August 5th, 2008
|09:55 pm - 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.
It's Saturday Night Live!
So far, so not so terrible. The little marquee lights are animated and by 1977 standards, must've been a real treat to anyone bombed out on their designer drug of choice.
POW!! This is where the fun starts, kids! This is where the show really turns counter-culture and wacky! The logo explodes with a BRILLIANT COMIC BOOK POW into the name of this week's host.
Starring Steve Martin!
(Okay, I do have to give props to the "modern" NBC logo on the border. The N would be featured prominently in Weekend Update, as a tapdancing news courier. No kidding.)
Then there's an American flag in the shape of the United States FOR NO REASON!
Then it turns into the Statue of Liberty, a somewhat slightly well-known New York City landmark (it's on an island by the southern tip of Manhattan, if you didn't know. You should see it sometime. It's kinda neat.)
But what's this? A hand slyly and slowly reaches towards the Statue of Liberty, there's some AMAZING MORPHING ANIMATION of all of five frames...
...and the statue turns into... A MICROPHONE! How wacky and zany! What a complete surprise! Who was expecting that? Raise your hands!
It turns out that the microphone has appeared to signify tonight's musical guest, which in this case is Jackson Browne (who performs Running on Empty and The Pretender, and does a darn fine job of it.)
Then there's some business involving that Crazy Magic Hand pulling up the New York City skyline like it was a curtain, revealing the name of the supporting act of the night, which in this case was Franken and Davis. And speaking of Franken and Davis, while they get their own Spectracolor name title just like Steve Martin, they also get the benefit of an actually good caricature treatment during the actual show with this wonderful 1960s-esque title card, evoking Rowan & Martin or Flanders & Swann:
Now that's brilliant. But we can't have brilliant right now. Back to the stupid!
Back to the worst part of it all: The introduction of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players! Here comes the pain, folks. Here comes some of the WORST CARICATURES YOU'VE EVER SEEN. I will concede that perhaps some of the fault lies in the low resolution, but really, there's no way this could not have been embarrassing to anyone involved. I had briefly toyed with the idea of just showing you the faces and having you guess which SNL star they were supposed to represent, but felt it diminished from the impact of it all.
AND THE NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME PLAYERS:
Looking very blonde and handsome and completely unlike Aykroyd at all! Did they screw up and put Bruce Jenner's face in there instead?
Now I'll mention right here that it was completely obvious to the production team that these caricatures were horrible. So in the hopes of reinforcing proper identification they superimposed each castmember's face over each title, and it looked like this:
John has every right to look pissed since his caricature looks like Roseanne Roseannadanna, and she hasn't even been on the show yet.
Jane gets a pass on this one, honestly. It's not so bad, even if that barrette makes her look like Marcia Brady.
I'm glad Don Pardo is reading out the names, or else I'd be lost right about now.
Murray never looked anything like that. You take that back, Don Pardo. YOU TAKE THAT BACK NOW.
She got a raw deal here. She got a serious raw deal, and her superimposed real life face is Not Pleased At All about it. Seriously. This is probably the worst of the group, even worse than Belushi's, and that's saying something.
AND GILDA RADNER!
That's a rose in Gilda's hair. I think. I could be wrong. I do know, however, that she's not eating an apple, and that was Her Thing for the credits sequences. She's always eating that apple! How come she doesn't have an apple in this picture? How come a GIANT APPLE didn't scroll awkwardly across the display and EXPLODE into her or something? C'MON, PEOPLE, WORK WITH ME HERE.
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.
Hmm, it appears Susan Kare was actually in New York at the time, in graduate school at NYU. Probably it's just a coincidence.
To be fair, the possibilities of low-resolution text are limited; once you've decided to do a proportional font and have something like thick and thin strokes, you're probably going to come up with something vaguely Chicago-ish. This isn't the standard Apple II display font, since it's proportional.
These are from the Seventies, though--I remember them.