Jan 122011
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For Christmas, one of the things Mike gave me was the 4th season DVD set of Saturday Night Live. As I’ve mentioned in The Greatest Day posts, we’ve picked up watching where we left off in the middle of the second season. I’m a huge, huge fan of Saturday Night Live – at least the Not Ready for Prime Time Players and the SNL renaissance period when Lorne Michaels returned to the show in the late 80s (which is, not coincidentally, when I was watching the show live myself, religiously, every week). So going back through these DVD sets – in many cases the first time I’ve ever been able to see the shows full and intact, complete with musical guests – is an experience, something to be savoured.

We’re nearly at the end of the second season now, and the idea has taken root in my brain that I’d like to go through these episodes and talk about them. Break them down, skit by skit, and share those thoughts. As television and movie reviews are things I’d like to get back to blogging about regularly, I’d be a fool to not forcibly collide two great tastes that taste great together.

I am no fool.

George Carlin :: 11 October 1975

Cold Open: The first shot of the first show of Saturday Night Live ever has Michael O’Donoghue front and center. I find that fitting. The sketch is, of course, “The Wolverines”, and it’s the perfect way for SNL to say hello to the world. It features O’Donoghue giving speech lessons to a heavily-accented John Belushi, making him repeat such phrases as “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines”. The statements get progressively more bizarre, until O’Donoghue has a dramatic chest-clenching heart attack and falls dead to the floor. A moment later, Belushi follows suit. Chevy Chase as a floor manager walks on stage, takes in the pair of dead actors in front of him, and proclaims, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

It’s a terrific sketch in its own right, but to set the tone of this new, untested, rebel upstart show, it’s hard to think of a better choice. It’s utterly random, deliciously dark, immediately blurs the line between “fake” (the skit itself) and “real” (the production consequences), and manages to even make the soon to be iconic “LIVE from New York” bit part of the punchline. As with so many of SNL‘s best bits, it’s still just as funny decades later.

Monologue: A very young George Carlin enters the studio 8H to deliver his first of several comedy routines of the night, this one about football vs. baseball.

Carlin was supposed to appear in several sketches with the other cast members, but mid-week he had no confidence in what he was being given to perform and refused to do it. As a result, he spends the evening at Home Base (the central stage from which all future hosts will give their monologues), doing several assorted routines. The separation between the host and the cast is never felt more keenly than in the George Carlin show, where the rest of the episode seems to exist around him in a vacuum.

Fake Ad: The head of a loving household (Dan Aykroyd) watches over his wife and child. The voice-over wonders aloud, although you’ve prepared for them financially if you die, what about emotionally? Not to worry – when Old Dad dies, within seconds he’s replaced by New Dad (Chevy Chase). New Dad Insurance: They’re Tops in Pops.

Largely forgettable in the pantheon of truly great commercial parodies, “New Dad Insurance” is a decent effort, again showcasing SNL‘s black humour.

Musical Performance: Don Pardo announces Billy Preston performing “Nothing From Nothing”.

Given Lorne’s love of The Beatles, it’s no surprise that Billy Preston is the first musical guest he’d put on the show. Preston does a great job with the song, giving a fantastic performance and really seeming to enjoy being there.

Skit: A distraught woman (Jane Curtin) sits on the witness stand being questioned by a defense lawyer (Chevy Chase). He’s insistent that she repeat what his client is accused of saying to her, but it’s so perverse she can’t bring herself to repeat it. Her attorney (Garrett Morris) objects, and the judge (George Coe) suggests she write it down instead. She does, and they pass it around the courtroom, through the jury box, to assorted visual reactions. Finally one juror (Belushi) passes it to the sleeping juror next to him (Gilda Radner). Thinking it’s from him, she gives him a huge wink and an “OK” sign.

A low-key sketch, particularly in light of the over-the-top “Wolverines”. It’s perhaps the first to demonstrate the melding of comedy styles that the show will become, and pretty daring when you consider that half the sketch is done in complete silence – always an awkward thing, but particularly on live TV in front of an audience.

Stand-Up: Andy Kaufman emerges from the underground comedy scene to do his classic “Mighty Mouse” routine. Standing on stage, shuffling nervously from foot to foot, he listens to the “Mighty Mouse” theme song on a record player next to him. He waits anxiously for Mighty Mouse’s line, then grandly and with unquestioning enthusiasm lip syncs “Here I come to save the day!” before snapping back into wide-eyed anticipatory terror.

Andy Kaufman and SNL go together perfectly, even during – perhaps especially during – his later WTF years on the show. Here though, it’s the sheer bizarreness of what you’re watching. The bit where he gears up for and nearly begins a round of “Here I come” when there isn’t one gets me every single time. I’ve always felt that the selection of this joke sat perfectly in the inaugural show, where the entire creative team were waiting nervously, uncertainly, for their big moment, and when it came, they played it for all it was worth.

Monologue: Random bits of observational humour from George Carlin before introducing Janis Ian.

Amusing enough, but stands out like a sore thumb with the rest of the episode. George Carlin has a polished quality to him here – natural, given he’s doing well-rehearsed routines that have already played well in college campuses and live recordings. Lorne was against Carlin doing this, and in retrospect it’s easy to see why. Despite the censor’s concerns about using such an edgy comedian, there’s really nothing dangerous about him here. There’s nothing on the line for Carlin, and he only has to phone it in (which he undoubtedly did given how high he was for the show). He lacks the manic energy that crackles from the rest of the cast. Consequently, George Carlin is in the unusual position of being the surest and safest thing in the studio.

Musical Performance: Janis Ian performs her sad but beautiful acoustic hit “At Seventeen”.

Janis Ian’s performance isn’t as electric as Billy Preston’s, but then neither is the song. She has a heartfelt sincerity to her performance though, making it much more intimate. The dichotomy in the musical performances is another way to illustrate to the audience out of the gate that with Saturday Night, you’re going to get a lot of different stuff for your hour and a half. (Side note: I swear I cannot hear the title line now without hearing it sung by Tom Servo.)

Skit: The first of many SNL talk show skits, this one “Victims of Shark Bite”. The host (Jane Curtin) interviews a shark bite victim (John Belushi) who isn’t so much a victim of shark bite as one might originally believe.

It’s a pretty flat sketch overall. I get the feeling it was going for a “Raymond Luxury Yacht” kinda thing but trying to be more subtle about it. Again, as a skit introducing the show to the audience I think it has merit – not just playing with but downright abusing the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief – but on its own merits it doesn’t have much to offer.

Fake Ad: Married couple Chevy Chase and his wife, a pipe-smoking Michael O’Donoghue, talk about the vitamin supplement “Jamitol” and how it gives O’Donoghue the energy he needs to get through his busy day.

This is an odd commercial. You’d think the punchline would be that O’Donoghue is Chevy’s wife, but that’s said outright within the first few seconds of the joke. If the “Jamitol” name is supposed to be the big gag, it goes over my head.

Next Week: Paul Simon announces that he’ll be hosting next week’s show.

Paul Simon is a close friend of Lorne’s, so it’s no surprise he was lined up as a guest host so quickly (and would, in fact, go on to appear on the show with great frequency). “Next week” promo shots appearing in the show itself was a relatively infrequent segment.

Weekend Update: The beginning of SNL‘s longest-running and arguably most cherished traditions. Chevy Chase opens the segment with a joke about the missing Jimmy Hoffa always being a cornerstone in the teamster’s organization. Also included are numerous pokes at President Ford’s clumsiness, Alan Zweibel’s infamous prostitution stamp one-liner, and Laraine Newman finally appears, doing her correspondent bit.

Looking back on the first show, it’s easy to see how Chevy Chase quickly and so adeptly became its first breakout star. He’s the first out of this group of then-unknowns to have his name and his face easily identified for the audience (said no less than three times in the course of the segment). What’s more, the Update desk gives him a chance to fly solo and connect directly with the audience … and he does. From the first moment, Chevy owns Update, brimming with charm and confidence. He flubs a bit, looking in the wrong camera and even losing his place in the script, but even these are played off as moments to be laughed at and don’t cause him to lose his stride at all. Even better, those flubs enhance the feeling that the show is riding on a thin edge and could tumble into disaster at any moment. Chevy’s timing is impeccable and the material top notch.

Fake Ad: The voice-over talks about how horrible arthritis is while a pair of hands rub together painfully. Fortunately there’s new Triopenin, ready to speed relief. The voice-over continues to speak of the wonders of Triopenin, while the stiff, sore, pain-ridden hands attempt unsuccessfully to open the bottle with its childproof cap.

A much better example of the kind of fake ads the show will go on to do, poking fun at paranoia of child safety to the point of uselessness.

Muppets: The king, Ploobis, goes with his lackey Scred to see the Mighty Favog to deal with his spousal problems.

This was Jim Henson’s attempt to break into a more adult market. To say that it failed would be an understatement. The Muppets didn’t fit in at all, a fact that was painfully apparent from their first moment. Nobody on the writing staff knew what to do with them (writing Muppet sketches was a chore usually foisted on the junior writers), and nobody was much interested in figuring it out. All that said, the puppets themselves are performed well of course and wonderfully designed, with underlying hints of both The Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock. What’s more, Saturday Night not working out would lead Henson to The Muppet Show, so that’s a win for everyone.

Monologue: George Carlin again with some more observational humour including vitamins and blue food.

It’s George Carlin again. Funny, but I’ve already said about all there is to say about his performance above.

Short Film: Albert Brooks plays his first film for the show, “The Impossible Truth” about strange news stories.

Albert Brooks and Saturday Night have an interesting history that eventually ends – as so many of Saturday Night‘s relationships, a bit on the terse side. Personally I was never a huge fan of Brooks’ films on the show, which I typically see as overly self-indulgent, even by the show’s standards. Still, this is probably one of his best, with some genuinely amusing lines.

Skit: An episode of “Bee Hospital”, where several anxious bees fathers await the news of their bee children’s birth.

The introduction of Saturday Night‘s first recurring characters: The Bees. Nobody liked them much (though I’d wager nobody hated them quite as much as Belushi), but they were straight up silly and never failed to get a laugh. This one especially amuses me with the constant “Congratulations! It’s a drone!” Simple but still funny.

Fake Ad: The influx of late-night career commercials has created a need for operators to field the calls for the numbers after those ads. The Academy of Better Careers will teach you how to answer those phones like a pro.

A midly amusing bit of recursive logic, mostly just poking fun at one of Saturday Night‘s favourite targets: television. Funniest of all (besides the clothes – mid-70s fashion on full display here) is Gilda’s role as the potential stand-by operator. Nobody does “surprised and confused but soldiering on” like Gilda Radner.

Stand-Up: Valri Bromfield performs as a couple of different characters in the warm-up before a school’s big game.

Valri Bromfield was Dan Aykroyd’s comedy partner when they first started out. Her bit is entertaining, if more subtle and lacking in any real belly laughs, and is very reminiscent of Lily Tomlin (of little surprise as Bromfield was a writer on Lily Tomlin’s specials). Like many other facets of the show however, there’s a manic energy here, doubtless brought about in part by the fact that just an hour before air, Bromfield, along with other stand-ups for that night Andy Kaufman and Billy Crystal (who walked out), was told she had to cut her routine from five minutes to two. Pity, as I would’ve liked to see what she would’ve done with the full time.

Fake Ad: This ad features the writers and performers on the back of a truck, driving around the city and suburbs waving signs enthusiastically encouraging everyone to “Show Us Your Guns”. Everyone does, producing immediately from somewhere about their person everything from handguns to shotguns to automatic rifles.

Easily the best ad spot in this show, and a film bit that gets a lot of replay during the first season. There’s a lot of humour on a lot of levels here: the suburban barbecuing dad who just happens to have a shotgun by the grill on his front lawn; the mother pushing a stroller down the street who pulls out a pistol from behind her baby’s head; the mafia thugs who begin to show their weapons then stop, clearly thinking better of filmed proof that they’re armed, and instead shake their heads; the cop who goes to show his gun, realizes he’s lost it, shrugs nonchalantly and gives a friendly wave instead. A great bit throwing satire in a dozen different directions and managing to nail them all.

Monologue: George Carlin pokes at religion, about creating God in our own image, putting statues of Jesus on the dashboard of cars, and God’s rather unimpressive track record thus far.

Probably Carlin’s strongest routine, but that’s doubtless because religion is a favourite topic of his. This does help to remind me that Netflix recently put up like all of George Carlin’s specials and I want to watch them again.

Musical Performance: Don Pardo announces Billy Preston again, this time with “Fancy Lady”.

Another great performance. Preston puts on a hell of a show.

Skit: Trojan Horse home security specialist Kenny Vorstrather (Aykroyd) and his assistant (Garrett Morris) breaks into a couple’s home (Belushi and Radner) to show them just how vulnerable they are to burglary and assault.

This type of sketch becomes fairly standard for the show, but is still amusing. Danny’s pitchman persona, although not even close to the levels of insanity they will eventually reach, is just the right combination of confidence and sleeze, and Gilda gets off some great lines of her own (“Would you want to be sexually assaulted in your own kitchen?” “Well it would depend on who–“) There’s also a lot of ridiculous gems in here, such as the toilet bowl piranha, the self-detonating fragmentation toaster, and the .357 Magnum Mix-Master (which comes in avocado green or harvest gold).

Fake Ad: The Triple-Trac razor, featuring a mind-boggling third blade!

A commercial parody that just doesn’t hold up given that today four and even five-edge blades are the norm. Given the reality of today, the funniest part, although unintentional, is undoubtedly the post-pitch punchline of “Because you’ll believe anything.”

Musical Performance: Janis Ian performs “In the Winter”.

I find it interesting that George Carlin introduced Janis Ian both times, but never Billy Preston. Hm. Anyway, again a very different type of performance, but no less interesting I find; she’s just as good a performer, though in a completely different way. As to the song itself, it’s quite good, although reminds me in places of Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”.

Goodnight: George Carlin stands at Home Base alone, emphasizing once again that it’s a live show, thanking the guests, the “Not Quite Ready For Prime Time Players”, and then plugging his new comedy album.

As mentioned, Carlin stands alone at the end, a trend that would continue for another few episodes yet before the repertory players joined the host on stage. Probably the most interesting part of the closing is the credits themselves. In a very Python-esque move, Lorne had the credits written up so that everyone was nicknamed ‘Bud’ (“Lorne ‘Bud’ Michaels”, “Dave ‘Bud’ Wilson”, “Anne ‘Bud’ Beatts”, “Chevy ‘Bud’ Chase”, etc.) What’s more, the very last credit lists Dick Ebersol as “executive producer for NBC”, in a move that had fallout on the show for years to come. I won’t go into all that here, but I was really pleased to see it left intact for the DVDs.

Overall Thoughts: Although far from the best that either Saturday Night or the Not Ready for Prime Time Players would have to offer, this show came out surprisingly well. The highs were undeniably high, and the lows nowhere near the lows they could’ve been. George Carlin as host, like stated many times above, really added nothing, but at least he didn’t actively drag the show flaming and spiraling out of the sky as would some who would come after him.

You have to feel a bit for the cast, most of whom received nothing in the way of individual acknowledgment, and the only two times their group name was mentioned it was fudged, first by Don Pardo in the opening credits (“The Not For Ready Prime Time Players”) and by George Carlin in the goodnights.

Of those cast members, Chevy Chase easily shone brightest, with Update being key. Honourable mention I’d give to Danny, who sets himself apart just a sliver with his Trojan Horse security guy, and Gilda, who takes even the most mundane and throw-away parts and makes them memorable (the juror, the potential phone operator, and the security skit housewife).

Skit-wise, it’s hard to not have “The Wolverines” spring immediately to mind for straight up SNL classics. The first Weekend Update was also a winner however, with other stand-outs being the “Show Us Your Guns” commercial and the “Trojan Horse Security System” skit. Much of the rest was mildly amusing at best and largely forgettable at worse, but all in all this was a great first episode with a hint of the brilliance that was to come.

  • Stephanie Jane

    I have to admit, this was way more readable than I thought it would be based on your set-up at top. I would not complain if you put in a screen shot every now and again though, to break up the text. Loved the shout out to Tom Servo and your insights of Carlin and Chevy (yummy, yummy Chevy).

    • Jet Wolf

      Yay, love to hear about readability. I thought about screenshots too – had to go through some formatting hoops to break up the text to keep it from being WALL O’ LONG – but opted for laziness since my laptop doesn’t have a CD player to get screenshots. Still, think I have to agree, and screenies would add a really nice touch for relatively little additional work on my part. I do believe I’ll add them going forward.

      Comments very much appreciated, big thanks.

  • Wendy

    I am a big SNL fan (although I skew later, the frat boy years to Will Ferrell) and to read a breakdown of the early years is awesome. I own Live From New York and thinking about the context of the times and all makes me glad they got through their first season, let alone 30 plus years. I’ll be looking forward to your next review!

    • Jet Wolf

      It’s cool that there are so many different eras that can appeal. For me, the frat boy years drove me out of SNL, and I’ve never quite gotten back into them again. I’m looking forward to eventually going back and checking them out again though, you know, when I’m not so aggravated that week after week I’m seeing way too much Chris Farley and not enough Phil Hartman. :)

      I’m really thrilled you enjoyed the review though. I’m looking forward to the rest too. I hope you find them just as interesting.

  • Nova

    Hightly entertaining and often comical comments on a highly entertaining and more-often-than-not comical show. Like we already discussed, for a first attempt in unchartered waters, these guys truly did a fantastic job. I’d agree that Chevy was probably the initial stand-out and much as I would acknowledge that Dan Ackroyd has/had talent, I suppose I just don’t like him enough to give him honest credit. Indeed, I think the only thing I ever really appreciated by him was his Blues Brothers partnership with John Belushi and possibly his, “Jane, you ignorant slut” routine. Still, I believe even back then, there were little indications of who (or should that be whom) would become the shining stars. It seemed pretty obvious tht Gilda Radner and John Belushi would be among those to eventually steal the show.

    This was a great review and I look forward to more. You certainly do have a talent for this kind of stuff (and I’m not just saying that ‘cos you’re my one and only wunderkind).