The Host: Saturday Night Live hosts don't come much more obscure or forgotten than Jack Burns, a veteran writer and performer best known for his partnerships with George Carlin and later fellow Second City alum Avery Schreiber as well as a disastrous stint replacing Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show. Let's just say that Poochie was an universally beloved addition compared to Burns' Sheriff Warren Ferguson. According to Wikipedia, Ferguson was such a flop with viewers that he was ultimately dropped without explanation. I suspect that Ferguson tried to return to his home planet, but died en route. Sad, really. Burns later went on to write for both the Muppets and the notorious SNL knock-off Fridays. Incidentally did anyone here watch Fridays? I'm curious about it.
But is he funny? Judging by his performance here I'd argue that he had a pretty narrow range: clean-cut Irish-Catholic authority figures mainly, but that within that spectrum he was a consummate pro. Yet perhaps because he has such a WASP, straight-man aura, Burns seems like a bad fit for the show, especially during a confession-themed opening monologue. You've heard of the phrase "too hip for the room"? Well, when Burns is waxing wry about mean priests and glowering authority figures he's pretty clearly insufficiently hip for room.
The Good: Mr. Burns' cornball monologue aside, the show gets off to a strong start with a neat conceptual opening where John Belushi sadistically threatens not to kick off the show by uttering "Live From New York, It's Saturday Night!" until a list of demands are met, followed by a surprisingly strong "Coneheads" skit that pushed the awkward vibes of families getting together for dinner to ridiculous extremes. The highlight of the bit found the entire Coneheads family panicking and leaping out the window after next door neighbor John Belushi's well-meaning husband brings out a disturbingly cone-shaped old-fashioned hair dryer. After Aykroyd, Curtin and Newman leap out the window Belushi and Gilda Radner can't control their laughter, corpsing something awful in an endearing sort of way.
Burns excels in brief, smart and funny sketch where he plays a hard-ass Marine who presides over the marriage of two fellow Marines, one a maggot and the other pure slime. It was a neat idea swiftly and efficiently executed. A lot of the sketches that followed would benefit from its brevity and concision. I also liked a very late sketch where Burns did an old-school drunk routine as comedy writer "Gags Beasley", a hack so out-of-it he inundates Gilda Rander and Jane Curtin (playing themselves) with New Deal jokes and boasts that he'd be writing for Bob Hope "if he were still alive". There was nothing particularly hip about the skit but it brought the funny.
The Bad: I have long nursed a nearly bottomless lack of curiosity about Carlos Santana. Santana's two songs on today's program richly justified my complete lack of interest in the man and his music. It's not just that the songs were wanky, self-indulgent and pedestrian: it's the goddamned faces the man makes that drive me up a wall. Seriously, I think G.E. Smith stole his whole "I'm having a million orgasms playing this electric guitar" shtick wholesale from Santana. The man seems to be deriving way too much pleasure from his own guitar gymnastics. Do you think when Smith and Santana are experiencing the magic of male orgasm they rock out on air guitar? It would seem fitting.
Other low-lights from today's show: a nearly joke-free, unfunny Rocky parody pairing Burns with my main home slice Gary Weis. The episode boasted a lot of half-assed sketches that stretched thin premises well beyond their breaking point, especially a one-joke bit called "The Squatters" that imagined an Old West where–you guessed it–everyone squatted all the time. All I could think about during this bit was "God, I bet their legs and backs are killing them. I hope they didn't have to rehearse that sketch too often." The less said about a Ricardo Montalban sketch involving "Pantygrams" the better. It may have worked as a ten-second throwaway bit but it seemed to go on forever, growing less funny by the moment.
Final Verdict: Eh, they can't all be winners. Grade: C+ Stray Observations– –Has anyone else watched Saturday Night Live: The First Five Years? You can get it from Netflix or Blockbuster Online. It's a fairly in-depth feature-length documentary about the show's beginnings coupled with a fascinating hour-long featurette on the same subject. There's nothing two earth-shaking about either doc–though I did find it fascinating the way it erased The Muppets and Albert Brooks from the show's early history–but I think it would make for a pretty neat bonus feature on the show's first and second season DVD –For that matter why do you think these sets are so chintzy with the bonus features? What does a brother have to do to get an audio commentary or two up in here, up in here? –Dudes and Dudettes, we're coming to the end of the second season. I'm getting nostalgic and misty-eyed already. –Was it just me or was an overjoyed crowd chanting "Boo-Urns" by the end? –Despite what the above still seems to suggest, Burns was never part of a comedy duo with Gene Shalit.