Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Episode Four

A few days back I mentioned the episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Charles Grodin, the fourth show of the third season, and I am here to report that this, my friends, may well be the finest installment of that show in its history. The conceit of the show was that Grodin hadn't been around much during the week, hadn't paid attention to what was going on - he acts surprised that the show is airing live - and indeed missed dress rehearsal because he was out buying gifts for the cast. (Grodin describes the gift giving, in the cold opening where he gives John Belushi a shaving kit [which he Indian-gives back for the travel alarm clock that had been intended for Laraine], as an old New England tradition, even though he's from Pittsburgh.)

Grodin then fumbles his way through every scene he's in, complaining that his film clip got cut, calling out for Lorne, addressing the cast members by name. He botches up Samurai Dry Cleaners, complaining that he can't understand Belushi, then breaks the fourth wall during what I believe is the last appearance of the Killer Bees, saying the bobbling antennae are too distracting and leading to a hilarious Belushi rant.

Most delicious of all is when he gets up to sing "The Sounds of Silence" with musical guest Paul Simon while wearing a frizzy blond wig. Grodin can't sing, but that doesn't stop him from trying to harmonize with Simon, who displays crack comic timing in stopping the song after every verse to tell Chuck this isn't working. Simon eventually leaves the stage in disgust, whereupon Art Garfunkel emerges from the crowd and demands the wig back from Chuck. (The one flaw in the whole sketch is that the applause for Garfunkel is so long and loud that it messes up the timing of the ending. I mean, I'd give Artie a standing O, but I'm surprised other people would, too.)

What makes the gimmick work is that they never cheat it; there's never a sketch or a moment where Grodin, with his naturally distracted mien, comes across as a competent host. Grodin, I should probably add, is a really good actor. (It helps that the non-Grodin material, including Gilda's "Judy Miller Show," is mostly very funny.) I can recall watching this show back in 1977 as a kid, and I had never heard of Charles Grodin, and I bought into it, thinking he was just a complete goof-off.

They had done some of this experimentation before, with the cast members complaining about Eric Idle, and that brilliant Shelley Duvall opening I wrote about, but this was different. It lasted the entire show, it was simon-pure, it was both hilarious and unsettling. (Actually, during the good nights, Grodin turns to Belushi and says, "Just kidding, right, John?" And Belushi just sneers and says, "Yeah, Mr. Spaceman, sure.") Obviously, you can't do that all the time; if you're going to break the mold, you need to have a mold to break. But this time, boy did it work.


Gavin said...

I vividly remember this episode from when I was a kid, but had no idea it was Charles Grodin!

T. Nawrocki said...

Did you know Charles Grodin from before this? His work up to that point hadn't been especially kid-friendly.

Gavin said...

No, I would have had no idea who he was at that point (and for quite a few years afterwards).

Pike said...

One of the funniest things I've ever seen on TV was Grodin's old CNBC show when he interviewed Letterman via satellite. They were having this casual conversation when, about ten minutes in, Grodin asked Letterman what kind of insurance he had ("is it the Fireman's Fund? What do you carry?"). Letterman said, "Have we begun? I'm starting to feel really uncomfortable."

It was fantastic television.