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Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Peter Cook, Dudley Moore/Neil Sedaka”

Illustration for article titled iSaturday Night Live (Classic)/i: “Peter Cook, Dudley Moore/Neil Sedaka”
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“Peter Cook And Dudley Moore” (season one, episode 11; originally aired 1/24/1976)

This is an episode I suspect is fondly remembered by many people who haven’t seen it in a long time, mainly because it has one terrific sketch: The auditions for the prison production of Gigi. It’s something of a landmark sketch because it gives all four male cast members a chance to shine in ways that show how they had begun to define themselves as individual performers with special talents the writers had learned to tap into. While Peter Cook, as the director, and Gilda Radner, as his assistant, sit waiting, they come on one at a time. Dan Aykroyd does an especially rich version of his “uptight-looking guy who’s actually one sick puppy” character, a “structural steel engineer from Whitburn, Arizona” who’s serving “25 consecutive life sentences of 50 years each” for having “stepped into a family reunion with a flamethrower.” (“I torched the whole place,” he tells Cook. “Aunts, uncles, kids, cousins, sisters-in-law, nephew, nieces, wife, 27 of them.” “I don’t imagine you get much mail,” says Cook.) It’s all here, all the familiar Aykroyd mannerisms, from near sexual delight in weird technical terminology—stepping on a cockroach, he giggles, “You know, what’s great is when you crush their prothorax.”—to the way he uneasily straddles the line between twitchy outlaw and ramrod-straight disciplinarian, boasting that, at his trial, he presided over his own prosecution. (Someone once said that Aykroyd’s greatest fantasy would be to commit a crime and arrest himself.)


Next up is Chevy Chase, doing an unusually edgy variation on his charming perv. The comes Garrett Morris, who in the course of five years on the show was never given much of a chance to develop an identity beyond “the black guy.” 99 times out 100, he was the black guy as token, but here, he’s the black guy as dangerous, race-baiting crazy, and he’s great at it; his song (“I’m gonna get me a shotgun and kill all the whiteys I see”) isn’t the only good bit he ever had on the show, but it might be the only one that Eddie Murphy learned something from. The last to come through the door is John Belushi. He comes on as a hardened killer with a remorseless smirk—he could be posing for Charles Starkweather’s mug shot—and then, as he goes into his patter as the piano player warms up the keys, he turns into a lounge singer complete with gold medallion, schmoozing the audience and singing “That’s Life,” until he suddenly hurls himself, amorously, at Cook. After he’s dragged away screaming, Cook turns to the warden and says, “I think we’ve found our Gigi.”—a line that I knew had officially entered the catch-phrase lexicon when I heard it quoted on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Overall, this is the kind of episode that could only have happened during the original-cast period of SNL, and probably only early in that period. I believe the decision to invite Cook and Moore on must have had its roots in Lorne Michaels’ desire to touch as many bases of hip comedy as he could; they were there to represent this strange, exotic, yet magically enticing thing called “British comedy.” Cook and Moore were certainly worthy upholders of the tradition, but for once, SNL was a little out of date; Monty Python’s Flying Circus had first been shown on public television stations in the fall of 1974, and in the year and a quarter since then, the Holy Grail movie and the troupe’s record albums had cemented their status as what the SNL’s target audience of college students and post-graduates thought of as British comedy. If Michaels ever felt he’d made a mistake, he did his best to rectify it in the second season, when he had Eric Idle on as host, twice. Idle would have to be considered the better host, if only because he concentrated on doing new material. Although both Cook and Moore each appear in a sketch with the regulars—Cook in the prison sketch, and Moore in an endearingly silly skit called “Don Pardo’s Holiday In An Elevator,” which mostly consists of him changing costumes in the time it takes elevator doors to open and close—they spend most of the evening onstage together, doing their greatest hits.

They do the routine about a one-legged actor auditioning for the role of Tarzan, which goes back to the early-’60s revue Beyond The Fringe. They do the interview with the proprietor of a restaurant called the Frog and Peach, which they first did on their late ’60s BBC TV series. They do the Biblical sketch “Gospel Truth,” which was part of their 1973 Broadway show Good Evening. This reliance on old stuff probably looks a little sadder now than it did in 1976, when it could still seem like an event for people who’d never had the chance to see Beyond The Fringe to witness, through the miracle of television, what part of it looked like, or would have looked like, if the participants had been 15 years older, and one of them was killing his career (and his timing) with his excessive drinking, and the other was fed up with it and had his eye on a movie career and one foot out the door. The old stuff seems pathologically over-rehearsed—which is understandable, considering how many times they’d done it before—and Moore often seems half-checked out. Cook, meanwhile, hits his lines like a pro, but every so often he can taste the flop sweat in the air and tries to punch things up with some mugging or by doing something silly with his long legs—which, in addition to being a little embarrassing is definitely not the best way to keep people distracted from wondering why Lorne Michaels didn’t invite John Cleese instead.

Stray observations:

  • In a show in which almost everything seems a little off, the cold opening really sets the tone. First, Chevy Chase, playing a bomb disposal expert working with a suspicious package, does a light stumble but not a major pratfall. Instead, the bit climaxes with him opening the package and receiving a pie in the face. Or it should have; the hand wielding the pie misses.
  • This episode marks the SNL apotheosis of George Coe, the actor who was hired to play the middle-aged guy parts and who was barely seen after the first episode, except in filmed bits. Not only does he have a silent role in the cold opening, but he plays the warden in the prison sketch. Which raises the question, why didn’t Moore play the warden? Had things gotten so tense between him and Cook that they really didn’t want to work together except on things they’d done so often that no rehearsal was necessary?
  • Cook and Moore do also unite for the most painful moment of the evening, a bizarre impersonation of Sonny and Cher, made weirder but not better by the fact that they speak in Scottish accents. (Cook’s height necessitates that he plays Cher, which means he’s the one who takes the bullet of showing us his belly button.) Historical context: For three years, Sonny and Cher had a hit TV variety show, but it was cancelled when their marriage broke up. A couple of years later, after Sonny Bono had starred in a sketch-comedy show that was an ignominious failure and Cher had starred in a musical-variety show that turned out somewhat better, the two announced they were going to reunite for a new variety series, though this time, they were show business partners only. Don’t ask me to explain it, because I can’t, but based on this sketch and some remarkably vicious “Weekend Update” material from previous episodes, I can only conclude that somebody at SNL thought that for Sonny and Cher to appear on television together again was tantamount to running a child porn ring.
  • In a talk-show sketch that’s a little too familiar, coming after the one where Jane Curtin played an author of “black experience” novels and Richard Pryor played a man who’d posed as white to research his book, John Belushi plays a “male impersonator,” humbly accepting compliments from Jane Curtin about how convincingly he passes for a man. Is it a coincidence that this is Belushi’s only other significant role in the same episode that peaks when he tries to kiss Peter Cook, or had the writers begun to find him macho posturing tiresome enough to want to undercut it?
  • The Muppets do not appear. One Muppet does: Scred, who interrupts Gilda Radner—who seems to have selected for this diplomatic mission because she was the Not Ready For Prime Time Player most like a Muppet herself—while dressed as a Bee and asks when the Bee sketch is going down. It seems he was promised he could be in it, but the Bees were yanking his chain; they’re taking the night off and didn’t tell him. Backstage tensions boil over; Scred complains the Muppets are “tired of being second class citizens,” and then he goes that extra mile and dares to wonder aloud, as surely none of the flesh and blood talent on the show was wondering, just what the great Chevy Chase had that he didn’t. “Good evening. I’m Scred, and you’re not. I mean, toy boat, toy boat, big deal!” He’s kidding, of course!
  • The musical guest, Neil Sedaka, was then experiencing a comeback, and a deserved one: His mid-’70s transformation into a pop singer-songwriter produced a good album, Sedaka’s Back. But though he sings fine, his manner on-camera—the way he smiles insipidly while singing his sad lyrics, a Vegas-style twinkle in his eye—is only a couple of inches removed from the notorious version of “September Song” that Milton Berle did in the 1979 episode that hit an all-time high on the Barf-O-Meter. It’s about as un-SNL as any musical performance in any episode from this period, which makes it a perfect fit for this particular episode.

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