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“Ron Nessen” (season one, episode 17; originally aired 4/17/1975)

Last week, I cited to a sketch on the Anthony Perkins show, in which Jane Curtin plays a leather-clad dominatrix who tortures Gilda Radner with slogans from TV commercials, as an example of a sketch that I first saw when I was too young to understand the joke. In retrospect, the funny thing is that, watching Curtin call Radner a miserable worm while smashing dinner plates over her head, I know I didn’t consciously think, “I must be missing something.” I thought that the show was just being very silly—silliness, done just for the sake of being silly, having a long and honorable tradition in American comedy. “Silliness” is a word that the humorless are wont to apply as an insult, but it beats dumbness six ways to Sunday.


In a 1990 essay, Veronica Geng suggested that one reason Monty Python’s Flying Circus seemed so fresh when it first caught on here in the mid-‘70s was that it was so open to being silly—so much so that American fans sometimes thought it was being sillier than intended when they didn’t catch the reference.  Geng pointed to the moment in the “Nudge Nudge” sketch in which Eric Idle lights up at the news that Terry Jones’ wife is from Purley; this may be—or, for all I know, may not be—a kind of shorthand, like an American comedian using the name “Cleveland” or “New Jersey,” with the understanding that the audience has been trained to think of these as funny places. It’s much sillier, and funnier, if you’re seeing him react like that to a place you’ve never heard of before.

The best-remembered sketch in this episode may be the one in which Jane Curtin’s pitch for a jam called Flucker’s is interrupted by rival pitchmen who keep breaking in with their own products, each of which has a nastier name on the label than the last. Nose Hair Jam, Death Camp Jam, Dog Vomit Jam, Monkey Pus Jam, Mangled Baby Ducks Jam, and on and on, until John Belushi shoves himself in front of the camera with a jam called 10,000 Nuns And Orphans. “10,000 Nuns And Orphans?” says Curtin. “What’s so bad about that?” “They were all eaten by rats,” says Belushi. I suspect that, by now, time has done for this sketch what cultural and geographical differences may have done for “Nudge Nudge.” Smucker’s may still be using the motto “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good,” but it’s not a part of the cultural conversation the way it was when the ads this sketch is parodying were new, which softens the hit. Your brain may not even make the connection quite as readily. But the silliness proudly claiming to represent a jam called Painful Rectal Itch—that endures.

Further explanation is needed for why Ron Nessen is hosting this episode, and why that fact and this sketch go together. Nessen was President Ford’s press secretary, and contrary to what he says in the Oval Office sketch with Chevy Chase as Ford, he wasn’t asked to host; he offered himself up. The presidential race was heating up, and Chase’s “impression” of Ford as a dim-witted stumblebum was helping to turn him into a punch line. So Nessen, who remembered Richard Nixon’s 1968 guest appearance on Laugh-In—with a month and a half to go before a tight election, Nixon permitted himself to be photographed turning to the camera with a stunned expression and then recited the line “Sock it to me!?” as if he’d learned it phonetically—suggested that he himself might host SNL, thus showing the world that his boss was in on the joke, and that it was all in good fun. Toward this end, Ford himself recorded a couple of snippets of film, one in which he delivered the line “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night,” and one to be played after Chase’s “Weekend Update” intro, “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.” “Good evening,” says Ford. “I’m Gerald Ford, and you’re not.” Even he doesn’t sound fully convinced.

Nessen had misread the show and its moment. Lorne Michaels may or may have truly given a rat’s ass who was in the White House, but he knew that his show’s credibility with the audience it was courting depended on its seeming to be on less than cozy terms with the man who’d pardoned Richard Nixon. But he also wanted the publicity value of Nessen’s appearance. His solution was sneaky and ingenious. He brought Nessen on and let him do a monologue—which is in the “all in good fun” mode—and a couple of innocuous bits, and surrounded him with material that was designed to embarrass the White House by association. These ranged from the comedic use of the phrase “mangled baby ducks” and a short film of some guys at a row of urinals to sketches about Julie Nixon Eisenhower giving her husband a lie detector test and the Supreme Court invading a couple’s bedroom to make sure they aren’t committing “certain unorthodox sexual acts” that the Court reserves the right to judge to be crimes against nature and the state.” (Even the clip of Ford claiming to be Gerald Ford is followed by Chase, looking pissed off, commenting on the President’s “identity crisis.”)


This strategy worked; the White House was widely criticized for allowing its official spokesman to participate in this sordidness (while dragging the President himself into it, sort of), and Nessen had to endure a few rocky press conferences when he returned to his day job. Does this count as satire, or just a strategic media stunt? Keep in mind that the Ford era, if that’s not too grand a term for it, was a time of lowered expectations on many fronts. The most obvious thing you can say about it is that it wouldn’t happen now. By the time of its hundredth episode in 1980, toward the end of the first Michaels era, the show brought on Daniel Patrick Moynihan for a Laugh-In style gag, and he was treated very respectfully: one New York institution honoring another, and vice versa. Then in 2008, the show had its biggest recent splash, in terms of political relevance, when Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation clicked. Michaels’ instinct was to rush Palin onto the show, and though she looked stiff and clueless, being mistaken for Tina Fey by Alec Baldwin and sitting on the sidelines while Amy Poehler rapped about shooting moose, the show’s intention wasn’t to hang her out to dry; I suspect that if Michaels had the control to change the outcome of that election, he would. It might not reflect his own politics, and he might be full of regrets for whatever McCain and Palin would have done with their time in office. But more importantly than that, when losing the election turned John McCain against the liberal media, Michaels lost his best chance that he might someday talk a sitting U. S. President into hosting Saturday Night Live.

Stray observations:

  • The winner, hands down, for least enthusiastic introduction by the host of a musical guest: Ron Nessen greeting Patti Smith, who does her version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” that begins with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ But not mine.” (I’m not sure it reflects well on SNL’s cutting-edge satire that there was a two-and-a-half year gap between Smith’s debut on the show and the first appearance of Gilda Radner’s character modeled on her, Candy Slice.)
  • Dan Aykroyd has two landmark moments. He delivers what may be the definitive sleazy TV pitchman routine in the Bass-O-Matic ’76 sketch, which he’d spend the next three years on the show trying to top. (The sketch is amusingly time-stamped by the red, white, and blue design of the Bass-O-Matic logo. It’s a reminder of a time when, thanks to the Bicentennial, sleazes of every kind were trying to make it seem unpatriotic to not buy their merchandise.  He also debuts his Tom Snyder impression, and this was not one of those routines that needed a breaking-in period before it got really good. His manic energy seems to get to Nessen, who, in what looks like a spontaneous gesture, reaches out at one point to take hold of Aykroyd’s arm, as if worried that he might start levitating. (It became a mini-tradition that, when the show had a guest host they wouldn’t mind aggravating a little, they tried to throw him to Tom Snyder; it happened with Mick Jagger, too. I hope you’ve enjoyed this unique and historic moment when Ron Nessen and Mick Jagger were mentioned in the same sentence.)
  • Remember earlier in this review, when I argued that being silly can rock, but just being dumb always sucks? For further elucidation, check out the closing moments of the Tom Snyder sketch, in which Snyder introduces “Jimmy Carter’s campaign manager,” and some poor bastard—the black hands sticking out of the sides of the costume would seem to indicate that it’s Garrett—walks out dressed as Mr. Peanut.
  • Gary Weis’ short film, about New York sanitation workers, isn’t half bad—it might have fit right in on one of the livelier newsmagazine shows of the period, like Weekend or The Great American Dream Machine, two series that I wish Shout! Factory would get to work on remastering and transferring to DVD before the last VHS copies disintegrate.
  • Billy Crystal, or “Bill Crystal” as he is here inexplicably billed, got bumped from the series episode, but he’s back, finally making his SNL debut eight years before he became a regular. His act here consists of a very long, twisted-face impression of an ancient black jazz musician, complete with an introduction explaining that the musician calls him “Face” because “’Face’ is a hip jazz term for a cute kid or a really pretty lady.” (He looks as if he’s impersonating Louis Armstrong, though Armstrong died in 1971, and Crystal says he’s relating a “sweet reunion” he’d had a couple of months previously with an old friend. Whether or not the guy’s really based on anyone in particular, Crystal did basically the same character 30 years later on an HBO Comic Relief special, devoted to raising money to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.) The main way you can tell this performance from something similar that an older Borsht Belt comedian might have done 10 years earlier on The Ed Sullivan Show is that it’s tenderly maudlin and sentimental instead of aiming for funny.
  • Remember earlier in this review, when I argued that being silly can rock, but just being dumb always sucks? For further elucidation, check out the closing moments of the Tom Snyder sketch, in which Snyder introduces “Jimmy Carter’s campaign manager,” and some poor bastard—the black hands sticking out of the sides of the costume would seem to indicate that it’s Garrett—walks out dressed as Mr. Peanut.
  • The most famous putdown of Chevy Chase as a performer is—or was, before there were enough putdowns of Chase to fill the Library Of Congress—Johnny Carson’s “you bet your ass that’s for publication” line that Chase “couldn’t ad-lib a fart at a baked bean dinner,” and the proof of that arrives in the closing moments, when the cast is gathered onstage, and someone shouts that they’re a minute or so long. Everyone looks to multitalented Chase, the star, to fill the time. He does it by trying to explain the situation, and then thanking Nessen very, very slowly. Finally, people are just counting down aloud, “10…nine… eight…”

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