Into the Unknown…

(to anyone who was ever kind enough to read this blog, sorry for the long gap between posts)

2016, which was, amazingly, only four years ago, was likely planned as the final chapter of SNL’s deal-of-the-damned with Trump. Many fans were alienated from the show, probably for good, but many viewers were intrigued by the controversy and the followup. There were more controversies in store leading up to the season 42 premiere, but for the most part, the mood was one of a gawking relief – how will SNL make fun of Trump and Hillary? What will Trump tweet back? Alec Baldwin – he’s such a big liberal, he hates Trump, he’s a blowhard too, and we know he’s hilarious! Only 4 weeks and then everyone can move on.

That didn’t happen.

While the fascination of what-will-Trump-tweet-next and other entertainments continued for most of the season, what viewers were left with was an ever-decreasing circle. Trump mostly stopped responding. The show itself was incredibly apathetic in presentation, even if they kept plugging along to try to get press and appeal to some type of floating viewer who really wanted to see 10-minute mad lib reenactments of the dirge of the week. Alec Baldwin made his feelings clear.

Even as reaction to the show’s political content glided into a collective shrug, the show has, with the exception of the season 43 premiere, never quite managed to get into a new season on solid footing. Season 44 was an exploitive trainwreck, confusing viewers and rattling the cast and crew, sending the year off on a shaky path. Season 45’s premiere was also overshadowed for other disaster area reasons, with the most positive thing to be said is at least none of it occurred on national television.

We now head into a season filled with uncertainty piled on top of uncertainty:

  • We’re in a pandemic, which may hit its (second…third…are we still in the first??) wave at any time. A live television show, with a (limited) audience, is being made during said pandemic.
  • We’re in the midst of a contentious Presidential election where we don’t know whether we can trust the results, or how long the results will even take to arrive.
  • We have the largest cast ever, at a time when key roles are still being played by non-cast members. This, naturally, leads to no end of speculation, and angst, about just how much of a chance cast members will have to establish themselves. On top of that, a number of cast members are busy elsewhere, from sitcoms to docudramas, and their involvement may be limited. There is also no way of knowing how many of those cast members will even finish out the season.

What can we expect? With SNL, generally I think people expect the best, then feel disappointed about what they actually get, then later on may look back and think “It wasn’t so bad.” SNL is a show that is simultaneously everything and nothing, a show that has the highest and lowest expectations. So I am going to try to go into the premiere just looking at the production changes they’ve had to make and seeing how they will juggle the cast.

There are choices I would love them to make, like returning to some of the slice-of-life material of the first 20-25 seasons, since I think they have a number of cast members right now who could do that writing justice and since there are so many topics today which are home to such an approach, from families and relationships torn apart by political polarization, to people struggling to adapt to post-COVID life, to those who have lost loved ones or suffered hardships through COVID. I know none of that is likely to happen, because that SNL has been gone for many, many years, and there are few hints it’s going to return (and if it did, you’d probably see a fair amount of backlash). I could complain, and I probably will, but in order to keep watching the show, you have to learn to let go…ironically, at a time when SNL itself seems more frightened than ever of letting go.

There is huge news out at the moment, but I don’t imagine SNL will have much to say about that either. The days of a delightfully ghoulish Michael O’Donoghue take have long passed, aside from a few sharp elbows Michael Che (possibly the closest modern SNL will get to an MOD type of spirit) throw on Update. A 15-minute debate sketch with Alec Baldwin pursing bad one-liners through his lips and squinting while Jim Carrey does an offshoot of his In Living Color days would seem 10 years old at this point, rather than not even a week (yes, incredibly, the debate wasn’t even a week ago), but, again – expect the worst, hope for the best. I assume this episode is going to stick to the pre-set formula, since Lorne tends to like formula as much as possible, even if, compared to today’s headlines, it ends up seeming like something space aliens whipped together and dropped from the sky.

I do think Jim Carrey has it in him to give a much more nuanced performance if the writing is there. Nuance is not something that has been on display with Baldwin’s Trump, and likely never will be, but there’s still hope for some kind of shift for Maya Rudolph’s Kamala Harris, as it’s easier to write her in meme queen mode when she’s briefly shown among a dozen candidates than it is when she’s the VP nominee, carrying part or all of lengthy sketches. I know Maya can do more if she is given the opportunity, so let’s hope they will give her that opportunity.

To wrap this up, I wanted to give my thoughts on each of the cast, from oldest to newest.

Kenan: Kenan is Kenan is Kenan. There isn’t much left to say about him, in a sea of game show hosts, Kenan Reacts, and, along with Cecily, one of the few successful interpreters of the oft-indecipherable content of James Anderson. There’s always speculation about when he will leave, and as his sitcom becomes closer to reality, those days seem closer to reality as well, but for now, I think he will continue to be a comforting, reliable presence, slowly phasing himself out. I don’t think you can say enough how effortlessly Kenan manages to seem like a natural part of the canvas even after nearly 20 years. It’s remarkable. A part of me wants him to go before that isn’t true anymore, and a part of me wants to see him there to the end.

Kate/Aidy/Cecily: One of my lasting memories of season 45 is when these three introduced one of Harry Styles’ musical performances. A wave of sentimentality washed over as I remembered some of the moments where soon-to-depart cast members (Molly Shannon, Seth Meyers) introduced musical acts. We won’t know for a while, if ever, what their plans were, but I do think one or all would have left. As they all clearly have fond memories of the show, they were less likely to want to leave so abruptly, yet they also have various commitments (Tiger King, Shrill, Cecily’s new Apple TV show) which mean they may miss or barely appear in a number of episodes – if they make it for a full final season.

It’s become conventional wisdom among some fans to say Kate stayed a few years too long. I can’t disagree, but I can say that if she becomes less involved in muggy political sketches and stops doing the same Anna Drezen sketch with Aidy over and over again, I can still appreciate her talents (she was at her best form in years in the At Home episodes).

Aidy is a conundrum for me, as there are times I think she’s hilarious and other times, especially with characters like Carrie Krum (or, again, her double act with Kate), that I am not involved. I tend to enjoy Aidy most when she’s being overly broad or incredibly weird – New Paint, Overnight Salad and Eleanor’s House were among my favorite sketches last season.

Cecily is one of my favorite cast members of this era, and probably of all time. She’s one of the rare gems who can play just about anything and who could have fit into any cast, any producer, any decade. With that said, even more than Kate or Aidy, there is a certain sense of time passing by when I watch Cecily – she seemed to be moving away from the show last season, partly for very personal, heartbreaking reasons, but also because of a natural process which comes for many longtime SNL players, good or bad or in-between. At this point she seems to be filming elsewhere, and her commitments will be limited for a while. If she just returns long enough to say goodbye, then I hope she gets one hell of a sendoff.

Beck/Kyle:

The Good Neighbor duo who were initially written off due to unfair (if understandable) comparisons to Lonely Island have managed to make their mark through their 8th, and presumably final, seasons. As the lone full-season survivors of the 13-14 featured player purge, they had a lot to prove, and I’d say they did.

Beck is a solid impressionist and a reliable supporting player who, when given the rare chance, manages to add a goofiness and physicality (even if this can easily be parlayed into being the “idiot”) without seeming too desperate. I think he can too easily fall into a smugbot persona in sketches and I think he is much more at home in pre-tapes than in live sketches, partly because those give him the chance to act that modern-day SNL rarely, if ever does live. I hope in his final season we get more of those chances at dramatic material (see the “Boop-It” pre-tape from last season as one example of what might be), and more of Beck just getting to cut loose.

Kyle is frequently thrown around as one of the worst of the current cast, which I just don’t agree with. He has his limitations in live sketches, especially impression-wise, but he is a consistent support figure who can also dive right into a certain type of crazy, energetic piece (like Del Taco, another of my favorites last season). His pre-tapes can play to the same few beats (daddy issues, being a loser, what have you), but those beats, when executed well, can be just about flawless. I hope he’ll get some really out there pre-tapes this season, even further than where he was going in his strong At Home canon.

More than anything I’d like to see Beck and Kyle get more of a chance to do their films, which have fallen by the wayside the last few seasons (if not those, then at least their anti-comedy sitcom homages, which I just absolutely love).

On an even less likely note, I wish they could work Nick Rutherford, the member of the quartet SNL most wasted (even though he wrote a truly enthralling dark sketch), in as well.

Still, not a bad legacy, whatever happens.

(Not bad for Dave McCary either)

Colin/Michael: Between several controversies, a certain romantic relationship, and a central role in an era of thinkpiece hell, Colin may be the most high-profile Update anchor since Chevy Chase. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you (or possibly, Seth Simons). I think he’s managed to offset his criticisms as an anchor about as well as can be expected, adapting and being very willing to make himself the butt of the joke. He and Michael Che are the rare Update duo who manage to balance each other properly, and who don’t drown in stridency or cutesiness. Michael, meanwhile, who has had his own controversies (calling them controversies is too glib of me, I realize), so much so that at times I wasn’t sure he would even make it through the last few seasons. Along with those troubles, he has brought a certain ragged honesty and humanity and edge to modern SNL that it had not had in quite some time, and may not again. Few things were more relateable than when he spent an Update just drinking and not caring anymore – it’s rare to call modern SNL relateable. But it’s not just resignation with Che, it’s also heart, as best shown in his comments after his grandmother passed away. Che, in a number of ways, reminds me of the cast members of the early seasons, in that we get enough complexity and glimpses from him that we feel we know him, even though we actually don’t.

I think Jost and Che have been likely about the strongest Update anchors the show could have had for the Trump era, and some of their season 45 Updates were, to me, among the finest SNL has ever had. I do feel that it is their time to go (and based on some of their comments, so do they). If it were up to me, they would leave at the Christmas show so we’d get a new team (or solo act) for a new era, but that doesn’t seem likely.

(my opinions of Jost and Che as headwriters are not as positive, especially the toothless political material [not that this is just down to them – it’s a longstanding problem] and the incoherent, poorly put together sketches, questionable sketch order, etc., but I am aware that their replacements may not be much better on that front)

Pete: What can you say about Pete that hasn’t already been said? Season 44 saw an SNL that was much, much too involved in using his personal life for ratings gain – with frightening consequences. Season 45 saw Pete’s frequent absences (at one point I could swear Rachel Dratch had appeared in more episodes) mocked-in show, leading to uncomfortable headlines and what may be the only case of an entire promo devoted to damage control for said headlines. Quarantine seemed to repair Pete’s relationship with the show, and helped convince him to stay, presumably on the same reduced schedule considering his various film roles. Pete continues to bring views and publicity for SNL, but nothing lasts forever, and I hope Lorne will let Pete move on so we don’t get a repeat of the last few years. I do like Pete well enough when he isn’t just talking about himself on Update over and over and when we aren’t just getting Pete Davidson Raps! – he’s an underrated sketch performer with some great beats, but I am not sure what is left for him in this final (?) season. I hope he might get more sketch leads, more experimentation, less fill-in-the-blank raps, and that he lets Chad rest.

Alex/Melissa/Mikey: Of the three, Mikey by far hit the ground running, with very easily accessible and identifiable sketches (so much so that they have become something of a sticking point for fans – “Mikey Day Explains”). He’s also a tireless and committed performer, more than happy enough to offer himself up for humiliation (even from his own son in some funny At Home appearances). I felt like Mikey finally began to step back last season, as he and co-writer Streeter Seidell found success elsewhere, so I wonder how much that will continue. I would like to see Mikey try new roles and let us see more of his serious side – and let’s see more of him with Heidi, whom he shares great chemistry with.

Melissa is that offbeat player which no cast is quite worth watching without. You never know for sure what she’s going to do, or even if she will appear. When she does, it’s rarely boring. She provided a rare spark of individuality on Update last season, even if some of this led to stupid clickbait outrage (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re lucky). She also had some terrific At Home pieces in-between her various absences and bit parts. You want to like Melissa, you want to see her do well. She creates an empathy that SNL always needs more of. What I want to see her do is move further away from impressions (she is a great impressionist but her impressions often feel clinical to me and don’t go very far) and try to do more character work with various writers like Steven Castillo.

Alex is the biggest mystery on the show. He’s charismatic, handsome, a solid impressionist, a good lead and a good support figure, athletic…yet he languishes more and more with each passing year. Last season was something of a perfect storm for male hosts, who dominated many of their episodes and left him stranded. Similar to Heidi, his main success on the show (outside of Eric Trump, which is an absolute blast, but is likely at or near a natural end) rests in an Update character I find to be draining and a waste of talent. I don’t know what they should do with Alex, but I hope they figure it out while they have a chance. Make him an Update anchor, give him more lead roles, try him in more serious parts to peel back some of the smugbot default he sometimes has, pair him more with Ego or Melissa – I don’t know. There is a great cast member in there waiting to be found.

Chris/Heidi: Heidi and Chris are very different, but surprisingly similar as well – they both started out with a bang, then languished before stabilizing in their third seasons. They both seem to feel ill-at-ease live compared to pre-tapes, and both feel like they probably won’t reach their true potential while they’re still on the show.

I think Chris would thrive if we got to see him take more of a lead in pre-tapes – That’s the Game was a real underrated moment last season, while City on Lockdown is one of the best cut for time pieces I’ve seen. It’s time for Chris to get to fully move away from just rapping in the background of various Kyle or Pete pre-tapes.

Heidi is far more compelling to me in dramatic moments and sad moments than when she tries to play campy and sassy in those strange, half-written sketches she tends to make with Andrew Dismukes (now that he has been bumped up I wonder if they will be a duo). I also feel her Update characters, especially Bailey Gismert, have reached a natural end. I want more somber slice-of-life pieces like RV Life, and more fleshed-out versions of the harried wife roles she kept popping up in in pre-tapes this past season. If we do get more wacky comic Heidi material, I’d prefer the more jagged version we got in this terrific piece she made with Ego. There are so many depths to Heidi which today’s SNL doesn’t really know how to tap, but if there was ever a time for that to change, this is it.

Ego: Ego is a pretty interesting case, in that she has a very distinct energy and delivery which is a very different flow to the sometimes punishing limitations of SNL (SNL being a particularly difficult show for black female cast members). It’s been a pleasant surprise to see her given a chance and to see various pieces she has written or co-written get on the air. They don’t all work, but one (Mid-Morning News) was a very well-regarded part of last season. I’d like to see more of her style, and also more opportunities to see how her clipped type of line readings could work outside of more familiar settings. She might make a great Update anchor. I’d also like to see more of her with Chris – they have a very warm, natural chemistry when paired together.

Bowen/Chloe: Bowen was put in an extremely difficult situation last season with the Gillis fiasco, being thrust into a national profile, and a cauldron of vipers, for something that had nothing to do with him. He handled the situation with grace, which meant that, along with his very likeable and easily understood onscreen persona, he was a fast hit. The downside of such quick support is just as quick backlash, and at times he seemed to be as polarizing as Pete and Leslie Jones were. I think much of the criticism of him for being one-note is overblown – how many cast members on SNL have been beloved for that one loud, clear note? – but I do think Bowen has more depth than some of his roles have suggested. I want to see stuff like Open Mic, more improved versions of Soul Cycle, and more abstract, Lily Tomlin-esque characters like Bottle Boi.

Chloe had the opposite journey in that she had a slow start, but by the time of her Update debut, alongside her At Home successes, she got a great deal of notice and well-deserved praise. Knowing that a variety of female cast members are on their way out, the press has turned more focus on her, helped by her knack at knowing how to go viral. I like Chloe – I think her impressions feel very lived-in, rather than just seeming to be machines, and she has a certain unsettling, alien tone to her original characters (like the first incarnation of Ooli). The sky is the limit with Chloe so I am interested in seeing where they go (something tells me James Anderson and Kent Sublette are going to be big fans).

Newcomers: It’s too soon to say. Will Lauren be another Cecily or Aidy? Punkie another Pete? Andrew another Kyle? Could we go even further back? Or will they be allowed to be themselves? Ideally, they will all have a chance in tonight’s packed premiere, but I am guessing only one (possibly Punkie) might slip through. We’ll see.

To anyone who managed to get through all this, thanks. I wish you the best, and the show the best. Stay safe.

SNL End of Decade Reviews (12/11/99)

Thanks to anyone who was kind enough to read the previous reviews. If you have anything to say then feel free to comment here or on my Twitter. And if you want to just ignore my wall of words below, podcast That Week in SNL covered this episode not long ago – it’s worth a listen.

If you were new to SNL as they played out their 25th anniversary season, you would have likely found yourself bowled over. The show was there to make you laugh, but above all else, to make sure you remembered what you were watching. Aggressive, loud, and very reliant on familiar brands, brands which, if you wished, you could even see in theaters. You might have had an idea of why Lorne and the very talented writing team of this era (headwriter Tina Fey, recent headwriter Adam McKay, and many others who have since become names in their own right, like Paula Pell and Mike Schur) were so eager to get this view across, because you had probably spent the decade watching or hearing about Kids in the Hall, or In Living Color, or Mr. Show, or The State, or All That, or Upright Citizens Brigade, or the millions of other forgotten sketch comedy shows of the decade, or the biggest competition SNL ever had (besides itself), Mad TV. What you may not have realized was just how close SNL – the show that had always been there – had come to being canceled.

The hell year that was 94-95 has since been pored over enough times without me adding more to the pile, but safe to say the show would never be the same again. If NBC hadn’t been riding high at the time, able to rebuild the show while also giving many of their bankable stars another platform via guest hosting and cameos, one might wonder if May 1995 would have seen the lights go out for good. Instead, a mostly new cast and writing team came in, and after some initial disdain, went on to find their footing. There’s little reason to believe that without the efforts of Tim Meadows, Norm Macdonald, Molly Shannon, Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Cheri Oteri, Jim Breuer, Colin Quinn, Chris Kattan, Tracy Morgan, and Ana Gasteyer, the show would have survived to a new decade.

If you’d asked me at the time if I wanted the show to survive to a new decade, I would have said yes, but I also would have gone on and on about how disappointed I was by what SNL had become. It was no longer “my show.” I would’ve talked about how much I disliked the toothless political material, the one-note recurring characters, the shouting and mugging, the lack of slice-of-life pieces, the lack of tough and funny takes on celebrities, TV or movies, the homophobia, etc. While I stand by some of these views, it took me a long time to accept that so much of my unhappiness with the show was about what it wasn’t, not what it was. And most of what I missed was gone even before the biggest changes – it was lost somewhere in the troika of Sandler/Spade/Farley. The loss wasn’t really their fault either, probably not even Lorne’s – the loss was just part of a shift in society and in comedy. I wasn’t getting that era – Phil or Jan or Nora or any of the writers like Marilyn Suzanne Miller I never really knew of at the time – back, and never would again. I was reminded more than ever this year when one of the most lauded new sketch shows in ages (and it actually is a very good show, overall) had episodes full of jokes that amounted to almost nothing more than how many times you could talk about wiping your ass, or how many times guest actors can say “fuck” or “dick” as a form of shock value. It’s just that I didn’t get this at the time. I wouldn’t begin to get it until around 2003-2004, when the show became so unwatchable to me I just couldn’t keep going (which I’d managed to do for most of the late ’90s and early ’00s), and then again this past year, when I went back to give this era of the show another chance.

The glaring whiteness of the cast as the ’90s began forced Lorne into action, leading to the arrival of Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, and Ellen Cleghorne. While criticisms of tokenism would still be warranted, all three of them brought a great deal to SNL, regularly elevating schlocky material and sketches that with weaker handling could have been offputting indeed. While Rock, through the “Pump It Turkey” clip in holiday specials or his familiar monologue appearances, is probably best known to fans today, he was the first of the three to go. Cleghorne lasted to the end of 94-95. Meadows was one of the standouts of that curate’s egg of a season, debuting one of the most underrated recurring bits of all time – Perspectives. To tell you just what a tough time it was for non-white cast members, he was still let go around that time, and only brought back because they needed him to play O.J. Simpson. Fortunately, before he ultimately left on his own terms, he had five good seasons, even managing a breakout recurring character (in the days when those meant everything) in Ladies Man, and establishing himself not as “the black guy” but as a longtime cast member (back when staying for more than 5-6 years was still seen as shocking…). Tim is our eyes and ears for the decade, SNL’s most chaotic decade, and it’s a shame his work at the show is not as well remembered today. Tracy Morgan arrived in 1996, for quite some time just existing as “the other black guy” (as he described himself on Update), again reminding viewers of the limited opportunities for non-white cast members (Morgan would hit his stride mostly after Meadows left). In 1998, Horatio Sanz gained attention as the first Hispanic cast member. SNL didn’t lean into this for cheap laughs (aside from some of the usual lazy stereotypes – although many of those would end up going to Fred Armisen), but they had precious little else to do for him either. The season ended with the casting of biracial Maya Rudolph…who was very good, but is still being brought back 20 years later for impressions like Kamala Harris because the show’s issues regarding diversity have only barely improved since then.

Slightly more improvement can be found in the progression of female cast members. The first full season of the ’90s began with the gift of Jan Hooks, one of the best performers the show has ever had, but she was on her way out, and there was so little female representation at one point they even had to reference it mid-sketch. We then got to the nadir of 93-94, a season which somehow had four women in the cast who were lucky to appear at all most weeks (some weeks a returning Hooks was the only one who had any material), and 94-95, which I’d say was, believe it or not, an improvement on the year before, but is still remembered more for the rough treatment of women backstage than anything in front of the camera. You had women as wives, daughters, prostitutes, extras, but rarely as characters. Even if SNL had not been a show which had from its earliest days owed so much to strong female talent, the misogyny would have cast a pall impossible to ignore. Fortunately, NBC and Lorne did not ignore it, and instead cast a great trio in Oteri, Shannon, and Nancy Walls. Once again we had sketches led by women, about women, and simply, effectively telling viewers women were crucial to the sketch comedy experience. Walls, who was fearless and fun, was fired at the end of her first season. While her replacement, Ana Gasteyer, was one of the best casting decisions Lorne ever made, it must have seemed questionable to some viewers even at the time that one woman needed to be traded out for another. There was clearly no possibility of four women being cast – if there had been, then perhaps Paula Pell, who would go on to have countless funny bits onscreen over the next 15 years, would have been hired alongside Nancy, Cheri and Molly. Or perhaps we could have had Nancy, Ana, Molly and Cheri on the next season. Instead, the idea of the ideal three, such a mainstay of SNL, would continue until the sheer talent of all three ladies broke the unspoken quota. Cheri with her earthy, grounded mix of goofy, fun-loving characters and staggeringly dark characters (and of course the classic Baba Wawa revival); Molly with her incredible physicality and pathos and limitless commitment; Ana with her dry wit, uncanny ability to delve so deep into key impressions, and ever-adaptable, ever-effective singing voice. They obliterated any idea of a woman’s role on the canvas, successfully carving out their own spaces and proving once and for all how much equality improved the product. As a result, 1999 saw the arrival of a fourth (the wonderful, if frequently misused, Rachel Dratch) and by the end of the season, Maya Rudolph. Other than the late ’00s/early ’10s, with a combination of budget cuts and Kristen Wiig hyperfocus, the decades since have tried to maintain or build on that equality, to the point where many fans now would happily say the female cast are what keep the show going. None of that would have been possible without this era.

Due to a series of issues on the male side of the cast (starting with NBC’s absolutely bewildering firing of David Koechner), a great deal of the mid-to-late-’90s content relied on Ferrell, for straight man, easy laughs, and absurdist comedy output. To be frank, he (and Tim Meadows, who was never going to have as many opportunities) carried the male side of the cast on his back for much of this time. Ferrell was midway through his time on the show, and in no way running out of content, but the 99-00 season represents the start of the shift away from his style of performance. He was likeable, but similar to past performers like Dana Carvey or Mike Myers, underneath the goofiness, there was also a certain wall between performer and audience. As Mad TV leaned into what was probably their most popular cast, a cast heavy on amazing performers like Mo Collins or Debra Wilson who immersed themselves deep into characters, the shift on SNL was the erosion of that wall, thanks to performers like Horatio Sanz and especially Jimmy Fallon.

Fallon emulated Adam Sandler, but Sandler, no matter how many goofy faces he made, tried very hard to seem “cool.” Fallon was, ultimately, and unintentionally, closer to a Gilda Radner type of performer (even if he didn’t reach her level of talent) – he wanted to be liked, very, very much. He wanted to be your friend. He was approachable, and also very pretty – probably the first of the pretty boy types to be cast (some of them, like Seth Meyers and Andy Samberg, would also go on to have huge influence over the show). He was the cast member you could bring home to mom and dad. The show has never fully shaken this person-over-performance shift – it’s been there in people who contribute a great deal (Amy Poehler) or not as much (Pete Davidson). It’s a double-edged sword, as you can see any time you read comments about how the show will immediately disappear without, say, Kate McKinnon or Kenan Thompson, but it’s a choice SNL now actively seeks out.

I suppose you could say SNL was just embracing the inevitable. Sandler, Chris Farley and David Spade gradually (and then not-so-gradually) shifted into playing self-parodies. When they left the show, the cast returned to a more performer-driven status, but Norm Macdonald cultivated a very aloof, alienated persona on Update as well as in much of his sketch work; when he was (controversially) fired, there was no idea of performer or character (even though Norm was excellent at both) – there was just Norm, to the point where, in his final sketch, an audience member screams “Norm!” at his brief appearance.

The deaths of Farley and Phil Hartman were the cruelest possible ending to a decade of performance-over-personality. Farley’s struggles with sobriety had long been woven into his on-air persona, all the way to the end, but there was a glibness to this callous treatment – he may have problems, but he still makes you laugh (“fatty falls down”). There was no more laughter to ease the pain of what he’d gone through, and the collective sense of guilt built in alongside the grief. Hartman, whose real self was at odds with his persona to the point of being joked about on-air, was a tragedy no one, including SNL, could have predicted, and meant it was now almost impossible for viewers to watch some of the finest performances a cast member had ever given without thinking of real life circumstances. Just as the ’80s wound down with Steve Martin saying an emotional goodbye to a beloved cast member, the ’90s wound down with Phil’s cast saying an emotional goodbye to him. There was no way the show could keep going with carefully controlled meta, no matter how many fun Lorne cameos or sly winks to critics or fans they indulged in (or would continue to indulge in).

So Lorne, and SNL, did what they always do – slowly refocused and carried on.

This episode serves as a sendoff to 6-time host Danny Devito and 3-time musical guest REM, and of course, to a millennium. No pressure there.

Cold Open

Tom Brokaw (Chris Parnell) and Ahnold (Darrell Hamond) in a mock news broadcast about how nothing will change after Y2K. (remember Y2K?) This runs a little too long, but is preferable to another of the sluggish political bits of (almost any era of the last 25 years) this era. It also sums up the main dilemma of Parnell, one of my favorite cast members. He’s funny in what they give him to do (with a Brokaw impression that is just right between an impression and a comedy character), but it’s never really about him, and encourages viewers to not have much interest in seeing him in his own right. Hammond, meanwhile, mostly goes for easy laughs, which works.

Credits

For a long time I thought sepia-toned still images, for an anniversary season no less, were a disappointment, but I’ve grown fonder of them over time. The downside is how basic most of the photos are, to the point of being horrifically unflattering. I guess they saved their efforts for Ana (a distinctive pose), Colin (a very warm and friendly photo), and Tim (he looks hot as hell).

Monologue

For some reason they make a pretense of this being Danny’s 5th time hosting. I guess either they didn’t count his stint with Rhea Perlman, or they wanted a hook for the “gift” Cheri and Will give him – a played-out recurring character, which is basically SNL‘s version of a fruitcake. It’s Mr. Peepers (Chris Kattan). Peepers was probably the most boisterous, physical recurring bit of a very boisterous, physical era, and although Kattan was one of my least favorite cast members of these years, I did admire how much he committed to the role. Danny also fully commits, bringing an energy that fits this cast and has a hint of the first-rate vaudeville monologue he did with Rob Schneider in 1993. Danny wasn’t even intended to host this episode – plans for Jim Carrey didn’t work out – but you wouldn’t know it watching this.

Kid Press Conference

Eschewing social commentary (like the classic “Chess for Girls” ad), this pitch is mostly just a good showcase for the gentle comedy of kids in an adult setting – similar to what Our Gang did.

Delicious Dish

The first time I saw this sketch, long ago, I was thrown, because I’d never seen the Dish pieces go so dark. In my rewatch I’ve found that isn’t the case, as previous installments talk about cults and suicide and so on. Still, that doesn’t take away from just how absolutely terrific everything is about what could have been a very thin premise (post-Y2K bug, the gals and chef guest [Danny] are stuck in a dystopian version of their show). Fantastic performances from Ana, Molly, and Danny, as some incredibly grim material is layered with the perfect black humor. Molly in particular is at her best. The end, with Danny saying “if I had a gun I’d eat it,” and Molly and Ana disconnectedly saying that would be “delicious,” is enough all on its own. While I can understand why SNL continued with Delicious Dish (although continuing without Molly never made quite as much sense to me), I wish this had been the last. And I wish this was more easily available for viewers to see.

Mango

Chris Kattan’s very well-worn recurring character has a change of pace. We see him visit the family he’s estranged from (brother Will, mother Ana, father Danny), and after some mild homophobic jibes, we get a wooden-but-striking Michael Stipe as the Christmas angel taking him to his father’s past – he had once lived a life just like Mango’s. Kattan’s performance feels somewhat hollow this time around, but there are some funny touches (all the men in the family wear the gold shorts and everyone in the family have names similar to ‘mango’). Ana looks more than a little like Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin.

Boston Teens

We start this sketch with a whole bunch of words you wouldn’t be hearing on TV in 2020 (they start with “q” and “r”), a tone I think tends to pop up more heavily in the late ’90s and early/mid ’00s than it did in earlier years.

Anyway, I always liked Rachel Dratch – she’s one of those cast members I felt an instant connection with. She’s funny, she’s different from a comedy norm, and she was immediately able to bring a great deal of confidence and foundation to her roles. It’s unfortunate that I have never been overly fond of her major recurring characters, which were all one-note and were run well into the ground.

This character and sketch tends to amount to a camera capturing her character saying Boston stereotypes in a comic Boston accent, bickering with boyfriend Jimmy, then making out. Rinse and repeat, 500 times. Still, it was certainly an audience-pleaser, and Horatio Sanz provides some smiles as their zoned-out friend (who bears more than a little resemblance to SNL writer Frank Sebastiano [although Frank was absent from the show at this point].) One of the clever choices SNL made with Jimmy was to have a number of his recurring characters in situations where they would be able to just talk right at the camera, giving his charisma a full showcase without any awkwardness or need for acting.

This installment is set in a shop class, with Danny as their teacher. It’s…well it’s there. Pleasant enough.

Ladies’ Man

The one breakout character Tim had in his long and underrated tenure with the show. What’s easy to forget is that, considering the simple premise, Ladies’ Man undergoes several format changes – the first sketches had Tracy Morgan as his producer; then he was on his own, often interacting with female hosts; finally he would make appearances on the SNL stage. This is one of the latter, as he sings a Christmas song dedicated to his favorite topic: “making sweet love to the ladies.” Two very skilled and attractive female backup dancers enliven the number. The subject matter is pretty crass, as you’d expect, but Tim gives his usual smooth performance. Not really my thing, yet it works for what it is as part of the risque-but-not-too-risque recurring bits of the era – a gentler alternative to Mad TV.

TV Funhouse

In the years the Funhouse cartoons first aired, I had no idea they were by the same man who had given us the Swerski sketches, or Triumph the Insult Dog. All I knew was I couldn’t believe NBC and Lorne let so many of these cartoons on, considering how scathing many of them were about celebrities and media (in some cases, allegedly a little too scathing). This one is no different, as we get a 1999 review which includes an accurate putdown of TV news hounds and their reaction to JFK Jr’s death and memorial service, as well as a rough and funny jab at Barbara Walters for being self-loving in more ways than one. (if you stumble onto an episode of this era you might be surprised at how hostile the commentary about her could be, but then, this was her peak of ABC ‘News’ dominance).

Weekend Update

Colin Quinn, here in his last season as anchor, started with the show as a writer before making his way up to featured status. His frequent Update appearances tended to focus on blue collar tropes, while his sketches were a little more freewheeling (his best was the hapless prisoner/Nazi/KKK member who would usually be too committed to wiseass observations for his own good). He was gritty, rough around the edges, and similar to his Update predecessor Norm, a good balance to keep the cast from seeming too samey.

In January 1998, he was given what was the hardest Update task since Jane Curtin had to replace Chevy Chase. How do you replace someone who is almost impossible to replace (and unlike Jane, someone whose controversial firing made headlines)? Whereas Jane was never quite given the chance, being paired with co-anchors for three of her three and a half seasons in the chair, Colin got two and a half seasons all on his own, so it’s not an entirely fair comparison, but close enough. Colin’s Update tenure has its share of critics, and there isn’t much point in saying whether they’re right or wrong. I’ll just say that I think his comebacks to the audience and gruff (but rarely too gruff) demeanor help him stand out, even if his delivery is never the best. I wish he’d been allowed to make the role his own a little more, which only tended to happen when he could make a few pointed remarks in his own voice before starting the headlines. I think he was a good palate cleanser between Norm and the Tina/Jimmy duo, and helped wean viewers off the solo Update format into a radical (and ultimately successful) transition.

The one guest spot of this Update is the culmination of Al Franken’s decade jokes started in 1979/80 and carried over into 1989 with his son, Joe. This is a pretty funny bit, eschewing nostalgia to just have Joe as a moody teenager fed up with his egomaniac father. A good way for Al to go out.

Sally O’Malley

While Tina Fey and Amy Poehler tend to get focus for charging into or changing a boys’ club atmosphere (to their credit, they both regularly praise and spotlight the female cast members who toiled at the show before them), Molly is the lady of this era whose arc most interests me. She arrived right in the middle of a season where women were lucky to even appear onstage, replacing Janeane Garafalo, whose misery at a job she’d expected to love led to an early, highly-publicized exit. Molly still took a backseat to the ‘bad boys’ and various other men trying to get their material on the air, but made her mark. Take a look at this Update piece a few months after her arrival, how she slowly but surely wakes the often-slumbering audience of that season up. At a time when much of the humor on the show veered between frat boy embarrassment and wry observational pieces, viewers are cut right through by her sheer, crazy, muggy fun. Molly set her place then and there, not only being one of the few survivors of the 94-95 bloodbath, but ultimately surviving for 6 seasons and breaking the record (at that time) for most episode appearances by a woman.

I would go back and forth about Molly because of that mugginess – I always wanted more, and thought she could do more, and I was also a little resentful because I felt much press coverage at this time acted as if there were no strong women on the show in-between Gilda and Molly – but there was a great deal about her run on the show I enjoyed, even if it was begrudgingly at times. She left a real mark, to the point where it’s now a little odd that she sometimes feels underappreciated.

Anyway, I think this is the debut of Sally O’Malley, who has turned out to be one of her most enduring creations. I supposed it’s the timing of the character, emerging at the heart of the “50 is the new 40” mindset, a time when many began to shake off age-related notions of what they should or shouldn’t do. The impact goes beyond returning cameo stints and even went as far as Hugh Jackman doing his best Sally a few years ago. Sally is, along with Delicious Dish and that lesbian poetess character who rasps about “Nataliewoodnataliewoodnataliewoodnataliewood,” my favorite Molly Shannon recurrer, even though I’m not entirely sure why (I also have a soft spot for her stand-up comic character so I don’t know what that says about me). There’s just something so full-tilt about her performance in this, and no matter how cheesy the concept, you end up sharing in Sally’s triumph. Danny is the perfect support to her – a “choo-choo Charlie and a class act.” Also nice to see Cheryl Hardwick (longtime musical director) on piano.

Claudine Parker

This Tracy Morgan character originally debuted in the Dylan McDermott episode a few months earlier. This sketch is her last appearance. Tracy has such an infectious energy, which likely helped him survive so many seasons without having a larger role, and that is put to good effect here, especially when he and Danny keep shouting “heffa!” at each other. The sketch gets sort of bogged down when they start singing, leading to an abrupt ending.

REM

It’s fitting that their last performance on SNL is about Andy Kaufman and even directly references SNL moments like the infamous wrestling match which aired in another decade-ending episode.

Goodnights

If you ever watch any goodnights from this era, you’ll notice Molly Shannon almost always stands in the same spot and does a little shimmy. Here there’s a little added variety because at the very end she rushes to hug Courtney Love, someone she had a certain kinship with. Considering Love’s key role in one of the most…memorable goodnights of the often funereal 94-95 period (hanging all over poor George Foreman and generally being a spectacle), I guess it’s only fitting she was there to help close out the next era.

This is a pretty decent, if not overly memorable, episode – typical of the consistent, easily digestible entertainment of this time. It also fits for the impending cast changes, as Cheri barely appears and other than a small judge role in the Claudine sketch, Tim is left to himself. There are also several unintended moments of finality with Al Franken, REM, and Danny (I’m hoping Danny may still pop up again [beyond his cameo in the Charlie Day episode], as I think Heidi Gardner mentioned talking with him at a party). Danny didn’t get enough to do, but as usual what he did he did excellently.

If I ever finish these, the next episode will be the end of 2009, the era of Tina Fey Ubercameos that affect the show to this day, the era (have I said “era” enough to annoy you yet?), with the dream cast and writing that never quite matches, hosted by…um…James Franco. Well, that should be something…

SNL End of Decade Reviews (12/16/89)

Thanks to anyone who was kind enough to read yesterday’s review. If you have anything to say then feel free to comment here or on my Twitter.

If December 1979 was a time of SNL unsteadily making its way to the end of the road, December 1989 was more like a brisk walk down a sure path. The show was more respected than it had possibly ever been, with a dream team of performers (Jan Hooks, Phil Hartman, Nora Dunn, Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson), an Update anchor who perfectly fit the cultural zeitgest (Dennis Miller) and brilliant writers, some of whom, like Conan O’Brien and Bob Odenkirk, went on to have enormous influence in front of the camera. The show could handle everything from politics to pop culture to strong character pieces. With the successful addition of Mike Myers, Lorne Michaels had a cast member expert in creating well-loved recurring characters and ready-made catchphrases – a Wayne or a Dieter, bits that could get the kids who, unless they were like me, weren’t tuning in for a Sweeney Sisters medley. Above all the show was remarkably consistent in terms of quality in a way it rarely had been or would be again. I can’t pretend to be unbiased – this is the era that got me into SNL, and some of the cast (especially Nora, Jan and Phil) are among my favorite SNL players of all time. One of the downsides of these years is, while they certainly weren’t perfect, they were strong enough to where you often look at the best of later casts and wonder what might’ve been. While there have been players since then that I’m very fond of and would rank highly (Tim Meadows, Ana Gasteyer, Bill Hader, Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, etc.), few have had the support in writing that helped give the best of this period that extra layer of assurance.

Change was coming faster than anyone realized – by spring 1990, creative differences and Lorne’s ratings-and-controversy chasing would lead to an ugly exit for Nora Dunn, and scheduling conflicts led to an exit for Jon Lovitz which may have been muted in comparison to the Dunn fireworks, but still left everyone involved unhappy. The success of In Living Color, a show that almost immediately began generating headlines and making stars of a number of unsuccessful SNL auditions (and one short-lived featured player named Damon Wayans), also served as a wakeup call in the lack of diversity that Lorne had allowed to become the norm.

We aren’t there yet though – we’re around the midpoint of their anniversary season, with an episode hosted by Andie Macdowell (musical guest the very talented Tracy Chapman). I’ve always been fond of Andie, mostly because I think her work in Groundhog Day was utterly perfect (she had to be the foil to Bill Murray, but she couldn’t be too dumb or wan so viewers would see why he slowly fell in love with her). I also tend to think this is one of the only eras of the show she was suited for as a host. Let’s see if my memories are wrong, as they often are…

You can find screencaps at Stooge’s review of this episode, and, if you want to watch the episode, it is available here.

Energizer

Short and fun and non-political. Shocking, isn’t it. Not quite as fun as it could have been (I think Kevin’s delivery is a little off), but still great.

Credits

Effortlessly cool, just right for a major anniversary, rather than projecting headshots onto trash cans like another anniversary season. Some of my favorite moments for SNL credits are in this one – Phil going from normal to happy as he runs his hand down his face, Don’s booming “NORA DUNN!” as she smiles at us, Dennis looking smug as he leans into his convertible (a similar shot with Beck Bennett is one of my favorites of recent years – what that says about me, I don’t know).

Monologue

You can see how nervous Andie is, especially at the start, but it’s a sweet and to the point bit.

Hanukkah Harry

This used to run in SNL’s “Best of Christmas” special for years. Unfortunately it’s fallen out of favor (even Youtube just has an Easter followup which wasn’t very well-received), but I wish that wasn’t the case, as the sketch is a terrific showcase for Jon Lovitz and the warm, gently mocking humor we don’t get enough of. You can see it in the little touches, like how, when Santa gets sick, they choose to just cut away rather than having projectile vomiting for an easy laugh. Victoria Jackson is a strong support to Lovitz in the daffy child role she spent much of her 6 seasons as a cast member playing. Victoria has fallen out of favor now, for reasons fans have probably already heard enough of, but she was a great balance for others in the cast in how easily she could manage vulnerability and sweetness (without saccharine).

Something else I notice in this sketch is how they don’t throw Andie in, even though she could’ve easily played Mrs. Claus. This is just another example of the confidence the show had in itself in these years.

Band Shot

Never before or since would a bandleader command the camera the way GE Smith did. For me it’s a central part of these years, but I understand why many were put off. Watching this moment, when he sings, “Nice shoes…nice hat, I wonder where your husband’s at…” reminds me that I watched this with my grandmother. She was not exactly the right fan (another episode this season would make her turn off the TV), but she really thought this bit was hilarious, for some reason. Just another example of how powerful the nostalgic pull of SNL is.

Day Care

Yuppies and wacky parenting plans were comedy fodder in these years (if you ever have the time or boredom check out some of the old “Cathy” strips when her friend Andrea had a baby). What makes this sketch work is they don’t try to overplay a yuppie feel in the increasingly outlandish parents – they are all ‘normal’ in contrast to craziness like holding their child on a balloon. A good sketch that makes the point and leaves.

Church Lady

The 1980s are drawing to a close, and it’s just been a 10-year party for the beastmaster.

As if we were ever really going to leave the ’80s, Church Lady…and this character recurring for nearly 30 more years is just one of many examples.

There’s something funny about the husband in Sex, Lies and Videotape being named John Mullany (different spelling, I know)

My favorite part is Dana’s interaction with the audience, but the vicious back-and-forth with “Leona” (Nora) is another highlight. Lots of goodness here – the monologue about her pastor, Jan’s mean-mugging as Nadia. There’s a real looseness that works.

Update

I loved Dennis Miller as anchor at the time (I never gave Kevin Nealon a real chance as a result). I don’t think his tenure wears very well, due to the overly cynical, smarmy air, but this week’s is a nice surprise – from his voice I think he may have been under the weather, which helped.

Victoria had a few Christmas pieces with Dennis – my favorite was probably the one where she wore a tearaway Christmas tree skirt. This one mostly serves to show the good chemistry she had with Dennis.

The Al Franken Decade jokes (which we’ll be getting at least one more of) no longer have the humor they once did, but this is still a pretty good piece, well-delivered by Al, as always.

The joke about Arnold and Maria’s daughter (Katherine) is a good reminder of the central place SNL tends to hold in modern showbiz – her father had several cameos on the show, her husband hosted…and his ex-wife hosted. Not that she’s the only daughter with various SNL ties related to this episode.

Hal Jerome

I’m embarrassed to admit for a while I thought Hal Jerome was a real person…

Andie verges on trainwreck status throughout this, although I think she also falls victim to some bad sound issues which only Jon Lovitz escapes completely. This is an interesting sketch which works almost because it is so deliberately bad, daring the actors to power through. It’s also another example of how successful Jan was at using her sex appeal as a key part of her comedy.

Sprockets Rocket

A departure from the usual for Sprockets, as it doesn’t take everyday ideas and make them seem morbid but instead makes morbid characters seem normal. Not bad, not that interesting either, although I did laugh at the way they used the stock footage. I’m mostly wondering why exactly this was removed from all future repeats. The Dana Carvey-led Schiller’s Reel replacement was better than this, so I guess I can’t say they were wrong.

(it’s kind of funny how big Mike’s mullet was at this point – you can see the struggle they had getting his hair into the Dieter style)

Wedding

The slice-of-life moments we don’t get anymore. The running time is just right, with no padding. While this probably could have been a female-led piece, it’s the men (Kevin and Phil) who have the most nuanced material, and deliver it well. Phil was always so very good at these heartfelt roles.

Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein

Sometimes I felt like this bit was used too often, but the drum being smashed to pieces adds some extra laughs.

Goodnights

Solid episode. Only one sketch veers close to badness, the rest is easy to watch, sometimes very good. I do wonder why Mike Myers is wearing the costume he’s in – too bad we don’t have any Cut for Times or Instagram posts for 1989.

Don Pardo wishing us a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, “…and we’ll see you in the ’90s.” Yes – what a calm, cohesive decade that will be for the show.

The next episode will wrap up the ’90s – the final (for now, anyway) hosting gig of the one and only Danny DeVito.

SNL End of Decade Reviews (12/22/79)

This blog will probably be about a lot of different things if I keep it up, but for now I’m mostly using it to talk about SNL in a way that goes beyond the Twitter character limit. My Twitter is mostly crap, but if you want to see it, here it is.

On here I will mostly just go by Joe. I’m male, in my late 30s, and I’ve been watching SNL off and on since the late ’80s (I probably first started with SNL through the Nick at Nite half-hour repeats of the ’70s). I am, at heart, a puritan regarding the show – “my” SNL will probably always be the years I could see Nora Dunn, Jan Hooks, Phil Hartman, and later, Ellen Cleghorne, Julia Sweeney, Chris Rock, etc. every week. I still kept up, and enjoyed moments, but I mostly quit watching around 2003 or 2004. For many years I maintained the idea that the show was never much good after about 1993 or so. I honestly never thought I would watch newer episodes again, but somehow, John Mulaney’s two episodes pulled me back in and made me realize how much I still missed it. There’s nothing else like the experience of SNL, for better or worse, and as much as I do wish so many elements of the show could improve, I found myself enjoying enough of the current version of the show to keep watching.

Of course one of the strengths (some would say weakness) of SNL is its mammoth history, a history Lorne Michaels simultaneously leans into and shuns, and a history that has kept the show so prominent in public life for 45 years. That history is part of the reason I decided to try this blog, because I really wanted to (before the year is out) review each of the final episodes of the decade. I know the final year can be seen as 1980, 1990, etc. but I’m going with 1979, because…well it’s just easier, I guess, as we’re in 2019.

That starts us with the Christmas episode of season 5. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already heard plenty about season 5 – how tired Lorne and much of the cast were, the increasingly rancorous relationship the show had with much-maligned NBC President Fred Silverman, the decision to just make 500 writers into featured players and also add on Harry Shearer (a process that made him less than happy). I remember first seeing the full episodes of season 5, rather than just chopped down versions, on NBC’s repeats in the ’00s. The season is, cliche as this is, absolutely one of a kind – lots of dead spots, and, yes, fatigue, but also lots of creativity and surprises.

This episode was hosted by Ted Knight, someone who is, thanks to Caddyshack and many decades of Mary Tyler Moore Show repeats, probably not as forgotten as other hosts of this era. He was an incredible comedian, and also an interesting choice for host, as he was, like fellow season 5 hosts Bob Newhart and Bea Arthur very much ‘mainstream’ compared to past seasons. I suppose this didn’t matter as much to Lorne as SNL itself was already well past mainstream status, and there was a good crossover audience between Caddyshack and the show.

I have no real ability at present to download the episodes for screencap purposes, so for this episode I’m just going to link to Stooge’s SNL review blog. The blog is fantastic and is one of the reasons I even decided to try this format myself.

Panama (cold open):

With the exit of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray was the de facto leading man, which means a gauzy variety show interpretation of the Shah. Al Franken gives a funny, and shameless, Kissinger. You also get the tail end of Gilda Radner’s well-known-and-loved Baba Wawa impression. Of the versions who popped up on SNL during her career, I probably enjoyed Cheri Oteri’s vicious-and-vapid take the most, but then, Cheri had the most to work with as Baba…er…Barbara was all over ABC in those years.

If you were expecting a tough take on the Iran crisis dominating headlines in 1979-1980, you won’t be getting one here. It’s goofy, forgettable floss.

Opening credits:

These would be replaced in the back half of season 5, and they have a tired feel to them, although I will always love the shot of Jane Curtin with her teddy bear.

Monologue:

All about Ted being Steve Martin’s father. Thanks to the half-hour repeats, I’m one of those people who thought Steve and Buck Henry were cast members – clearly I hadn’t seen this monologue which is entirely devoted to him yet he doesn’t appear. This is a good use of Ted’s energy and a way to ingratiate him with the audience, although I would’ve enjoyed something more about him. My favorite part was the effects when he kept getting “electrocuted” at the mike stand.

NBC Gary Coleman

Quick but effective start to a runner about how much basement-dwelling NBC leaned on Gary Coleman at this time. Tells you a lot about the growing power of corporations over the last 40 years that we’ve gone from this to Pete Davidson blatantly advertising NBC’s streaming service in a recent monologue.

Chudd

Gilda (as secretary) seems to be doing her “child” voice (mainly from the sketch where the announcer tells her to pour hot soup over her nose). Bill is slightly shaky in the straight man role. Garrett has nothing to do but his smoking is very stylish. Ted does his Ted Baxter routine. The main meat of the sketch is Jane Curtin as the harassed secretary. This is interesting to watch from a historical perspective as it essentially tells viewers no matter how much women may try to fight sexual harassment in the workplace, they won’t win. It’s typical of the moments of this period which cared less about easy humor.

Bob Kopp

Nice to see a change of pace role for Ted as the tough cop, but there’s nothing to this (and he’s still talking when Don Pardo breaks in…)

Musical Guest

Nice to see Gilda get to introduce the group, since they had some personal importance to her. Nothing very interesting, aside from the GE Smith cameo, but Desmond Child dressing like a Doctor Who companion of this era was…a choice.

Update

I’ve never been a big fan of the Bill Murray/Jane Curtin combo, and generally it felt like Dan and then Bill were only put with Jane because it took her a while to get settled once Chevy left. Given Bill’s workload this season, I wish they’d taken him off Update and let her have the last season to herself. (the part where he gave her nude photos of herself did amuse me)

Of Update characters in these years, my favorite was probably Emily Litella. Roseanne Rosannadanna works more when you see her in a few segments on Gilda’s “Best of” tape, rather than popping up again and again. The amount of times they had to come up with new, gross topics begins to feel labored, as seen here with her Gene Shalit story. The best part of these for me tends to be Jane’s seething reaction. No Update anchor has ever captured that emotion the way she can.

Nerds Nativity

My favorite Nerds sketches tend to involve Buck Henry as Todd’s father. This one is decent enough (and it’s notable this cast still manages to believably play awkward high schoolers [some of them, anyway]), and is a nice break from the norm. I noticed Ted hugs a sobbing Lisa [Mary in the nativity of course] and says “Don’t cry, Mare,” in the exact way Ted Baxter would have said it to Mary Richards. He even sort of raises his eyebrow to let us know it’s an in-joke.

Wrestling with Andy Kaufman

Boy, a rough-as-hell intro from Buddy Rogers.

The most interesting part of the Andy-wrestles-a-woman arc Andy did on the show was how worked up people would tend to get, whether in the crowd, or even hosts in some cases (Bea Arthur seemed visibly disgusted by his antics). You can feel that energy here too and it puts you on the edge of your seat. None of this would ever be allowed on SNL today, probably not any TV show, but it adds to the anything goes feel of the night.

Here’s a 2001 interview with Diana about her experience.

Sammy Davis Jr. Christmas

Nice of them to give Garrett something to do, although I think I would have preferred him singing a Christmas song over this incoherent impression that fell apart after about 40 seconds.

Java Junkie

Peter Aykroyd was quite the looker, eh? A terrific noir homage. Refreshing that it was willing to avoid comedy, minus one good line (about checking into “Maxwell House”). This is the type of material Jean Doumanian should’ve considered trying in season 6. Nice to see Teri Garr, and she’s probably better served here than she would be in her hosting gigs.

Christmas Decorations

This one hits more than it probably did at the time, considering there are now TV shows all about how wonderful it is to obsessively decorate your home and miles surrounding your home for Christmas. A good showcase for Ted with an ending that lands.

Musical guest

GE Smith may not have his signature hairstyle here, but he gives the same high-energy/muggy performances which would define his time as bandleader. Maria Vidal is giving this glossy pop a bit of a kick – she sounds slightly like Patty Smyth (of Vandal).

Goodnights

I’m so used to the more bloated stage that going back and seeing so few people almost feels surreal.

Don Pardo: “Saturday Night Live will return in the ’80s…this is Don Pardo, the voice of the ’70s, saying goodnight and happy holidays.”

Probably one of the only clues of the episode’s notability. A pleasant watch, and something of an anomaly for the season as it didn’t have any weird or stalled out pieces. Considering the slimness of this season’s cast I think Ted could have been used a little more, but he was very warm and was fine in his standout sketch (Christmas obsession).

If I manage to get to the next episode it will be with Andie Macdowell, which I mostly just remember for all the “Sex, Lies and Videotape” jokes.