Host/Musical Guest: Throughout the long national nightmare of Hurricane Katrina I found myself returning over and over again to Randy Newman's "Louisiana, 1927". I wasn't the only one. The song enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during Katrina: Aaron Neville sang it during "A Concert For Hurricane Relief" and Newman sang it himself in another hurricane benefit.
Like much of Newman's best work it manages the tricky feat of being biting, funny, viciously satirical and achingly sad all at the same time. It's also eerily prescient; though the lyrics are about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 it seems to be warning New Orleans of disasters to come. "They're trying to wash us away, they're trying to wash us away" Newman sings in the chorus with hauntingly sad, world-weary resignation. It's a song about governmental and societal indifference, about the cruelty of nature and fate, about poor people watching their hopes and dreams get washed away in floodwater. It's also extraordinarily pretty. Like Steely Dan, Newman Trojan-horsed dark, trenchant sentiments in almost obscenely beautiful music.
Host Randy Newman performs "Louisiana, 1927" backed by a full orchestra early in Saturday Night Live's infamous 1977 Mardi Gras special and goes on to sing perform three more songs: "Kingfish", a song about governor Huey Long, the melancholy love song "Marie" and "Sail Away". Along with "Louisiana 1927", "Sail Away" isn't just one of my favorite Randy Newman songs, it's one of my favorite songs, period. It's an achingly beautiful piano ballad selling honeyed promises to potential slaves about a land where "Ain't no lions or tigers-aint no mamba snake/Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake". He's selling a fantasyland of milk and honey, then delivering a death ship to slavery and a life of suffering and endless toil. Lorne Michaels seems to have realized that even if the big Mardi Gras experiment was a huge disaster he had at least four songs worth of transcendent television in his pocket. In that respect Newman's presence as "host" (though he doesn't appear in a single sketch) functioned as a sort of insurance policy protecting the show from complete failure. It would need it.
The Good: See above. Actually the primary problem with the Mardi Gras special is that things consistently go awry, yet they don't devolve far enough to engender train-wreck fascination. The show starts off on a strong note, with a cleverly bleak opening monologue from Dan Ayrkoyd as Jimmy Carter warning that with "a cold, hard winter and a permanent energy crisis it's going to get worst, not better…Those of us who don't have work must work hard to find it. Check the want ads. Don't sleep in past noon."
Opening credits promising The Not Ready For Prime Time Players (now including li'l Billy Murray!) plus Randy Newman, Buck Henry, Eric Idle, The New Leviathan Orchestra, Penny Marshall, The Meters, Cindy Williams and Henry Winkler set an appropriately random, half-assed variety-show tone the show more than lives up to. There are some promising bits, like Aykroyd's Tom Snyder investigating a topless/bottomless strip club, and Bill Murray as New Orleans legend Jean Lafitte denying that he's a pirate in ways that only underline how piratey (if that's not a word it should be) he really is. A lot of sketches start out strong, then taper off, or stretch a very thin comic conceit way too far.
The Bad: Most of the show's notorious fuck-ups come courtesy of Penny Marshall, who manages two huge on-air blunders in her five minutes of screen time. Marshall's first line is a panicked "I can't see dose cards!". Later, while very nervously commenting on a drag queen beauty contest Marshall sits and does nothing for a good fifteen seconds before realizing that she's on the air. Forget a deer-in-headlights look of uber-mortification; Marshall looks more like a deer that's been run over by a truck. Oh, the drama and excitement of live television! Mostly the cast fights an uphill struggle to perform already iffy material without being drowned out by an audience of drunken, loud revelers prone to throwing things. The show was supposed to end with performances from funk legends The Meters and the Mardi Gras parade passing by announcers Buck Henry and Jane Curtin but the Meters got cut for time and the parade never made it to broadcast after a float ran over a reveler. Yet somehow the show found time for yet another performance of "The Antler Dance" and a semi-novelty number from The New Leviathan Foxtrot Orchestra. Final Verdict: It's tempting to give the Mardi Gras Special a pass on the basis of Randy Newman's superb performance alone but the show is a bit of a disaster. It perennially threatens to fly completely off the rails, to devolve into drunken, debauched incoherent madness yet it never quite does. It's an intriguing experiment in taking a quintessentially New York show to new and exotic places that understandably seems to have scared Michaels off attempting similar stunts. Grade: C+ Stray Observations -What are your favorite Saturday Night Live train-wreck episodes? How do you think this compares to the infamous Lasser incident? To me that show made the Mardi Gras Special look like trump-tight television uber-professionalism at its finest. -Can anyone tell me how this episode was handled in the various SNL books? I've read them all but either thrown them out or chucked them at homeless people. Fucking homeless people. Always crowding the sidewalk and shit. -If you only know Randy Newman as the old guy who gets nominated for an Oscar every year for writing a song from a cartoon with a chorus that goes "Your my friend/Friends to the End/Ain't Friendship grand? Let's take a dip in the ol' swimming hole" then you really should check out his singer-songwriter stuff from the seventies. It's pretty fucking brilliant. Don't hold his film work against him.