Sorry once again for Spacing issues, as I re-edit this over the weekend, I’m going to cast an exorcism spell on my copy of Firefox. Now then, Onto our next subject…
Coincidentally, another Bad season that uses Red, Graffiti-esqe typeface as its logo while its season premiered in Mid-November…BUT…there is No connection there…you’d have to be a fool & a communist to think that there was one (Sorry to make you spin in your grave there, Mr. Hicks).
Anyway, In 1985, Lorne Michaels Returned to the place he once and will eventually forever call his home. He returned to SNL a little older, a little wiser, and if ratings for “The New Show” were any indication, a little bruised. In the wake of the final “Steinbrenner Season” under Dick Ebersol, Lorne & those from the old guard who came back with him were actually being seen as different kinds of underdogs this time around. Unlike in ’75 when everything was new and experimental, here they already know the mechanics behind the show—but they suddenly had a tough act to follow thanks to Billy Crystal and Co. The biggest problem with the 1985-86 season of SNL is that the Lorne that came back isn’t the same Lorne that started the show 10 years earlier; he’s now more experienced as a producer, more refined, more behaved…unfortunately this also makes him more “Executive” like, which probably led to his decision to pull a page out of Ebersol’s playbook and hire his own stable of established stars. Despite the fact that the guns he hired would later turn out to be a mainstay of various comedy movies, a mainstay of the TV writing circuit & reluctant gay pioneer, a John Hughes protégé who develops psychic powers on basic cable, a distant relative of Clark Griswold who just flat out went nuts, and a fan of Charlie Chaplin who would later kick a long standing drug habit and become a world-saving billionaire industrialist. Of course, it wasn’t their fault alone as to why things train wrecked faster than you can say “Amtrak Disaster”. The writing room suddenly became a mish-mash between Lorne’s old guard, a handful of holdouts from the Ebersol era, and a few New writers who were eager to help but somehow got lost in the shuffle that year (as rookies often do). Throw in a couple of hosts who CLEARLY had no business being there, as well as ones trying desperately to make the best of a bad situation, and you’ve got yourself a hotter mess than a lava flow ruining your living room (*Hawaii Residents Only*).
Season 11 of SNL ranks somewhere up there in the Worst of Comedy, but not unlike Season 6, there were certain bright spots that rescued the show from the brink of cancelation—and not unlike the Season 6 list, we’re going to take a look at the Top 7 things about Season 11 (not counting Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller or Nora Dunn for obvious reasons) that didn’t suck. I’ve always been a big believer in the “Every cloud has a Silver lining” theory, so yes, the season was weak for a number of reasons—The sketches were boring and/or borderline offensive, the Cast couldn’t gel (except for a handful) and The Hosts were dull (Except for the few I’m going to mention), But let’s not forget what was Right about this season.
- HOME BASE – First of all, I want you to take a look at this construction wall I recently took a picture of that depicts 42nd Street & Times Square circa 1986…
Now take a look at how that same section of 42nd & Times Square looks today…
Now, if the Marquee & the Storefront looks familiar to any of you, here’s why…
For all the crap we had to watch during this season, at least the set designers gave us something to marvel over during the monologues/good-nights/stand-up acts, because this was about as uncanny a re-creation as you could ask for, granted at about 1/4th its size. Unfortunately, for the sake of Madge later declaring this season a “Horrible, Horrible Dream” (Hey! That’s the Blog Title!), the set was scrapped in favor of a reliable home base that would later last 12 years (9 for monologues, 3 more as an MG stage)…Otherwise, What a waste of effort. Yeah, it kinda looks tacky today (not unlike Times Square itself then & now), but back then the set was a masterpiece…then again, I come from a family of Graphic Designers & Art Snobs, so what do I know?
- POPE MAURICE – Among the old guard who returned in ’85-’86 was longtime writer Don Novello and his alter ego “Father Guido Sarducci”—who for years made the weekly complaint about never getting promoted to the rank of Monsignor after all this time. So when Sarducci came back, he decided to take matters into his own hands by starting his own religion; “The People’s Catholic Church”, where everybody who was a member automatically became a Pope. It was still your typical “Sarducci ragging on religion” routine, but in a sense, at least the character wound up with a much deserved closure (Special appearances in 1993 & ‘95 notwithstanding).
- THE EPISODES ON THE “BEST OF 1985” STARMAKER TAPE – A future SNL Hall-of-famer making his first appearance, a soon-to-be comedy legend, and the son of a President. These three shows ALONE should probably be enough to forgive this season for its flaws. Unfortunately, the edits on the “Starmaker” tapes notoriously chop about 60% of each episode (less if it’s a “Best of Hosts” tape) so that the tape can reach its 2 hour running time with no issue…then again, that’s possibly for the best when watching the FULL length reruns years later, what they cut is downright unwatchable and what remains is actually solid stuff. The stuff they kept in the Tom Hanks show looked to have a strong retention rate; Pee-Wee Herman’s show was comparatively shorter, but at least the “Thanksgiving Special” sketch gave us a taste of what was to come from Phil Hartman (who co-wrote the sketch, and makes a small cameo at the end); and Ron Reagan’s show had one Really long, but well thought out “Back to the Future” parody AND a Miller “Update”. If you can find the tape on eBay, give it a watch, and you will be witnessing several silver linings in less than 2 hours.
- (TIE) DAMON & TERRY – Two diametrically opposed comic talents; yet at the same time, they were absolutely screwed by the show in spite of their efforts. Damon is one of SNL’s Prodigal sons, and the “Mr. Monopoly” sketch is Exhibit A as to why…but THAT’S Not why I put him on the list…OK, he sort of is, but One awkward moment shouldn’t define a person (Kids would NEVER survive puberty if that were the case). Wayans attempted to prove that by first being Update’s “Uptown Financial Correspondent”, then one of the stand-ups in the sketches of the same name, and then also teaming up with Anthony Michael Hall in a Prototype version of ILC’s “Homeboy Shopping Network” & “Anton” Combined. Then came the Monopoly incident that got him fired, but as A. Whitney Brown commented in Shales/Miller, “It wasn’t the end of his career…only the beginning” (EDIT 9/1/16: Re-reading Shales/Miller yet again, I found out it was actually writer Andy Breckman, not Brown who said that…My Mistake). To cement the “Prodigal” status, Wayans was invited back to perform a stand-up set on the Finale that year, and then 9 years later, he came back as a host in one of Season 20’s few bright spots (More on THAT Later). As for Sweeney, I’ll grant that he was a little Too flaming at times, and he often complained about how he wish he played non-gay/non-women roles on the show, and he also (infamously) got on Chevy Chase’s bad side. But at the time one could argue that he was the most progressive person in the cast…unfortunately, probably TOO progressive for the rest of the country (and at least One First Lady) to take at that time. If the country’s mentality was calmer, Sweeney would’ve probably (eventually) fit in deftly with Carvey & Hartman…Hell, he could’ve been his Own “Sweeney Sister” (C’mon, how could I NOT make that joke?). Also, chances are, if it weren’t for him blazing the trail (so to speak), Kate McKinnon would probably still be doing theater work in Chicago. If anybody deserved to be spared from the season ending fire, Damon & Terry should’ve found the escape hatch.
- A. WHITNEY BROWN (And yes, I know I’m using his Season 16 picture) – People often talk about how Lovitz, Miller & Dunn get spared in terms of what went wrong that year, but it seems that those same people always manage to leave the longtime featured player/commentator in the dust. Thanks to him and his “Big Picture” commentaries, Update not only maintains its status as a silver lining in any given “bad” season, but it also brought a certain air of intelligence to the segment that seemed to have been lacking since they stopped doing “Point/Counterpoint”—only Whitney is calling the World “Ignorant Sluts”, and we have nothing to say or do in return other than shrug our shoulders and say “Y’know, maybe he’s right”.
- THE FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA/GEORGE WENDT EPISODE – SNL has had its share of “4th wall breaks” before; From Charles Grodin pretending to pretend be unrehearsed, To Robert Klein reporting from a Lobster related Apocalypse, to Tom Green’s Not!Wedding to Drew Barrymore, to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson getting threatened by his (then) co-workers at the WWE throughout the episode, the entirety of the “Who Shot Charles Rocket”/F-Word episode, and even this past year when “He who shall not Be Named” sort of made light of the controversies of him hosting while prepping for his run for President. But this might’ve been the ONLY time on record where SNL not only broke the 4th wall in terms of its regular format, but did so in a way that almost made for innovative television at a time when the show needed all the help it could get. In one of the Rare times when an episode had an ongoing plot, Coppola is playing a version of himself who seems to be on the skids (or possibly to promote “Peggy Sue Got Married” or “Captain EO”). Throughout the show, Coppola interferes with the mechanics of the show; from asking (actual host) George Wendt to Re-do the monologue, to excusing Dave Wilson from his duties, to forcing a re-write of a sketch in mid-sketch, to using “Live” Ammo on Anthony Michael Hall, and for a Coppola-sized glob of icing on the cake, they even get Phillip Glass of all people to not only be the MG, but also score music for a more stark title sequence than we’re used to. By the end of the episode when Lovitz’s reliable “Master Thespian” ushers in the episode’s “Grand Finale”, Wendt himself wonders (to Franken & Davis who are incidentally tending the bar at Hurley’s downstairs) what the Hell just happened. What happened was—more than likely—something that will NEVER happen on the show ever again…and quite honestly, were THIS to be the last episode of the season (and possibly the series), this would’ve been one Hell of a way to go. People say the first 5 years of the show were “experimental”—it’s nice to know that same experimental spirit managed to live on, if only for one episode.
And the #1 thing about the 1985-86 season that didn’t suck is…….
- THE HIRING (and NOT Firing during the off-season) OF ROBERT SMIGEL – If you’re as big a comedy nerd as I am, you already know why he is important to SNL (and Comedy) history. For the uninitiated, let’s begin with the fact that it was his writing that kept the Premiere episode with Madonna from being 100% Vilified (Say what you will about the “Marika” sketch, but at least it was bizarre instead of flat-out “Bad”). And sure, the return of many of the old guard writers was both a plus and a minus; but without fresh blood among the ranks, the whole show might as well have been stuck in 1975. Although his contributions to the year were minimal, and we wouldn’t see his True Genius until much later on, Smigel DID give us the infamous Finale Cliffhanger where Yankee manager Billy Martin sets the dressing room on fire. In Smigel’s Own words from a 2004 AV Club interview, he had This to say about the Sketch AND making the cut to the next year…
“…I got a lot of shit for that from some people in the cast…It was a parody of the new “cliffhanger” phenomenon on TV. It’s hard to imagine a time when cliffhangers weren’t an inherent part of our entertainment schedule, but back then, they were this new creepy thing. I thought this was a great way to parody that, and also to comment on the horrendous year that we’d had. Jon Lovitz was the breakout, the one guy everybody could agree on. There were other people who were very successful, though, like Dennis Miller and Nora Dunn. I think those were the people who were especially incensed. Dennis was mad at me, but after the show, he gave me a hug and apologized. He understood that I was just trying to not get fired, by making it as funny as I could. I almost did get fired that summer… I’m still not sure why I was rehired. I think it’s because certain people like Lovitz and Miller and A. Whitney Brown spoke up for me. They were a few people who’d had some success and were in Lorne’s trusted circle at that point. It was a very narrow circle after that year. The second year, I was much more successful, and I didn’t have to worry about it after that.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Smigel would later go on to save Sketch comedy, cartoons for adults that don’t say D’OH, and Conan O’Brien’s career.
MICK JAGGER MEETS THE LIAR – If a person with a coolness caliber like Sir Mick is willing to show up during an otherwise dismal year, the show HAS To be doing something right. Yeah, his acting could still use some fine tuning, but he plays off of Lovitz pretty decently here.
THE SPECIAL GUESTS – (NOTE TO SELF: In the future, do a commentary about the lost art of the “Guest Performer”) Penn & Teller were my Favorite “Special Guests” during this year, but Sam Kinison & Steven Wright are a close tie for 2nd place. Sam yelling his harsh truths to all of us, while Steven’s monotone cools it down. It’s like a comedic Yin & Yang.
THE TITLE SEQUENCE – Gotta put my “Art Snob” hat on one more time…Let’s just ignore the first few weeks where all they had were lifeless static pictures, and instead focus on one of only 2 times in the show’s history where it felt like the Opening Montage was actually a story being told. Granted, the “Story” of a Limo getting from Point A to Point B while bumping into cast members wasn’t exactly riveting, but at least there was a sense of “Hey, How ‘ya doing, I’ll meet you there in a minute!” when encountering the cast. Almost 20 years later, they would eventually get the “Story” part right. (EDIT 7/14/2017: As you can see, the video as well as the below links have been removed; this is because of NBComcast’s long standing fear that they lose 3 cents in profits if–God Forbid– a couple seconds of Archival footage is ever shown elsewhere but their own website or “Official” Youtube Channels…Go figure.)
Once again, I urge you to take another look at the AV Club for a more in-depth look at the year that was. Otherwise, the evidence is pretty clear—Yes, the show at that point was a largely unmitigated disaster, but just like Season 6, the seeds of eventual goodness were there…they just needed a more fertile ground to grow. So by 1986—after convincing NBC President Brandon Tartikoff for another chance—the show pretty much became what it has been ever since, a mainstream but still entertaining breeding ground for talent and actual humor where there was a lot less experimenting going on, and a lot more of the tried & true. And for a good, long stretch of time, the Tried & True continued to work…until one year in the mid-90s, when it stopped working altogether and the show was almost rendered immobile because of it…
NEXT WEEK: In the world of Television, 20 years old = Mid Life Crisis