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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Saturday Night Live: “Jill Clayburgh/Leon Redbone & The Idlers”

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“Jill Clayburgh” (season one, episode 15; originally aired 2/28/1975)

Once in a while, watching someone host an old episode of Saturday Night Live can just fill you with regret that you never got to see more of that person. Not that I’ve ever felt a keen sense of remorse I haven’t spent more of my time on Earth watching Jill Clayburgh, but I wish that, in the course of her career, Clayburgh had spent more time coming across the way she does here. By 1976, Clayburgh had only had supporting roles in a few movies, as well as some guest shots on TV series and a role as a hooker in a high-profile TV movie, Hustling. Her first hosting gig on SNL fell between the release of the first two movies in which she played the female lead: Gable And Lombard, a Hollywood biopic in which she played Carole Lombard (opposite James Brolin, in Dumbo ears, as Clark Gable), which was a box-office and critical disaster; and Silver Streak, a hit that did less for her than it did for Richard Pryor.

A couple of years later, around the time she hosted SNL for the second and last time, Clayburgh had a starring role in a big, zeitgeist hit, An Unmarried Woman. That turned out to be the kind of movie people write op-eds about, and I’m not sure Clayburgh’s career ever quite recovered from it. She spent the rest of the ’70s and the early ’80s burning off the good will she’d earned and her remaining star power in self-consciously sensitive relationship movies and other duds with a dull “timely contemporary issues” axe to grind. Sometime in the late ’80s, I caught her on Bob Costas’ late-night talk show, where he was unusually blunt in asking her, basically, what the hell happened? All she could really do was acknowledge that she knew why he was asking, while insisting she’d made a lot of choices that did seem like a good idea at the time. Referring to the 1979 stink bomb Luna, she could only say, with a mixture of bewilderment and exasperation, hey—it was Bertolucci! When the director of The Conformist and Last Tango In Paris asks you to play an opera singer who masturbates her teenage son to help him kick heroin, you shrug and say yes.

Clayburgh was seldom as much fun in her movies as she is here, whether she’s doing a full sketch or just introducing Leon Redbone or picking out “volunteers” for Andy Kaufman’s act. Her big showpiece is a surreal TV-show parody about a heroic guidance counselor that gives her the chance to recite inane inspirational anecdotes and put her fist through a wall. There’s also a restaurant sketch between Clayburgh and Chevy Chase that’s like a pre-emptive strike on the kind of sensitive-relationship mini-dramas the show itself would start doing after another season or two. Most of the people watching when this episode was first broadcast probably had little or no idea who Jill Clayburgh was, and you get a sense of how liberating that might have been for a rising young performer. The only reference to Clayburgh’s career comes at the very end, in a throwaway reference to her then-current movie bomb, with Clayburgh as Lombard and Jane Curtin as Betty Grable. (It’s the only thing Curtin gets to do all night, aside from some voiceover introductions.)

Midway through the show, the U. S. Coast Guard’s a cappella group, the Idlers, show up and perform while a list of people who are less intelligent than dolphins scrolls up the screen. Then Clayburgh pops onstage, with her shirt tied above her midriff and wearing a saucy little sailor’s hat, and sings Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise,” while the Coast Guard guys pitch in on the “O-ee, O-ee baby”s. (At a certain point, while the song is still playing, there’s a cut to footage of what looks like outtakes from The Perfect Storm.) Clayburgh’s singing is, well, kind of excruciating, but she looks as if she’s having too good a time to care whether she’s making a fool of herself, and the feeling is contagious. It’s far from the best thing in the show, but it may be my favorite moment nonetheless. It’s a rare kind of TV moment that SNL had a special kind of flair for in its early days: I can’t tell what they were shooting for, and I might like it a lot less if I did, but I’m glad they did it.

Stray observations:

  • In the cold opening, Lorne Michaels appears as himself—in his office, at a desk with a framed picture of Richard Nixon, unctuously charming a beautiful woman reporter—and coaxes Chevy Chase past his objections to doing the fall one more time. This isn’t the first time Michaels appeared onscreen as himself, but it was probably his first fully fleshed out appearance as the pseudo-hip industry gasbag and weasel we’ve all come to know and tolerate.
  • Clayburgh’s mention of Don Pardo’s name during her monologue earns him a round of applause. It didn’t take long for Pardo’s role on the show to turn into a joke all by itself, and it didn’t take much longer for the audience to embrace the cheerful, self-parodying butt of the joke as family.
  • I’m guessing the running series of “Great Moments In Herstory” sketches is some kind of nod to the fact that the show has a woman host, though Clayburgh only appears in one of them, as Isadora Duncan. They’re funny skits, though the one about Anna and Sigmund Freud would be funnier if Dan Aykroyd, in exactly the kind of hammy misstep I would never expect from him, hadn’t chosen (or been forced to) play Sigmund Freud as a twitchy, aroused pedophile with his daughter on his lap.
  • Leon Redbone makes his first appearance as musical guest here, and he’d be back just three months later, though he was still promoting the same album. Redbone—nee’ Dickran Gobalian—only appeared on the show a total of four times between 1976 and 1983, though he seemed to be more intimately associated with the show than that tally would suggest. (One reason for that may have been his starring in a Budweiser commercial that got a lot of late-night play.) Not everybody goes crazy for Redbone’s timeless, eccentric, croaking-the-classics act, especially when he got to indulge himself at length. (Reviewing his late-seventies appearance on the PBS series Soundstage, James Wolcott called him “a singing statue.”) But for some reason, whenever he appeared on SNL in its early years, he seemed more of a piece with the show’s vibe than a lot of its bigger rock acts.
  • In his fourth appearance, Andy Kaufman enlists members of the audience to help him lip-sync to a children’s record (“Old MacDonald”). He’s still doing variations on the first routine he did on the show, but the reactions of the other people on stage—especially the first woman in line, who looks as proud of herself for having mastered the intricacies of miming along to “A quack, quack here, and a quack, quack there…” as if she’d taken the controls of a jumbo jet and landed it safely—make it feel fresh, and Kaufman’s own assurance as he glides up to the microphone to perform his own part is actually, God help me, sexy. It’s too bad Kaufman’s posthumous reputation as a freaky mind-fucker has eclipsed the memory of how happy he used to make people.
  • No Muppets this week; they’re at the Grammys. Instead, Chevy Chase performs the TV-friendly portion of a pornographic hand-puppet play.
  • The show may have felt more comfortable with Gary Weis as its resident short filmmaker than it was with Albert Brooks, but compared to Brooks, Weis sure was comfortable tinkering away in a narrow little ditch. It’s amazing how much time he spend recording the relationships between marginal East Coast “art” figures and their pets; this time, his stars are the photographer William Wegman and his dog, Man Ray. Wellman, whose other TV credits include Sesame Street and the ’80s PBS video-art series Alive From Off Center, takes fun pictures, but he’s lucky he started his career decades before the invention of the Internet, or else he wouldn’t be a gallery artist, he’d hold the record for Buzzfeed’s cute-and-clever dog photo of the week.
  • I guess the real news on the short-film front is that this marks the debut of Walter Williams’ Mr. Bill, which led to a recurring feature and, eventually, a staff writing position for Williams. It’s a funny bit, but I’d be lying if I said that the first time I saw it, I jumped up and shouted, “Yes! Instant franchise!”