In her opening monologue for the second episode ofSaturday Night Live's third season, seasoned old pro/great comic actor Madeline Kahn parrots the oft-recycled opening-monologue cliché about live television being such a crazy medium and the cast of Saturday Night Live being such an out-there assemblage of unpredictable kooks that just about anything might transpire that evening.
The promise of Saturday Night Live, of course, is that anything might happen. The reality, however, is that it's easy to predict what will happen any given Saturday. Though it might flub the occasional line or giggle inappropriately, the cast will perform the sketches they rehearsed throughout the week and nail their blocking. The Weekend Update anchors will read their jokes, then pause for laughter at the appropriate time. The musical guest, in turn, will perform their scheduled songs and probably refrain from screaming obscenities into the camera of doing a weird little jig of shame if their pre-recorded vocal track begins performing before them. At the end of the show, the host will enthuse about how wonderful the cast is and what a singular treat it's been working with them. SNL is all about ritual and repetition, not spontaneity.
But sometimes things don't quite work out that way. Accordingly, today's episode of Saturday Night Live has a loose, sloppy, ramshackle feel that's half invigorating, half infuriating. What do we ultimately want from Saturday Night Live: smooth professionalism or crazy unpredictability? Craftsmen or lunatics? A well-oiled comedy machine or a happy mess of a show that might fall apart at any moment?
In its early days, Saturday Night Live was refreshingly willing to fuck with its formula. In today's episode, for example, Lorne Michaels stumblingly introduces the "Anyone can host" contest, a daring experiment in amateurism that began and ended America's love affair with 80-year-old German immigrant Miskel Spillman the very same magical night. Though I haven't seen the episode in question yet I suspect that it very much proves that not everyone can host. I'm looking at you, Michael Phelps.
In another nod to Saturday Night Live's debt to variety shows, Barry Humphries pops up as Dame Edna for an awkward chitchat with Kahn, who is called upon to do little but feed Humphries straight lines but seems flustered and lost. The show was admirably trying to introduce its audience to something new and different and international, but the audience wasn't having it. They responded with silence. This reminded me of the press screening of Soul Men I just attended. Bernie Mac is such a beloved figure in Chicago that the packed house of critics gave him, and the film, not just a moment of silence but one hundred whole minutes of silence.
Today's episode was marked by quick little bits that killed and longer sketches that dragged on interminably, most notably a sketch about a Bianca Jagger dinner party featuring Truman Capote, Grace Kelly and Margaret Trudeau. The danger of putting out early years of a timely, zeitgeist-crazed show like Saturday Night Live out on DVD decades after the shows originally aired is that it'll age terribly and spoof celebrities history forgot. That is the case here: audiences more familiar with Mick Jagger's ex-wife might have gleaned mild chuckles from Kahn's impersonation but I was bored to tears.
As I've written earlier, Dan Aykroyd isn't just proficient: he's a goddamned comedy android. So it was weirdly fascinating seeing him fuck up royally during his second stint as permanent co-host of "Weekend Update". I'm not talking a jumbled line here or there: I'm talking nonstop mistakes and miscues throughout the entire bit. He ended up leaning hard on Curtin to bail him out, which must have been hard for him, considering his oft-repeated contention that she is, at the end of the day, an ignorant slut.
Still, there were highlights scattered throughout, like a parody of a woman's hygiene product so personal and private even the actors pimping it don't seem to know what it's for and "Weekend Update" critic Bill "You're great, no seriously, go have fun you crazy kid" Murray's smarmalicious career advice to Marie Osmond.
I have bemoaned the recent dearth of what I like to think of as Second City-style sketchs, character-based routines based less on gags and catchphrases than sly, understated observations on human nature. Today offered a terrific Second City-style sketch with Kahn drunkenly trying to counsel/cheer-up friend Gilda Radner, who is anxiously awaiting a phone call from a prospective beau. As they wait for a call that might never arrive, they trade embarrassing secrets and bemoan the impossible gulf between the glossy fantasy of romance offered by Hollywood and the messy realities of real-life relationships. It's a sketch that calls for acting and subtlety rather than shtick and mugging and the actresses pull it off with aplomb.
We're also treated to what I believe is the first short film from Tom Schiller, a clever riff on aging hippies called "The Acid Generation: Where Are They Now" that posits the flower power crowd as senior citizens fuzzily recalling acid trips and countercultural motherfuckery. In a rare twist, this bit actually errors on the side of being too short. Gary Weis contributes more of his strained, Big Apple-loving whimsy in the form of Madeline Kahn gallivanting about New York while singing "Autumn in New York". Sigh.
Otherwise, the show offers the proverbial mixed bag: there's nothing too embarrassing but also little that's transcendent or overly memorable, though I'm sure you fine folks will point out kick-ass sketches that I failed to mention. I'm super-duper excited, however, about the next two episodes: a Hugh Hefner episode with Andy Kaufman and the famously disastrous Charles Grodin fiasco. Oh sweet blessed Lord am I looking forward to that trainwreck.