SNL Season 1 Episode 22 [1976)

Elliott Gould improved.

I dished it out pretty severely concerning his first go at hosting this show, but he was much better here.

I suppose part of the lesson was to stay out of the way of The Not Ready For Prime Time Players.

But also, there’s just something unique about the format of this show (especially when it is/was done live).

First things first, however.  I forgot to mention a very important part of the preceding episode.  Gilda Radner’s turn as Baba Wawa (Barbara Walters) in conversation with Lina Wertmüller was high humor indeed.  So, yes:  a reason to back up one to episode 21.

Pushing ahead…

The highlights here are mostly thanks to John Belushi.

His performance as William Shatner in a Star Trek parody is pretty remarkable (though Chevy Chase as Spock really cracks me up).

Second, the employment of The Bees (a long-running gag on SNL) to populate a parody of The Honeymooners television show is also rather stellar.  Belushi takes the part of Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason’s old role) and does quite well.

But the singular aspect of this episode is the skit involving U.S. diplomacy in Ghana.  In particular, it stars Laraine Newman as Shirley Temple (aka Shirley Temple Black [aka U.S. Ambassador {to Ghana} Black]).  She was ambassador from 1974-1976.  The skit pokes fun at the idea that a former child star (Temple) could make a substantive difference in such a conflicted country.

Shirley Temple Black would go on to be the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989-1992.

What is less-clear is the role which the supporting cast plays in the aforementioned skit.

Acheampong?  I don’t know.  My ears were not quick enough.

But I know one thing…

Like the Lina Wertmüller skit from the previous episode, this was an attempt at far-reaching humor.  In retrospect, it is very valuable indeed.  I wish I could give a more cogent breakdown on the Ghana feature.

But at least I can tell you that musical guest Leon Redbone (himself also returning to the show for a second time in this Season #1) is excellent as one might expect.  He is, incidentally, joined on the tuba (as he was the first appearance) by Jonathan Dorn.  The combination is quite nice…just a parlor guitar and that New Orleans low end.

Less convincing is the supplementary musical act (in addition to Redbone’s two songs) Harlan Collins and Joyce Everson.  To be fair, Mr. Collins gets off to a bit of a shaky start with some of his acrobatic falsetto jumps.  Ms. Everson, on the other hand, is both poised with pristine singing and exquisite beauty.  My main complaint is the song.  It’s just not very good.  It only exacerbates the situation when Howard Shore is wanking on soprano sax for a large chunk of the song (and he is).

On the other hand, the extra musical act means less of Elliott Gould.  That’s a good thing (even though he had tweaked his game since attempt #1 [Episode 9]).  All in all, not a bad showing.

 

-PD

 

SNL Season 1 Episode 19 [1976)

The show was really rolling by this point.

The sets are more elaborate.

The budget seems to have increased.

And the humor is worth it.

The cold opening (I’ve avoided that term for the first 18 episodes) is a killer.

Chevy Chase (of course) as Ronald Reagan…prefiguring the stilted-hip of Bill Clinton on Arsenio Hall by a decade and change.

What we learn…Chevy can actually play the organ.  Some nice B-3 licks.

But the killer is Garrett Morris’ priceless contribution.

Like a silent film actor, Morris takes each condescending, racist jab from Reagan and grows more and more outraged…in such a believable Miles Davis kind of way (if we ignore the alto sax he’s holding).

What a start to a great episode!

Morris is in another high-art bit of humor later…for the fake donation solicitation Fondue Pots For Namibia.  Yes, it sounds like the title of a Zappa song (or perhaps Captain Beefheart), yet it is Saturday night variety show humor from 1976 at its best.  Bloody genius!

Some of the more elaborate skits are guest host Madeline Kahn as the “bride of Frankenstein” singing Leonard Bernstein’s “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story.  Howard Shore and band are great in this skit (especially pianist/vocalist Paul Schaffer…of future Letterman fame).

Another amazing skit involves Dan Aykroyd as Richard Nixon.  Rounding out this bizarre, vast set piece is John Belushi as Henry Kissinger.

Now for the bad.  Carly Simon is godawful in her first prerecorded number “Half a Chance”.  I mean, really godawful.

What is apparent over the course of the show is that Madeline Kahn was a much better singer than Carly.

At least Simon somewhat redeems herself on the ubiquitous “You’re So Vain”.  It’s obvious Carly had talent.  She has a great, soulful voice.  Not sure what the problem was on “Half a Chance”.  Perhaps it was the cheesy, out-of-tune, canned backing vocals.  Also, the song is a clunker.

Alternately, I could listen to the line “…clouds in my coffee” from now till eternity.  It has that 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle vibe to it which is truly profound…the transcendental moment of spotting a microcosm in the mundane.

As The Mighty Favog said, “Talk to me…”

 

-PD

SNL Season 1 Episode 12 [1976)

Wikipedia generally gives a nice overview of some of these early Saturday Night Live episodes, but not in this case.

Even so, that’s alright.

We’ll make do.

It might be enough to focus on the divide between droll host Dick Cavett (his pitch for “his” Nebraska Pimp book as part of “Looks on Books” kinda sums it up) and impassioned musical guest Jimmy Cliff.

Cavett is that sort of personality that everyone likes.  Always a warm smile.  A wry smile, perhaps.  A smart guy, but not too smart.  Cavett was, in some ways, in the exact middle of the cultural road.

He was just hip enough to be marginally “with it” in a revolutionary era (witness the Weekend Update attempts to cover “war-torn” Luanda, Angola) steaming with frustration.

And so the natural way to play off his image is to have him do risqué things.  For example, the skit “Our Town” substitutes New York City for the Grover’s Corners of playwright Thornton Wilder.

Cavett describes the more prurient details of NYC.  At one point, it is fairly obvious that he is describing the old Times Square full of sex shops and massage parlors.  As always, the exercise of watching this show gives us an opportunity to reflect on days gone by.  For example, this must have been around the time of a sanitation workers strike in the Big Apple.

[Speaking of Big Apple, the home movie sent in by someone (whose name I have forgotten) makes nice use of apples (and plums) as actors in a stop-motion Super-8 experiment.]

But yes…Dick Cavett is kind of like a bathroom sanitizer.  You’re glad he’s there (when the place is sullied), but he is generally harmless and flavorless.

What is staggering about this episode is that I remember a friend from college who (on second thought) reminds me quite a bit of Cavett.  The craziest part is that Jimmy Cliff does a song in this episode which played a part in my college days (funny enough, in relation to the aforementioned gentleman).

It’s funny how the mundane can make us sentimental.  However, Jimmy Cliff is not at all himself mundane on the song in question:  “Many Rivers to Cross”.

Jimmy Cliff couldn’t be more different in persona from Dick Cavett.  Cliff delivers the first great, desperate performance in SNL history.  Sure, Simon & Garfunkel were great in the early season, but they were pretty…composed…easily poised.

On “Many Rivers to Cross” Jimmy Cliff sings like his life depends on it.  The guitars are out of tune.  The drummer is barely in control of the song.  A bongo player (who alternates on timbales…with brushes) adds a bit of flavor.  The SNL horns (Howard Shore’s band) add some nice stabs and swells of excitement.

But it is Jimmy Cliff.  Singing right in tune.  Dead serious.  Pinging each note in absolute perfection.

Closing his eyes.  Lifting his head back.  Singing so the veins bulge out in his neck.  …ending the performance out of breath.

Cliff absolutely deserved to perform the three songs he did on this episode.  However, neither of the other two match the intensity of “Many Rivers to Cross”.

And so it takes me back.

These memories I mentioned.  They’re important to me.

If I’d only chosen to have my taxes done by H. & L. Brock…I coulda been a contenda.

How do we become losers?

Is it from the very first hand we’re dealt?

Some things feel like a lost cause.

Life is unkind.  Sometimes.

But what I want to know is…will it pay off?

Jimmy Cliff was ready when the opportunity arose.

How significant was this performance for the acceptance of reggae in America?

It doesn’t matter.

Those questions don’t matter.

What matters is what each one of us feels…in little moments of reflection.

I’d like to think that I’d belt it out just like Jimmy Cliff.

That’s when you give it all you have.

It’s when your passion raises you head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s a passion.  A hunger.  Of going from nothing to something.

I think quite a few of us feel like nothings.

It’s all we ever get to be.

We’re behind.

I can only speak for myself.

No wife.  No kids.

In school for the millionth time.

And my dreams seem light years away…in the rearview mirror.

Will I find them again down the road?

Is this a loop?  A mere episode?

 

-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

 

 

 

SNL Season 1 Episode 6 [1975)

This one ain’t very good either.

Yikes.

It’s really a cost-cutting episode.

Sure, we don’t mind a replay of a good commercial (like the one for Triopenin).

But to replay an Albert Brooks film?!?  And not even the “surgeon for a day” one???

Ugh.

But the cost cutting didn’t stop there.

Again, there’s not really a musical guest this time.

But I do have to tell you why this episode is worth watching.

Two words.

Lily Tomlin.

She is amazing as the host!!!  What talent!  What pizazz!

Her contributions are all pretty stellar.

But let’s get back to that cost cutting.

Howard Shore was already the band leader.

So to have Howard Shore & the All-Nurse Band as the musical guest is really cheap.  Frugal.  Kinda lame.

I mean, it’s a funny bit to see the cross-dressing band members, but it wears pretty thin pretty quickly.

And Lily Tomlin.

She’s an awesome host.  A fabulous actress!  But do we really want to hear her sing “St. James Infirmary”?  Not particularly.

It’s not that she’s a bad singer.  She’s quite good.  And so is Garrett Morris.  And Gilda Radner.  And Chevy Chase.  And Laraine Newman.

But we don’t tune in to hear them sing.  We tune in to see them work their comedic magic.  [Actually, Lily’s duet with the Muppet known as Scred is quite sweet and heartwarming.]

There is, however, a bit of dilettantism which does work in this episode.

And that is, namely, John Belushi as Beethoven.

It is a classic bit.

Belushi really did have a grasp on what made silent films fantastic.

Facial expressions.

And so Beethoven experiments with a little boogie-woogie.

The anachronism of it all makes us grin.  And those are the skits which are the cream rising to the top of this whole affair.

 

-PD

SNL Season 1 Episode 3 [1975)

From the musical smörgåsbord of episode 2 to the absolute lack of musical guests in episode 3…SNL was a work in progress.  Even the name, Saturday Night, had yet to add the “Live”.

We do, however, get some music thanks to a few unlikely candidates.  The first is host Rob Reiner.  It’s almost as if Rob were goofing on Tony Clifton (in retrospect).  Yes, a pretty decent lounge act by Reiner gives us a swing version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Howard Shore and his band backing up.  [Not exactly Arturo Toscanini, Studio 8H’s famous former inhabitant, but pretty competent stuff from Shore.]

John Belushi tops Reiner with an impersonation of Joe Cocker.  It’s really pretty outstanding!

Also in the musical, or dance, category are The Lockers (as in poppin’ and lockin’).  Formed in part by Toni Basil (who would go on to have a hit with “Mickey” in 1982), The Lockers bring that inimitable breakdancing which one might witness (even to this day) on subway cars in New York City.  It really is an astounding art!

And finally, the musical stand-ins are rounded out by one of my heroes Andy Kaufman doing a lip-sync of a very difficult, dialogue-peppered “Pop Goes the Weasel” recording (Roud Folk Song Index number 5249).

Though she appears only a small amount, Penny Marshall adds to the night’s fun festivities (she was Reiner’s wife).

“The Bees,” a running gag through the first three shows, finally score some points as Belushi gives a soliloquy while his slinky antennae list to and fro.  Quite a genius juxtaposition!

We must remember that Al Franken was one of the original writers.

“The Land of Gorch” Muppet sketches continue (a bit I quite like).

But the real highlight of this episode is Albert Brooks’ film on heart surgery (as much as I hate to admit it).  Brooks’ first two contributions to this series were painfully lackluster, but then he pulls the rabbit out of the hat with quite a jaw-dropping bit of humor.

All in all, these episodes are a joy to watch.  What an American treasure!

 

-PD