SNL Season 1 Episode 17 [1976)

Why do we review films?  Why do we feel the need to write about that which is expressed as sound and vision?

And why, after experiencing the sublime, do we still get enjoyment out of the mundane?

Why, as in a society with classes or castes, do we persist in dividing art into high and low?

The former we call high art, whereas the latter is pop art (if even that).

We are often unforgiving.

After immersion in Godard (an ongoing activity for me), we somehow still need comedy.

Comedy lets us relax.

If we spend all day thinking, we want to have an occasional laugh.

And so today we are able to re-approach a show like Saturday Night Live by starting from the very beginning.

As an aspiring film critic, I seek to bring the same respect and passion to writing about television as I bring to writing about film.

I will be honest:  I am not a big fan of TV.

Somehow television has often brought out the worst in humanity.

It’s a rather sickening feeling to let the constant stream of disposable culture wash over oneself.

And so I don’t subject myself to such.

The important point to make is that this decision doesn’t make me any better than anyone else.

It’s just simply a choice I make.

Now, how can one possibly come down from such a marbled column to discuss SNL?

Well, fortunately this particular episode breaks the fourth wall in a very unique way.

The host of this night’s show was press secretary to the president of the US (I refuse to capitalize that repugnant position) Ron Nessen.

This was the Ford administration.

Now.  If you want to see a UNIQUE name, check out Nessen’s predecessor Jerald terHorst [sic].  What a mind-trip!

But back to that fourth wall…

Yes, the other Gerald (the big one…G-man) delivers Chevy’s line here.  “Live from New York…”

This was an exceptionally bold move by a White House which had been lambasted mercilessly by SNL since the show’s inception.  Particularly, Gerald Ford showed a strange side of himself by consenting to be taped for a couple of one-liners.

Strangest of all, however, is Nessen (as himself) interacting with Chevy Chase (as President Ford) in the Oval Office.  It was the obvious skit to do.  Aside from the rehashing of the “Dead String Quartet” to start the show, the first real piece was this one.

While some bits in this episode fall flat (“Press Secretaries Throughout History” comes to mind), in all this is a very solid episode.

Perhaps Patti Smith’s presence as musical guest had something to do with the fuck-off tone encountered here and there.

Let’s face it:  SNL (though still called merely Saturday Night) had become such a force that the White House was forced to respond.

And their course of action?

If we can’t be ’em, join ’em.  It’s the old Bugs Bunny phrase I heard a million times as a kid growing up.

What’s not good about this episode?  Billy Crystal (still Bill Crystal at the time).

It’s almost good.  It’s almost great (Crystal’s routine).  But ultimately, it sucks.

Contrast this with the performance of The Patti Smith Group.

“Gloria” is powerful, but it’s a strange rip-off cover.  It’s a rewrite.  Almost a détournement worthy of Guy Debord and the Situationists.

“Gloria” works.  The guitars are blaring loud.  Patti Smith is a true persona here.  Magical.  Visceral.  Pissed-off.

But “My Generation” works less well.  And while it is juvenile and lazy, it still has the genuine energy which would inspire groups like Sonic Youth.

The Patti Smith Group is exciting on both tunes because it feels like they could fail at any moment.  “Excursion on a Wobbly Rail” as Cecil Taylor put it.

Yeah.  That was the name of Lou Reed’s radio show when Lou was a student at Syracuse.

No.  Bill Crystal was no Andy Kaufman.  Bill Crystal was just doing blackface here.  Is it Satchmo?  Miles?  An amalgamation named Pops?

Importantly, it is evident that Crystal has talent.  A lot of talent.  It’s just that he’s not channeling it very well here.  The blackface sans burnt cork doesn’t really become him.  It’s lazy.  Like Patti Smith Group’s “My Generation”.  Crystal isn’t risking much.

Today, Crystal’s routine would probably be called racist.  Yeah…  It’s a little odd.

But Patti Smith comes out on top.  “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/but not mine.”  Wow…

On national TV.  Long before Sinéad ripped up a picture of the Pope.

SNL was dangerous.

But it was also a gas.

Super Bass-o-Matic ’76.

Yeah, Dan Aykroyd took a step forward with this particular show.

Who even remembers Tom Snyder?

It’s of a different generation.  Not my generation.

We dig back in the past.

And this show (SNL) is not complete without the REAL commercials.

I wanna see the Marlboro Man, ads for Scotch, plugs for cars that Ralph Nader found out impaled people upon impact.  The good old days…

The FAKE commercials need the REAL commercials for the whole thing to work.

I’m thinking back to my youth.  When Crystal Pepsi was lampooned as Crystal Gravy.

And so it’s a shame that corporate America couldn’t get together and celebrate their grossly dated marketing of the 1970s by being a part of these reruns. Same criticism falls upon NBC.  Why don’t you give us a REAL glimpse of what watching this show in ’76 must have been like?

Some brands don’t even exist anymore.  Who holds the copyrights to commercials for defunct products?  That’s a lot of work just to give people a more realistic stroll down memory lane.

So it is instructive.

What you see on television today (the whole experience…especially the commercials) will be very quickly (QUICKLY) forgotten tomorrow.  The mundane pieces will fade first.  No one bothered to document them.  Too pervasive.

And then the few gems somehow get lost in the digital landfill.

Gary Weis was way ahead of me with his short film set in a dump.  Sanitation workers.  Garbage men.

Don’t mind me.  I’m just sifting through the detritus.

 

-PD

 

SNL Season 1 Episode 15 [1976)

Starring Jill Clayburgh!!!  Who???

Yeah, kinda like the Jimmy Hoffa Memorial (?) High School.

This is one of those episodes which reminds me that I know a lot more about music than I do about anything else.

Leon Redbone I knew.  Had a record of his as a kid.  The one with “Sheik of Araby” on it.

But back to Jill Clayburgh.

Twice nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.  Ok, see…this brings up my claim to be a film critic.

It’s kinda, “Fake it till you make it.”  I know I’m not a realll film critic, but I take pride in what I do.  I’m an amateur.  It’s a passion.  I’m always seeking to learn.

Well, here’s a great opportunity.

The two films for which she got an Oscar nod?  An Unmarried Woman (this goes back to the play on words I was discussing in an earlier piece…the French word for woman [femme] being the same as the French word for wife [femme]…hence the wordplay of Godard’s Une Femme est une femme [not to mention Une Femme mariée]) and Starting Over.

Please excuse the momentous interpolation.

That is, An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over.  Those career highlights were ahead of Ms. Clayburgh when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 1976.

The auteurs in question were, respectively, Paul Mazursky and Alan J. Pakula (the latter having a surname which is, perhaps, the only conceivable rhyme with Dracula [not counting Blacula]).

Ok, so…apparently this is going to take a lot of parentheses and brackets.

For all of you conspiracy theorists (I usually fall into that category), Clayburgh starred in a 1970 Broadway musical about the Rothschilds (!) called, appropriately, The Rothschilds.  The libretto was by Sherman Yellen.  No easibly-identified relation to Janet.

The end of 1976 would see her in Silver Streak with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.

One further C.V. note:  Clayburgh won (in a tie with Isabelle Huppert) Best Actress at Cannes for An Unmarried Woman.

Ok, so that’s who she is.  A charming lady.  I had no idea who she was.  I’m an idiot 🙂

Sadly, Ms. Clayburgh passed away in 2010 after a 20-year battle with leukemia.

Well, she was pretty great in this episode!  And I must say…SNL once again reached a new height in intelligent writing with this installment.

One really senses that the writers were toying with the censors.  It was dangerous.  It’s impressively counterculture.

One of the funniest skits is Clayburgh as guidance counselor Jill Carson (a fictional personage).  She is the overly-optimistic crusader for social justice.  It is quite a complex, multi-staged piece.  John Belushi plays a delinquent whom Carson (Clayburgh) is attempting to rescue from “squalor”.

The opening sequence of the show, however, really sets the tone for what’s to follow.  Chevy Chase shows up in Lorne Michaels’ office insistent that the pratfalls and “newsman” stuff should be retired.  Chase’s subsequent weave through the studio audience is really priceless.  The comedy is just so damned smart!

Speaking of which, we finally get my hero Andy Kaufman back.  [On the hero worship scale he’s nowhere approaching Jean-Luc Godard (for me), but he’s definitely the comedic actor who (along with Peter Sellers) most got into my head.]

Well, Kaufman here does another lip-sync piece with immaculately-memorized dialogue.  The song is “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and the special part is Andy in a cowboy hat directing the traffic of four audience participants.  It is a sweet piece, and yet it still shows off Andy’s genius as resplendent and unique.

Leon Redbone is really fantastic in his two songs…particularly the first (“Ain’t Misbehavin'”) where he conjures the “me and the radio” loneliness at the heart of a usually-raucous song.

One of the weirdest sequences is a visit by The Idlers (a singing group of the United States Coast Guard Academy).  The show’s producer (Michaels) and writers take the opportunity to remind the viewing audience that dolphins are definitely smarter than The Warren Commission.  No doubt!

It’s a strange, bold sequence.  Chase’s Weekend Update is similarly racy (particularly the bit about the Mattel anatomically-correct male dolls…in white and black…the former $6 and the latter $26.95 or something).  Good god…

Most necessary was the political prodding.  Michaels begins the show with a photo of Nixon on his desk.  By Weekend Update, it is the People’s Republic of China which is pardoning Nixon for Watergate (and Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead, of course).

But I must admit my ignorance once again.  I had no idea Gary Weis’ (sp?) film featured William Wegman (!)…  The dog should have given it away.  Duh!

Well, anyway…thanks to Wikipedia for a generally informative blurb about this episode (though I have expanded upon that information quite a bit).

The running series Great Moments In Herstory punctuate this episode at various intervals.  Particularly risqué is the Sigmund Freud (Dan Aykroyd) and daughter Anna (Laraine Newman) dream interpretation featuring a titillating banana.  A later episode highlights Indira Gandhi and father Jawaharlal Nehru.  It is a bit of a clunker…

Walter Williams’ famous Mr. Bill debuted on this episode as part of the solicited home movies from viewers.  Williams and Mr. Bill would become a significant part of the show in the coming years.

Once again, this episode is not to be missed.  It was an essential step for a show on the rise.

 

-PD