Classic SNL Review: December 6, 1980: Ellen Burstyn / Aretha Franklin, Keith Sykes (S06E03)

RATINGS SYSTEM:

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

DISCLAIMER

  • Those Incredible TV Shows will not be seen tonight...

OPENING: GOING CO-OP

  • David Rockefeller announces that the Reagan administration has decided to make the United States a co-op, which means the poor are being evicted from the country.
  • A funny enough idea which was kept fairly brief.  I'll give Rocket a pass for not attempting a Rockefeller impression because he's not really that prominent a public figure (Phil Hartman did a funnier Rockefeller in 1989, though).  The audience was receptive too.
  • This has got to be the most awkward segue into a LFNY ever: Rocket says "...you'll be..." before pausing for a second, then does this exaggerated bug-eyed "Live From New York...".  It reeks of desperation, not to mention the implication that they couldn't figure out an ending to the line.  The rating is docked for that.

**1/2

MONOLOGUE

  • Ellen Burstyn mentions her 48th birthday is in a half-hour, and explains that after all those intense movie roles, it's time for her to lighten up.
  • Quick and harmless.  Like with McDowell it was more of a "talk" monologue, but I did get a chuckle out of Burstyn describing her Exorcist character as the mother of a child with a "slight personality disorder".  Burstyn seemed pretty energetic though.
  • As Ellen comes down the stairs, the SNL Band is visible through the window on the side of the stage.  Guess they all stayed on that cramped looking musical guest stage throughout the show.

**1/2

COMMERCIAL: ED MCMAHON SCHOOL OF LAUGHING

  • Pitchman (Joe Piscopo) says an education in laughter skills leads to a fruitful career recording TV laugh tracks.
  • This was actually pretty good, and Piscopo gets his first appearance as a commercial pitchman, something he always did well on the show.
  • S-N-L.com message board poster TheLazenby pointed this out: at the beginning when it shows the four people laughing together, Ann Risley sounds like she's just saying the words "Ha ha ha ha ha".

***

SHOW: WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT WITH PINKY AND LEO WAXMAN

  • The Waxmans (Denny Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried) change the subject while interviewing Ellen Burstyn on their cable access show.
  • Another strong sketch, and an improvement on the Gould installment: the writers changed it up enough, including having Leo Waxman try to flirt with Ellen.  Gottfried and Dillon are good here, and Burstyn seems to be enjoying herself.
  • This one had a lot of good lines, particularly Gottfried telling Burstyn that she was so convincing as Alice, he almost ordered a sandwich (it's funnier because of the delivery in Leo Waxman's Yiddish accent).  
  • Best dialogue between Gottfried and Burstyn: "So you're probably a bisexual, am I right?" "(curtly) Multi.  I'm multisexual."

***1/2

FILM: THE ROCKET REPORT - STATEN ISLAND FERRY

  • Charles Rocket exposes the commuters' secret: instead of working, they were all constantly having sex in Manhattan.
  • A step down from the other two Rocket Reports, but this had a funny enough concept, and there were some good moments, including the guy playing along with Rocket by saying he had "beaucoups" of sex, and Rocket backing away from the two co-workers.

***

SKETCH: VIDEO DATE

  • New Jersey chemical plant worker Paulie Herman (Joe Piscopo) makes a tape for a video dating service with (Gail Matthius)'s help.
  • I personally don't care too much for this character, but I can't deny that "I'm from Jersey! *laugh* Are you from Jersey?" was a memorable hook, and Piscopo was able to bring the audience onto his side quickly, .
  • The punchline seemed a little obvious, though, and it felt like they were repeating jokes for the sake of repetition when Paulie kept going on about his date after finishing the tape.

**1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "UNITED TOGETHER" - ARETHA FRANKLIN

  • The SNL Band (plus additional horns and a conductor) sounds great here.  Aretha Franklin's microphone sounded a little too low in the mix at first, but this was a very good performance.
  • The studio version is orchestrated and a little slower.

WEEKEND UPDATE WITH CHARLES ROCKET

  • Best jokes: Heaven's Gate, Secretary of Milk, Lillian Carter, Ed Koch/Abzug
  • The Weekend Update set gets a slight change this week: there's now a world map behind Rocket in the space between the two screens.  Charles Rocket seemed to have a better night than in the McDowell show, and the audience seems more generous with their responses than they were that week.  There were still some pretty lame jokes (like the colorblind Jews/Moses being colorblind one) but nothing super uncomfortable to watch.  Rocket's WU was still nothing amazing, but the audience was probably energized by...
  • Eddie Murphy's proper SNL debut: Piscopo's Saturday Night Sports segment for the week, commenting on a story about race quotas on high school basketball teams.  Piscopo is still not fully at his normal volume and pace, but is already catching on with the audience.  The real story, of course, was 19-year-old Murphy: he manages to get the biggest response of the night with his first speaking appearance on the show as Raheem Abdul Mohammed (who does not yet speak with the character's regular exaggerated angry voice).  Right away, you know he's got that something.  The commentary (by David Sheffield) has some great lines like being a "junior going on seven years now" and the speculation that the next black trend co-opted by white people would be going on welfare, but Murphy's the main reason it works, and by the time he brings out the boombox, the show had found its new breakout star.
  • Gilbert Gottfried's commentary as Dr. Calvin Zuko, reporting (solely from first hand experience) that female orgasms don't exist, was somewhat funny.  Kind of dies off, though.
  • There's a tech issue between the Saturday Night Sports and Gottfried segments, where the Weekend Update graphic bleeds through the pictures on the screens.

**1/2

SHOW: OUR FRONT DOOR

  • A suburban family (Joe Piscopo, Gail Matthius, Gilbert Gottfried, Denny Dillon) is eager to learn about a junkie's (Charles Rocket) drug addiction.
  • This was one of the sketches that nearly cost Doumanian her job: Standards and Practices fought the airing of this sketch, as well as the Planned Parenthood sketch (which aired tonight) and the "Virgin Search" film (scheduled for this week, aired two weeks later in the David Carradine show).
  • This was easily the weakest of the three contested bits, but I got a few chuckles from it.  For some reason the visual of Piscopo with those glasses and the pipe in his mouth always makes me laugh a little, especially since it usually comes up in sketches with dark subject matter such as this one.
  • The juxtaposition of the almost 1950's sitcom-style family with a heroin addict was an interesting concept, but it just didn't yield the dividends it could have.  Gottfried asking if Rocket has ever ODed and Rocket showing the family his tracks seemed more like forced shock humor.  Denny Dillon asking Rocket if he knew Janis Joplin and Ginger Baker was a copy of her bit in the Amy Carter sketch the show before where she asks Reagan if he knew John Travolta and Kristy McNichol.
  • Trivia: this is the first SNL appearance of Patrick Weathers, who plays the visiting sniper at the end.

**

FILM: "PEPE GONZALES" - LEON ICHASO

  • A profile of the only bullfighter in New York City (Gilbert Gottfried), who is seen baiting traffic as he describes his life.
  • I had trouble deiciding what to make of this; after seeing it a few times, I concluded that it's one of those pieces where I can admire the conceit behind it but the actual execution doesn't really do much for me.  The footage of Gottfried fighting the various vehicles as he narrates the various injuries he's sustained was interesting visually, but the humor really didn't connect for me.  The main thing I found funny was Gottfried chugging the bottle of Scope at the beginning.

*1/2

SKETCH: PLANNED PARENTHOOD

  • Vickie (Gail Matthius) and her scared friend Debbie (Denny Dillon) get contraception advice from a counselor (Ellen Burstyn) at Planned Parenthood.
  • A much stronger sketch than the original Vickie sketch from the Elliott Gould show, because Matthius has the opportunity to play off both Dillon and Burstyn.  Pairing Vickie up with another character also gives the character a better dynamic.  This had some genuinely funny material, particularly the girls' misconceptions about getting pregnant, and Vickie's line about using her mother's birth control pills to clear her skin and replacing the missing pills with Saccharin.
  • This sketch also has the night's second reference to female orgasms (after Weekend Update) when Burstyn's counselor character tries to explain what they were like, comparing them to the flock of geese.  This also leads to the best exchange of the sketch, IMO: "Is it ever like ducks?" "Way too often!".
  • They reused the same set from Video Date, but rearranged some of the furniture for the sketch.

***

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "CAN'T TURN YOU LOOSE" - ARETHA FRANKLIN

  • Another improvement over the Arif Mardin-produced studio version, which is considerably slicker.  An excellent, lively performance.
  • Most of the SNL Band can be seen a little better in this segment.  I think you can see Dr. John (who sat in with the band that night according to the end credits) in one of the very last shots during the applause.

SKETCH: THE LESSON

  • Privileged English girl Mary Louise (Denny Dillon) is the Dr. Jeckyll to her sock puppet Sam The Snake's Mr. Hyde as she terrorizes her tutor (Ellen Burstyn) and maid (Ann Risley).
  • Not bad.  I like the whole trope of a character's vicious side being expressed through their puppet (think Mr. Hat on South Park and Bob Campbell on Soap) and thought Dillon pulled it off.  Burstyn did alright, but Risley seemed to try too hard with her Cockney maid character.
  • Speaking of the maid, when Dillon attacks her for being so poor "she doesn't have a pot to piss in", I'm amazed they actually got that word on the air in that particular context back then.  The show did use the word pissed in 1977 (and not without some backstage controversy either) but this time the word is used as a synonym for urination, even if it is part of an old saying.  I wonder if Doumanian got trouble from the network for that.

**1/2

SHOW: THE TONI TENILLE SHOW

  • Toni Tenille (Ann Risley) thinks Jean Harris' (Denny Dillon) claims of innocence are segues to discussing her hair and questions about weight loss.
  • A spoof of Toni Tenille's real short-lived talk show (there's a promo during a KNBC station ID on my recording of the Gould show), and one of Risley's stronger performances of her entire 12-show SNL tenure.  It holds up well enough as a proto-Pat Stevens without knowledge of the real Tenille Show or the Scarsdale Diet murder, even if the sketch is nothing special.

**1/2

FILM: "FISH HEADS" - BILL PAXTON, ROCKY SCHENCK, BARNES & BARNES

  • An edited version of the music video for Barnes & Barnes' 1980 novelty single.
  • When I say edited, I mean edited: most of the first two minutes of the full video are cut, as well as a number of repetitions of the chorus.  There's a particularly awkward cut right before the "drinking cappuccinos" verse.
  • Never minded the song at all.  The film's an amusing diversion.

**1/2

SKETCH: BLAME THE KIDS

  • Divorcing parents (Charles Rocket and Ann Risley) tell their children (Mitchell Kriegman and Gail Matthius) that their breakup is actually their fault.
  • This was nasty, but the idea was interesting, and it worked.  The audience responded well to it. 
  • This is the only live sketch appearance of writer Mitchell Kriegman, who normally appeared in his taped bits.  Kriegman would be one of the first writers that Doumanian disposed of before season's end
  • There is a boom mic visible at one point in the sketch.

***

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "B.I.G. T.I.M.E" - KEITH SYKES

  • Good tune.  Kind of retro-ish power pop.
  • This is one of the times they don't use the regular musical guest stage.  I think this is just the stage on other side of the main home base, where the SNL Band normally played.

SKETCH: LONELY OLD LADY

  • Dared by her friends, a little girl (Gail Matthius) comes face-to-face with the scary old lady that lives alone in the neighborhood (Ellen Burstyn).
  • Easily the non-Eddie Murphy highlight of the night, and one of 1980-81's few outright victories, with a throwback to the semi-dramatic pieces of Marilyn Suzanne Miller.  This one had a mix of gentle humor (the old lady's story about her son wanting to be a robot for Halloween but her hearing "rabbit", the little girl's misconceptions of the old lady) with some of the saddest moments in a SNL sketch (particularly brutal: the lady going to the door and asking "someone there?"  Burstyn sells the hell out of those two words).
  • Gail Matthius's little girl in the bunny outfit was very Gilda-esque, right down to the phrasing.  This is one time when a comparison is both apt and favorable.

****

GOODNIGHTS

  • The cast and guests wish Ellen a happy birthday.
  • Eddie Murphy is front and centre with the cast.  And to think he didn't even have a credit in the opening montage tonight.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

A definite improvement over the infamous Malcolm McDowell show.  While not much of the material was amazing, there weren't any huge missteps (at its worst, Pepe Gonzales was just dull) and the cast and writers were able to come up with a more consistent show.  Burstyn was a decent host who didn't have to do a lot of heavy lifting but had a few good moments.  Joe Piscopo seems to be getting bolder and developing more of a connection with an audience, and the Old Lady sketch is a highlight of the season.  But the real story of this week is Eddie Murphy's Weekend Update debut, which had a boldness and confidence that stood out among the other cast members, who were still begging to be accepted as the new faces of the show.

EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Saturday Night Sports segment on Weekend Update with Raheem Abdul Mohammed
  • Lonely Old Lady
  • What's It All About

EPISODE LOWLIGHTS:

  • Pepe Gonzales
  • Our Front Door

MVP:

  • Eddie Murphy

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Denny Dillon: 6 appearances [Ed McMahon School of Laughing, What's It All About, Our Front Door, Planned Parenthood, The Lesson, The Toni Tenille Show]
  • Gilbert Gottfried: 4 appearances [What's It All About, Weekend Update, Our Front Door, Pepe Gonzales]
  • Gail Matthius: 6 appearances [Ed McMahon School of Laughing, Video Date, Our Front Door, Planned Parenthood, Blame The Kids, Lonely Old Lady]
  • Joe Piscopo: 4 appearances [Ed McMahon School of Laughing, Video Date, Weekend Update, Our Front Door], 1 voiceover [Pepe Gonzales]
  • Ann Risley: 4 appearances [Ed McMahon School of Laughing, The Lesson, The Toni Tenille Show, Blame The Kids]
  • Charles Rocket: 6 appearances [Going Co-Op, Ed McMahon School of Laughing, The Rocket Report, Weekend Update, Our Front Door, Blame The Kids]

crew and extras 

  • Yvonne Hudson: 1 appearance [The Toni Tenille Show]
  • Mitchell Kriegman: 1 appearance [Blame The Kids]
  • Eddie Murphy: 1 appearance [Weekend Update]
  • Patrick Weathers: 2 appearances [Our Front Door, The Toni Tenille Show]
  • The SNL Band: 2 appearances ["United Together", "Can't Turn You Loose"]

guests

  • Ellen Burstyn: 5 appearances [Monologue, What's It All About, Planned Parenthood, The Lesson, Lonely Old Lady]
  • Aretha Franklin: 2 appearances ["United Together", "Can't Turn You Loose"]
  • Keith Sykes: 1 appearance ["B.I.G. T.I.M.E."]
  • Bill Paxton: 1 appearance [Fish Heads]

REBROADCAST HISTORY:

  • January 31, 1981

Additional screen captures from this episode not posted above are available here.