Saturday Night Live's "Anyone Can Host" contest raised an interesting question. Could just about anyone host Saturday Night Live? Paris Hilton's hosting gig a few years back seemingly answered that question with a definitive "Oh God yes." If Paris Hilton can do something chances are good that a reasonably intelligent manatee or orangutan can do it just as well, if not much better.
How hard can hosting Saturday Night Live possibly be? Like so much of Saturday Night Live, the never-to-be-repeated "Anyone Can Host" contest was an audacious stunt that looks progressively less audacious under closer examination. Hiring an eighty-something grandma to host a live 90 minute comedy-variety program popular among countercultural types might seem incredibly risky but was the show really asking perennial trivia question answer Miskel Spillman to do anything other than smile, read her lines from giant cue cards and be adorable in a grandmotherly kind of way?
It's not as if the show was counting on Spillman to anchor the comedy or do killer impersonations. The writers mostly just wrote around Spillman the way they would a Norman Lear or Hugh Hefner or any other non-entertainer. Nevertheless, today's episode of Saturday Night Live Classic begins with a cold open where John Belushi and Gilda Radner worry about whether Spillman will be able to remember her lines. I had to laugh at that. Criminy, the Not Ready For Prime Time Players are never expected to memorize their lines. Why on Earth would a doddering rank amateur be expected to out-perform the pros?
Belushi tries to reassure Radner and Buck Henry (who has a charming habit of just sort of popping up randomly on shows even when he's not hosting) by telling them he gave Spillman a joint beforehand to relax her. "Your joints overwhelm even an experienced drug user like myself" worries Henry in a line I found much funnier than I probably should have. It's an old comedy staple: old people+pot=hilarity! Actually, pot+anything generally equals hilarity in the minds of comedy pros, which helps explain why pot comedy gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield's rotting corpse. Except maybe the Holocaust. I doubt we're ever going to see a pot Holocaust comedy.
After the tried and true drug humor of the cold open, the show breezes along with an amusingly morbid commercial for a "Meat Wagon Action Track Set" for bloodthirsty tots and a very Monty Pythonesque sketch called "American Date the Self-Conscious Association" about an advocacy group for the painfully self-aware that has formed a strategic alliance with Society for the Extremely Obnoxious and the Really Stupid People's Amalgamation. Of course, much of the sketch's appeal lied in the performances of Belushi and Aykroyd as, respectively, irritation and rank stupidity personified.
The show continued to channel legendary sketch comedy shows with its next bit, a SCTV-style parody of "The Gift of The Magi" that paled in comparison to SCTV's own O. Henry parody but was refreshingly literate and dark, especially once Belushi goes mad and begins physically attacking Gilda Radner for giving him a crappy watch chain after he sold his beloved watch and donated his kidney for benefit.
"Sartesky & Hutch", a cop show parody about a cop/existential philosopher duo promised much more than it delivered. It cried out for the wryly absurdist touch of Woody Allen, who explored a similar juxtaposition in an early short story about a detective who gets hired to find the meaning of life to much greater effect. Instead it just fell flat, as did a sketch where Aykroyd played a sleazy perv who examined classic art through a prurient lens.
But if the rest of the sketches were a mixed bag, the episode contained at least three segments of genuine, unforgettable, tape-this-fucker-for-the-grandkids genius. First up we were treated to an appearance by an impossibly young, skinny, borderline feral Elvis Costello, who pops up alongside the Attractions to deliver a sinister, creeping, down predatory version of "Watching The Detectives". Stalking the stage as if possessed by strange spirits and sneering directly into the camera, Costello plays up the song's menace and cruelty.
The performance felt dangerous and edgy and raw but it was just a warm-up for the legendary moment later in the show when a bored Costello begins playing "Less Than Zero", then abruptly stops, blurts "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song here", then kicks into a revved-up take on "Radio, Radio", against the wishes of his label and the producers.
Costello, a last-minute replacement for The Sex Pistols, was banned from Saturday Night Live for a solid decade for his shenantics. Costello's rebellion instantly became a crucial part of SNL lore. It marked a rare moment when Saturday Night Live actually felt spontaneous and dangerous and uncensored.
Speaking of dangerous, today's episode features perhaps the best-loved of Mr. Mike's least-loved bedtime stories, "The Soiled Kimono". Mr. Mike sadistically tells a drunk and desperate Laraine Newman she needs to sing the aria from "Madame Butterfly" to prove herself worthy of a least-loved bedtime story. While Newman sings Mr. Mike makes a "Soiled Kimono" superimposed text tells the story of the drink's name: THE STORY OF THE DRINK A Japanese aviator was angry with an unfaithful Geisha girl. "Take this!" he said, flinging 2/3rds of a glass of costly French champagne in her face. "And this!" he said, flinging 1/3rd of a glass of Japanese plum wine in her face. "And this!" he said, flinging a paper butterfly in her face. "Why this tastes delicious!" she exclaimed, kissed him, and then hit him in the lungs with a gardening tool. The end.
In banter that could double as Mr. Mike's epitaph, Newman accuses him of being cruel. "Well, sometimes ya - you have to be cruel, Laraine." Still holding onto that tiny last shred of hope, Newman responds, "in order to bee kind Mr. Mike?" only to have him retort, "No, in - in order to be even crueler. Now, scram. Put an egg in your shoe and beat it. It's closing time."
Moments like that excused an awful lot of flaccid sketches, half-baked ideas and bits that went nowhere and took their sweet time in doing so. As for the host, she acquitted herself well. She was cute, likable and didn't fuck up too badly. They never did invite her back though. I can't imagine why.