As regular readers of the A.V Club know, I am a shameless Saturday Night Live completist. I devour every book written about the show, up to and including Jay Mohr's dreadful, yet strangely compelling memoir Gasping For Airtime. Here's the Cliff Notes version of Airtime: Jay Mohr's a huge asshole who accomplished nothing during his stint on SNL, beyond indulging in seriously unethical material-stealing shenanigans and was disappointed and surprised when Lorne Michaels didn't throw huge amounts of money at him or beg him to remain on the show. Heck, I even followed Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip to the bitter, bitter end out of a misguided impulse to consume everything even vaguely related to Saturday Night Live.
So I was beyond geeked when the Sheinhardt Wig people finally began putting out complete seasons of Saturday Night Live out on DVD. Finally, generations too young to experience the giddy thrill of watching the seventies Saturday Night Live while stoned out of their collective gourd during its initial run would have a chance to see if the show lived up to the decades of hype surrounding its sainted original cast.
Saturday Night Live's first season wasn't non-stop hilarity (ninety minutes a week is a motherfucker to fill no matter how deep a show's talent runs) but it more or less lived up to its vaunted reputation. Will the show's second season follow suit? Find out with me as I offer a week-by-week analysis of SNL's Season Two here on TV Club Classic.
The first season of Saturday Night Live transformed a bunch of unknowns and National Lampoon radio and stage show veterans into the rock stars of comedy, instant countercultural icons radiating heat and hipness. They were the young people's favorite, a weekly comic happening that plugged into the well, I have been legally forbidden from ever using a certain much-frowned upon word that begins with Z and rhymes with "Sheitgeist", so let's just say they were plugged into what was happening in the culture at large. Oh, if only there was a more concise, pretentious and Teutonic-sounding way to put that!
The second season's premiere begins with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of just how dramatically things had changed for everyone associated with the show. In the opening, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner stand around impatiently waiting for the arrival of host Lily Tomlin. When Radner insists that maybe Tomlin is dealing with a flood of offers that invariably follow an Oscar nomination, Chase testily insists that he's got offers as well: namely Kojak, Hollywood Squares and The Gong Show. Of course Chase really was inundated with offers at the time, offers that would pull him off the show mid-season, though it'd be another two years before he'd star in his first film.
Ironically, that first film, Foul Play, would pair him with Goldie Hawn, who Tomlin mistakes Gilda Radner for when she finally shows up in a limousine, entourage in tow. "Goldie, Goldie, Goldie. I haven't seen you since Laugh-In!" Tomlin beams ecstatically at Radner before introducing her entourage (which includes a champagne-pouring midget manservant named "Pepe", "Countess Alexander" and "Prince Phillipo") to "Jerry Chase" and "Joan Belushi" (Jane Curtin).
"Come on everyone. This is only going to take around ninety minutes" Tomlin announces grandly to her party before issuing a thoroughly anti-climactic faux-humble monologue. One of the great strengths of early Saturday Night Live lie in its malleability. It generally took its cues from its host. Obviously if Gerald Ford's press secretary was hosting the key was to write around him. But when a ringer like Tomlin occupied the host slot the show essentially became The Lily Tomlin Show Featuring The Not Ready For Prime Time Players.
The first post-monologue skit features what would quickly become one of the show's staples: the mock Presidential debate. The moderators include two journalists chosen due to their expertise and experience and a character played by Garrett Morris who was chosen "because he is a negro" (his first question is "Which one of you is Ford?").
Chevy Chase plays Gerald Ford as a blithe, genial boob with a genius for mangling the English language while Dan Aykroyd delivers a performance of almost surgical precision as Jimmy Carter. There's some deft physical comedy and a few moments of scathing verbal wit, as when Aykroyd's Carter tersely answers a question on abortion by insisting "I think my stance on the abortion issue is perfectly ambiguous and ill-defined. I see no reason to elaborate further." Endings have long posed a problem for SNL: skits more or less just end instead of coming to a satisfying conclusion. This is no exception. After delivering a steady stream of laughs the skit ends with Chase and Aykroyd rolling around on the floor in a homoerotic clinch.
In its early incarnations Saturday Night Live owed a clear debt to the anything-goes spirit of vaudeville and variety shows. In between skits the show treats audiences to three, count em three songs by creepily mustachioed musical guest James Taylor: two of his patented acoustic-based folk-rock wimp-outs and a surprisingly convincing take on the old soul chestnut "Road Runner" (no not the Jonathan Richman one) marred or perhaps enhanced by Taylor's painfully awkward body language and arrhythmic clapping. Think David Byrne in Stop Making Sense only way more painful. And with David Sanborn on sax. There's also a show-closing performance of a novelty song called "The Antler Dance" by Tomlin and Paul Schaffer, complete with goofy dancing from the entire cast, Weekend Update, a short film by Gary Weis and an always dodgy appearance by Jim Henson's Muppets.
The grotesque, feral-looking fantasy creatures disturbingly and confusingly called Muppets here were easily the weakest aspect of the show's first season. Michael O'Donoghue famously/dickishly refused to write for these leaden time-killers, quipping "I don't write for felt". The Muppets' appearances became slightly less painful once the puppets starting interacting with the cast but this episode's segment is fumbling and unfunny, and doesn't exactly pick up when the feral felt nightmares sing a song with Tomlin. Christ, another fricking song. Then again every song represents four minutes that don't need to be written, so it's not hard to see why SNL used them as such a sturdy and dependable crutch.
This episode's few skits are rooted in the character-based comedy Tomlin is known for, most notably in a skit involving a flustered salesman and a desperately lonely woman that plays less like a punchline-driven skit than a miniature one-act play. In it Garrett Morris tries to sell Tomlin a vacation home only to realize that she's interested only in human contact. The skit takes a dark, poignant turn when Tomlin reveals that her fetish for wasting salesman's time is rooted in the early death of her son, a football star and part-time Fuller Brush salesman.
The show hits its pinnacle late, in a genius bit where Tomlin plays a vaguely narcotized, blandly complacent housewives only too happy to do whatever a slick-looking guy in a suit with a microphone tells her to do. Aykroyd plays one such suit-wearing man with a microphone. At first he merely asks her to illustrate the incredible properties of an all-purpose cleaner but as the skit progresses his requests become stranger and stranger, from acting out a scene from Gone With The Wind in a parking lot to going shopping in a supermarket while wearing a giant hamster head and finally to taking off all her clothes, going into a strange motel room with a strange man and doing the aforementioned Antler Dance. It's an absurdist deconstruction of commercials worthy of Monty Python or Mr. Show.
When Albert Brooks stopped contributing uniformly brilliant short films early in the first season the show's short-film segment went in an entirely different direction entirely, from "hilarious and awesome" to "kinda likable and vaguely amusing". Gary Weis' short films aspired to do little more than capture little slices of quirky New York life and share them with the nation at large. The results are charming and quirky but slight and self-indulgent. This episode's wispy quirk-fest captured a seemingly stoned (or maybe he's just naturally giggly), proudly effete downtown character, Warhol collaborator and poet named Taylor Mead (you might recognize him from his appearance in Coffee And Cigarettes) giggling about how much he loves watching television.
The first episode back was far from perfect but it was funny and vital and provided a fascinating glimpse into the state of the counterculture circa September 18th, 1976. The show's seeming randomness (why not devote six minutes of valuable network real estate to an aging Factory denizen gushing about the genius of Paul Lynde?) is both a strength a weakness. There is an unpredictability and a looseness to early Saturday Night Live that was lost once the show settled on a rigid formula and became a slave to catch-phrases and recurring characters.
So here's my question for you, dear reader. How many of you are interested in the DVD sets of Saturday Night Live's first seasons? Does it appeal primarily to comedy geeks and Saturday Night Live completists like myself or does it have a more widespread fan base? How many of you bought Saturday Night Live's first season DVD set? Rented it? Shop-lifted it? What did you think? Anywho welcome onboard. I hope you enjoy the upcoming trip deep into the comedy of yesteryear.
Grade: B+ Stray Observations: -Oh man do I love Gilda Radner. She's funny and a brilliant mimic but there's a fundamental sweetness to her that's irresistible. It's a goddamned shame she died so young and had so few opportunities to shine outside Saturday Night Live -There is a fundamental sweetness to Belushi as well that's missing from chillier, more remote players like Chase and Aykroyd -There are so many bizarre teamings I'm excited about this season: from next week's Norman Lear/Boz Scaggs to Candice Bergen/Frank Zappa to Ralph Nader/Geroge Benson to Julian Bond and Tom Waits. -If Aykroyd's a performer of surgical precision the loose and sloppy Morris seems content to get maybe ninety percent of his dialogue right. -The Muppets and Chevy Chase are both on their way out. I can't say I'll miss The Muppets (or at least the show's creepy bizarre-universe version of them) but Chase was pretty brilliant on SNL. I have high hopes for his replacement though, a fresh-faced kid from Second City named Bill Murray -I promise I won't pull out the old Saturday Night Live? More like Saturday Night Dead! zinger until at least the fourth episode. Oh man, that shit never gets old.