SNL Season 1 Episode 21 [1976)

Saturday Night Live was still a small show in 1976.

A growing concern, to be sure, but still a show with an off-the-cuff, communal vibe to it.

We feel this insular aspect most when hosts or musical guests are repeated.

For instance, Candice Bergen hosted episodes 4 and 8.

Phoebe Snow was a musical guest on episodes 2 and 18.

And finally, Buck Henry was the host of episode 10 and (voila!) episode 21.

Buck Henry is a hard guy to get excited about.

He comes out in a cardigan.  A sort of Bob Newhart look.

But the man was brilliant.

The two shows Henry hosted to this point, taken collectively, both show signs of superior comedic writing.

One gets the sense that Buck was allowed to contribute to the writing process (which only makes sense considering who he was).

However, this is still a rather mediocre installment of the show.

The big surprise is that Gordon Lightfoot is not, I repeat, not horrible.

I had heard a bit of Lightfoot previously.

In one sense, he is the prefect pairing for Buck Henry:

unassuming, understated, dullish…

Henry, at least, seems aware of his fatherly image and manages to make the presentation work for him.

Lightfoot, while not apparently a comedian, is a sort of breath of fresh air as far as musicians go.

He just gets on there and sings his songs.  Plain and simple.

And his band…whoa!

I thought the MC5 had cornered the market on denim, but Lightfoot’s group is like a Wrangler gang on the prowl.

Tamely…

Hell, Lightfoot’s young lead guitarist sits down for the performance.

This is some m e l l o w stuff.

But not in a druggy sense.

Lightfoot really has a sort of John Denver purity about him.

But really, nothing can compare to Garrett Morris singing Franz Schubert’s “An die Musik” on this show.

It is breathtaking.

It’s one of those special TV moments which catches one completely off-guard.

They just don’t make TV like this anymore.

 

-PD

SNL Season 1 Episode 11 [1976)

Just as Buck Henry had me stumped in the last episode (Buck Who?), Peter Cook threw me for a loop right off the bat here.

Dudley Moore I knew, but Cook?  No idea.  In terms of firsts, this appears to be the first SNL hosted by more than one person (simultaneously).

Cook met Moore while at Cambridge University as a student (Cook) of Radley and (later) Pembroke Colleges.  Moore, on the other hand, was himself a student at Magdalene College (pronounced “maudlin”) of Oxford University.  They started performing together in these school days.

But the act which Cook and Moore were essentially reviving on this night in 1976 was their comedy duo which powered the BBC’s Not Only…But Also (1965-1970).  We can be fairly confident of this based on their throwback chestnut Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling.

Sir Streeb-Greebling’s featured skit (Table Talk) is one of the highlights of this episode.  In it, we learn of the knighted eccentric’s restaurant Frog & Peach (which serves, unsurprisingly, frog…and peaches [exclusively]).  If I remember correctly, the two dishes on the menu are frog à la pêche and, conversely, pêche à la frog.  This bit of absurd, excellent humor is indicative of the talents which Cook and Moore possessed as both writers and comedians.

Cook and Moore additionally did film work together such as Bedazzled (1967).  For all of you Yo La Tengo fans out there, this gives me an opportunity to wax informative on the song “Tom Courtenay”.  It is one of my favorite YLT songs (from the excellent Electr-O-Pura album).  Perusing the lyric sheet of the above song, not only is English actor Courtenay mentioned in the title (the narrative is likely from his perspective) but Julie Christie makes an appearance (her name being the first words sung by Ira Kaplan).  For our purposes, however, it is simply enough to point out that the real “star” of said lyrics (Eleanor Bron) played Margaret Spencer in Bedazzled.

Moving on…

Now that I have spent an inordinate amount of time on Cook and Moore, I should point out something important.  Saturday Night Live in its inaugural season was attracting what might be called B-list entertainers.  To illustrate this point, I would direct readers to my piece on the previous episode.  To have Bill Withers do but one song and have it be a tune from 1971 (on a 1976 broadcast) illustrates this point which has a parallel in Cook and Moore (who were ostensibly rehashing material from their show which ran 1965-1970).

But credit must be given to the comedic duo in question who persevered and relocated to New York City in 1973.  They did, in fact, win a Tony and Grammy for their production Good Evening.  This success was parlayed (partially) into a more risqué act where they assumed the personalities Derek and Clive.  In total, this new incarnation was featured on three LPs (that would be, for the young’uns, VI-NYL/RE-CORDS).

Ok, so Cook and Moore weren’t totally washed up.  That much is obvious when seeing this episode.  In fact, I find their humor much more effective than most of the hacks which preceded them as hosts.  The “One Legged Tarzan” skit near the top of the show exemplifies their shrewd method of laugh-getting.

It should also be mentioned that stars on one side of the pond aren’t necessarily stars on the other.  And so, dear readers, you must forgive my ignorance regarding Cook.  I have now done my research.

I should mention a further two bits.  Cook himself went on to work with some of my favorite musical acts (Sparks and 10cc).  That Ron Mael, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme saw something in this chap is good enough for me.

Again, the separation between British and American entertainment really can’t be overemphasized.  I know there is a Doctor Who craze in the States now, but (back to Peter Cook) this bloke had a bleeding planet named after him in 1999 [20468 Petercook].

Furthermore, I am ashamed to say that I needed Wikipedia to tell me that Mr. Cook gave the world “mayorwidge” as the clergyman in The Princess Bride (1987).

Ok, ok…enough about Cook.  [I’ve hardly said a word about Moore, but we must press on.]

This is generally a great episode (with the notable exception of Neil Sedaka).  I really don’t want to hate on this guy, but his repertoire…ugh. And his sartorial choices (burgundy velvet jacket).  The jacket would have been great if he didn’t have Meathead’s haircut (Rob Reiner…Archie Bunker).  [“And now I would like to impersonate the Archie Bunker.  (…)  Tank you veddy much.”]

To be fair, Sedaka had talent.  Singing voice?  Check.  Piano chops?  Check.  But the schmaltz gluing it all together is what made it unpalatable.  Not to mention, what was an MOR guy like this doing on such a counterculture show as SNL?  Look to the corner office, my friend…the corner office.

On the whole, a great episode.  Just bite the bullet when Neil starts crooning 🙂

 

-PD

 

 

SNL Season 1 Episode 10 [1976)

“…I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know…”

Ah, Bill Withers.  A lyrical genius.  And though I kid, I mean it.  This section of “Ain’t No Sunshine” is one of the most tense portions of pop music ever laid down on tape.  In case you’re wondering, there’s 26 “I know”s.

And indeed, the powerful Mr. Withers performed this very song on SNL backed up by Howard Shore’s band to amazing dramatic effect.

Now, if you have been following along with my clinically-insane review of the entire Saturday Night Live oeuvre (or canon, if you will) you will know that the musical guests thus far had been:

Billy Preston, Janis Ian, Simon & Garfunkel, Randy Newman, Phoebe Snow, Esther Philips , ABBA, Loudon Wainwright III, Gil Scott-Heron, and Anne Murray.  [Hopefully I didn’t leave anyone out.]

I mention them again because almost all of them (with the notable exception of Simon & Garfunkel) were pushing product.  To use the terminology which Kurt Cobain so presciently keyed in on, they were attempting to be “radio friendly unit shifters”.  Shift those units.  Move that product.

This is significant when viewing Bill Withers’ performance.  “Ain’t No Sunshine” was from his 1971 album Just As I Am (that’s five years before this broadcast).  He’d had at least four albums come out since 1971.  He would have a fifth released in 1976.  And though he only got to perform one song, he went back to his big hit.

It makes me wonder whose idea that was.  Lorne Michaels?  Perhaps even a wily A&R man trying a counterintuitive tactic.  Kinda like, “Hey…I’m Bill Withers.  Remember me?”

All…that…having…been…said:

this is a fantastic episode!!!

I must admit I had no idea who Buck Henry was upon viewing this.

Pierre Henry?  Of course.  But Buck Henry?  No way.

Sure, I’d seen The Graduate, but paying attention to who the screenwriter was had to be the last thing on my mind as the credits rolled.

I like films without scripts.  Godard.

The only script I can honestly say I’ve ever read out of admiration for the film (and writing) is Ernest Lehman’s fantastic North by Northwest (brought to the screen, of course, by Alfred Hitchcock).

To make a short story long, Buck Henry is an amazing actor.

I don’t know to what extent he was involved in the writing of skits for this episode, but I can confidently say that this show surpasses all the others before it.

What is more, Buck Henry is ten times the actor that is Elliott Gould (the previous week’s host).

So, there.  Buck Henry is great.  From his role in John Belushi’s Samurai Delicatessen to his part as Gerald Ford’s aide in the Oval Office.

Speaking of these two skits, they are certainly among the highlights (if not the outright best two).

Belushi was improving with every episode.  From Samurai Hotel came Samurai Delicatessen.  It is an artful role on par with the talent of Peter Sellers.

The extra portion Belushi brought to the table was his singing (yes, singing).  We heard him earlier in the debut season doing a send-up of Joe Cocker.  In the episode under consideration, Belushi and Dan Aykroyd debut a proto version of The Blues Brothers…in bee costumes!

I must say that their performance of “I’m a King Bee” is infused with the punk spirit which was then coursing through the veins of New York City.  Belushi takes his breaks from singing as opportunities to do ridiculous, stumbling cartwheels around the stage.

This is one thing for which you have to give the Not Ready for Prime Time Players credit:  they would do anything for a laugh.

The precedent had been set early on by Chevy Chase.  No one could fall quite like Chevy, and thus it was natural for him to portray the unlucky Gerald Ford.

One of Chevy’s real miracles was a failed attempt (as Ford) to put the star on a 15-foot Christmas tree.  I don’t know if Chase had stunt training, but his falls are impressively wild.

But again, in this episode we see Chase developing his comic timing and humorous subtleties which he would later parlay into a successful movie career.  Chase’s portrayal of Ford is particularly smooth (peppered, of course, with appropriately clunky dementia).

Two more bits bear mentioning.  Michael O’Donoghue’s anti-impression illustrates all that was good about the early days of SNL.  It’s flailing about, but it is such a refreshing flailing.

And finally, I must mention that Toni Basil returned to the show (after making an appearance earlier in the season with the dance troupe The Lockers).  This time Basil does some great scat singing (and, of course, dancing) on the old tune “Wham”…(re bop boom bam).

It’s an impressive performance with a touch of Cyd Charisse in the choreography.

Bravo SNL!

 

-PD