A Brief (Yeah, Right!) History of SNL “Special Guests”

First thing’s first…Yes, I Know, I’m Late. Trying to do actual blog-related things on a Holiday weekend (in addition to work at my actual job) is about as possible as Trump picking fair & balanced members for his cabinet. I tend to turn the “busy switch” towards the hyperdrive position during the holidays, so I hope you can forgive me for falling a little behind this week. Second, in the midst of all of my Holiday related hoopla, I missed last week’s “Vintage” (Which according to some sources was 1989’s Woody Harrelson/David Byrne episode—so a sketch from that show & whatever the next one is will be forthcoming after I’m done with this). Third (and more importantly), when I started writing about this, I had no idea that the Rabbit Hole would be SO Deep, so apologies also for taking my time on this—just wanted to make sure I got everything right. So with my excuses out of the way, let’s begin this long awaited editorial with a simple question:

 

How does one go from this…

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…to This…

 

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…Over the course of several decades?

 

Well, there’s not really an easy (or short) answer to this question—even if you spend a lot of your free time going through old episodes of a television monolith to try to figure out the evolutionary steps that lead to this point; but lord willing, we’re going to try to do that this week. Long before SNL became the show that it now is, it was coined as a “Late Night Variety Show”—though to a certain respect, it sort of still is. Of course, you have to understand that back in the 1970s (and earlier), the term “Variety Show” had a completely different connotation than it does now. While THAT subject is a little too complex to discuss here, the best way I can sum up just how cheesy these shows were back then is by showing you a parody of one instead; take it, Dewey Cox…

Anyway when SNL started, despite how “revolutionary” the show was, it was still pretty much the old-school definition of a “Variety” show, only without hokey musical numbers (Bizarrely, with the exception of “King Tut”, hokey wouldn’t happen until decades later). The show would have a host and a musical guest as most variety shows did; But at the same time, there would be additional people included in the mix—Those would be the “Special Guests”; guest performers (or in some cases, dignitaries) who would earn—what I would like to call—Opening Credit Real Estate (or “OCRE” for short); they’d be listed and announced by Don Pardo among the host & musical guest as a part of the show, even if they only appeared in one sketch–unlike an “Unbilled Cameo”, which I will get to later. This week, since it’s the time of year where we welcome guests into our home for the holidays, we’re going to take a look at the Special Guests (and Other Secondary Acts) that have appeared on the show during (at least) the first half of the show’s lifetime, and how despite the fact some people appear more frequently than usual these days, those appearances are not considered “Special” anymore.

 

I was debating to myself whether or not this should be a formal “countdown” list, because truthfully & honestly there’s only ONE G.O.A.T. “Special Guest” who ever appeared on the show; and hands down without any additional discussion, that’s THIS GUY…

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Andy Kaufman would maintain a regular presence on the show during the first 5 years—as well as a small but fractious presence during the Ebersol Years. Between his Pre-Latka “Foreign Man”, his Elvis impression (Starting at the 2 minute mark), his inter-gender wrestling, and his frequent annoyance of the audience for the sake of comedy, Kaufman is pretty much the embodiment of what gave SNL it’s “Variety” label back then—as opposed to now where it’s just a straight up “comedy” show with some music thrown into it. Despite its inaccuracies, “Man on the Moon” remains a decent enough primer on Kaufman’s life; that, and SEVERAL books former partner Bob Zmuda wrote about him in recent years…Loving tribute, or cheap cash-in? You be the judge! So, since I’ve already revealed my number one to you, what do we do to fill up space for the rest of the story? What we’re going to do this week is something a little different—we’re going to present to you more of a chronological “Evolution” of the Special Guest over the first half of the show’s history (1975-1998). Why that period, and why stop at 1998? You’ll find out when we get there (if the opening question didn’t spoil anything for you first). With that said, let’s take a look at some of the more “Influential” (at least to me) and well known special guests the show had—and apologies in advance if I left out some of your favorites…

 

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ALBERT BROOKS (1975-76) – In the show’s early planning stages, Albert Brooks came on board to do a series of short films to help pad out the show. What resulted were films that were certainly funny, but Boy were they time consuming—some films encompassing two whole segments of the show. This led to a disagreement between Brooks & Lorne, and the films were eventually scrapped mid-way through the first season. In Shales/Miller, and in certain SNL documentaries, Brooks looks back on the experience in a bittersweet way—On the one hand, he wishes things worked out better for his films, but at the same time he concedes that the films acted as a “Booster Rocket” so that the show can eventually gain some traction.

 

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THE MUPPETS (1975-76) – Unlike Brooks who had the best of intentions, Jim Henson’s Muppets probably stuck out the most like a sore thumb during those first episodes. Then & now, these “Adult” Muppets from “The Land of Gorch” simply didn’t fit in with the rest of the show, and the cast & crew pretty much telegraphed that sentiment—perhaps none more vocally than writer Michael O’Donoghue who famously retorted “I won’t Work for Felt”, as well as hanging a plush Big Bird doll using the strings from an office curtain. It wasn’t easy to get rid of the Muppets considering another kind of Puppet Master pulled the strings—Longtime talent manager Bernie Brillstein was responsible not just for the Muppets, but for Lorne and (eventually) part of the cast, so perhaps he thought of this as a “Two Birds/One Stone” theory to test out (That, and the show Desperately needed content in those early days before the rest of the cast came into their own). The Muppets became so out of place that they were eventually exiled to a storage closet at the beginning of Season 2; but in passing decades, the REAL Muppets would come on the show from time to time, and even reference their brief year on the show with good humor. By then the message was clear; the world simply wasn’t ready for “Adult” Muppets……….and clearly, we’re Still not.

 

THE “PRE-FEATURED’S” (1975-1979) – As much as this is about the “Special” guests; without them, there would be no Featured players. The term “Featured Player” didn’t come into Official use until Season 5 when Aykroyd & Belushi left, and they were trying to figure out how to squeeze in Harry Shearer—In fact; on some of his first shows, he was so out of the loop that Pardo actually credited him as “A Little of Harry Shearer”…awkward. So until that time came, any semi-regular performer who also happen to work on a regular basis (mostly as a writer) was given the “Special” treatment. People like Michael O’Donoghue under his “Mr. Mike” banner, Don Novello unleashing “Father Guido Sarducci” onto the world, and a Future Senator and his dearly departed writing partner. Everybody had their own distinctive identity—O’Donoghue  (Who for a Very brief period during the first season was actually listed among the regular cast) would invoke his “Prince of Darkness” cred by giving us the occasional “Least Loved Bedtime tale” and his signature “Steel Needles” routine. F&D’s bits ranged from the subversive to the perverted, but they present their bits as though they are an old-school Vaudeville team at times. As for Sarducci, It marked one of the first times (if not The First) when religion was openly mocked in a rather passive-aggressive way on Network Television. Sure, there have been various parodies of priests, evangelists and other figures in the past on other shows; but this may have been the first time religion was flat-out sniped with poison darts…and the audience ate it up. I’d like to think that if it weren’t for Novello & his reports, Religion wouldn’t be such an open target for ridicule today. Yay, I guess? Of the 4, Two are now deceased, one is a Senator, and the other is pretty much Retired from showbiz despite popping up here & there.

 

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MICHAEL DAVIS (1981-1983) – The next few entries are here as a representation of how much more friendly the show was when it came to up & coming comedians & performers in the 80s—Especially during the Ebersol years when they were (once again) desperate for content until a new cast came into their own. For those who don’t remember, Michael Davis was (or “is”, last I checked he’s still alive) a professional juggler. Every time he came on the show, he upped the ante as to how insane the juggling trick could be—all while maintaining a slight sense of self-deprecation. He seems like an OK guy, but juggling might’ve been a little too childish for SNL…probably would’ve worked better on Johnny Carson instead.

 

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HARRY ANDERSON (1981-1985) – “Harry the Hat” was probably the most successful Guest performer on the show during the 80s (and considering the next few names on the list, that’s saying a lot), And all because of a few magic tricks that bordered on the absurd—Tricks that ultimately got him his own sitcom, as well as a “Victory Lap” hosting appearance in 1985. My favorite appearance of his remains this one in 1982 when he tries to run afoul of an audience member…only for the audience member to give Harry the last laugh.

 

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JOEL HODGSON (1983-1984) – Yes, THAT Joel Hodgson. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was more of a fan of the Mike Nelson years of MST3K, so I had little to no knowledge of Joel’s existence even though his name appears boldly in the credits as the show’s creator. Be that as it may, to show how clearly out of the loop I was back then, I also had NO IDEA that he & the Joel Hodgson I saw on a 3AM SNL rerun years ago were one in the same (Read this, and other revelations in my new book entitled “I’m an Idiot, Too!”—Christie Brinkley is helping me co-author that one). Anyway, Joel made a few appearances on SNL during Season 9…one of which involved an honest to God Bomb Scare with the NYPD. The Joel we see here seems more sedated than what he would eventually show us on MST3K—then again, that’s like comparing Lithium with Vicodin.

 

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STEVEN WRIGHT & SAM KINISON (1983-1986) – I put both of these comedy icons in the same breath because…well…they’re both icons—even if both of them appear on complete Opposite ends of the spectrum. Between Wright’s monotone & Kinison’s abrasiveness, you actually wind up with perfect balance—of course, Sam wound up getting the greater reward by hosting in 1986 despite some censoring challenges from the network. Wright’s brand of humor is more of a “slow boil”; it takes a little time to fully “Get” him; but after a while, you do and you love him for it. SNL deserves a lot of credit for being a “Launch Pad” for its cast members, but that praise should also include their guest performers; especially in this case. Unfortunately, these two also represent the last significant gasp of what it meant to be a “Special Guest” back in the day. As time marches on, the credit became less about breaking new talent, and more about filling gaps in the cast…

 

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JAN HOOKS (1992-1994) – It pains me that the SNL fansite I keep alluding to has shut down; because a couple of years ago, I had written a eulogy for the legendary performer that—unfortunately—has been lost to the mists of time, and I never saved a copy of. Be that as it may, Jan Hooks was not only a clutch performer as a cast member, but she also helped patch up many leaks when she would periodically return to the show as a Special Guest in the last 2 years of (what I call) “The Silver Age” of the show. Originally leaving in 1991 to appear in the final season of “Designing Women”, Hooks came back from time to time to play certain parts that only Jan could play—whether it be as the original Hillary Clinton, or a repentant Sinead O’Connor, or even Mary Jo Buttafuoco as a willing pawn in an infomercial (among other roles). Then again, maybe Hooks showed up because there was only so much Julia Sweeney could do in a given week…that, and NOBODY wanted to see Melanie Hutsell play the first lady (Oh, don’t worry, I’ll get to HER soon enough). Anyway, Jan seemed more than happy to lend a hand—so frequently, however, that I’m surprised she wasn’t re-listed in the main cast (Hell, I’m sure her screen shot from the 1990-94 montage was still available to use—waste not, whatnot).

 

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DAN AYKROYD (1995, 1998) – Not just a charter cast member, but literally the “First” cast member…First to be credited alphabetically that is (until Fred Armisen came along years later). To say how much Aykroyd helped out other casts over the years is a story within itself, but those appearances were largely unbilled cameos. Twice on the show, however, he was billed as a “Special Guest”; and as it happens, Twice was with John Goodman hosting. I already mentioned his 1995 rescue mission on the Season 20 analysis, so I won’t bore you too much with the details. His next appearance in 1998 was a little more prolific—partly because he & Goodman embarked on another kind of Rescue mission…getting people to actually pay for a ticket to see “Blues Brothers 2000”. While that turned out to be a futile effort, Aykroyd wound up appearing in half of the episode (as he also did in ’95). He gave the next generation a boost, because that’s what Family does.

 

SNL 40th Anniversary Special - 2015

PENNY MARSHALL (1975, 1977, 1996) – If you ever get the chance to watch any of Kenneth Bowser’s SNL “Decade” documentaries (or at least the 3 out of 5 of them that are actually available on DVD), you’ll see a number of interview blurbs from people who Barely had any connection to the show—I don’t mean One-season Wonders like Gottfried & Silverman, I mean people who were BARELY a part of the show. With all due respect, Penny Marshall was one of these people. Sure, she gave her (then) hubby Rob Reiner a boost when he hosted episode 3; She was one of the few people who made the infamous “Mardi Gras” episode worth watching; and thanks to teaming up with Donald Trump’s favorite punching bag in those commercials for Kmart (as well as directing a movie with Whitney Houston in it), she had a much bigger presence in 1996. Still though, 3 episodes can warrant an appearance in a tell-all documentary AND the Shales/Miller Book? It’s a shame brother Garry died, otherwise I’d be questioning the Hell out of this………………with All Due Respect.

 

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TENACIOUS D (1998) – The 1997-1998 season of the show was a strange one; but among the strangeness was perhaps oddest tidbit of all, this was the period where (at certain times) there was only One musical performance per episode instead of the usual two…happening AFTER “Update”, no less (NOTE TO SELF: Sometime in the future, a list of the other things about 1997-98 that Sucked). So with that gap to fill, this was the last Full season where the “Special Guest” credit was invoked—Though not as frequently as years past. We mentioned Aykroyd teaming up with Goodman (again), but also people like Robert Duvall, Bob Hoskins & John Hurt were included this year as well…and Then, there was “Tenacious D”—a group that (at the enlightened age of 13 years old) I honestly had no idea what to make of; but a few years later when Jack Black became a superstar, they suddenly made all the sense in the world. Before becoming an Official Musical Guest in 2006, He & Kyle Gass appeared on the next to last show of the season with host Mathew “That’s a Lot of Fish” Broderick, and they performed a mini-medley of songs that would eventually wind up on their self-titled 2002 album (Ah, That explains the screencap!)….but since this was network television (as opposed to their mini-series they had on HBO at the time), the lyrics were neutered worse than Dogs by a Blind Vet. It was a strange performance at the time, but this was probably the Last time on the show that there was an authentic “Variety” act worthy of the Ebersol years, or even that of Kaufman’s caliber.

 

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SHAQUILLE O’NEAL (1998) – This brings us to the end of our evolutionary chain, as Shaq earns the dubious honor of being the very last person to be credited as a “Special Guest” in the opening credits. But dubious as that piece of Trivia may be, he still played well with the rest of the cast—particularly opposite Tracy in the classic “Big Bernard” sketch. Sure, Shaq was mugging into the camera for most of it; but unlike Milton Berle who did it on purpose, Shaq was simply having fun with the notion that Tracy would take him over his knee and discipline him despite the stark difference in size between the two. Shaq also appeared in a “Morning Latte” sketch, as well as a Cut for Time sketch where we see him protecting Will Ferrell in the style of a 1980s Afterschool special where the big, strong kid protects the weaker kid from being bullied (A sketch that USED To be on Funny or Die’s website, but it has since been removed). To this day, I have no idea how or why he was paired with (Host) Kelsey Grammer; but for whatever reason, Shaq’s goofiness was worth the price of admission.

 

Ever since 1998, cameos seem a little more lax in their dignity—Simply put, How come people who put in the rounds of an extended cameo or two don’t get the same dignity now that the people of 1975-1998 got? Have times simply changed? Is it a union/pay scale rule? Do the stars simply decline the credit and just go on as a favor to Lorne? What Gives? Take for example, all the times Tina Fey came on as Sarah Palin week after week. If Jan Hooks could get a Special Guest credit for pretty much appearing in one sketch per show over 2 years, how come Tina doesn’t get the same designation? Same goes for Alec Baldwin—who, as of this writing, may look to be coming on a little more frequently to play Captain Combover—He’s been a part of the show for years, and NBC even advertised his appearances for the debate sketches, but does he get the honor of being listed in the main credits? Does Gary Johnson know what Aleppo is? How about John Goodman and all those times he played Linda Tripp during the Lewinsky scandal? Turns out hosting more than a dozen times isn’t “Special” enough to be credited as such—or to quote Don Pardo during one of these appearances “Boy, you sure hang out a lot for a guy who doesn’t work here”. Another example; in 2011, Elton John hosted the show—which was fine on the surface (despite most of the episode being subpar), but then guess who appeared in about 33% of the episode…who else but “David S. Pumpkins” himself, Tom Hanks! You would think that for putting in that extra effort—even when someone with a star caliber like Elton is in the house—Hanks would get some Front Row billing in the credits……..Not even Hanks got that kind of dignity. This is just a handful of examples, but hopefully you get my point; After 1998, those who came on the show that didn’t host it came on as an “Unbilled Cameo”; possibly because the show wanted to invoke more “Element of surprise” moments. Of course, if a cameo was announced ahead of time in the press & other forms of media, what’s the point of keeping things a secret?

 

All in all, whether they’re billed in the show as one or not, the Special Guests of SNL have always been a unique (though seldom documented) part of the show. CREAKY METAPHOR ALERT: If the Hosts & the MGs are the Bricks of the show, and the Cast members are the mortar that holds them together, and the writers are load-bearing beams and/or copper wiring running through the house; then perhaps the Special Guests may have acted as the insulation that keeps the house warm in between the walls. The point that I’m trying to make is that Anyone who is a part of a given show does their best to contribute to it, no matter how big or how small the part…it would just be nice if these unsung heroes got a little more credit than they deserve these days.

 

Now that that’s out of the way, it’s now December. And since I’ve already discussed my Favorite Holiday sketches earlier in July on the Main Page, there has to be some Other aspect of SNL in the Holidays I could talk about (after catching up on “Vintage” sketches, of course)…

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OK, you got it! NEXT WEEK (or whenever it’s ready), a look at some of our Favorite Christmas Smigeltoons that I haven’t mentioned yet!

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