Monday, May 5, 2008

NBC's 'Saturday Night'

I have some leftover random observations on the second season of a major American touchstone, and rather than spread them out over a series of posts, I'll put them all right here, where they can be easily avoided, since I recognize that no one else is quite as obsessive about these things as I am. I mentioned a while ago that this series of shows, from 1976 and 1977, had both tremendous cultural (which I think is obvious) and personal significance; I was ten and eleven years old when these first aired, yet I distinctly remember watching about half of them, some of them even all the way through (demonstrating once again that my parents were better parents than I am, since my own eleven-year-old is unlikely to sniff even 10:30 p.m. - when NBC's Saturday Night aired in my own central time zone - even on a Saturday night).

There was literally nothing else like it available to us: deeply funny, enormously different, subversive (although we didn't know the term at the time), and most of all, the hippest thing going. Saturday Night made little kids in the Midwest dream of going to New York City and trying to make some sort of artistic impact, although being able to write or perform on a show as good as NBC's Saturday Night seemed wholly out of reach.

That's why I was so keen to see these shows again, some of them for the first time in over 30 years. Here we go:

* I noted several times that the show was called NBC's Saturday Night at the time. Lorne Michaels always wanted to call it Saturday Night Live, but ABC's Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell (on which Bill Murray was a featured player) got there first, debuting in September 1975, and Michaels had to settle for Saturday Night. But Cosell's show crashed and burned by the following January, and Michaels moved to reacquire the name. When exactly this happened is a matter of some dispute: Wikipedia says the show's name was changed on March 26, 1977, when Jack Burns hosted. And indeed that night, Don Pardo introduced the show as "NBC's Saturday Night Live," as he did the following week, with Julian Bond hosting. But every other week for the rest of the season, Don Pardo called it simply "NBC's Saturday Night," and the title on the screen continued to read "Saturday Night." Why this happened, I don't know.

* The most unusual host was the aforementioned Jack Burns. Not that he was bad, by any means; he was quite funny and seemed to work well with the cast, although his monologue tried very hard to be edgy rather than funny (it was all centered around a joke about "touching yourself" that Ron Howard repeated almost verbatim when he hosted on October 9, 1982). But in Live From New York, Lorne Michaels says he was "proud of who I wouldn't allow on the show - people who had just been all over Las Vegas and prime-time television.... [A]ny association with the Rich Littles and the John Byners... would have been antithetical to what I was trying to do." Well, who's more like John Byner than Jack Burns, a guy who had washed out as a regular on The Andy Griffith Show and was mostly known at that time for appearing on things like The Flip Wilson Show? Avery Schreiber, maybe?

* The worst host was probably Broderick Crawford, who appeared in only two sketches with the rest of the cast. Production assistant Neil Levy says Crawford was drunk the whole week. He wasn't exactly terrible, but why was he there? Was there some great lingering nostalgic affection for Broderick Crawford that I was unaware of? There were only two hosts all season who would have listed their prime occupation as "actor" (Elliott Gould was the other), and one of them was totally pointless.

* The fact that there were only two actors hosting (there were several actresses, though) points up how many people from unorthodox backgrounds hosted: Norman Lear, Ralph Nader, Fran Tarkenton, Julian Bond, Dick Cavett. I didn't know what Buck Henry's occupation was back then, and I'm not sure I know now, but he hosted twice. Most of these guys were just OK, although Julian Bond was quite good, indulging in quite a bit of racial humor. Norman Lear brought along a very long and repetitive film in which he talked to a bunch of people from the various shows he produced; inevitably, they all said flattering things to the camera, then made faces when Lear turned his back. It got old after about two minutes, then ran for ten more.

* In addition to Buck Henry, two other people hosted twice that season: Steve Martin and Eric Idle. In both cases, the first show was a lot better than the second.

* Scraps mentioned in a comment to another thread that the worst musical performer he had seen was John Sebastian, from the first season, but he couldn't have been worse than Alan Price, who was on the second Eric Idle show. Price was the organist for the Animals in the 1960s, where he was a trailblazer, then went on to a solo career in England with some apparent success, although he never had a chart hit in the U.S. Watching him on NBC's Saturday Night, it was apparent why: He came across like a guy playing in the lounge of a Holiday Inn in Fort Wayne, Indiana, singing laid-back, boring, generic pop. On that same show, Neil Innes of the Rutles did a number complete with sets and funny costumes and people standing around; it came across like a very British version of The Carol Burnett Show. It was awful too.

* Ralph Nader's show was notable for the first appearance of Bill Murray; it also marked the first appearance of the Coneheads. Thereafter, they appeared I think four more times, although I really don't want to go back and count. The audience loved them, and I guess they could be funny if you saw them every few weeks, but watching them every other night, as I have been recently, they ain't funny.

* Ricky Jay was on with Ruth Gordon, and with very long hair. She seemed to be very familiar with him, and I suspect she suggested him for the show. You gotta love Ruth Gordon.

* Chuck Berry was also on with Ruth Gordon. He played a bored, perfunctory "Memphis," then looked around and said, "What else should we do?" Then he and the band ripped joyfully through "Carol."

* Andy Kaufman did his Elvis impression on Ralph Nader's show. It went on and on, and wasn't very interesting.

* A goodly number of the hosts had close connections with Robert Altman. Karen Black and Lily Tomlin were both in Nashville; Elliott Gould was in M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, California Split, and I'm probably forgetting a few. For the first ten years of her career, Shelley Duvall was in hardly anything but Altman films. Sissy Spacek was making 3 Women with Altman (and costarring Shelley Duvall) when she hosted, and she brought along a "home movie" (which the show featured for that season alone, I think) directed by Altman. (The "home movies," by the way, was where Mr. Bill came from; those movies were made, in part, by Vance DeGeneres, bassist for the New Orleans New Wave pop band the Cold and sister of Ellen.)

* In Live From New York, Bill Murray whines about being the "second cop" in a lot of sketches, saying he didn't get a lot of prime roles in his early days on the show. This isn't true; he got as many parts as anyone right from the get-go.

* The third season DVD is to be released on May 13. We'll check in with you again after that.


Scraps said...

I love these posts, and am similarly obsessed; I keep meaning to write things up, but the nature of my obsession is a desire to do notes episode by episode.

I liked the Norman Lear home movie well enough, mostly because I liked enough of the performers themselves; Jean Stapleton makes me laugh as reliably as anyone since Imogene Coca.

T. Nawrocki said...

If you do have any notes on particular episodes, I'd be happy to put them up as guest posts if you want to send them to me.

The Lear movie either needed to be half the length, or not used as part of the monologue, where it just brought the whole proceedings to a halt.