Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Season Four

Throughout the fourth season of NBC's Saturday Night Live, there was a running gag that John Belushi, whose film Animal House had opened to great acclaim in the summer of 1978, had forged a future as a great movie star and was one of the biggest shots in all of entertainment. (By the way, Dan Aykroyd was supposed to play D-Day, which makes all kinds of sense.) That was the theme of the monologue of the season's first show, when Mayor Koch presented Belushi with a certificate of achievement ("Isn't there a key to the city or something? Dolly Parton got a key to the city"), and it was kept up through Gary Busey's show, on which Jane Curtin claimed that Busey had stolen Belushi's Oscar nomination. Belushi even missed a show, when Richard Benjamin hosted.

This is not a state of affairs that is conducive to ensemble comedy. The talent that was there, and the ambition, was still enough to make Season Four a landmark TV show. On the show hosted by Cicely Tyson, Belushi says offhandedly that he's on the best show on television, and he's not bragging; it's a simple statement of fact.

But having watched every episode of the fourth season now, and the precedeing two seasons not so long ago, I am prepared to officially declare that the third season of Saturday Night Live was the show's peak, the finest of the series' run, and therefore probably the finest season of televised comedy in American history.

I had expected that Season Four would be when the recurring characters took over, but that's not really the case. I'm not going to go back and count, but I think there were more Coneheads in Season Three. There were plenty of nerds and Roseanne Roseannadanna, and three installments of the now-forgotten Widettes, but the only thing that got sickeningly repetitive was the weekly dose of Mr. Bill, which I soon began treating like a commercial.

Most of the wounds were self-inflicted. For one thing, sketches got longer, as if the writers were running short of ideas and needed to pad out the ideas they had to fill the show. On Michael Palin's show from May 12, 1979, following the cold opening, there were a grand total of four sketches. One of them, a chapter in the history of Miles Cowperthwaite called "I Am Nailed to the Hull," took us aboard The Raging Queen for a funny but interminable fifteen minutes. (That whole show was out of whack; Palin ended his opening monologue by throwing it directly to musical guest James Taylor, which I have never seen before or since.) The infamous Milton Berle show, which Lorne Michaels forbade to ever be re-aired, didn't suffer so much from Berle's supposed mugging and overplaying in the sketches (which wasn't that bad, and Berle was fine as an aforementioned Widette) as it did from a very long, unfunny Borscht Belt style monologue and a sappy, mawkish closing monologue kicked off with a rendition of Kurt Weill's "September Song" and finished off by the notorious planted standing ovation. If the show failed, it was the fault of whoever gave Berle all that time alone onstage.

But there was a lot of great stuff, too. The Pepsi Syndrome, from Richard Benjamin's show, was long but earned every second of screen time, giving each player (except the mysteriously missing John Belushi) a chance to shine, even Franken and Davis as the speaking mimes who made up the Two Mile Island Players. Garrett Morris put a wicked, sassy spin on his brief turn as a maid; near the end of the sketch, Gilda came out and did 20 seconds' worth of Baba Wawa and just killed. They even brought out Rodney Dangerfield to explain just how big the nuclear accident had made the president. I once saw an ice-skaing exhibition of former Olympic champs, except that rather than compulsories and highly regulated routines, they just came out and kicked butt on the ice for 90 seconds apiece, doing whatever killer routines they could come up with. This sketch reminded me of that.

We also got the apotheosis of Nick the Lounge Singer, on Maureen Stapleton's show. After singing "Beast of Burden" to Pearl Bailey, Nick Wings came across three women on their way to a National Women's Caucus, leading to the following exchange:

Murray: What do you know, fifteen hundred women all in one place, maybe even Nick Wings could score. What do you think about that?

Gilda (after a perfectly timed beat): I wouldn't bet on it.


Then he serenaded them with "Thank Heaven for Little Girls."

The next week, Buck Henry hosted, as he traditionally did for the season-ending show. Near the end of the show, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd appeared in a Greek diner sketch, one that showed the Olympia closed on account of a fire. It would be their final sketch. When Buck came out for the goodbyes, he couldn't even acknowledge the end of the season, because Michael O'Donoghue was busy screeching out his done-to-death steel-needles-in-the-eyeballs shtick. Buck just waved goodbye, and the finest comedy series in the history of American television had, for all intents and purposes, come to an end.

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