Before we begin, VERY Special thanks to Ben Douwsma for use of most of the pics you’ll be seeing in this story. Also of note, there’s a LOT of Backstory for the uninitiated, so I don’t mind if you skip ahead a little. Anyway, For the Next 3 Saturdays, we’re going to take a look at some of the darkest times in the show’s history, and see what kind of silver linings we can mine out of them that others haven’t already done. That said, let’s begin with a look at what was arguably the darkest time of them all…
In 1980, Lorne Michaels, his Cast of (then) now-established stars and writers, and pretty much the rest of the SNL crew who weren’t bound by unions or NBC left the show at the end of the 5th season. For all we knew, the show could’ve just ended after that 5th year never to be seen again (except maybe in oddly configured reruns). Unfortunately, NBC was in tremendously dire straits back in 1980. Not only were they in 3rd place back in the day when coming in 3rd out of 3 networks was a considered a tragedy, not only did the mistakes of Fred Silverman create bomb after bomb after bomb in primetime, and not only did they make a slightly minor mistake with their Daytime lineup in the fall of that year (A mistake That they wound up correcting—and then some–2 years later); but also that summer, because of the Olympic boycott by President Carter and no U.S. Athletes able to compete in Moscow, NBC suddenly wound up with the rights to an Olympic Games that they had no use for, so they went largely unaired and the network lost Millions over it. Suffice to say, NBC had a lot of trouble on its hands…except, of course, in late night. Johnny Carson had recently signed a deal to stay with the network for years to come at fewer hours/more money per week, Tom Snyder remained one of the last bastions of intelligent conversation on Television outside of a PBS affiliate, and even in its final year “The Midnight Special” still managed to wow us with a concert/comedian or two. And of course, SNL was still very much a cash cow for the network. But now with Lorne & Co. on the way out, and a network desperate for something worth watching, It was announced that SNL would continue with a new cast, new writers, and a new producer at the reins. At first, it was rumored that the long-standing writing team of (future Senator) Al Franken and the late Tom Davis would fill the job. But then, just a few weeks before the 5th season ended, Franken did what he did best before becoming tamer on Capitol Hill…….He bad-mouthed the higher-ups while they happen to be watching…Particularly, then NBC President Fred Silverman in the form of an “Update” piece called “Limo for a Lame-O”.
That backlash led to TPTB at NBC passing over Franken & Davis, and instead giving the job to one Jean Doumanian; who had been working on SNL since the beginning as an Associate Producer…a job title that even the most experienced of behind the scenes people can’t even begin to properly define, even if it was written in bold ink and large print—just ask Jordan Schlansky. Doumanian had her work cut out for her; Hire the new cast/writers, get everything ready by the premiere date of November 15th, 1980, (Which I’m guessing was a late start either because of NBC’s Election coverage, or because the 1980 SAG Strike wrapped up at the end of that October—a lot of shows started late that year) and above all else, try to live up to the same standards that Lorne established in the first 5 years. Meat Loaf famously said “2 out of 3 ain’t bad”, but considering this was a show that was THE show to watch in the 70s, 2 out of 3 means nothing if you can’t be funny.
Now, I’m not going to belabor the point any further about season 6, there are plenty of good books/documentaries that give the mis-fired season the critical dissection it deserves. However, for the sake of getting started, I will say this………Say what you will about how bad it was (I know Seth MacFarlane did at one point, and yes I know I’m reusing that joke), but Season 6 is a lot more complex than we seem to give it credit for; and to see just how complex it is, may I recommend re-reading this Article from “The AV Club” when you have a chance. This brings us to the subject of this weekend’s list; “The TOP 6 things about Season 6 that DIDN’T suck (aside from Eddie Murphy & Joe Piscopo because that would be TOO easy).” There’s really no other disqualifications for the list other than the fact we already know that Eddie & Joe undoubtedly “saved” the show, but clearly they couldn’t do it alone. That said, here are some other things that helped this otherwise forgettable season limp along into the more hopeful future…
- BLAUSTEIN & SHEFFIELD – If Eddie & Joe were the performers everybody kept tuning in for, Writers Barry Blaustein & David Sheffield were the other half of the equation in writing most—if not all—of the “Good” sketches that year…though I can’t name one Sketch right now, I know they—at least—did all of Eddie’s “Raheem Abdul Mohammed” Update pieces (at least according to Hill & Weingrad). The fact that they were one of the few writers that made it to the next season (Pam Norris not withstanding) shows that they had to have done Something right. (IN ALL SERIOUSNESS: If you’re an SNL Diehard and you know of ANY sketch Blaustein & Sheffield wrote during the 80-81 season, please let me know in the comments section)
- THE SHORT FILMS – Even back then, anything that was filmed was inherently better than most live sketches—partly because even the weakest filmed piece contained more effort than most live sketches anyway…even if said weak pieces made little to no sense. I found some of my favorites, the unlinked ones are gonna take some hunting to do; but in the meantime, take a look at:
*The Man in the Black Hat
*Hot Dogs for Gaugin (w/Danny DeVito circa 1972)
*Who Is Gilbert Gottfried?
*Mr. Bill’s Christmas Special (A Highlight within the Highlight)
*The Virgin Search
*And yes…even “Fish Heads” was a bizarre trainwreck you couldn’t help but watch in bewildered amazement…especially knowing Bill Paxton (Yes, THAT Bill Paxton) directed it & co-starred the kid from “Lost in Space”/”Twilight Zone”/Sci-Fi Conventions back when they Meant something.
- NEWSBREAK/NEWSLINE – In one of the many futile attempts at re-tooling during the year, the show still dared to be different and introduced in one episode a feature called “Newsbreak” (Not to be confused with “SNL Newsbreak” the next year). The idea was originally simply Eddie introducing a mini-sketch based on a news event cleverly window-dressed as a prelude to that night’s “Update”…and really, that was it. The Original cast sort of did this originally with the 5 second Teases before “Update”, but this acted as sort of an expansion on that idea. Later, in the Bill Murray episode, the idea was expanded further into something called “Saturday Night Newsline”, which was essentially giving all the Update commentary pieces their own independent segments in the show thus allowing for more jokes in the main Update segment. Both were decent experiments that actually carried over a little in the next season, but it ultimately proved to be a little too distracting from the rest of the show and the “traditional” Update formula (A Mistake Colin Quinn would make Years later). Aside from that, say what you will about Michael Che today, but technically this segment made Eddie Murphy the UNOFFICIAL First Black “Update” Anchor…and yet, Nobody seems to want to talk about that for some reason…hmmm…
- THE ROCKET REPORT – A Comedic “Roving Reporter” piece wasn’t exactly revolutionary (I think the practice goes all the way back to the days of Steve Allen), but the way Charles Rocket presented himself in these pieces certainly gave season 6 a more “Human” side. But the REAL reason it makes the list in this position is that it also showed viewers a snapshot of what New York City was like in the heavily crime-laden Early 1980s; Gritty, Grimy, Slick…yet still cool among the danger. The comedy was still a little on the weak side, but years later, it provides a pretty decent time capsule of New York back then…Too bad he had to piss THAT goodwill away…but I digress. Some of my favorite segments include this one about Santa Claus in the city, this one about Early 80s Central Park, and this one where Rocket shows us a day in the life of Ronald Reagan. These pieces alone prove that Charlie deserved better later on.
- THE MUSICAL GUESTS – It’s almost a blessing in disguise that the majority of the comedy was weak this year, because it helped make the musical guests become the main savior/selling point for the episode. How’s This for a Roster? James Brown, Todd Rundgren, Junior Walker, Jimmy Cliff, Cheap Trick, Delbert McClinton, Aretha Franklin, Jack Bruce (No, Family Guy Wasn’t joking there), Funky 4 + 1 More, and…oh, I don’t know… F***in’ Prince in his infancy years (And yes, I know, it’s the 2nd week in a row I’m using His Royal Badness as a visual aide)! Even such abnormalities as Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Captain Beefheart & the cast of “Pirates of Penzance” were worth watching in retrospect. Even though we barely give musical guests the time of day these days, The musical acts of ‘80-‘81 certainly caught our attention when nothing else was worth watching on the show during a given week.
- BILL MURRAY’S EPISODE – If you’re an SNL Die-hard, you knew this was coming. But it goes without saying that If ever there was a point in which even casual viewers of the show thought “Everything’s going to be OK”, it was this episode—ironically the last show Doumanian would produce before Ebersol took the reins. Even though Doumanian was still at the helm and there were the usual amount of subpar moments in this episode, the mere presence of Murray mingling with the new cast gave a us a brief sense of hope that the show actually didn’t miss a beat from the good old days after all…at least while Bill was hosting. You’ve got a brilliantly self-deprecating opening, you’ve got Murray & Murphy using their collective energies to their advantage in the monologue (Which reminds me, Why have they NEVER been in a Movie Together?), you’ve got probably one of the most memorable sketches of the season where Bill is writing a book/script while the cast acts out what he’s writing in the background–A sketch which, by the by, I Swear I will go into greater detail on in the future; and for good measure, they even throw in “Nick the Lounge singer” (UNAVAILABLE DUE TO MUSIC RIGHTS). Add to that Murray’s Oscar picks on Upda…uh, I mean, “Newsline”, a killer set by Delbert McClinton (don’t judge, I actually like his music) and although the episode wasn’t exactly the same caliber as the first 4 years of the show, at least we can agree that it was better than most Season 5 shows. At the same time, this episode acted as one of the many “No looking back” points in the show’s history. They forged ahead using the episode’s energy as fuel despite the continued bumpy road they would go down until Lorne came back, and they navigated those roads the best that they could. Bill might’ve been “sorry for what [he] done” by the end of the episode; but by all outward appearances, what he did was a successful rescue/salvage mission.
THE FIRST EBERSOL SHOW – Speaking of “No looking Back”, if Murray’s show was stepping in the right direction, this officially (but still technically) hostless show maintained that right direction for the next few years…in spite of Senator Franken’s commentary—that, and the use of improperly trained monkeys pretty much saved the day.
MITCHELL KRIEGMAN – Not for anything he did on the show (because quite honestly it was slim to nil anyway outside of a handful of sketches), but for being one of the biggest post-SNL success stories in creating/co-creating a good chunk of the shows that aired on Nickelodeon in its 80s-90s heyday…Especially This one.
MARC WEINER – Speaking of Old-School Nick, the future “Weinervile” host lent a hand as a guest performer for a few shows (and then one More time in 1982)…it didn’t fit in with anything else on the show; but who cares, I was always a fan of his.
CHARLIE’S F-BOMB – Yeah, yeah, we All know the story & it remains a black eye for the show to this day. But as a reminder, if it weren’t for that incident, there wouldn’t be a need for the Ebersol changes. The show would’ve probably been canceled outright. Call it a blessing in disguise.
For ALL that we had to suffer through during this year (Including, without a doubt, the WORST Sketch of all time…which I’ll get to at some point), one important quality emerged from the experience. Mainly the fact that so-called “Transitional” years not only had to become a thing in order for any further evolution to take place, but also for these transitions to happen gradually over time instead of in one hard fell swoop–and that they eventually have to build on those changes for years to come. Jean Doumanian—who would later go on to produce many great things (Including this little stage show)—did the best she could under the conditions of attempting to follow up the Big Bang with an even bigger one. Ultimately, she learned this lesson the hard way and wound up getting fired for it, but still wiser for having taken a shot at it in the first place.
NEXT WEEK, Lorne Michaels almost does the Exact same thing 5 years later.