Jan 192011
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All the SNL reviews have been listed together in a burst of fine over-organization, which you can see here if that’s your thing.

1x05: Robert Klein, 15 October 1975

Robert Klein :: 15 November 1975

Cold Open: Beauty pageant winner Sherry Pan-Norwak (Laraine Newman) is supposed to give her acceptance speech and walk down the runway, but she proclaims the whole thing sexist and refuses. She removes all her trappings, foisting them on the announcer (Chevy Chase), who must instead take the walk. He does, right off the stage. “Live from New York…”

1x05: Sherry just says no to pageants.

Someone has to be the beuaty queen, and it won't be Sherry.

Valley girl Sherry is one of Laraine’s few recurring characters. As her confidence tanks (and drug use grows) throughout her tenure on Saturday Night, it would be one of the pieces she does best. Chevy of course winds up stealing the skit, looking ridiculous yet hilarious as he tries to cover.

Monlogoue: Robert Klein’s monologue is lifted from his stand-up routines. He talks about the disconnect between our perception of animals and the real thing and some commentary on movies.

Stand-up comedian Robert Klein hosted the show during the height of his popularity. His routine is funny and well-polished, with Klein clearly feeling very relaxed. Just as well, as his monologue is a full seven minutes.

Musical Performance: Klein is the captain of the Titantic. He introduces the evening’s entertainment: ABBA, performing “S.O.S.”

1x05: ABBA performs on the Titanic.

It used to be so good.

There’s so much going on in this segment; it’s probably the single most interesting musical spot in the history of the show. ABBA were breaking through, on their way to becoming one of the most popular acts in the world, and Dick Ebersol insisted they appear on the show. Lorne and the rest of the creative team, most notably head writer Michael O’Donoghue, were dead against it. ABBA was nothing but lowest-common-denominator kitsch and a symbol of the vapid world of entertainment that Saturday Night was created to destroy. Their protest was for naught however, and ABBA was booked for the show.
The team were so pissed about it that for the first and only time they did whatever they could to publicly undercut the musical guests. They essentially had ABBA appearing in a skit, and as they sing the appropriately titled “S.O.S.” aboard the Titanic, the ship begins to leak. The end has begun, but the guests are all unaware as they watch ABBA, totally enthralled.
Using the Titanic as the backdrop for ABBA’s performances was O’Donoghue’s idea. He wanted to drown them.
It gets even uglier for ABBA’s second performance.

Skit: Franken and Davis play Pong as they discuss their history midterm. Franken knows he aced it. Then he and Davis begin to discuss the questions and Al realizes he’s messed up just about everything.

Another enjoyable Pong bit, this time focusing on tests and ultimately the lack of caring about them. Franken’s turn from brimming confidence to near apathy is again a wholly relatable moment that would resonate with the audience that Saturday Night was hoping would hear them.

Skit: An episode of “Minute Mysteries”. Crime scene photographer Mike Mendoza (Dan Akyroid) helps Officer Lopez (John Belushi) solve a series of crimes from “who killed the heiress?” to “where’s my camera?”, giving the audience an increasingly lengthy period of time to solve it with them.

This sketch is just totally flat. It has nothing to say, and isn’t funny not saying it. Moving on.

Skit: “Bee Centennial Minute” examines the life of Henry the Bee, who left his hive one morning, got lost, wound up in George Washington’s battlefield tent, and got squashed.

1x05: A Bee Centennial Minute

The proud history of bees.

Our at-this-point requisite Bee appearance, this time with Garrett Morris playing the part. This was right in the middle of all the US Bicentennial celebrations that would culminate in 1976, so spots like this were almost certainly a regular thing during this time period. The biggest joke, of course, is that the bee did nothing of any value, and when you get right down to it, neither did any of the rest of us. Not a bad skit, written pretty well with non-essential, even non-verifiable details that add a richness to the story. It’s sadly also one of those moments that further dooms poor Garrett.
By this stage the Bees are becoming a bit worn and the Player protestations against them growing ever stronger. The Bees were symbolic of the cast, but that cast has rapidly outgrown the need to be symbolized at all. I have little doubt that this bee is played by Garrett largely because everyone else refused to do it, and to actually give him something to do – apart from the “top story for the hard of hearing” bit at the end of Update, this is all we’ll see of Garrett this week. And to add insult to injury, even this relatively straight-forward bit comes off feeling awkward and uncertain. The writers are steadily losing confidence in Garrett, making it even harder for him to get choice parts.

Musical Performance: Loudon Wainwright III performs “Bicentennial”.

How best to counteract the soulless pop of ABBA? How about a witty subversive folk musician? This song sings the glories of America, including Jack Ruby, the Kent State Massacre, and Oklahoma’s panhandle. It’s not sung the best, the music is pretty mediocre, and that’s all entirely the point.

Skit: Greg Allman (Chevy Chase) is interviewed, but there’s really only one thing anybody wants to know: how’s your love life?

Another of Chevy’s impressions that doesn’t actually try to sound like the subject (though he does put a blond wig). This skit doesn’t hold up over time though; I think the humour is too contextualized. I’m not sure if the joke is in reporters not caring about anything but Allman and Cher, or if Allman was in denial about it at the time, or something else entirely. There’s nothing wrong with the sketch in and of itself, just that something has definitely been lost to time.

Skit: Two actors, Rex and Debbie (Klein and Gilda), work with famed Western director Sam Peckinpah (Belushi) on their romantic comedy. Every time Debbie gets the scene wrong she’s coached by Peckinpah. And slapped, and kicked, and shoved …

1x05: Sam Peckinpah directs his actors

'Maybe it's me.'

There are few women who can pull off abuse like Gilda. Throughout the course of Saturday Night she’s manhandled like no other, and it’s always hilarious. Gilda’s reactions are confused yet eager-to-please, and her characters never protest and always go back for more. Part of what makes this funny is that it’s a secretly dark guilty pleasure; Gilda’s so chipper and cheerful and sweet and innocent and deep down inside don’t we all want to smack people like that? Gilda is Bambi, and god dammit, sometimes Bambi just pisses you off. Of course the main point of the skit is poking fun at the violent nature of Sam Peckinpah, using the backdrop of a romantic comedy to illustrate how inappropriate his treatment of cast and crew are regardless of situation. Honestly though, all the humour found here is in pushing around Gilda Radner, which says something even more disquieting.

Weekend Update: More Ford and “alert Secret Service agents wrestled _____ to the ground” jokes of which I honestly will never tire, scathing jabs at Alabama Governor George Wallace, and an editorial commentary by Frank Telinka (Akyroyd).

1x05: Weekend Update's editorial reply

Nothing but respect.

This may be the first Update where not every joke worked and Chevy didn’t bother with an immediate improvised follow-up to get a laugh. It doesn’t ruin the segment by any stretch, but since with this rewatch I’m paying a little more attention to the details it really stood out that there was a punchline with no laugh at all. The Akyroyd/Chase editorial more than makes up for it though. Danny reads the whole bit in his “conservative” voice, each word articulated with measured precision and a tone so straight you could crack boards over it; it’s the perfect contrast to Chevy’s juvenile belittling. The naturally manic pace that Danny sets causes Chevy to race to catch up with his rubber-lipped, eye-crossing derision until the whole thing builds to a feverish pitch. Brilliant interplay between the two of them.

Fake Ad: A husband (George Coe) talks about all the things his wife (Jane Curtin) does in a day. She takes Jamitol to keep up her strength. By the end of the commercial she’s passed out from exhaustion.

This version works a bit better than the Chevy/O’Donoghue pairing in the George Carlin show, due entirely to Jane’s performance. Her moments of mild lucidity punctuated by “I’m cleaning the oven!” are particularly funny.

Skit: Two exterminators – hardened pro “Bugs” (Belushi) and his young partner (Klein) – go into a woman’s basement to get rid of her cockroaches. Bugs is on a mission of vengeance for his brother who one day went to step on a cockroach and stepped on a live electrical line instead. But The Kid is having a crisis of conscience. He tells Bugs all about the wonders of the cockroach, and Bugs agrees to give up his killing ways. Then squashes two on his way out of the basement.

1x05: Bugs and the Kid

Bugs and the Kid

Not a bad sketch. What you see is largely what you get here though.

Skit: Gilda tells us all about how much she loves being a fireman, including fire prevention tips and a poem about her job.

Another moment for Gilda to – despite ostensibly playing a part – reach out to the audience as herself. I actually hadn’t realized until writing these just how much “straight” time Gilda got early on. Charming and funny as ever, these segments are always a welcome breather in the show.

Muppets: Ploobis has a headche that won’t go away no matter what they do, so he and Scred visit the Mighty Favog for help.

There’s actually a funny bit in this one, as they’re trying acupuncture on Ploobis, but the humour here is 100% all Jim Henson. Still, it got a chuckle, so that puts it ahead of most Muppet segments!

Stand-Up: Robert Klein talks about college and science.

Not much to say about it beyond that it’s funny. This is Klein’s job and he does it well.

Fake Ad: The K-Put price gun lets you set your own prices when you visit the grocery store.

1x05: K-Put Price Gun

I don't know who you are, Price Gun Lady, but you made me laugh.

You take the word “inflation” in the 70s and I can only think of Ben Murphy. This is a great ad though – quick, to the point, and totally ludicrous. The lady they used in this commercial is similarly great, speeding through the store in her rush to re-price items and sweep them into her cart.

Musical Performance: Loudon Wainwright III performs “Unrequited to the Nth Degree”.

Another great performance, and something you don’t usually hear: An angry, vengeful folk song. Also is it just me or does his intro sound just like “Creeque Alley”?

Skit: Jane Curtin hosts “Looks at Books” where she interviews her guest: child author Emily Litella. Emily talks about her new book, Tiny Kingdom. She talks very slowly about all the little, teeny, tiny, itty, bitty, weenie things in her book. There isn’t a happily ever after, sadly, as the beautiful princess discovers that the handsome prince had a little, teeny, tiny, itty, bitty …

1x05: Emily Litella and Jane Curtin on "Looks at Books".

Tiny Kingdom, filled with tiny things.

This is the first “Looks at Books” sketch, which would become a regular on the show. Even better, this sketch is a twofer as we also first see Emily Litella, soon to become one of Saturday Night‘s most popular characters. She isn’t quite how we’d come to know her, exhibiting none of her trademark partial deafness and notably not ending the skit by calling Jane a bitch, but here she is all the same. The skit itself rides on the strength of Emily’s rambling slowness and propensity to just space out of the conversation, but a lot of its charm is also credit to Jane Curtin. Jane manages to look genuinely delighted at every extended round of “little teeny tiny itty bitty etc.” with the kind of slavish dedication to cute that you’d typically only see in collectors of Precious Moments statues.

Fake Ad: [Repeat] The Ambassador Training Institute

A repeat from last week’s Candice Bergen show, although without the background drama this time.

Musical Performance: Robert Klein performs his song “I Can’t Stop My Leg”.

Klein’s traditional show-ender, it’s a blues-style song where he plays the harmonica as his leg bounces rhythmically. He sings, pleading for someone to stop his leg from doing that. It’s a classic bit, funny stuff.

Musical Performance: ABBA comes out for round two with “Waterloo”.

As though they never stopped, ABBA performs their next bit still on the Titanic. As the song goes on, the leaking gets more intense, with Captain Robert Klein attempting to stop the flow with his hat, his menu, his dinner plate, whatever he can find. Meanwhile the guests – even those at Klein’s own table, are oblivious to everything, staring at the band with expressions devoid of any emotion whatsoever.
Then words appear on the screen. “Right now ABBA is lip synching,” they say. “It’s not their fault. The tracks didn’t arrive from Sweden.”
1x05: 'Right now ABBA is lip synching'.

Or you could also read the title card as 'Fuck you, ABBA'.

There’s no way that ABBA had any idea those cards were going up. It’s a blatant middle finger to the group, an act of very public derision for not even being good enough to perform their own crap song live.
We’re still not done.
As the song goes on, drops of water begin to appear on the camera and it lilts to one side. Bubbles can be heard. Still the band plays on. Tables and chairs start sliding across the screen. A waiter staggers in only to be thrown back. Guests begin to fall out of their seats. Splashes of water come from off-stage. Still the band plays on. The angle becomes ever more severe as it pans out. The ship is sinking. Fade to black. And still the band plays on.

Goodnight: Robert Klein stands alone at Home Base, thanking his guests and the cast, including whoever got him the bathrobe he’s wearing, which was clearly stolen from an old man at a state home.

Ha, oops, I guess the Players don’t always appear for the goodnight after the Candice Bergen show. Shows you what my memory’s good for.

Overall Thoughts: Robert Klein does a good job with the show. He doesn’t appear in sketches much, but he does appear in a few and seems game enough. There isn’t any particular connection between him and the show however, making the episode less like Bergen and more like Carlin. That’s effectively a step back but the show’s still trying to dial into its ideal balance.

All of this said, it’s a pretty forgettable show as far as Saturday Night goes, suffering in no small part to being sandwiched between two really fantastic stand-out episodes. It also suffers from not having any particularly amazing sketches to emerge, with the overall quality being, at best, quite average.

Really this episode is all about ABBA, and that’s entirely Saturday Night‘s own fault. If the team hadn’t been so bound and determined to try and piss all over them, ABBA would’ve simply folded neatly into the show’s history. But of course when you have a show whose survival is in question from week to week, the last thing expect is to still be on the air some thirty-six years later. How history will perceive what you do right now is understandably a little bit less important.

That’s an important fact to remember about Saturday Night at this time. Today it’s an entirely different creature. ABBA daring to lip synch back then was a travesty and an insult, but many many years later and, well … Ashlee Simpson, anyone? So while it may seem hypocritical in hindsight, it’s important to put everything in context. Saturday Night at this time wasn’t just a program, it was a state of mind. It’s everything about the youth of the time springing from all shadowy corners of the counterculture, trying to be the mouthpiece the world lacked. This era of Saturday Night, these first few seasons in particular, are about making statements, about kicking the establishment in the balls and laughing as it writhes on the ground. The show will go through periods of funny and not so funny, from genius to embarrassing and back again, but there’s a dangerous, desperate kind of energy unique to these episodes that remains unmatched today. So perhaps the show’s treatment of and reaction to ABBA may seem hypocritical to what SNL would become, but it certainly is not to what Saturday Night is at this moment.

Sketch of the week is a bit of a toughie as there wasn’t much all that exceptional here, but I’d think I’ll break into Update and specifically target Dan Akyroyd and Chevy Chase’s editorial response. That one’s all about the performing too; the writing has zero impact on what’s going on here.

The Players themselves, I’m going with Gilda Radner. With her poor abused actress, fireman pride and introduction of Emily Litella, she shows of three very different sides of what she can do and they’re all wonderful.

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