August 5th, 2008

Tom Lehrer is Smug

(no subject)

The third season of Saturday Night Live is out in a DVD box set and my goal to watch the entire early run continues on apace, which is a good thing. I watched the first three episodes last night (Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn and Hugh Hefner) and will yammer about them later this afternoon, but let me bring about an aura of foreboding by telling you this:

The most disturbing part about SNL's 1977-1978 season was not Hugh Hefner singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" during his opening monologue (nor was it Laraine Newman cavorting about as the Femlin during the cold opening.)

Gee. I hope I haven't set the foreboding bar a little too high here.
Tom Lehrer is Smug

now get outta here, you knuckleheads, I mean it

I'm halfway through the fourth episode of SNL season 3. Charles Grodin is host, and it's his first and only time on the show. It's pretty much a trainwreck whenever Grodin is on screen. During the week of production Grodin missed rehearsals (which they mention during the cold opening and his monologue) and his lack of preparation shows. He can't take his eyes off the cue cards, and his performance is so bad in some cases he stops sketches cold and ad-libs. However, this is combined with the intentional running joke of Grodin's complete lack of preparation, and at times you can't tell where the put-ons stop and Grodin's actual incompetence begins. In Samurai Drycleaner, for instance, Grodin accidentally reads Belushi's lines (which, while incomprehensible Japanese-ish mutterings, are apparently written on the cards for others' cues) and then breaks character to compliment John on his costume. Later on he stops a Killer Bees cold and asks "Can we do that over?" to which the cast tells him no, he can't, it's live. His only truly funny bit is dressing up as Art Garfunkel and sitting onstage with musical guest Paul Simon, trying to sing Garfunkel's high parts, only to have Art himself come onstage and Grodin stop it, take the wig off and do something else.

It's pretty clear to me that the intentional jokes were brought about to cover the unintentional gaffes. Grodin was subsequently banned from the show (well, he was "never asked back", an act which puts him above the hordes of one-shot guest hosts who just, well, never hosted again.)

I am eagerly awaiting the episode featuring Miskel Spillman, the 90-year-old winner of the "Anyone Can Host" contest, as it features what is arguably one of my favorite moments in Saturday Night Live history: Elvis Costello's bait-and-switch trick, stopping Less Than Zero ("I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song here") and going into Radio Radio. Costello was banned as well for this stunt, but not so much for performing a song that NBC didn't want on the air as for running long, throwing off the show's schedule and really pissing off Lorne Michaels.

Oh! But the most disturbing part of the third season? Well. You're gonna laugh, but it's the opening credits sequence. No, seriously. Stop that. NBC apparently wanted something new to kick off the show, replacing Edie Baskin's iconic opening sequence images with... titles generated from the then-brand spankin' new humongous Spectracolor billboard looming over Times Square. The little clusters of light bulbs, each cluster representing a pixel of color, must have looked amazingly new and space-age when it first came out. Remember the Astrodome scoreboard, with the amber lights and the "fireworks" and HOME RUN!! in big flashing letters? Well, the Spectracolor board kicked its ass because it could do fireworks in FOUR COLORS. I can't find any background information on the original board, but to me it looks as if the thing was controlled with an Apple II series computer, for the graphics closely resemble those you could make in the II's high-res mode.

This does not, however, excuse the fact that the opening sequence is random, cheesy and hideous. Now, granted, the technology was brand new (this is 30-year-old tech we're talking about now) and the original Spectracolor sign is still a beloved memory of literally dozens of New Yorkers, but that doesn't mean the low-resolution images and transitions aren't, and weren't completely cheesy. It's as if Strong Bad had The Cheat design the titles for a pat on the head and a trophy cup full of Steak-Ums. Most horrifying of all are the attempts at photorealistic images of the cast members. Oh lord. Just look for yourself.

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Someone must have really loved this sign. Or they signed a contract. Or something. I can see how the inclusion of the sign would've been a novel concept in 1977, but it's a real failure here.

It was pretty clear that the graphics were, well, sub-par to say the least, and the credits sequence changed after the first episode. The second episode doesn't feature closeups of the castmembers' faces; instead, the camera is placed on the street looking up at the sign and each castmember walks by, looks at their image, and tries very hard not to laugh or punch someone. By the fourth episode the Spectracolor screen is still there but the caricatures are gone, the titles are in a larger, more colorful font, and the castmembers just interact with their names from the street (Murray tries to throw a shadow puppet onto the screen, and Gilda gets to eat her apple.)

There have been many, many, many iterations of the SNL opening sequence, from the sequence of the 80s where the cast loomed over the New York skyline (computer-generated as well and designed by Charlex, the company who did the Cars' "You Might Think" video and the opening to "Mr. Wizard's World") to the single-shot POV a few years back (do a shot with Horatio Sanz! watch Tina Fey push you out of her way!) Some sequences have been bland or benign, others memorable and unique, but I think this one -- at least, the first episode's sequence -- takes the cake as the worst. Judging from the quick changes made to it, I see I wasn't alone in thinking this.