Classic SNL Review: December 13, 1980: Jamie Lee Curtis / James Brown, Ellen Shipley (S06E04)

RATINGS SYSTEM:

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

OPENING: THE MEAN MAJORITY

  • Members of the right-wing pressure group (Charles Rocket, Denny Dillon, Gail Matthius), smug from the Republican victory last month, dictate what TV shows America is not to watch.
  • I can see what they were trying to do with this piece but it didn't quite come off, and the whole thing felt like an extended riff on the same joke.
  • Something about this felt very underwritten, and there were too many disconnects for it to work, particularly the ticker.  I don't know if it was just timed wrong, but the way it went by without any link as to why they were running it just made it feel sloppy; that's even without knowing a similar joke had been done before (and better) with Michael Palin in the What If sketch from January 1979.  The whole thing felt like it was written five minutes before air.
  • The dead audience did not help, aside from their laughter at the titles of the verboten shows.  When Dillon, Matthius and Rocket do the "LFNY" line, there is absolutely no response, and the band's count-in can even be heard.

*

MONTAGE

  • Billed for the first time are featured players Matthew Laurance, Eddie Murphy and Patrick Weathers.

MONOLOGUE

  • Jamie Lee Curtis explains that audiences expect certain things from certain performers, and fulfills hers by letting out a blood-curdling scream.
  • Par for this season: another very short "talk" monologue.  You could see where this was going when she was talking about the other performers.
  • Second week in a row that the host got a perm in between bumper photography and the live show.  Also, Curtis' belt falls off as she walks down the set stairs, and she's seen reattaching it before she gets to the stage.

**1/2

COMMERCIAL: CLOVIN HIND I

  • Brooke Shields (Gail Matthius) contorts, whistles and plucks her eyebrows, before confessing only her brains come between her and her Clovins.
  • This spoof of Brooke Shields' Calvin Klein jeans works, and the audience responds well to it.  The periodic "ouch" from Matthius was a nice detail.

***

SKETCH: ATTACK OF THE TERRIBLE SNAPPING CREATURES

  • Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her roommate (Gail Matthius) experience the horror of sentient wooden clothespins.
  • Essentially one joke, and it could have been played a little bit sillier than it was, but it did have its moments. The show may have done this sketch because of Curtis' movies, but this was Gail Matthius's sketch to carry: she tripped on a few lines early on, but she did an adequate job.
  • The audience liked the clothespin on Curtis' nipple.

**

SKETCH: THREE CARD MONTY

  • Paulie Herman (Joe Piscopo) meets a card hustler (Eddie Murphy) in a New York bus terminal.
  • The audience gives Paulie Herman recognition applause, but there was no need to bring back the character just a week after the first sketch; this also had too many similarities to Herman's first appearance.  A character whose whole schtick is saying "I'm from Jersey, are you from Jersey?" gets old pretty fast.
  • Eddie Murphy appears in his first speaking role outside of Weekend Update, and has his turn doing the Herman schtick to get out of trouble with Rocket's Irish cop character.  He's still a little green with his delivery, but he's already starting to build a voice and is the main highlight of an otherwise unnecessary sketch.
  • Rocket's Irish cop archetype reeked a little too much of lazy writing.
  • Who was the really tall guy at the beginning with Levy? [Addendum: it's Kenny Vance]

* 1/2

FILM: "WHO IS GILBERT GOTTFRIED?" - LINDA LEE

  • A short film traces Gottfried's path from meager beginnings to SNL stardom.
  • Nothing overly special.  The joke with the revolving door where his family lived was overused, but I did chuckle at the Mexican toupee dance.
  • Does anyone know who played the post office clerk that hands Gottfried his diploma or the police officer who co-stars in the audition tape?

** 1/2

SHOW: DYING TO BE HEARD

  • Female poets seeking posthumous fame kill themselves to have their works read on TV.
  • I liked this one...a funny, if very dark concept, but executed well enough.  I liked the "poems" of the characters too.
  • The only real liability in the sketch is Ann Risley's awful delivery as the host: she seems to be trying for this grave tone that only makes her seem wooden and awkward.
  • Addendum (07/15/15): Written by Mitchell Kriegman

***1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "RAPP PAYBACK" - JAMES BROWN

  • Excellent performance from all involved.  Very tight, with Brown's split-second moves providing perfect flourish.
  • SNL Band members Ronnie Cuber, Alan Rubin, Lou Marini, Tom Malone and Georg Wadenius are visible in the band (they're the ones not wearing the same outfit that the JBs are wearing).

WEEKEND UPDATE WITH CHARLES ROCKET

  • Best jokes: Vibrating rocket, Ted Koppel/Howdy Doody
  • After a slight improvement last week, Rocket has a weaker outing tonight, which isn't helped by him adopting a more exaggerated delivery and tripping on his words.  This week also has what is perhaps the most negative response to a Weekend Update joke of the Rocket tenure, if not all time: the Republicans deciding that abortion was OK as long as the fetus was female.
  • In contrast, Denny Dillon's Woodswoman bit got a positive reception.  When the writers gave her a featured bit on the show, Dillon would usually deliver and at least throw herself into the piece whether it was any good or not.  Fortunately, this was one of her better pieces.
  • Joe Piscopo's Saturday Night Sports segment, where he rhymes about the baseball trades, also does pretty well with the audience.  For me, it's something where I admire the craft but really don't see too much humor in it (aside from some unintentional humor coming from the ball players' hair and mustaches).
  • Eddie Murphy gets his first solo Weekend Update commentary tonight, this week suggesting that poor people can get their nutrition from eating dog food.  This is a bit of an oddity because Murphy speaks in a nasal twang throughout, and this segment was not in the 60-minute syndication edit of this episode.  There is also a portion where the picture gets very jumpy: this is an issue with the master tape because I've seen this issue on both the Comedy Network and NBC "classic SNL" airing of this show.  The bit itself seems only to exist for the visual of Murphy eating dog food.  Considering some of the movies Murphy's made over the last couple of years, though, this is hardly the most embarrassing thing he's ever done.

**

COMMERCIAL: POKER AND DRUGS

  • A public service announcement shows how poker players make errors in judgement while under the influence.
  • The premise was interesting, but the initial promise of the sketch eventually petered out due to inept execution.  Rocket's overexaggerated narration didn't work, and the sketch just ends suddenly.
  • There were a few funny moments, such as Risley being convinced the Queen and Jack cards were having an affair, and Gottfried hopped up on eight cups of coffee, but overall it just seemed slapped together and wasn't developed well enough.  Squandered idea of the night.

**

COMMERCIAL: CLOVIN HIND II

  • Brooke Shields (Gail Matthius) contorts and sings "Take Me Out To The Ball Game", then confesses that if her Clovins could talk, she could act.
  • Another brief blackout bit that connected with the audience.

***

SKETCH: BADGERS

  • Waitress (Jamie Lee Curtis) takes insults from a group of obnoxious lodge members (Charles Rocket, Matthew Laurance, Patrick Weathers, Eddie Murphy, Andy Murphy).
  • I did not care for this at all, with most of the humor based on the double meaning of the word "badger".  Unfortunately, this sketch is as grating as the lodge brothers were, and the twist at the end with the hotel manager (Piscopo) being a brother was weak.
  • Eddie uses a similar voice as he did in WU, while Gottfried brings out an early version of his trademark screech.

*

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "MEDLEY"- JAMES BROWN

  • One of the peaks of the season, if not the entire 37 year history of SNL.  You can see the sweat coming off of Brown by the halfway mark.
  • According to musical director Kenny Vance,  Brown performed for a much longer period of time than he was scheduled to, lasting for over eight minutes.  This may account for the odd pacing of the last third of the show.

COMMERCIAL: TORTU-MATIC

  • Increase your ability to withstand pain with a Rube Goldberg machine designed to administer abuse and toughen you up.
  • Written by Ferris Butler, another remake of a Waste Meat News bit (originally titled "La Test").
  • Rocket invokes Dan Aykroyd with his manic pitchman delivery, but the real laugh came from the prop used to beat Rocket up.   The over-the-top aspect of this one made it work for me.

***

SHORT SHOT: SCENES FROM "HOT DOGS FOR GAUGUIN" - MARTIN BREST

  • Adrian (Danny DeVito) tries to get rich quick by taking a picture of a "chance disaster" and tries to rig one involving the Statue of Liberty.
  • DeVito's performance made the portion of the film that was shown (a few minutes out of 22).  I probably would have rated this higher if it were the complete work on the show, but that would have taken away from the live element too long.
  • Brest would later direct Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, as well as be responsible for the infamous Ben Affleck / Jennifer Lopez vehicle Gigli.

*** 

SKETCH: HAIRSTYLIST

  • Cigarette-dangling midwestern hairdresser Roweena (Gail Matthius) works on her friend Nadine (Denny Dillon) as the latter gets a visit from her now-unrecognizable daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis).
  • Good character work from Dillon and especially Matthius; unfortunately, the writing in the sketch doesn't let it get off the ground.  The audience had already checked out by this point in the show. 

**

COMMERCIAL: CLOVIN HIND III

  • Brooke Shields (Gail Matthius) loses her balance as she tries to recite a limerick about her Clovins.
  • Not as good as the other two segments.
  • The show actually went back from commercial into this pre-taped bit, which indicates there likely was a timing issue caused by the James Brown performance.  Normally when the show comes back from commercial, they go into a live bit; at the time, pretapes would normally be sandwiched between two live segments.  I wonder what was cut.

**

SKETCH: NEWS IN AKRON

  • Reporter Joyce Shrapnel (Jamie Lee Curtis) interviews biker chick Camille Black (Ann Risley) of the Ocelots, a gang whose motivation is to dispose of road kill.
  • Risley tried with this character, but aside from her grabbing the reporter's microphone to sing badly, the combined tearfulness and "tough" accent just ended up grating after a while.  The sketch dragged and the props of the flattened animals didn't really add much.

*1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "FOTOGENIC" - ELLEN SHIPLEY

  • Decent new-waveish mainstream rock.
  • I think that's Ralph Schuckett on keyboards.

GOODNIGHTS

  • Jamie Lee Curtis reminds the audience of the ten minute vigil for John Lennon to be held at 2 PM the next day.

FINAL SUMMARY:

A weaker outing.  Jamie Lee Curtis didn't really have to carry much of the material tonight, but the cast did seem to be trying their best.  There really wasn't a whole lot to carry, though: a mix of weak premises, underwritten ideas that could have been further developed ("Mean Majority", "Poker and Drugs", "Terrible Snapping Creatures") and just plain laziness (the unnecessary Paulie Herman "Three Card Monty").  The strongest segments were still musical performances, with "Dying To Be Heard" being the best of the live sketches and the Short Shot (the final in the series) being the highlight of the rear third of the show.  There were fewer highlights and more frequent lowlights; the main thing that keeps tonight's show from being a new low for the season is that the weak material is nowhere as bad as some of the bits from McDowell were.

EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS:

  • James Brown (I normally don't include musical guests in highlights/lowlights, but this was probably the main reason this was included as a Classic SNL on NBC All Night in 2005).
  • Dying To Be Heard

EPISODE LOWLIGHTS:

  • The Badgers
  • The Mean Majority
  • News In Akron
  • Three Card Monty
  • Clovin Hind III
  • Weekend Update
  • Attack of the Terrible Snapping Creatures
  • Poker and Drugs
  • Hairstylist

MVP:

  • James Brown

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Denny Dillon: 5 appearances [The Mean Majority, Dying To Be Heard, Weekend Update, Poker and Drugs, Hairstylist]
  • Gilbert Gottfried: 3 appearances [Who Is Gilbert Gottfried, Poker and Drugs, Badgers]
  • Gail Matthius: 7 appearances [The Mean Majority, Clovin Hind (3 part), Attack Of The Terrible Snapping Creatures, Dying To Be Heard, Hairstylist]; 1 voiceover [Poker and Drugs]
  • Joe Piscopo: 5 appearances [Three Card Monty, Dying To Be Heard, Weekend Update, Poker and Drugs, Badgers]; 3 voice-overs [Clovin Hind (3 part)]
  • Ann Risley: 3 appearances [Dying To Be Heard, Poker and Drugs, News In Akron]
  • Charles Rocket: 5 appearances [The Mean Majority, Three Card Monty, Weekend Update, Badgers, Tortu-Matic]; 2 voiceovers [Who Is Gilbert Gottfried, Poker and Drugs]

featured players

  • Matthew Laurance: 2 appearances [Poker and Drugs, Badgers]
  • Eddie Murphy: 3 appearances [Three Card Monty, Weekend Update, Badgers]
  • Patrick Weathers: 1 appearance [Badgers]

crew and extras

  • Ronnie Cuber: 2 appearances ["Rapp Payback", "Medley"]
  • Neil Levy: 1 appearance [Three Card Monty]
  • Tom Malone: 2 appearances ["Rapp Payback", "Medley"]
  • Lou Marini: 2 appearances ["Rapp Payback", "Medley"]
  • Andy Murphy: 1 appearance [Badgers]
  • Alan P. Rubin: 2 appearances ["Rapp Payback", "Medley"]
  • Kenny Vance: 1 appearance [Three Card Monty]
  • Georg Wadenius: 2 appearances ["Rapp Payback", "Medley"]

guests 

  • Jamie Lee Curtis: 6 appearances [Monologue, Attack of the Terrible Snapping Creatures, Dying To Be Heard, Badgers, Hairstylist, News In Akron]
  • James Brown: 2 appearances ["Rapp Payback", "Medley"]

Rebroadcast history:

  • Not repeated on NBC as a regular rebroadcast.
  • This was the sole 1980-81 episode to re-air as part of NBC's Classic SNL lineup (which was just a rebroadcast of the live air version).  This was pre-empted in many markets by the first papal mass of Pope Benedict XVI.

Additional screen captures from this episode are available here.