I’ve had this idea in my head since last weekend and am just writing it now. In part that’s because I had a crazy week at work. It’s also because I’ve gotten better at fending off the urge to write, I think.
I continue to dig up items of great interest and questionable legality from the Internet Archive … which only redoubles my digging there, as I’m convinced the whole shebang is going to fall afoul of a copyright suit one of these years and get itself completely disappeared.
As I type this, there are 938 episodes of Saturday Night Live uploaded to some user’s account. Some user’s account that’s not NBC, that is. Clearly, this account is a house not built to stand.
But that hasn’t stopped me from rummaging around in it while it’s there. I have, for instance, watched all three of the Kinks’ appearances and one of the Grateful Dead’s (the one from April 1980 with Bob Weir wearing the rabbit ears; I still have to catch up with the Dead’s performance from November 1978.)
As for full episodes: Faced with an embarrassment of riches, I went straight for the gold. Season 3, Episode 13, aired March 11, 1978. Guest host: Art Garfunkel. Musical guest: Stephen Bishop.
Just as I used to live-blog American Top 40 episodes (and may yet again), I thought it would be fun to semi-sorta-live-blog this episode from one of SNL’s halcyon periods and see what I thought. Take the ride with me, if you want. For the time being, the show lives here; who knows how long it stays there.
Opening: After one of those crass “will not be shown tonight” special-presentation parodies, we take a left turn into “Modern Crimes,” a silent-movie parody with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as grave-robbers, Bill Murray as a daft cop, and Gilda Radner as a corpse with a secret. (Of course Gilda gets to deliver the end-of-sketch payoff line, which you all know.)
In a subtly subversive moment, one of Belushi’s silent outbursts is captioned, “Let’s Get Out of Here!” It’s clear from lip-reading that his actual line has more syllables than that, and one of them appears to be the word that did in Charles Rocket’s career less than three years later. It seems possible that Belushi could have been the first person to say “fuck” on Saturday Night Live — except he did it in a context where no one could hear it.
After Gilda comes alive, we roll to the credits, which in 1978 basically consisted of names and titles displayed on a big scoreboard-style computerized screen. (Oh, look, Andy Kaufman’s on this week too.) The Players follow: Aykroyd swigs from a paper bag, Jane Curtin grins winningly against a big-city background of twinkling headlights, Belushi and Laraine Newman both come up the subway steps and do double-takes, and Radner bites girlishly into an apple.
“Monologue”: Our man Artie comes out, boyish as ever. He picks up a mic and goes into “What a Wonderful World,” only to be interrupted by a burst of feedback. This brings Belushi up on stage to complain that SNL gets crappy equipment and poor treatment from NBC; he urges Garfunkel not to put up with it.
It seems to me that it might have been funny for Art the perennial babyface to join Belushi’s revolution. I imagine him destroying a Pepsi machine with a folding chair and then coming back onstage to howl and scratch his way through “Surfin’ Bird.” But, that’s not where the writers (or Art) went.
Instead, Garfunkel the trouper insists that it’s no big deal and the show must go on … whereupon Belushi turns heel and insults Garfunkel at great and biting length for his obeisance, his choice of solo material, and eventually even his hair. It’s funny, and it kinda isn’t.
The original SNL traced its comic roots to National Lampoon — a magazine famous for dragging counterculture icons like Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan alongside Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover — and this skit feels like an heir to that, with a revered ’60s youth figure not immune to the arrows of satire.
I dunno. My favorite part of the skit is still when Belushi finally packs off and Garfunkel, left alone at last, finishes “What a Wonderful World,” his voice caressing the chorus.
Commercial parody: A watch called the Kromega III, so complex it takes two people and three hands to wring the time and date out of it. Being old enough to remember the feature-laden digital watch as status symbol, I can see the humor, but you definitely have to be Of A Certain Age to get the gag in 2021.
Tomorrow with Tom Snyder: Unfortunately, I am not of an age to remember the TV host Tom Snyder. As a result, Aykroyd’s fast-talking, chain-smoking impersonation — accurate as it probably was in 1978 — soars several dozen feet over my head.
And as soon as I see that the face of Snyder’s guest is obscured in shadow, I can guess the gag of the entire skit: The guest’s identity is going to be inadvertently revealed and connected with the embarrassingly personal secret he came on TV to discuss.
The skit unrolls exactly as I expected. Since the gag is so predictable and one-note, the only other source of humor is Aykroyd’s Tom Snyder impression. And … yeah, we just went over that.
(For whatever reason, Aykroyd-as-Snyder is the first person on the show whose face I see and think, “Damn, doesn’t he look young?”)
Musical guest: Artie introduces his good friend Bish, who does his big hit “On and On.” It sounds pretty much like the record, right down to the pedal steel. There’s a rowboat at the front of the set for a sort of sub-Jimmy Buffett feel.
(In March 1978, Bishop had completed filming his memorable cameo in Animal House, although the movie wouldn’t be out until July. I’m guessing he’d already written and recorded the theme song, as well. Maybe he and his buddy Belushi traded shots of tequila backstage.)
“Miracle in Chicago”: My limited perception of SNL in recent years (since I stopped watching and started picking up tidbits on social media) is that the writers seem to love caricaturing Bostonians. The original show had strong ties to Chicago, though, which come through here. This skit features native Chicagoans Bill Murray as a construction worker and Belushi as a risen-from-the-dead “Mare” Richard Daley, with Aykroyd joining in as an Irish publican.
People with soft spots for all things Chicago (and white Irish Chicago, to be specific) probably found it hilarious; the rest of the country, maybe not so much. It seems in retrospect like the entire thing might have been an excuse for Aykroyd and Murray to take a couple of swigs of on-camera, mid-show beer.
“Roadie”: not sure if this skit has a formal title so I’ll call it that. Belushi plays a self-important, jerky KISS roadie who turns a string of would-be entrants away from the backstage door while the band performs. (Garfunkel’s appearance is priceless: He walks up with a parachute in hand and announces himself as Paul Stanley’s brother who serves in the Air Force and bailed out over the city specifically to come wish him happy birthday. He doesn’t get in.)
Belushi’s character is named Steve Parish, which is a rock n’ roll in-joke: The real-life “Big Steve” Parish was a Grateful Dead roadie for almost 30 years, whose responsibilities included keeping unwanted people at arm’s length (or further) from Jerry Garcia. The skit was supposedly inspired by a real-life encounter between Parish and SNL writers Al Franken and Tom Davis. Whether that backstory is a cool bit of pop-culture trivia, or an example of pop culture becoming inbred, self-referential and recursive, is a matter of taste.
(The bit ends, inevitably, with Parish trying to go backstage for a beer, only to have the venue’s security guard tell him he’s not on the list. As the camera pulls away from the resultant mob scene, we see an on-screen gag: “Coming up next … The Anorexia Cookbook.” Talk to me again about the genius of early SNL, won’t you?)
Weekend Update: Hershey Highway, the candy that’s turned America’s taste around for 50 years, is the sponsor. Seems to me that if the 1980-81 Jean Doumanian season of SNL had run with that gag, it would still be cited on the Internet today as a common example of cheap bad taste.
It’s not really fair to judge the topical part of the show through 2021 eyes … but some of the jokes here are still pretty funny, like the one about the corrupt small-town police force moving en masse to Philadelphia (a bit with much more regional authenticity and bite than that fantasia involving Mayor Daley).
Garrett Morris gets a “science” spot that’s screamingly unfunny; Bill Murray gets a smarmy “movie review” that he carries off well, perhaps his best moment in the entire show.
“All I Know”: Accompanied by a pianist and cellist (!), Art G. ditches the parachute and returns for a foreshortened rendition of his big 1973 hit. It’s drained of its original drama in this small-group version, but still gorgeous. Which leads directly into …
“Scarborough Fair.” Art pulls up a stool and sings a solo version of the old S&G chestnut, accompanied by acoustic guitar and cello. In October 1975, Garfunkel appeared on the second episode of SNL to reunite with Paul Simon on this and other songs; now, he gets the spotlight to himself.
I can’t help but miss the otherworldly harmony … but at the same time, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this version in sound or visual presentation. Let it be remembered: The dude could sing.
“Looks at Books”: A takeoff of the then-current best-seller Whatever Happened to the Class of ’65? features Gilda Radner and Bill Murray as their Nerd characters Lisa and Todd, plugging their book Whatever Happened to the Class of ’77? (Jane Curtin is marvelously shallow as the hostess: “Well, I have to admit that I haven’t read the book yet, but it sounds *exciting*!”)
I’m not sure whether the Murray and Radner characters are supposed to be mildly mentally disabled, or hideously socially awkward and also not tremendously smart. If it’s the first case, no sale; if it’s the second case, it’s a little more tolerable, if not all that funny.
Schiller’s Reel, “Don’t Look Back in Anger”: The famous black-and-white film short in which an aged Belushi visits the SNL cemetery, where all his peers are buried, to share their fates and muse about why he outlasted them.
The answer turns out to be, “‘Cause I’m a dancer!” — whereupon Belushi casts aside his cane and bursts into a triumphant dance to the tune of what sounds like Albanian wedding music. The last thing we see is Belushi, hands raised like a heavyweight champion, twirling in victorious circles as the camera pulls away.
Of course Belushi’s early death ensured a bitter and ironic legend for this segment. But even seen through 1978 eyes, as best one can, this is still a tour de force — weird, unexpected, audacious. It not only reminds us that we’re watching actors; it plots out the paths of their future lives, choosing one of their number as the narrator.
One of the books about SNL (Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s, I think) claims that Dan Aykroyd’s colleagues weren’t jealous of his flights of fancy like “Bass-O-Matic ’76;” instead, they sort of quietly conceded that they would never have thought of anything so off-the-wall. I’d like to think that the cast took the same attitude toward filmmaker Tom Schiller’s production here.
Seen from the long view of 2021, the film has also done a 180-degree turn and acquired something of a happy ending: It reminds the viewer that, with the exception of Gilda Radner, all those Seventies cast members survived their live-fast-die-young years and, as of this typing, are still with us.
(Yes, a small voice inside my head pointed out, “Actually, George Coe’s dead.” But I’ve gotten a lot better at stifling that voice as I get older.)
Andy Kaufman: Introduced by Art in what must be the only time these two gentlemen shared a stage, Kaufman gets 10 minutes of network time to read from The Great Gatsby. I was prepared not to like it but I was won over. This is the Metal Machine Music of comedy, completely obnoxious and yet winning at the same time … and it blows a whole bunch of the SNL writers’ work this week into a cocked hat.
Including the next skit, a commercial parody (did they understand how obvious and poor most of these were?), in which pigtailed little-kid Gilda makes the acquaintance of “The ‘Looking For Mr. Goodbar’ Sleepytime Playset.” “Brings gratuitous sex and random violence into her little world!” I dunno: Does comedy require more than cheap irony, or is it just me?
“Crying In My Sleep”: Art G. sings a number from his then-current album, Watermark. A pretty enough toon, but maybe a questionable choice for 12:50 a.m. on a Sunday. He interpolates a little Everly Brothers on the tag; can’t remember if that’s on the studio version also. Probably.
Finale: There’s less than 10 seconds of it; Art says, “That’s all the time we have. Good night!” and we barely even see credits. The crowd at center stage seems smaller than usual, and only Garrett Morris engages with Art; I’d like to think the rest of the cast had the proper respect for Mr. Garfunkel, but if they didn’t, their loss.
And the saxophone, as it always does, carries us out.