By 1980, Saturday Night Live had started to run out of steam. Yes, the last season of Lorne Michaels' original five-year stint as producer was garnering healthy enough ratings, which NBC needed more than ever under the troubled leadership of Fred Silverman, but burnout among the cast and writers was evident on-air, and Michaels decided he needed a rest. A succession plan had been planned, but abandoned when Al Franken did a commentary in the third-last episode where he harshly criticized Silverman. In a move that was more political than pragmatic, NBC then appointed Jean Doumanian, the show's associate producer.
The ill-fated 1980-81 season is one shrouded in mystery and a negative reputation, which only grew bigger the less frequently that year's reruns appeared in syndication. It was never represented in the year-by-year home video compilations that came out in the early 90s. Doumanian was not a good match for Lorne Michaels' shoes and by the time she was fired in March 1981, the negative reaction to this perceptively ersatz SNL was brutal.
Was it fair for the new SNL to be so roundly hated? Yes, and no. Doumanian did not seem to be able to handle the showrunner role, having more experience with finding talent for the show than any creative position. The writing seemed forced at times, trying too hard to be edgy with an increase of raunchy and ethnic material. A lot of the later shows seem to have an air of "waiting for the ax to fall". The cast suffered by being set up as the "replacements" for the original cast. Yet Doumanian also managed to find an impeccable slate of musical guests (how is it that James Brown only appeared on SNL during the most reviled season?). With only 12 episodes to prove themselves and both reviewers and network executives gunning for them, the cast and writers still manage a few victories, even if they couldn't sustain momentum. And, of course a young extra by the name of Eddie Murphy would eclipse some of the more heavily promoted talent on the show.
When the network finally fired Doumanian, some of the cast and writers were also let go. To avoid the "impostor" label that dogged Doumanian's SNL, replacement producer Dick Ebersol made a calculated effort to ensure he got as many of the original creative staff he could, however few, to work for him, and sought the blessing of Lorne Michaels to continue. Ebersol's first episode ended up being an oddity, thanks to a writers' strike that scuttled the rest of the season and the sweeping changes he would make to the show for the next season.
Like with 1981-82, I will be doing sketch-by-sketch reviews of the episodes this season. I don't have a set schedule for completing these reviews, but I will try to run through them much quicker than I had with the end of the 1981-82 season. If anyone has information to contribute about the episodes, such as who wrote what, writer cameos, etc., I welcome it and will acknowledge my source in the sketch review.
- November 15, 1980: Elliott Gould / Kid Creole & The Coconuts
- November 22, 1980: Malcolm MacDowell / Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band
- December 6, 1980: Ellen Burstyn / Aretha Franklin, Keith Sykes
- December 13, 1980: Jamie Lee Curtis / James Brown, Ellen Shipley
- December 20: 1980: David Carradine / Linda Ronstadt, George Rose, Rex Smith and the cast of "The Pirates Of Penzance"
- January 10, 1981: Ray Sharkey / Jack Bruce & Friends
- January 17, 1981: Karen Black / Cheap Trick, Stanley Clarke Trio
- January 24, 1981: Robert Hays / Joe "King" Carrasco & The Crown, 14 Karat Soul
- February 7, 1981: Sally Kellerman / Jimmy Cliff
- February 14, 1981: Deborah Harry / Funky Four + 1 More
- February 21, 1981: Charlene Tilton / Todd Rundgren, Prince
- March 7, 1981: Bill Murray / Delbert McClinton
- April 11, 1981: No host / Junior Walker & The All-Stars