every year –For those who are curious the songs Zappa performs here are "I'm The Slime"–with a spoken word guest rap from Don Pardo, "Lagoon" (with John Belushi) and "Peaches And Regalia" –As commenters have noted Gary Weis did direct The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash and Chris Elliott's riotous Action Family so I've got to give him props for that. Having the same heroin dealer as Belushi? Not so much. –I can't wait for the raw animal sexuality of host Ralph Nader in next week's SNL Classic joint. –Bergen has to kill something like four minutes of dead time at the show's end, which is both painfully awkward (she seems genuinely terrified) and strangely compelling. –Did anyone else get a "Charlie Brown Christmas" vibe from the show-closing ice-skating bit. It was elegant and bittersweet and weirdly moving in a delightful sort of way. –Hey, hey Tina Fey is hosting the first Saturday Night Live. I am, as ever, cautiously optimistic. –Has anyone heard of this Zappa fellow? I know him primarily as the father of the woman who did that wonderful "Valley Girl" song. Does he have any fans, casual or otherwise?