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Saturday Night Live (Classic): "Norman Lear/Boz Scaggs"

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Well, home-skillets, it looks I'm going to be doing things a little differently here in the second installment of Saturday Night Live: Season Two TV Club Classic. Long, rambling, borderline incoherent free-form essays are out and neat little categories and compartmentalization are in. Also out: long walks on the beach, the sitcom Joey and Mocha Lattes. With no further ado here's my run-down of the Norman Lear/Boz Skaggs episode that aired September 25th, 1976

Opening segment:In a very meta opening bit Gilda Radner, Glinda The Good Witch to Chevy Chase's Wicked Witch of The East, explains that Chase hurt his back during the previous episode's Carter/Ford debate skit and couldn't make it to the show. In his absence she'd be performing their opening scene together by herself, an amusingly labored physical comedy routine that calls for her to climb up a rickety ladder to fix a light bulb with predictably hilarious results. Chase then calls in from his sickbed–where he's watching The Donald O'Connor Story–to encourage her not to risk injury through pratfalls. So instead of doing the crowd-pleasing opening pratfall herself she walks the receiver of her phone across a desk ("Muppet-style" Chase insists) and has the inanimate object perform the fall instead of her. Cue Chase hollering "Live from New York" via the phone. Ironically, Chase ends up dominating the show despite his absence. Saturday Night Live has long been a haven for post-modern comedy. It essentially started spoofing its traditions and tropes the moment it introduced them, sometimes to hilarious effect, sometimes not. This bit lingers somewhere in the middle: it's clever and quirky if not particularly funny. Host: Television super-producer Norman Lear, inexplicably wearing a Gilligan hat that makes him look like a befuddled vacationing New Englander. You get the sense that Lear appeared on the show largely because his daughter thought SNL was way neato. Despite his status as an edgy television pioneer he's not quite hip enough for the room, as it were.


Monologue: A clearly nervous and uncomfortable Lear fumbles his way through his opening spiel, racing through the standard lines (It's a pleasure to be here, the cast is great, we're going to have a lot of fun, there's apparently some sort of musical guest who will eat up time by performing songs of some sort, etc.) in a mad bit to get the monologue over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Drenched in a thin coating of flop sweat, Lear stumbles over words and botches jokes that aren't particularly funny to begin with. It's not an encouraging sign that the biggest laugh comes when the sound drops out and the words "This interruption in sound is brought to you by the same ABC Facilities that brought you the first Ford-Carter debate" appear on the screen.

Oh snap! Take that, ABC facilities! Ah, the perils of timeliness. I'm sure if I'd watched the first Carter/Ford debate (I have an excuse: I was five months old at the time, and consequently way more into PBS, especially Masterpiece Theater) I might have found that mildly amusing. Possibly. This segues into a taped bit where Lear's collaborators gush about his genius in increasingly hyperbolic ways, the thin gag being that all his actors shoot him angry, goofy, cartoonish looks once his back is turned, though I was at least mildly amused at the big reveal that the famously Liberal Lear runs The Jeffersons as a sort of television chain gang where stars Sherman Helmsley and Isabel Sanford are kept from fleeing by the presence of cartoon-style ball and chains around their ankles. At least the monologue leaves nowhere to go but up. Musical Guest:The mellow AM sounds of Boz Scaggs (who, sad to say, I know primarily as a Mr. Show reference), flashing mucho chest hair in a saucily unbuttoned shirt with a butterfly collar. Plus flute! You can't jazz-rock it up seventies style without a flute. I found his songs to be pleasantly Steely Dan-like in their chilled-out smoothness but I'm not exactly rushing out to fill the Boz Scaggs-shaped hole in my CD collection. On a more promising note Radner, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman sing a rapturous ode to Chevy Chase in the pop-melodramatic style of a classic Girl Group song, complete with clever couplets like "I know this shouldn't be said/I wish his girlfriend were dead/Her tragic "accidental" death I scheme and plot/So when in heaven we meet I will be able to say "Hi, I'm Mrs. Chevy Chase and you're not". It's funny but it also works as a surprisingly tuneful (and well-sung) pastiche. Damn you, talented SNL cast! Must you excel at everything?


The Good: Aykroyd takes center stage in two brilliant solo bits. In the first he plays a lascivious Jimmy Carter discussing a "time honored Democratic position: sexual performance in the White House". Vowing to continue the proud, philandering tradition of FDR, JFK, Harry Truman and LBJ Aykroyd offers bon mots such as "I have worn woman's clothing. And I look very beautiful in it too. I don't know why I said it but I think that in the long run it will help me get elected." By the time his randy President-to-be gets to praising his predecessors as "lusty, virile men seething with vital hormonal secretions" even the unflappable Aykroyd, the consummate pro, looks on the verge of erupting into a massive giggle fit. Lusty, virile men seething with vital hormonal secretions indeed.

In his second solo showcase Aykroyd plays a deranged bureaucrat announcing a new plan to reduce the week to three one-hundred-hour days. Just imagine how much you'd accomplish in a hundred hour day! Aykroyd looks positively giddy as he spins out some of the absurd ramifications of this new Metric week. It's vintage Aykroyd: an absurd, hilariously convoluted idea executed with precision and enthusiasm. Another standout sketch satirizes Lear's working-class aesthetic with a sitcom about a blue-collar snake-handling family in Pittsburgh, complete with a union organizer steelworker dad, Steel company President mom, nun daughter and gay state trooper son.


The Bad: Where Weekend Update and Aykroyd's solo slots are trump tight, some of the other skits are ramshackle and sloppy, particularly a muddled political sketch about Henry Kissinger negotiating a treaty among warring factions in Rhodesia (talk about pandering to the kids) and an intermittently amusing skit where John Belushi plays a lawyer who smacks his client around. Non-performer Lear performs adequately in undemanding supporting roles in a few skits but he's missing in action during the show's funniest moments.

The Rest: Gary Weis trades in underwhelming documentary quirkiness for muddled experimental comedy in a short film that juxtaposes some dude singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" with physical comedy from the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. It's, uh, I dunno, kinda mildly amusing? Sorta? Further randomness: Lear and his lovely daughter step out of character to intentionally mangle a joke in a semi-cute, semi-pointless bit and "Spanish Peanuts", a stop-motion animated home movie involving the zany antics of lusty legumes. Getta fill that hour and a half somehow.


Weekend update:Ignorant slut Jane Curtin knocks it out of the park filling in for the injured Chevy Chase with some sharp satirical jabs at Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Elton John's bisexuality (who knew?), the Native American rights movement, plus a funny remote bit with Laraine Newman standing by a suspiciously quiet Times Square on the eve of the (Jewish) New Year and the phrase "fatally effervesced". Chevy Chase who?

Final Verdict: Today's episode represented a historic meeting of the minds, with grand old man Lear handing the torch of timely, satirical, boundary-pushing television comedy to these plucky young upstarts. Lear was clearly chosen for his iconic status rather than his non-existent performing chops but he was an amiable, avuncular presence throughout and the show didn't throw anything too challenging at him. It was an often funny and sharp if characteristically uneven episode that proved conclusively that SNL could get by without its soon-to-depart franchise player, the lame (in more ways than one) Mr. Chase. Incidentally does anyone know why Chase made exactly one movie (1978's rock-solid Foul Play) between 1975 and 1979? Shouldn't he have been crapping out a film or two a year while he was red-hot instead of waiting for his star to fall? Next week's entry features another meeting of the great comic minds as Eric Idle drops by to host alongside musical guest Joe Cocker. Oh and for the record General Francisco Franco is still dead. As far as I know. Grade: B+


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