Also, my live radio show at the Somerville Theatre is almost here! Boy are we busy getting the show ready for you. We're so busy I can't believe I have the time to write this, but there you go! We've got musicians and sound effects geniuses and some really funny stuff and some really scary and thrilling stuff and we won't keep you for too long. Rest assured you will have lots of fun if you come on down to the Somerville over Halloween weekend. You'll have even more fun if you see our show instead of a movie. I'm sure "Life as We Know It" will be around later. Or you can just get the DVD.
Okay, now this is the part where I talk a lot about the early days of Saturday Night Live. I watched an episode from the fifth season last night which was truly godawful. Completely dreadful. Probably the worst I've seen, even though I haven't seen the Burt Reynolds episode yet which includes the Vomitorium sketch. But I don't think it's presumptuous to say that the Bea Arthur episode is one of the worst of the entire series, and it's so not Bea's fault. To be honest, it's Al Franken's fault and I can see why the end of the 70s is a time he doesn't care to discuss all that much.
I'm going to write a heck of a lot underneath the cut but then I'm gonna come back and embed a video for you to see which is actually good. I want to make sure you get a crack at it even if you don't want to read about how terrible the show was, and I don't blame you.
I have been very pleased with the Saturday Night Live complete season DVD box sets they've been putting out for several years now. Now that I've got the fifth season set, I am rapidly approaching the end of my quest to watch every single episode of the original incarnation, in full. I think it's an important enough pop cultural touchstone as well as piece of television history that one really ought to study it. Especially if you weren't able to watch it when it first aired. I was a little too young to stay up that late back then. I am very intrigued to see just how the show began, how the cast gelled, how it became incredibly popular, and then how it grew stale and repetitive and just plain awful. But then again, I'm the kind of guy who goes to New York City to watch kinescopes of Ernie Kovacs and the DuMont Network. Television used to be awesome, and I love watching it as it was.
That's why I love these box sets. The episodes, with the exception of some transitional commercial bumpers, are shown as-is, warts and all. Louise Lasser melts down onstage. Milton Berle hams it up so badly you want to stick cloves in him. Charles Grodin, claiming to have missed rehearsals, breaks character in the middle of sketches and refers to cast members by name (it turned out to be all just a gag that Grodin and the writers cooked up, but nobody got the joke. On the plus side, he did a very good job at appearing incompetent.) The first five years of SNL were incredibly chaotic. I love watching the show's evolution and its missteps.
The disastrous Mardi Gras special, broadcast live from New Orleans, was included in the second season box set, and I really relished the chance to watch it bomb as spectacularly as it did. They set up so many live remotes that coordination was all but impossible. The drunken, rowdy crowds didn't help, nearly carrying off poor Gilda at one point after a sketch. Michael O'Donoghue got out on a balcony to perform his Antler Dance, one of those pieces that was clearly funny only to its creator. (I like to think he really hoped it'd catch on as a stupid craze, like the Bees. But the Bees and the Coneheads already cornered the market on silly headgear. Sorry, Antler Man.)
Worst of all, Jane Curtin and Buck Henry were stationed on the parade route to comment on the passing floats, but a fatal accident further up stopped the entire parade. Jane and Buck, unaware of the circumstances surrounding the delay, were forced to awkwardly ad-lib their way through each of their segments all the while dodging beads, medallions and other fun items hurled at them by the crowd. Buck at least gets a good line in at the end, admitting that "Mardi Gras is French for 'no parade'" but the damage was done. The show never broadcast outside New York again.
Even the "adult" and often painfully unfunny Muppet sketches of the Land of Gorch are fascinating, especially when you realize that Jim Henson and company are steadfastly soldiering on even when they knew the writers hated 'em and gave them rotten material (only SNL writers could provide the Muppet sketches; Michael O'Donoghue famously sniffed "I don't write for felt" and routinely foisted the job on Al Franken, Tom Davis and Alan Zweibel.) King Ploobis, Queen Peuta, Scred and the Mighty Favog only lasted one season with a brief appearance in a filing cabinet morgue in the second. In the time between, however, Henson had gone to England and started on The Muppet Show, so they were on to bigger and better things.
Favog was pretty awesome, though.
There are wonderful moments throughout the first five seasons: Candice Bergen and the cast ice-skating on the Rockefeller Center rink to close out a show, Andy Kaufman's first few appearances, anything Steve Martin did, and the risks the show took which deviated from their "typical" sketch comedy. Gary Weis made brilliant short films including one in which Warhol film star Taylor Mead discussed how his cat liked to watch television. Bob & Ray appeared for one sadly underappreciated sketch. Spaulding Gray made an appearance. Don Pardo hollered "I'M THE SLIME!!" during Frank Zappa's first appearance while slime oozed down over the studio monitors into the studio audience. Them's some mighty fine highlights. But when the low points outnumber the highlights, you know you're watching something on the brink of extinction and that was definitely the case when the '79-'80 season rolled around.
The show was already missing nearly half of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Chevy Chase had left during the second season and was eventually replaced by Bill Murray. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi (hitting it big in film with Animal House) left after the fourth season, and the already shaky show was falling apart.
I watched the 1979 episode hosted by Bea Arthur last night. It was terrible. Not unfunny, not mediocre, but downright terrible. It starts with an absolutely horrid sketch about a woman with breast cancer who undergoes a mastectomy, but it's her husband who gets all the sympathy since now he has to suffer living with a woman with only one breast. Bea plays a doctor who eventually turns him around, reminding him that his wife still has lots of other fine erogenous zones for him to enjoy. Hoo-freakin-ray. The sketch was a parody of Betty Rollins' memoirs detailing her own battle with breast cancer, which makes it even worse. It's probably the most sexist, mean-spirited and downright ugly piece the show has ever presented. It's unjustifiable and undefendable. And the worst part, 30 years later, is the fact that Gilda played the woman with cancer. Go on, let that one sink in for a moment. I'll be here when you come back.
The sketch was completely ghastly then, eliciting hordes of complaints to NBC and rightly so, and it's completely ghastly now. On the one hand I am glad that the box sets are being presented intact, blemishes and all, but on the other hand, this isn't so much a blemish as it is a stinking, festering wound. And it was written by Al Franken, who should have known better dammit. Maybe it was the coke.
But it's clear to me that Franken just didn't give a shit at that point. He'd nurtured a nihilistic streak throughout his writing career with Tom Davis (their show-within-a-show was sponsored by the Communist Party of America, "Working for You!") and now, in this fifth season, as people were already claiming the show was dying from a serious lack of quality, this streak came out with a vicious, horrible vengeance. I think he was trying to see just how far he could go, and in this episode he sinks as low as he could get. He shows up on Weekend Update as a "Science Correspondent" and takes up nearly the entire segment torturing and killing live cockroaches.
Let me repeat that: He tortures and kills living cockroaches on live television. I won't go into all the things he does to 'em, but one involves a test tube and a bunsen burner. Jane Curtin, sitting next to Franken and clearly terrified of the insects to begin with, is openly and honestly aghast (and that's not her Uptight Anchorperson character coming through.) The audience's laughter dies as they realize what's going on. Bill Murray looks completely pissed off at the end of Update. I would be pissed, too, if my segment in which I could have said a lot of funny jokes was instead wasted on this horror. At least Father Guido Sarducci's appearances, long-winded as they could be, were warm-hearted and humorous. (I still love the "Find the Popes in the Pizza" contest that he held a few episodes earlier.) When Lorne Michaels decided to bow out as producer after the end of the fifth season, Franken was his chosen successor. That reportedly ended after Franken, still without a shit to give, kept bashing NBC president Fred Silverman on Weekend Update. But I'm willing to bet the insults to Silverman weren't the only thing that kept him from taking over. Jean Doumanian nearly ran the show into the ground on the 80-81 season, but could you have imagined what would have happened if Franken had produced, with this nihilstic, ugly mindset he was in? I seriously think the show would've been cancelled instead of getting chance after chance.
Anyway, the Bea Arthur episode limps along, including an excruciatingly long piece about a Broadway musical in development about Charles Manson and Jay Sebring, a southern Californian hairstylist who was one of the victims in the Tate/LaBianca murders. Yeaaaaaaah. The only redeeming part of that sketch was Bill, Gilda and Garrett Morris, who all sang their hearts out. Too bad the whole concept was just bewilderingly awful.
But there came a bright spot to the episode, in spite of all the tasteless, hateful and just plain unfunny material. And it in came in the form of the Roches, who were the musical guests that week.
The one great thing about early Saturday Night Live was that it took risks not just with the conventional sketch format, but with its musical guests as well. Nowadays the musical guest is typically whatever pop star has a new album coming out, but back then the guests were, well, almost anyone... who, um, had a new album coming out. DEVO made one of their first TV appearances on the show. Leon Redbone showed up to do his thang. Gregory Hines and Eubie Blake, 92 years old at the time, did several songs together, and it was glorious. I oughta tell you about that one someday. Sure, there were still rock and pop stars on the show (ABBA came on so O'Donoghue stuck 'em on the sinking Titanic) but they were tempered with the likes of Sun Ra. Holy cow, Sun Ra performing Space Is The Place on live television? Nobody knew what to do with that!
So on come the Roches, a trio of sisters who have incredibly tight harmonies, idiosyncratic folk songs that blend all kindsa styles together (and makes you desperately wish the word "quirky" didn't exist so that you could describe them better) and, as Carolyn noted when I showed her the musical clips, honesty in their voices. They sing beautifully together, but they didn't sound classically trained. They were natural. And Suzzy had to slouch down a bit in front of her mic so that she was level with Maggie and Terre. Their first number had their vocal parts intertwining and separating off and counterpointing each other's counterpoint and it was interesting. But then came their 12:50 number.
12:50 is the typical time on Saturday Night Live, ten minutes before the end of the show, where they shove in anything. Sketches that don't quite fit, pieces that someone just had to get on no matter what or something, and in this case, the Roches' second number of the evening. They appear on stage after Andy Kaufman had gone into his Misogynistic Woman's Wrestler character, challenging all comers to a match (Bea Arthur then gets the best applause all evening when she remarks "I sure hope someone beats him. And beats him HARD.") Not exactly the best lead-in. But there they are. Terre puts down her guitar, they check their first chord, then approach the mics.
And sing the Hallelujah Chorus a cappella.
It's not a joke, it's not performed tongue-in-cheek, it's not interrupted by a cast member. It's their own arrangement, arranged for three voices instead of four, and it is absolutely beautiful. I was transfixed. I couldn't believe they were singing a lovely non-secular song on network television. I remembered back to Patti Smith's appearance in the first season performing Gloria on Easter Sunday. That's the version which famously begins with "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." The Roches weren't making any ironic statement with this song. They were simply singing a beautiful classical piece. That's what I believe, anyway, and I'm sticking to it.
I'm including a live performance they did in 1982 at the Improv. I wish I could share the SNL performance with you, but those clips disappear from YouTube faster than you can say "National Broadcasting Company lawyers". This version is almost as good musically. They've recorded the piece as well and I sought it out after the episode, but it's studio enhanced with some reverb and almost sounds like it was overdubbed, but that might be a testament to its quality. The live performances, however, are organic and honest.
On the one hand (and I sure do have a lot of hands today) I feel bad for the Roches, appearing as they did in what was otherwise a dismal episode marred by sexist writing and overall ugliness. Not one you'd want to keep on video and show it, in its entirety, to your pals. But on the other hand, I instantly admired them for what they accomplished that night. They managed to lift the show up, however briefly, with three voices and some help from Handel. They found beauty in -- or provided beauty for -- a wasteland of dead humor and bad vibes. Like Al Franken, they too didn't give a care. They sang what they wanted to sing, even if it was classical music on a by-now mainstream comedy show. Only unlike Franken, their product was one of grace and harmony.
They got away with more that night than any nihilistic writer could have hoped for. And they triumphed. The Roches singing the Hallelujah Chorus is now one of my most favorite moments on Saturday Night Live, if only because they did the right thing at the right time. They couldn't save the episode, not by a long shot, but they made sure it ended positively and beautifully. Well done.