Mid Life Crisis: The Top 8 Silver Linings of SNL Season 20

As I mentioned yonder, I became a fan of SNL during a time (arguably) Darker than 1980 or 1985—I give you…Season 20.

SEASON 20_LOGO

A lot of people tend to say that certain seasons are bad for a number of reasons, but there’s always something close by to help defend it. Season 6’s excuse was that it was the first “New” cast after the hallowed originals left; Season 11’s excuse was that Lorne & Co were trying to get back on their feet again after being away for such a long time. Season 20 should’ve had NO excuse for sucking as bad as it did—it was an “Anniversary” season, many of the people on the show were on the cusp of becoming superstars, and it was still a place where people tuned in on a Saturday night………But then about mid-way through the season, THIS article popped up in New York Magazine pretty much telling us what we either feared to hear or were too blind to notice—that not all was well in studio 8H due to widespread creative burnout, a burnout that ironically shone like a neon light as the season progressed (Of course, having certain cast members rebel over how bad things were doesn’t help either). Episodes hosted by Sarah Jessica Parker, George Foreman, Deion Sanders, Paul Reiser & Bob Saget would perennially make the lists of “Worst Episodes of All Time”, and sketches that would appear in other episodes would be so maligned that it wound up taking down otherwise “Good” episodes…which—oddly enough—the same could be said about the recent Season 40.

 

A Long time ago at a message board far, far away, I had jokingly started a Checklist that compared the worst of season 20 with the worst of season 40…Little did I realize just how close the comparisons would be (WARNING: I’m about to get a little “Conspiracy Theory-y” here, so bear with me. X’s means “Check”, BTW)…

 

*Awkward First Show (Steve Martin in ’94 Vs. Chris Pratt in ’14) [X]

*Forgettable 2nd Show (Marissa Tomei  V. Sarah Silverman) [X]

*Slightly Better 3rd Show (John Travolta/Bill Hader) [X]

*Enjoyable 4th Show (Dana Carvey/Jim Carrey) [X]

*REALLY Bad 5th Show (Sarah Jessica Parker/Chris Rock) [X]

*A string of shows in a row that are just “Meh” save for at least One or two Good sketches [X]

*An INCREDIBLY Disappointing Christmas Show (Amy Adams/George Forman) [X]

*Passing of a Crew Member (Pardo in ‘14, a stage manager in ’94) [X]

*Passing of a Former Performer in the Middle of a Show Week (Jan Hooks in ‘14, Mr. Mike in ’94) [X]

*New Montage/Theme music/Logo adjustment [X]

*New Update Anchor(s) (Norm Vs. Che & Jost) [X]

*New Update Set [X]

*New Cast Member(s) debuting in “Update” commentaries (Laura Kightlinger Vs. Pete Davidson) [X]

*Update itself being the Sole Highlight most of the time after warming up to the audience a little [X]

*Sketches that worked one time only getting an unnecessary sequel (Buh Bye & Puppetry Class)[X]

*A Sketch involving Charles Manson…  (unfortunately) [X]

*A Sketch involving sex offending…(*DEJECTED SIGH*) [X]

*A sketch involving the goings on at an advertising agency (Not once, but Twice) [X]

*A sketch involving Boxing (To be fair, The Mayweather/Pacquiao sketch is miles better than the entire COMBINED 90 minutes[w/commercials] of George Foreman’s show) [X]

*An AWFUL Show in the month of May (Bob Saget/Scarlett Johannsen) [X]

*The Republicans take the House & Senate…but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence [X]

*Same goes for the Ebola Virus breaking loose…again [X]

…And a few others I may have left out/forgotten, but this alone proves my point; for every ebb, there’s a flow…even if it takes 20 years for another ebb to occur. Yes, Season 20 was one of those years in hindsight; but considering this was the first time I was fully exposed to the show on a regular basis (and in keeping with the other lists), it’s pretty easy to look back not in anger, but in wondering if certain things were really that bad to begin with. That said, for this Particular list, do not be surprised in the slightest that the items will be judged with Bias at Critical Mass. There honestly were a lot of things I enjoyed about this year, and probably Still enjoy thanks to hindsight. So since Season 6 had 6 things worth mentioning, and Season 11 had 7, this list is going to feature 8 of them that—as usual—disqualify the obvious. Yes, Norm MacDonald practically saved the day when he took over for “Update”, but it’s still an ensemble show that no one person could carry by himself. At the same time (and this might come as a shock to some of you), I’m also disqualifying the ENTIRETY of Dana Carvey’s episode—NOT because I WANT To, but because there are times when even Personal Bias has its limits. Carvey’s show was the Very First episode of SNL I had ever seen in its entirety, and it holds TOO special a place in the comedy section of my brain in order for it to be ranked on this list. Trust me, it remains a great episode in hindsight, but including it here would actually be unfair to other moments I/we may have ignored. That said, let’s take a look…

 

 

SEASON 20_MIKE

  1. BILL MURRAY DRINKS A SOILED KIMONO – Although the death of a charter member of the show hardly counts as a positive “highlight” (not to mention it happening during the making of a highly vilified episode), it was still important to acknowledge Michael O’Donoghue’s contributions to the show; even if it was in just one sketch. Bill comes on briefly (and THANKFULLY without the use of the Applause light) to introduce the sketch with an intro that only Mr. Mike would pen from beyond the grave (we think). We then get to see the classic 1977 “Least Loved Bedtime Tale” where Laraine sings the aria to Madam Butterfly while Mr. Mike makes the fabled “Soiled Kimono”. While all of that’s going on, we get two crawls; one showing us how to make the drink, and another explaining the drink’s rather dark origin…then again, “Dark” was par for the course in O’Donoghue’s work. Bill then toasts Mike (and also wife/co-musical director Cheryl Hardwick), sipping the soiled kimono in the process. If he were alive to see the entire season, I’m sure Mr. Mike would’ve said it “Sucked Rubber Donkey Lungs”; but deep down even though he probably wouldn’t give two shits, he still would’ve hoped it got better in his own “Prince of Darkness” way.

SEASON 20_SKITTLES

  1. JAY MOHR – If it weren’t for a certain incident he talked about in his book “Gasping for Airtime”, I’d actually have him further up the list—but for the sake of keeping it a happy place, we’re not going to talk about that. Otherwise, Mohr’s tenure on the show could probably be summed up in two glorious words…Christopher Walken. A lot of people thought that his “Psychic Friends” sketches were awkward & off-putting, but then again so can the actual Walken at times—perhaps that was the point. And lest we forget about the cult classic “Skittles” sketch (A sketch which, BTW, Lorne gave Mohr flak for because—heaven forbid—he didn’t do it fast enough)? Apart from that, “Good Morning Brooklyn” MIGHT’VE been the Sole highlight of the SJP show if it weren’t for Mr. Mike (In fact, when they did it again on the Courtney Cox episode, it improved somewhat). He also tried to be himself a couple of times, most notably in a “Sports Bloopers” segment on Update where the Bloopers seem very un-blooper like. Mohr’s last hurrah came on the last show of the year where he played a Rocker Real Estate agent that I–at the enlightened age of 10 years old–always assumed was an impression of that night’s musical guest, Rod Stewart. Ignoring the “Rick Shapiro” controversy, Mohr still belongs somewhere in the Top 10 of people who deserved better on the show.

SEASON 20_JAPAN

  1. THE JAPANESE GAME SHOW SKETCH – Right about now, you’re ready to throw sharp objects at me for putting an obvious classic this low on the list…and you may be right, But hear me out. Yes, the sketch IS a comedy classic, and is probably the last hurrah for both Mike Myers & Chris Farley as cast members. But when you factor in “The Law of Diminishing Returns” by having this sketch not only play over & over on other people’s “Best Of” reels, but also acting as one of the sole highlights of the year, the value of the sketch’s humor will eventually peter out. It’s still gonna be funny, but…seriously, how many times do we need to see Farley’s Junk get electrocuted? Again, don’t want to take anything away from something legitimately funny, but truthfully & honestly, Farley was Much better in a sketch like…

SEASON 20_NEWT

  1. IT’S A WONDERFUL NEWT – In All the years & instances of Political Satire SNL had to offer us, this sketch has somehow become the Black Sheep of the genre (Pun Probably intended since Farley is involved). As a Kid, I honestly didn’t know/care about the subject matter back then. I just thought Farley freaking out over what’s happening was the funny part—that and (Host) John Tuturro’s Nixon impression, but then again ANY Nixon impression can make me laugh. Later on as I developed into an adult, I took a look at this sketch again and I realized that this might’ve been one of the sharpest pieces of political satire NOBODY ever talks about, highlighting just how awful a person the Real Gingrich is (Unless you live in the South where he’s still—somehow—beloved). In fact, pending the outcome of the upcoming election this sketch could very well become timeless–especially if Hillary wins. The ending was a little awkward, but In a season that was actually light on Political humor, this sketch can easily hold its own.

SEASON 20_ELLIOTT

  1. CHRIS ELLIOTT “LEAVES THE SHOW” AFTER “10 YEARS” – When quoted in “Shales/Miller” about his rough year on the show, Chris Elliott points to this sketch about a Penis Measuring Device at the newly opened Denver Airport as the Only one he did that felt “Letterman-esque”…and it shows. Nothing about this one made a lick of sense…And when Elliott decided to stop the sketch mid-way through and “Leave the show” after “10 years” in order to build the Penis Measuring Device somewhere in the desert, it made even less sense….And then when the sketch suddenly turned black & white, Elliott wound up in handcuffs and was THEN shot dead by Jack Ruby while “A Horse with no Name” by America plays in the background, any chance of it making further sense drove right off a cliff Toonces-style……And YET, this sketch can be appreciated now for just how bizarre it was. Unfortunately, because of how sub-par the rest of the year was in comparison, it may have been too easy for a sketch like this to blend in with all the others.

SEASON 20_BEASTIES 2

  1. REALLY GOOD MUSIC – Yeah, I know listing the musical guests is a crutch…again…and one’s tastes in music during any given time frame can be highly subjective…but c’mon, this was one of the all-time biggest years for pop & rock (ESPECIALLY the alt rock scene that reached critical mass by this point). The fact that a mix of old & new acts like R.E.M., Green Day, Dave Matthews Band, TLC, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, Annie Lennox, Seal, Tom Petty, Edie Brickell, Paul Simon, and the motherfuckin’ BEASTIE BOYS said yes to appearing on the show this year—even with all that was going on–was either a sign that people needed to tune in for something, or the fact that they were willing to put their careers on the line to appear on something that looked to be “On the skids” at that moment. Even “One Hit Wonder”/Indie acts like Des’ree, Dionne Farris, The Cranberries, Live and Luscious Jackson were better than the comedy most nights…and that’s saying a LOT. I never cared for “Hole” though, partly because I prefer Courtney Love the Actress instead of Courtney Love the Banshee screamer. Also, I never did get “The Tragically Hip”, but since they just played their Final Concert due to front-man medical reasons, I’ll give ‘em a pity pass. Regardless, this was not only SNL’s best year of music, but for a lot of us “90s kids” (myself included) the music turned out to be the soundtrack of our formative years.

 

Blues Brothers 2000

  1. KEEPING THE SPIRIT OF JOLIET JAKE ALIVE – Once again, I was 10 years old when this happened, so at the time I couldn’t appreciate the value of something as awesome as “The Blues Brothers” without actually knowing who they were at that age. That being said, John Goodman officially became “Mighty Mack” the night he hosted in March 1995, and he introduced Aykroyd’s Elwood with such eloquence that once they got into “Flip, Flop & Fly”, it felt like a much needed shot of adrenaline (Even going so far as to get “Blue” Lou Marini to make a guest appearance on Sax). Some may mistake this as Pandering to fans of the vintage years; but at the rate things were going, it was OK for the Nostalgia Goggles to be fastened a little tighter in this case. Come to think of it, Goodman’s episode in General was pretty solid as well…largely thanks to Aykroyd bringing back the heavyweights for One Night Only—Bob Dole, Tom Snyder, Robert Stack, Irwin Mainway WITH The Superfans, etc. And yes, even the “Penis Measuring” sketch came from that same episode as well…So you know what, let’s just say Elwood & Mighty Mack are “Highlight 2-A”, and just declare The Whole Goodman episode as “#2 Proper”.

 

 

And the #1 Thing about Season 20 that Didn’t Suck was……

SEASON 20_JANEANE

  1. JANEANE GAROFALO BLOWING THE WHISTLE – In the Shales/Miller book; around the time of the Fallon/Fey era of “Update”, Garafalo could be quoted in saying “The place has undergone an exorcism since I Left”. Of course it has, she at least supplied the Holy Water. Whenever an already established comic personality tries to become a part of SNL’s infrastructure, one of the following things can happen; Either you’re only there for a year but you make the most of your time (coughcough…STEINBRENNER SEASON…coughcough), You’re there for a year but then decide to leave because you think you’re better than everybody (cougcough…CHEVY…coughcough), Or you’re there for only half a year and you leave simply because you actually have the brains and the courage to point out that the smiles on everybody’s face is all part of a decaying façade…and that’s Exactly what Garofalo did. Yes, her publicly protesting how bad the show became a black eye that she inflicted; but if you think about it, if she didn’t bring the volatility of the show to people’s attention (particularly those in the media), the ’95-’96 overhaul would probably NEVER have happened, and any one of these shows on this Splitsider list could’ve Moved to NBC @ 11:30 after a few “training” years on FOX. Much like a certain slip of the tongue triggered a chain of events that ultimately saved the show the first time in ’81, Garofalo’s lamenting on poor writing, poor work ethics, a “boys club” mentality in overdrive, occasional homophobia, and the all-around sense that “nobody cares” pretty much accomplished the same thing. For her “efforts”, let’s call her the “Anti-Hero” for Season 20, the mirror with a crack that Lorne & NBC had to force themselves to look in….Also, I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that Janeane was probably one of my first Celebrity Crushes….her AND Christina Ricci…what can I say, I have a thing for tart-tongued brunettes.

 

 

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

 

 

THE CHANUKAH SONG – It probably goes beyond the realm of hyperbole to say that this one song out of the (seeming) dozens Adam Sandler did during his run as a cast member was the one that lit the fuse for him to become a superstar. And since “Update” was the only part of the show worth watching at that point, Sandler’s song suddenly commanded a lot of attention. The rest is history.

DAMON’S RETURN – I’ve already mentioned several sketches from this show this week ALONE (including some on this Very list), but it bears repeating that Wayans coming back to host in April of ’95 was a sure sign that “All is Forgiven”.

REPLACEMENT BASEBALL – Proving once again that “Filmed > Live” time & again (unless you’re Bruce McCullough), I recall this being a pretty solid parody of the Ken Burns documentary that probably went over the heads of everybody else watching anyway.

THE POLAR BEAR SKETCH – I’ll be honest, this was a lot more “Funny Strange” than “Funny Ha-Ha” (BTW, Another sketch which we’ll THANKFULLY Skip), but for many Other fans, this would be the last time we’d see Farley, Sandler, Mohr, Tim Meadows & Norm Together on the show, thus marking a rather Violent end for the “Bad Boys” era. So….I Guess it’s Poignant in a way?

HIRING MOLLY SHANNON – Granted, she would become far more annoying as the years went by, but you could tell she hit the ground running in even the most bit of parts…Like helping Clooney take out Tom Davis’ Liver. Speaking of Which…

LANDING GEORGE CLOONEY BEFORE HE GOT TOO FAMOUS – His episode wasn’t that great (except for the monologue…and The Cranberries), but I’d still Call it the best case of good timing & luck the show had at that point. Sort of like “Discovering” Robert DeNiro before Scorsese ever did.

 
SEASON 20_CAST 1

Blah, blah, blah, AV Club, you know the drill (In fact, read that AND the “New York” article at the top as well)…SNL eventually got out of its mid-life crisis by doing the one thing people in mid-life crisis’ do best…Totally overhaul itself to the point of being an almost completely different entity in an effort to eliminate the flaws that were hurting it & the people it affected. Gone were the well-established but burnt out cast members; In came Brewer, Ferrell & Hammond, a few “One & Done’s” that deserved better in the form of Koechner & Walls, the rise of Molly & Norm, the Renaissance of Meadows, and even David Spade staying behind just to be that cast’s reluctant pillar of continuity. Gone were the Writers who—with Jim Downey at the Helm—pumped out sub-par sketches for the sake of a paycheck; In came Steve Higgins, fresh off “The Jon Stewart Show” and able to turn the remaining writers into a well-oiled machine again. Gone (unfortunately) was director Dave Wilson—though I still think he left or retired by his own choosing; In came Beth McCarthy Miller, who in her 10 year run added some fresh perspectives in scene blocking. Gone (also unfortunately) was G.E. Smith, Still one of the Top 10 people ever to Sling a Guitar; In came…nobody, though Cheryl Hardwick, Lenny Pickett & Leon Pendarvis continued to run the band with expert precision.

 

Most importantly, Gone was the Lorne that simply went through the motions while holding his glass of White wine…at least for a little while. For the ’95-’96 Season, he briefly dropped the “Executive” from his Producer title (something he did one other time during Season 12) and he did his damnedest to keep everything on track once again by becoming more hands-on in the creative process just like he did in the first 5 years. In fact, one of the most important things Lorne (or possibly NBC) did during the summer was put on two separate month-long blocks of “Best Of” shows from the 2nd Golden Era (’86-’90 during the summer reruns, ’90-’94 later during the fall as MadTV was starting up) that helped remind people once again why the show was worth watching……Which really makes you wonder just how long it’s going to take Lorne to write that Thank You Note to Dick Ebersol considering Ebersol practically did the same thing when the show was in trouble the first time in ‘81. Anyway, the show has seen its fair share of highs & lows Since 1995; but even on nights when the show is clearly not worth watching, there’s now more of a post-mortem damage control as to how to avoid those mistakes the following week; more often than not, the mistakes wind up correcting themselves—Even quicker these days in the wake of social media & instant gratification. It’s safe to say that after the peril of Season 20, Lorne & Co—for the most part—has learned their lesson, yet they still have a lot of learning to do.

 

Now then, after 3 weeks of talking about the WORST of SNL to counteract with the positivity of the regular S.O.S.N.L sketches; NEXT WEEK I want to shift gears and talk about something High Brow but still pertains to the show…so get ready to put on your Mortarboard (look it up) because we’re going to dive DEEP. Stay Tuned.

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14 thoughts on “Mid Life Crisis: The Top 8 Silver Linings of SNL Season 20

  1. Joe says:

    I’d like to add a consideration for honorable mention: The Daily Affirmation sketches in Season 20 (in my opinion) were of equal quality with those from prior years, and the Michael Jackson-Lisa Marie Presley sketch and the final sketch with Stuart commenting on the box-office failure of “Stuart Saves His Family” were particularly topical and funny.

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    • Usefully Useless Info says:

      As much as I wanted to include Stuart Smalley, this was kind of the period where Franken was growing bitter on the show. First, he was passed over in favor of Norm for the “Update” chair, then the Stuart Smalley movie Bombed, which led to a more bitter response in the sketch you mentioned. But perhaps the biggest mark of Franken’s bitterness was when he wrote a sketch called “America’s Funniest Hate Videos” in the Bob Saget Episode. That–I feel–might’ve been Franken’s definitive signal to the brass at NBC that he was “Getting too old for this shit”.

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  2. Sam Weisberg says:

    We must be about the same age because I also started watching the show regularly during this season and could tell, even without reading about backstage drama until much later, that the cast wasn’t clicking. And even After reading countless material about that season –excerpts from “live from New York: an oral history,” the Chris Farley oral history, jay mohr and Laura kightlingers books, the ny magazine takedown, etc–I still have many fascinations with/misunderstanding about that season. I enjoyed your in depth article and wanted to show you something similar I wrote on my blog nearly a decade ago and get your take: http://burlyprotector.livejournal.com/42250.htm ..:maybe you know some of the answers!!

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    • Usefully Useless Info says:

      And now that I’ve read the article, I gotta say that that’s a compelling counterpoint…Though I also gotta say that the conclusion that claims she “(stood) in a corner and insult everything” might be a little thin. After all, she was a well-established comedienne by the time she joined the show, and on the outset (or at least according to Shales/Miller) it seemed as though she WANTED to be a part of the show, but ultimately went through a certain level of “Buyer’s Remorse” once she did. She saw what was wrong with everything and did something about it when nobody else would, as you should–if things were too stagnant for too long, there would never be any room for growth, and that’s true in just about ANY walk of life.

      Also, that bit about Cleghorne & Kightlinger going against her half-surprised me. The half of surprise going to Kightlinger, partly because she & Garofalo were part of the “Alternative Comedy Scene” in the Early 90s and you normally don’t go against one of your own (unless they actually hated each other…which I can’t prove, unfortunately). Cleghorne was already an established cast member by that time, so her protesting MIGHT make more sense; but like you said, those claims need verification.

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  3. Sam Weisberg says:

    there isn’t any proof of Kightlinger/Cleghorne ganging up against her. I saw one article that claimed that but nothing else, and in Kightlinger’s book, there’s one chapter that indicates they were friends. so it’s just an unproven theory i want to get to the bottom of.

    the “stand in a corner” testimony came from people that critiqued her in “Live from New York” (Fred Wolf, James Downey) and elsewhere (Jay Mohr in his book, and I think Spade was interviewed around the time she left, saying he wished she didn’t keep badmouthing the show after promising she wouldn’t.) i’ve just never seen anyone directly ask her if she stayed up all night trying to get skits on the air, trying active to make changes and keep things funny.

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