Classic SNL Review: November 22, 1980: Malcolm McDowell / Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band (S06E02)

RATING SYSTEM:

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

COLD OPENING: EXECUTION

  • A remorseful death row inmate (Gilbert Gottfried) is led to the electric chair.  His mother (Denny Dillon) is allowed one last word for him: "Sit up straight!".
  • The audience was completely silent for this.  At best it was a lame blackout bit, but the way it was performed in the lead-up to the punchline was far too real and grim for it to work, particularly Gottfried remorsefully saying "I'm sorry, Father" over and over again.
  • Where was this performed?  It doesn't look like it was done inside the studio or even the halls outside of 8H.

*

MONOLOGUE

  • Malcolm McDowell explains how his difficulties getting a new work permit almost stopped him from hosting tonight's show.
  • This is pretty much a straightforward "talk" monologue.  A lot of people take issue with the story not really being humorous in any way, but it seems like your typical early years "introduction" monologue without a comedy routine, where the host has the opportunity to appear out of character.
  • Of note: McDowell mentions his marriage to an American woman and that he's about to become the proud father of an American baby.  The "American woman" in question is Mary Steenburgen, whom McDowell was married to from 1980 to 1990.  Their daughter Lilly would be born January 31 of the next year, while younger son Charlie, born two years later, would later go on to create the blog/Twitter feed Dear Girls Above Me.

**

SHOW: MUTUALLY OMAHA'S WILD KINGDOM

  • Marlin Perkins (Charles Rocket) narrates "In Search Of The Negro Republican", in which Jim Fowler (Joe Piscopo) infiltrates a cocktail party.
  • Written by Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield.
  • Not particularly funny, but the concept had potential, the execution wasn't bad, and there were a few chuckles here and there, particularly the false alarm where a potential Republican is merely the owner of a funeral home.
  • Rocket shows that he's not really an impressionist with his Marlin Perkins; his weakness with impressions becomes more evident as the season goes on.
  • This sketch is notable for being the SNL debut of future featured player and cast member Eddie Murphy, seen here as just a lowly extra.  Also visible are other eventual featured players Yvonne Hudson, a bit player from the previous few seasons, and Matthew Laurance, twin brother of former SNL staffer and future Not Necessarily The News regular Mitchell Laurance (incidentally, SNL '80 writers Larry Arnstein and David Hurwitz would eventually write for NNTN).
  • The main role of the "negro Republican" was played by an unidentified middle-aged day player.  His delivery is pretty stilted, though.  If anyone can identify the actor or any other extras I have missed, please leave a comment.

**1/2

COMMERCIAL: TOBACCO GROWER'S ASSOCIATION

  • Spokesman Joseph Richman (Gilbert Gottfried) says that lungs are the reason people get lung cancer, not cigarettes.
  • The first segment in tonight's show that's actually funny, largely thanks to Gilbert Gottfried's slow-burn as the oily Tobacco representative.  He's still a little green as a performer; at first, he doesn't come off as completely comfortable in front of the camera, but there are small hints of what was to come in his career.
  • I enjoyed Gottfried accusing the lung of intentionally trapping cigarette smoke and chiding it for not being able to get rid of smoke like his 7-year-old daughter's fan.  I also chuckled at the "persons without lungs need not worry" line regarding the lung recall.
  • There's a blooper at the very beginning where Jan & Dean's "Surf City" (for the next sketch's opening title) starts playing for a few seconds before shutting off.  The Comedy Central 60-minute edit cuts this out.

***1/2

SKETCH: SERF CITY

  • In feudal times, Lord Jack (Charles Rocket) shows an Earl (Malcolm McDowell) a new way to abuse peasants: stand on their backs and "ride" them while wenches (Gail Matthius and Ann Risley) tickle them with feathers.
  • A pun-filled sketch that doesn't get as many laughs as it wants to: the first thing the audience laughs at are the names of the sexy wenches: Bingo and Moondoggy.  McDowell was largely used for setups while Rocket got the "laugh" lines.
  • The ending where Rocket rejects McDowell's idea of riding actual waves felt like a pale imitation of Franken & Davis'  Theodoric of York sketches.  I did chuckle slightly at the serfs groaning "oh no..." off-camera.
  • Any idea who played the serfs?  Neil Levy's one of them.  Can't place the other two.

*1/2

SKETCH: ADOPTED AMY CARTER

  • Amy Carter (Denny Dillon) prefers being raised in privilege by new parents Ronald (Charles Rocket) and Nancy Reagan (Gail Matthius) to her old life with the Carters.
  • The audience woke up for this sketch, which was one of the stronger moments in tonight's show, relatively speaking.   It suffers from being a bit on the cute side, but the audience got a kick out of little Amy's hatred for grits, and when she calls her grandmother a dope and her parents losers.
  • My favorite bit was a call-back to Amy saying she hates riding the bus earlier in the sketch: when she hides under the table when her parents call, she yells "Tell them I rode the bus!"  I also liked the look Rocket shot Dillon when she has the line about wearing make-up like him.
  • Not everything works: the writers seemed to be reaching with the "Uncle Bert was indicted!" (Bert Lance scandal in 1977) and "Uncle Hamilton eats powdered donuts!" (a reference to the alleged cocaine use of Hamilton Jordan) lines.
  • Charles Rocket and Gail Matthius debut their Ronald and Nancy Reagan impressions.  Rocket doesn't wear a Reagan wig this time out and appears to be wearing a minimal bit of old man makeup, while talking in a gravelly voice.  Matthius speaks slowly and exaggeratedly enunciates her lines.  Dillon's Amy Carter is also exaggerated, but it brings up the sketch's energy level, and she at least gives an effort.
  • This is the last time we see Gail Matthius all night; aside from playing a wench in Serf City, this is her only appearance in the show.  She also visibly glances at the cue cards quite a bit when reading her lines, which is particularly noticeable during the wide shots of her and Rocket at the beginning.
  • The extra who played the negro Republican plays the Reagans' servant Buster in this sketch.

***

COMMERCIAL: AMERICAN MILK ASSOCIATION

  • Alex De Large (Malcolm McDowell) endorses the stimulation and nutritional value of Moloko Plus.
  • McDowell gets a little recognition applause when he appears in his Clockwork Orange getup, but the whole thing doesn't fulfill the potential of the idea, and is more awkward than anything else.
  • Apparently, the inspiration for this bit was McDowell being offered a half-million to reprise Alex for a milk commercial in Japan (which he turned down).

**

SHORT SHOT: "SHOWDOWN" - KEN FRIEDMAN

  • Ned and Sam vie for the affections of Rose with a ultraviolent Peckinpah-esque gun battle.
  • Not quite on the level of last week's Kleiser film, but an amusing diversion.  The main humor comes from the excessive violence and carnage (complete with slow-mo at one point, definitely a nod to The Wild Bunch), as well as the bloodied cowboys nonchalantly walking away from it all once they realize they're fighting over a woman who hasn't been faithful to anyone.

**1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "HOT HEAD" - CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND

  • Captain Beefheart's definitely an acquired taste, but his later stuff is a little easier to get into than Trout Mask Replica.  It's almost kind of this minimalistic punkish music with a really interesting repetitive rhythm, almost like a weird square dance.
  • You can hear Beefheart's influence on Tom Waits' post-Swordfishtrombones output in this song.
  • The moment that sticks out is when the guitar starts playing its usual line after Beefheart's verse, only to be drowned out by this high-pitched note from Eric Drew Feldman's keyboard (Mellotron?)
  • People can be seen going up the stairs through the window behind Feldman.
  • Captain Beefheart was 39 when he appeared on SNL, but looks much older; if you see pictures of him from about 10 years earlier it's even more obvious.  He also appeared to already be in the early stages of multiple sclerosis at this time.
  • The live show has a brief second of silence after the song ends before the applause starts, as if the audience doesn't quite know what to make of the song.  The Comedy Central 60-minute version dubs canned applause over the tail end of the performance.

WEEKEND UPDATE WITH CHARLES ROCKET

  • Best joke: Iranian earrings
  • Wow, Rocket's really having a bad night.  He flubs a few lines, but that number is nothing compared to the number of jokes that either meet no response from the audience (Las Vegas fire escapes), or elicit groans (Bob Hope's comment on Mary Crosby being the one that shot J.R, reactionary violence being a return to "traditional values and morality").
  • The interview with John Lennon (Malcolm McDowell) and Yoko Ono (Denny Dillon) is enjoyable.  Despite Dillon being miscast as Yoko, this had some funny lines (yes, even "Yoko is just loco about my cocoa") and Lennon's overdomesticated obsessions with clean dishes and finding a fabric softener that shows his family he loves them.
  • Favorite little detail: was Yoko pouring her cocoa over the burnt cake at the end.
  • Apparently the real John and Yoko saw this and got a kick out of it.  According to an interview with McDowell, he had felt bad for doing the sketch so shortly before Lennon's murder, but felt better about it after hearing years later the Lennons enjoyed it.
  • Joe Piscopo gets his first Saturday Night Live Sports feature on Weekend Update.  His delivery is still low-key, but he's starting to get into his usual rhythm. Here he comments on the upcoming WBC welterweight championship rematch between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard (what would eventually be known as the "No Mas Fight") using Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.  The audience is more awake for this segment, and it's starting to become clear that while Rocket is the one being groomed for stardom, Piscopo is starting to emerge as the audience favorite.
  • Dr. Murray Abramowitz (Gilbert Gottfried) complains in an editorial reply about the material in poor taste from last week's episode, and suggests SNL's cast, writers and crew need analysis.  This was not a wise move on the show's part: by doing this self-deprecating stuff before the cast has the chance to distinguish themselves (aside from getting negative press), this seems to validate all the criticism.  It reminds me of something Kate Beaton (the history comics artist) said about how you can't really develop a following if you don't stand behind your own work.
  • I did chuckle at "Who writes this show, Hitler?" (in response to all the Jewish jokes in last week's show).
  • Gottfried's character voice sounds a little like Jerry Seinfeld with a little bit of an exaggerated accent.

**

SKETCH: GOTHIC ROMANCE NOVEL SHOP

  • A discerning customer (Ann Risley) hopes the shopkeeper (Malcolm McDowell) can fill her precise request for a romance novel.
  • A somewhat Pythonesque sketch, and McDowell handled the laundry list variations on Risley's requests well.  The dialogue seemed better than average too.  Shame the audience was so quiet.  Risley doesn't seem to do a bad job in this sketch either, which is her only appearance besides Serf City.
  • The ending, with McDowell emerging as the hero of Risley's ideal romance novel is a little cute for my taste, but it works.

***1/2

FILM: THE 100 YEARS WAR

  • A university extension course barely summarizes the conflict between the houses of Valois and Plantagenet.
  • Fillerish.  I can see what they were going for, but like "American Milk Association", the execution doesn't come anywhere close to the potential of the idea.

**

SHOW: THE LEATHER WEATHER REPORT

  • Dominatrix Thelma Thunder (Denny Dillon) gives a BDSM-themed weather forecast with her masochistic weather map John (Charles Rocket).
  • Ferris Butler originally wrote this sketch in 1978 for his Manhattan cable show "Waste Meat News" and rewrote it for SNL with Billy Brown and Mel Green.
  • This sketch has a bad reputation and is often used as the prime example of SNL '80's tendency to lean on shock and raunch for laughs.  It's an easy target, though, and it's nowhere near the comedy abyss as everyone makes it out to be.
  • Dillon seems to make the most out of her role, and recovers nicely from the aerosol can "snow" malfunction".  Rocket had a few funny comments.
  • It may seem like I'm being generous with the rating but while it's not amazing (more notable for the subject matter than anything), it succeeds at what it aims for.

***

SKETCH: COMMIE HUNTING SEASON

  • In Greensboro, NC, the local redneck population is ready to get going on the first big Commie hunt in 20 years.
  • According to Ferris Butler, this was Larry Arnstein and David Hurwitz's sketch.
  • Now this is just awful.  Likely the worst sketch of all time.  This was supposed to be a comment on the acquittal of the defendants in the Greensboro massacre, but it just fails at satire on so many levels, and it ends up being the despicable comedy void that Leather Weather Report was made out to be.  Once you know exactly what the writers were trying to do, it makes the sketch that much worse.
  • This also has the single worst line in an SNL sketch ever: "Well, Hell, Jim Bob, all's you got to do is just shoot yourself a Jew or [n-word]. Chances are better than even you’d be shootin’ a Commie anywho.".  That line completely killed the sketch; there's also an eerie silence afterward as if they were waiting for an audience to laugh.  The darker than normal lighting doesn't help things either.
  • Any idea who any of the extras aside from Andy Murphy are?
  • I rate this one star because no stars is no rating, and my system is exclusively one-to-five star.  It barely qualifies as one star.

*

FILM: THE ROCKET REPORT - 5th AVENUE

  • Charles Rocket spontaneously talks to passers-by on 5th Avenue.
  • The best part of what has turned out to be an awful show so far; after a piece of shit like Commie Hunting Season, this provided much-needed laughs.
  • I think this works so well because the show uses its New York location with Charles Rocket's real strength with off-the-cuff, unrehearsed interactions, instead of shoehorning him into a faux-Chevy Chase role or having him do a bunch of impressions poorly.
  • Best moment: the older man who Rocket assumes is on drugs because he's so happy.

****

SKETCH: JACK THE STRIPPER

  • Dotty old prudes Dame Lydia Snoot (Malcolm McDowell) and Dr. Woofta (Denny Dillon) investigate a wave of embarrassment caused by "Jack The Stripper".
  • Another terrible sketch.  In their book Saturday Night, Doug Hill and JeffWeingrad referred to it as the worst thing the show had done, but this is a little better than Commie Hunting Season; there are a few ideas that could have worked if they were executed better.  As it was, though, it came off as a indecipherable mess and was still terrible.
  • Joe Piscopo as "Carl Gustav The Stripper" (complete with cartoonisj Swedish accent) was so bad it was almost funny, but the reveal with the real Stripper being Prince Charles (Charles Rocket) just didn't play well.

*

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "ASHTRAY HEART" - CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND

  • A little more abrasive and complicated than the other song, but interesting nonetheless.
  • Through the window behind Feldman, McDowell can be seen running up the stairs and opening a little door in the side of the stage.  A few other people can be seen running up (stage manager?).
  • After Beefheart's free jazz sax solo at the end, there's dead silence for a few seconds before someone (Radames Pera according to this site) quite clearly yells "shit!"

FILM: "SOMEONE IS HIDING IN MY APARTMENT" - MITCHELL KRIEGMAN

  • Mitchell tells of the weird goings-on that have convinced him there's someone else in his apartment.
  • Nothing great, but inoffensive.  A gentler piece that cleanses the palate of a lot of tonight's show and succeeds at what it aims for.  Shame Kriegman didn't last long at SNL.

***

SHOW: THE WINE CELLAR

  • Carolyn Parker (Denny Dillon) takes aim at the wine snobs by showing that some foods work better with American wines.
  • Far from brilliant, and the joke was done better in SCTV's Don Perignon (The Beer of Imported Champagnes) commercial parody three years before, but it's alright for what it is.
  • Dillon at least brought a little energy to the proceedings, which end the show on a better note.

***

GOODNIGHTS

  • Malcolm McDowell delivers his goodnight in a southern drawl.
  • Don Pardo announces that two weeks from tonight, Ellen Burstyn will host with musical guest Aretha Franklin, and next week, "Roadshow" with John Candy and Tom Waits will appear in the SNL timeslot.  Apparently this was a pilot for a new show.  There's a review available here.
  • [Addendum: this is the final show for writers Sean Kelly and Nancy Dowd.  The backstage shakeups begin...] 

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Bad.  This episode is widely considered one of SNL's all-time worst shows, and is easily the nadir of the season.  Dreck like Commie Hunting Season, Execution, Jack The Stripper and a mostly laugh-free Weekend Update served to weigh down the show, as if it they weren't merely poorly written made from some dense, joy-sucking substance that obscures the show's few highlights.  It's bad enough when a show has mediocre-to-awful material to begin with, but tonight actually seems to have a depressing aura throughout.  It's unfortunate this show was so bad, because had they had a stronger second outing, the critics and fans might not have been so quick to write the new SNL off.   As it was, tonight's show only made the rest of the season more of an uphill battle.

EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The Rocket Report
  • Tobacco Grower's Association
  • Gothic Romance Novel Shop

EPISODE LOWLIGHTS:

  • Commie Hunting Season
  • Jack The Stripper -Execution
  • Weekend Update aside from Lennons and Piscopo
  • Serf City
  • Monologue
  • 100 Years War

MVP:

  • Denny Dillon

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Denny Dillon: 6 appearances [Execution, Adopted Amy Carter, Weekend Update, Leather Weather Report, Jack The Stripper, The Wine Cellar]
  • Gilbert Gottfried: 5 appearances [Execution, Tobacco Grower's Association, Weekend Update, Commie Hunting Season, Jack The Stripper]
  • Gail Matthius: 2 appearances [Serf City, Adopted Amy Carter]
  • Joe Piscopo: 5 appearances [Execution, Mutually Omaha's Wild Kingdom, Weekend Update, Commie Hunting Season, Jack The Stripper]
  • Ann Risley: 2 appearances [Serf City, Gothic Romance Novel Shop]
  • Charles Rocket: 9 appearances [Execution, Mutually Omaha's Wild Kingdom, Serf City, Adopted Amy Carter, Weekend Update, Leather Weather Report, Commie Hunting Season, The Rocket Report, Jack The Stripper]

crew and extras:

  • Yvonne Hudson: 1 appearance [Mutually Omaha's Wild Kingdom]
  • Mitchell Kriegman: 1 appearance [Someone Is Hiding In My Apartment]
  • Matthew Laurance: 1 appearance [Mutually Omaha's Wild Kingdom]
  • Neil Levy: 1 appearance [Serf City]
  • Andy Murphy: 2 appearances [Execution, Commie Hunting Season]
  • Eddie Murphy: 1 appearance [Mutually Omaha's Wild Kingdom]

guests:

  • Malcolm McDowell: 7 appearances [Monologue, Serf City, American Milk Association, Weekend Update, Gothic Romance Novel Shop, Commie Hunting Season, Jack The Stripper], 1 voiceover [The 100 Years War]
  • Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band: 2 appearances ["Hot Head", "Ashtray Heart"]

REBROADCAST HISTORY:

  • This episode was not rebroadcast on NBC.

Additional screen captures not seen above are available here