Classic SNL Review: March 12, 1983: Bruce Dern / Leon Redbone (S08E15)

RATINGS SYSTEM:

***** - Classic
****  - Great
***   - Good / Average
**    - Meh
*     - Terrible

OPENING: BACKSTAGE

  • Having made the mistake of drowning his sorrows over his lack of airtime before the show, Gary Kroeger becomes suicidal after learning his only sketch was cut, and that his hometown newspaper don't care that he's on the show.
  • Starting off strong; Kroeger's continuing saga of having his only sketch cut from the show comes to a head here. This escalates nicely, with a lot of quick jokes that hit. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tim Kazurinsky have some good lines (her "You say something, Gary?" after his extended mope, Kazurinsky's "Came to watch the show?"). It's Kroeger's sketch to carry, though: he succeeds, and the ending benefits from an inventive LFNY variation.
  • Gary Kroeger recalls this particular opening particularly well: "I did the “Live From New York” opening (and that was always a big deal).  The joke was that my sketches were cut and that my family was in town and didn’t even bother to tell me.  I pull a gun out of my locker (to kill myself, of course) and the fired gun produces a flag that says “Live From New York.”  After the dress rehearsal, Bruce Dern came up to me and said, “Do it, man!”  I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.  He explained, “Do it.  Really want to kill yourself.  Don’t pretend- do it!”  I understood that I was getting coached by a real actor, a method man who became completely immersed in the moment.  He was right.  In order to make comedy work, it had to be real.  And that’s how I did it."

****

MONOLOGUE

  • Bruce Dern has figured out whose fault it is that his better acting work is ignored while his psycho roles are popular.
  • The audience gives Dern a huge hand for his entrance; he starts pretty low-key, casually mentioning how he almost lost his house due to flooding a few weeks before before getting to his complaint. Like with the opening, this builds slowly but surely, with Dern specifying his characters' psychotic traits in each movie and going through who he thought was to blame.  The payoff ("It's you") may have felt a little obvious, but Dern grows more intense, specifying the violent acts the audience loves, and the threat at the end serves as a solid ending.
  • One thing I've noticed is that SNL seems to use a certain type of "off-kilter" character actor well: I'm talking about Dern, Christopher Walken, and more recently Christoph Waltz and J.K. Simmons.

*** 1/2

COMMERCIAL: BUCKWHEAT JEANS

  • A Calvin Klein inspired commercial for the Little Rascal's (Eddie Murphy) "Otay" designer denim.
  • The audience loves this; it's essentially little more than a Calvin Klein Jeans spot with Buckwheat inserted, but it's short and to the point. This is more a set-up to another segment that comes shortly afterward...

***

COMMERCIAL: THE CLAMS [rerun of 10/03/81]

SHOW: DONNY & MARIE ST. PATRICK'S DAY SPECIAL

  • Donny (Gary Kroeger) and a very pregnant Marie Osmond (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) get close while singing "My Wild Irish Rose".
  • This is pretty much the exact same joke as in Merry Christmas Dammit (Donny and Marie making out during a duet); they even reference the "Gumby Christmas Special" as the last time they saw each other. Kroeger and Louis-Dreyfus are fine, but they're wasted on what is ultimately filler that's interrupted quickly by the next segment.

**

MISCELLANEOUS: BUCKWHEAT BUYS THE FARM

  • A special report from Ted Koppel (Joe Piscopo) on a breaking story: Buckwheat (Eddie Murphy) has been shot outside of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Texxon sponsors the coverage.
  • A true classic, and a deadly parody of media overkill that has only become more relevant in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. Written by Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield and featuring a pretape directed by Claude Kerven, this has so many great pieces: "Hey Mr. Wheat!", the "titles" of the news report, the sponsor message narrated by Jackson Beck ("Life goes on, and Texxon is there", quickly adding "because Buckwheat would have wanted it that way" after his death), Mary Gross as Alfalfa ("Ohhhh, I'm huuurrrt and confuuuused and I don't know what to say!").  This is also a case where repetition (the constant replaying of the assassination footage) makes something funnier: the ending retrospective montage of Buckwheat concludes perfectly with the slow-motion clip of his assassination.
  • Favorite detail: when the word comes that Buckwheat has succumbed to his injuries, the news report theme song suddenly has gunshot sounds added.
  • The surgeon in the hospital appears to be the same actor who played the doctor in Video Victims.

*****

SKETCH: THE HOME FOR DISGUSTING PRACTICES

  • Compared to a chronic bedwetter (Tim Kazurinsky), a man who puts puppies in his pants (Joe Piscopo), a drooler (Mary Gross), a coprolalic (Robin Duke), and an idiot who only says a single letter of the alphabet (Brad Hall) , Bruce Dern's doctor character is normal.
  • Preceded by a disclaimer ("And now, a sketch where Bruce Dern doesn't play a psycho"), this is basically a chance for the show regulars to play as broad and ridiculous as possible; Hall is especially animated here. This has a decent ending with Dern and the cast breaking character after he "chokes" and relapses into villainy. 
  • There's also a little bit of gross-out humor here: the audience can be heard groaning after Piscopo mentions the puppies in his pants "haven't been weaned yet", and Kazurinsky wants to suck the insides out of the puppies to make "puppy mittens".

***

COMMERCIAL: THE BUCKWHEAT STORY

  • NBC cashes in on the Buckwheat tragedy with a biopic starring Byron Allen.
  • A short promo slide; good quick joke with the poorly-doctored picture of Allen as Buckwheat. Works best in the context of this episode.

***

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "SWEET SUE, JUST YOU"

  • Before Leon Redbone's performance, Dern gives an extended intro where he accidentally stumbles and says that Redbone is a performer who "reminds you what a sound songs like".
  • Redbone, in his first SNL appearance in over five years, does a Dixieland arrangement of a song he recorded for 1978's Champagne Charlie album.
  • Redbone was actually between albums at this point, but at the time he was in a series of Budweiser commercials that often aired during SNL broadcasts.

SATURDAY NIGHT NEWS

  • Best joke: Buckwheat dead.
  • Brad Hall continues the night's running Buckwheat theme by replaying the assassination footage and introducing out-of-context clips of public figures "paying tribute" to the Little Rascal; Pope John Paul II "introduces" another playback of the clip himself, which was good for another another quick laugh.
  • Other than that, this had another overlong segment on the Weinberger report, which had a handful of hit-or-miss jokes (a photo joke about a giant Russian robot in orbit wiping entire nations off the planet with a feather duster was silly enough to work). The punchline to the joke about Nancy Reagan's Diff'rent Strokes appearance felt like it was done before, and there was a particularly awful punchline to the "Statue of Liberty has herpes" story ("...a case of statutory rape"; the audience boos and hisses at this).
  • Brad Hall doesn't really get a lot of respect as one of SNL's "fake news" anchors, but in his defense, the problem seems to be more with the material than anything he brings to the table. I still consider him a step up from the previous couple of anchors.
  • Dr. Jack Badofsky (Tim Kazurinsky) is back with more puns, this time about venereal disease: like with last time, the funniest moments are when Kazurinsky relishes the audience turning on him for a particularly awful pun. The biggest groans from the audience: Dacron-orrhea (contracted from making love to two girls named Polly and Esther) and Skeleton-orrhea (contracted by necrophiliacs, an example of a "funereal disease").
  • Siobhan "Juicy" Cahill (Mary Gross' character from The Irish Radio Hour) gives tips on how to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, with references to inebriation and vomiting (eat and drink a lot of green things to make a "splash for St. Patrick"). Fairly unremarkable.

**

SKETCH: JERRY LEWIS SCHOOL

  • Mr. Flang's (Eddie Murphy) etiquette lessons don't go over well with his student (Robin Duke).
  • This is essentially a reprise of Two Faces of Jerry, with Eddie Murphy channeling Lewis' wacky side as Mr. Flang and Joe Piscopo playing Mr. Caca as the embittered older Lewis; the chemistry between the two performers adds to this, though (Murphy gets Piscopo to crack up a little). In her second and final appearance of the night, Robin Duke plays off them both as the foil, a student who wants a refund (all while wearing a pair of fake buck teeth, which somehow is funnier than it is on paper).

***

MISCELLANEOUS: GUMBYS

  • Gumby (Eddie Murphy) confronts his impostor Bruce Dern as he tries to tell a St. Patrick's Day story.
  • This is a "sneaker-upper" in reverse, and not the strongest appearance of Gumby, but Dern's dejection as he tries to explain himself was funny, and Murphy's approval of the story's ending (St. Patrick bashes the leprechaun over the head) worked.
  • Note that Murphy is not in his normal green facial makeup; considering he has to get ready for the next live segment fairly quickly. Murphy also makes a Jerry Lewis noise at the very end as he and Dern run off stage in costume.

***

COMMERCIAL: OLD NEGRO BEER

  • Stereotypical black men (Eddie Murphy) and (Joe Piscopo) drink their favorite beer and argue over TV.
  • This is mostly an excuse for Piscopo and Murphy's natural chemistry when performing, but this is particularly cringe-worthy, particularly Piscopo's attempt at a stereotypical black man voice (even if Murphy calls him out as a "white cracker" at the end).
  • Continuing the Buckwheat references, a picture of Murphy in costume as Buckwheat hangs on the set wall.

*

SKETCH: SONGWRITERS II

  • Harry Schliemer (Joe Piscopo) and Moe Laub (Tim Kazurinsky) have an opportunity to write songs for Alfred Lloyd Popperkosh's (Bruce Dern) Depression musical A Bread Line.
  • Not quite as good as the first Schliemer and Laub sketch, but it has its moments, particularly "The Window Ledge Polka" (and the title of "As Long As You're Handing Out Alphabet Soup, I'll Take a P").  Joe Piscopo seems to break up a bit during the sketch.
  • The music publishing databases show this was an Eliot Wald / Nate Herman sketch.

***

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR", "I AIN'T GOT NOBODY"

  • Redbone is solo this time; the first song is a straightforward performance of the Leigh Harline/Ned Washington standard from Pinocchio (which Redbone recorded on 1981's From Branch to Branch), while the second number, which he wouldn't record until 1994's Whistling In The Wind, features him doing something different with his voice. The audience loves it, and by the end of the performance they're clapping along to the music.

COMMERCIAL: RUBIK'S GRENADE [rerun of 12/11/82]

COMMERCIAL: OLD JEW BEER

  • After taking in some stereotypical Jewish activities, two alte kakers (Eddie Murphy) and (Joe Piscopo) drink their favorite beer and argue over what to watch on TV.
  • Murphy and Piscopo display their chemistry in wheezy Yiddish accents ("Hey!" "Huh?" "Hey!" "Huh!") until Piscopo turns to Murphy  and says "You're a schwarze!" and they mug. This is the least offensive installment of what would turn out to be a 3-part runner; on it's own it doesn't really stand up, but in the context of the runner it's much better than the other two. The audience is more into this than they were for the first part.
  • In dress rehearsal, there were three pictures on the set wall, and Murphy and Piscopo were dressed as rabbis.
  • Who is the guy in the picture behind Murphy and Piscopo? [Addendum (07/26/15): Several commenters have informed me it's comedian Alan King]

** 1/2

COMMERCIAL: OLD CHINAMAN BEER

  • Stereotypical Asians (Eddie Murphy) and (Joe Piscopo) drink and argue.
  • This is just offensive; Murphy and Piscopo in pointy conical hats, Fu-Manchus, queues and fake teeth speaking Chinese-sounding gibberish. It's worse when watched out of context of the whole runner (which seems to be about the practice of using racial stereotypes as product mascots), but even in context...well, the only way it could be worse is if they switched "Chinaman" for a certain racial slur.
  • Sounds like Murphy and Piscopo are making Jerry Lewis noises as the picture switches to the product art card.

*

SKETCH: VEGGIE BURGERS

  • Nerdy couple Martin (Bruce Dern) and Norma (Mary Gross) partake in their favorite lunch and find they have a lot in common with a man searching for his birth parents (Gary Kroeger).
  • Another one that didn't really do well with the audience (maybe the previous bit soured them), but I found this better upon rewatching, largely due to Dern, Gross and Kroeger's performances (specifically with their mannerisms).
  • The way they prefaced their exchanges ("Question", "Joke") reminded me a little of The Office's Dwight Schrute.
  • Was the "so it goes" a deliberate Vonnegut shoutout?

***

GOODNIGHTS

  • Holding a puppy from the "Home For Disgusting Practices" sketch, Dern says one last goodbye to Buckwheat. Several of the cast are wearing the buckteeth from Jerry Lewis School.
  • Brad Hall and Gary Kroeger can be seen running up and slamming their chests together (see third picture above).
  • No Pardo voiceover.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

A step up from the last show, boosted in part by what is so far the season's best sketch (Buckwheat Buys The Farm) and a decent host.  There are a few disconcerting elements in this one that balance out the great (recycling the Donny and Marie and "Two Faces of Jerry", the Statue of Liberty joke in SNN, the beer stereotype runner), but most of the show goes by fairly quickly.  Compared to Dern's last show, this is a bit breezier, and you can definitely see a shift in the writing from last year: it's heavy on Piscopo and Murphy, and there aren't any tonally different pieces like The Mild One or the first Songwriters segment.  While this one is more memorable, last year's show was ultimately a bit more rewarding.

SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Buckwheat Buys The Farm
  • Backstage
  • Monologue

SHOW LOWLIGHTS:

  • Old Chinaman Beer
  • Old Negro Beer
  • Donny and Marie St. Patrick's Day Special
  • parts of Saturday Night News

MVP:

  • Joe Piscopo / Eddie Murphy {tie}

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Robin Duke: 2 appearances [The Home For Disgusting Practices, Jerry Lewis School]
  • Mary Gross: 5 appearances [Buckwheat Buys The Farm, The Home For Disgusting Practices, Saturday Night News, Jerry Lewis School, Veggie Burgers]; 1 voice-over [Buckwheat Jeans]
  • Brad Hall: 3 appearances [The Home For Disgusting Practices, Saturday Night News, Jerry Lewis School]
  • Tim Kazurinsky: 4 appearances [Backstage, The Home For Disgusting Practices, Saturday Night News, Songwriters II]
  • Gary Kroeger: 4 appearances [Backstage, Donny & Marie St. Patrick's Day Special, Jerry Lewis School, Veggie Burgers]
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus: 3 appearances [Backstage, Donny & Marie St. Patrick's Day Special, Jerry Lewis School]
  • Eddie Murphy: 7 appearances [Buckwheat Jeans, Buckwheat Buys The Farm, Jerry Lewis School, Gumbys, Old Negro Beer, Old Jew Beer, Old Chinaman Beer]
  • Joe Piscopo: 7 appearances [Buckwheat Buys The Farm, The Home For Disgusting Practices, Jerry Lewis School, Old Negro Beer, Songwriters II, Old Jew Beer, Old Chinaman Beer]

crew & extras

  • Jackson Beck: 2 voice-overs [Buckwheat Buys The Farm, The Buckwheat Story]

guests

  • Bruce Dern: 5 appearances [Monologue, The Home For Disgusting Practices, Gumbys, Songwriters II, Veggie Burgers]
  • Leon Redbone: 2 appearances ["Sweet Sue, Just You", "When You Wish Upon A Star/I Ain't Got Nobody"]

REBROADCAST HISTORY:

  • July 16, 1983

Known alterations:

  • The Buckwheat Story and Rubik's Grenade are removed

Sketches included in the 03/24/84 Best Of special: 

  • Buckwheat Jeans
  • Buckwheat Buys The Farm

Additional screen captures from this episode are available here.