Classic SNL Review: January 17, 1981: Karen Black / Cheap Trick, Stanley Clarke Trio (S06E07)

RATINGS SYSTEM:

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

OPENING: WHITE HOUSE STRIP

  • The Carters take everything of value from the White House before Ron and Nancy Reagan move in.
  • A strong, fast-paced opener that got a good reaction from the audience.   Good work from everyone all around, and Ann actually succeeds pretty well as lead here.
  • The funniest bits were Amy asking if Nancy Reagan has killed anyone and Rosalynn explaining that she just "marries them instead", and Jimmy Carter stealing the hotline as it beeps.
  • The only major complaint I have is the awkward shoehorn of the LFNY line, but this gets the show running on a promising note.

***

MONOLOGUE

  • Karen Black shamelessly says anything she thinks will get the audience to applaud.
  • A bit reminiscent of Chevy Chase's monologue from February 1978, but this is helped by its relative brevity and Black being so energetic and animated.
  • Black addresses son Hunter Carson (who appeared with her during her monologue four and a half years ago, memorably grabbing her left breast) at the end of the monologue.

***

COMMERCIAL: THE LEGENDARY COMPOSERS

  • A new record offer exploring the links between the great classical works and modern pop hits like "Whip It".
  • Didn't care for Rocket's choice of character voice (high-pitched and nasal with slight accent), and he seemed to muff a line, but the concept works and the audience reacts well.

*** 

COMMERCIAL: FOUNDATION FOR THE TRAGICALLY HIP

  • In a moment with Sir William Martin (Bill Martin), he solicits donations for the terminally materialistic.
  • Another one of the Michael Nesmith acquisitions aired on the show during January 1981 (Nesmith appears in a cameo at the end as Foyer the butler).  This is perhaps most well known as the comedy bit that inspired the name of Canadian rock group The Tragically Hip.
  • I thought this worked better than the Nesmith pieces that aired the week before, helped by a good concept (especially the "machines which keep Bobby alive") and a good punchline.

***1/2

SKETCH: THE LIVELYS

  • TV host Phil Lively (Charles Rocket) and wife Frances (Gail Matthius) extend the game show format to a dinner party with new neighbors (Denny Dillon and Gilbert Gottfried).
  • A genuinely great sketch for the season, with a solid premise, good development, and strong work by Rocket and Matthius, with Gottfried and Dillon doing well in straight roles.
  • There are lots of funny bits here, particularly Matthius instantly changing outfits when presenting their dining set, her singing the Jeopardy! "think music" when Gottfried and Dillon try to guess the vintage of the wine only to make the buzzer sound (loudly).  The Livelys showing the guests out (a la game show losers) for not guessing correctly was a good way to end the sketch.

****

SKETCH: SINATRA & REAGAN

  • The Chairman of the Board (Joe Piscopo) advises Ronald Reagan (Charles Rocket) on his inauguration and recommends he dump George Bush as Vice-President in favor of First Lady Nancy (Gail Matthius).
  • Historically important for Joe Piscopo's first appearance as Frank Sinatra, which would become his signature impression.  Rocket's Reagan is still weak but I thought the dynamic between the two worked enough to establish Sinatra as the more powerful of the two.
  • The reveal of Nancy hiding in the dressing room and being the one behind Sinatra's request worked pretty well.  I liked the way they ended with the shot of the mirror, too.

***1/2

FILM: THE ROCKET REPORT - DAREDEVILS

  • Charles Rocket profiles one of the biggest risk-takers in a city full of them: cab driver Richard Schmaltz.
  • A classic Rocket Report, and probably the best one of the entire series; even stronger than the 5th Avenue one thanks to the more specific focus.  The audience also loved it, especially Schmaltz's "stunt" of the left turn across three lanes of traffic.

****1/2

SKETCH: MONA LISA

  • Museum guard (Charles Rocket) breaks off his romance with famed Da Vinci painting Mona Lisa (Karen Black).
  • Perhaps it is a little too cute and broad, but I can't help but like this sketch, buoyed by good work from Rocket and Black.
  • Funniest parts: Mona Lisa wanting a baby after talking with Madonna With Child, "You wish I had legs!", her disparaging the Renoir nudes that the guard had been seeing ("Those SLUTS! With little tiny brush strokes, no DEPTH at all!"), the visual of her smiling wearing the guard's parting gift (a cowboy hat) at the end.

***1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "BABY LOVES TO ROCK" - CHEAP TRICK

  • Rawer and noisier than the version on the George Martin-produced All Shook Up album.  Pete Comita is on bass.
  • The band plays their numbers on a different set than the regular SNL musical guest stage.

WEEKEND UPDATE WITH CHARLES ROCKET & GAIL MATTHIUS

  • Best jokes: Inauguration, Reagan family portrait
  • Rocket and Matthius had better than usual material tonight, but the attempts at chemistry between the two (Rocket making drinks for them both, "never with a co-worker" after the Sunbelt film) didn't succeed, and were met with silence from the audience.  Rocket's increasingly manic delivery worked particularly well in the description of the inauguration and had a good payoff.
  • Matthius still has a few rough patches, slipping up Risley's character's name after her segment (and looking a bit embarrassed) and losing her place again as she starts her intro to the Sunbelt segment.  She also tries to do Rocket's manic thing on the Winnebago One joke.  The receptive audience keeps the energy level up, though.
  • Risley's "tips for stupid dieters" segment was a bit weak, and it seemed a little like Risley was thinking this, as she went for a slightly exaggerated delivery as she went along.
  • Rush To The Sunbelt worked for me, just because I like stock footage bits.  I like the joke about the "belt" before the sun was added in 1972.  Can anyone confirm who was doing the voiceover on that?
  • Piscopo's Saturday Night Sports appears yet again, now firmly entrenched as an audience favorite.  Piscopo tries to scalp Super Bowl tickets, which leads to another funny "upstage Rocket" bit when he waves the tickets in front of his face as he tells a joke.  Rocket plays along, though.

***

SHOW: 60 MINUTES

  • Dan Rather (Joe Piscopo) investigates the lack of female journalists at his network in "No Babes In Newsland"
  • A decent parody of the CBS newsmagazine, helped by making this a filmed segment with studio bookends.  Some good bits in here, such as an "anonymous" Walter Cronkite explaining that Mike Wallace doesn't want to work with women because of friend Harry Reasoner's "vicious castration" at the hands of Barbara Walters, and Wallace blatantly lying about making threatening signs.
  • This is notable for being the debut of Piscopo's Dan Rather, and for not featuring any other cast or featured players: aside from Piscopo, the principal speaking parts are done by various show personnel, including associate director Peter Fatovich as CBS News president Bill Leonard and Jeannine Kerwin as journalist Heather Clark (thanks to Ferris Butler for the ID).  Other show staff can be seen in the background, including writer Barry W. Blaustein.
  • Another cool detail: the shelves of video tapes in the background of the interview segments are actually recordings of actual SNL episodes.  You can see names like Art Garfunkel and Elliott Gould with the show numbers on the spine as well.  (Every episode of SNL that aired in late night, including repeats, were numbered sequentially up until the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike: after this point, only the original airings get the episode numbers.  But that's another post...)
  • I still have no idea who is playing Mike Wallace in this sketch: it's such a non-impression I actually find it funny.  Any idea who was Cronkite as well?

***

SKETCH: HOSPITAL BED

  • A view from the perspective of stroke victim Morris Birnbaum (voice of Gilbert Gottfried), including the thoughts he is unable to communicate to his nurse (Yvonne Hudson), greedy daughter (Karen Black) and old flame (Denny Dillon).
  • Like with the Old Lady sketch from Burstyn, the 1980-81 season really nailed the bittersweet sketches that Marilyn Suzanne Miller used to do.  I thought this actually was even better than the Old Lady piece, helped by the unusual setup (single camera perspective with voiceover).  Gottfried's voice carries the sketch as the bitter, sarcastic and self-pitying Birnbaum.
  • The change in tone in the sketch when Dillon entered as Rachel was also very effective, particularly Birnbaum begging Rachel not to start singing, only to start "singing" along in his head.  I liked that they also didn't try to end it on a light note...just having the sketch end with Birnbaum going out of consciousness

****1/2

SHOW: SATURDAY NIGHT SPORTS: FAIR DINKUM

  • Joe Piscopo covers the championship match of the kilt-pulling Scottish game of manhood.
  • Written by Jeremy Stevens and Tom Moore
  • Like with the Nose Wrestling segment in Gould, this was a short segment played more for the concept than hard laughs, anchored by strong work from both commentator Piscopo and referee "Mc"Gottfried.

***

SKETCH: NEIGHBOR

  • When her neighbor's (Eddie Murphy) noisy stereo keeps her up at night, (Yvonne Hudson) confronts him at his apartment door.
  • Good use of featured players Murphy and Hudson.  I thought it was a bit similar to the insult contest stand-up Murphy did the week before, and he blew a bit of his delivery early on, but once he reacted to the unnamed extra playing Hudson's boyfriend, he really came together.

***

SKETCH: TURNPIKE DINER

  • Paulie Herman (Joe Piscopo) ends up in a recreation of the famous diner scene from "Five Easy Pieces" when he sits with a Texan (Karen Black) in an overcrowded diner.
  • Still not a big fan of Paulie Herman, but this one at least gives the character a new setting and something different to mix in with the "I'm from Jersey".  The audience now recognizes and applauds the character.
  • This sketch picked up a bit once they got to the Five Easy Pieces "chicken salad sandwich" homage.  Karen Black seemed amused and like she was having fun doing it, as she was starting to crack up.

**1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "CAN'T STOP IT BUT I'M GONNA TRY" - CHEAP TRICK

  • A slower but intense song about addiction.  Again, rawer than the LP version, which was somewhat fuller-sounding.
  • Drummer Bun E. Carlos gives a little thumbs up after the end of the song.

COMMERCIAL: SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE ACTION DOLLS

  • Charles Rocket shows how you can create your own backstage drama with dolls of the new Saturday Night Live cast.


  • Rocket brings his manic pitchman mode back for this, which works as the moment the cast is fully established as a unit rather than just as the substitute players that took over when the original group left.  It seems to be a conscious effort to set an offstage "reality" for the group like the backstage sketches did for the original cast.

***

SHOW: WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT

  • Pinky and Leo Waxman (Denny Dillon and Gilbert Gottfried) continue to stray from their guests, this time taking Karen Black's mental stability in the process.
  • This one actually felt like an afterthought, and the Waxman's tangents weren't as warmly recieved this time.  It also seemed like they were rushing toward the end.
  • The breakdown was a decent way to end the sketch, with Black crouching on the ground with a banana like a monkey,  This part had a few good lines too, like "I think the camera should have a breakdown!" and Leo Waxman commenting on the mess Black made.

**

COMMERCIAL: NATIONAL HANDGUN ASSOCIATION

  • A mugging scenario reminds the audience that "guns don't kill people, people kill people".
  • Not really a lot to this other than what I described, but I did laugh a little at Matthew Laurance shoving Eddie Murphy's head right into Ann Risley's face.  Nice to see the home base elevator actually get used.

**

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "WILD DOG" - STANLEY CLARKE TRIO

  • Black introduces the performance by mentioning how Clarke has topped polls regarding the best bass players since 1976 and introduces him as her friend.  I'm guessing they knew each other through their involvement in Scientology.  Accompanying Clarke is George Duke on keyboards and John Robinson on drums.
  • This is one of the best performances on the show this year, especially for a 10-to-1 slot.  Clarke's signature technique makes this an interesting performance: he thrusts his right hand downward, almost strumming.  Good solos from Clarke and Duke, and another performance that has more life to it than the studio counterpart.  The audience goes wild for the thundering conclusion.

GOODNIGHTS

  • Karen Black says she had a stupendous time.  Gail Matthius tugs her ear a la Carol Burnett.
  • Don Pardo announces next week's show with Robert Hays and Joe "King" Carrasco before the studio feed cuts out as Jean Doumanian's credit begins to appear.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Best show of the season so far, with Black an energetic and game host, and the cast and writers proving they are capable of pulling off a consistently strong show.  This particular show is a highlight of the Doumanian era, and actually manages to be a better show than Black's first appearance in 1976.

EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Hospital Bed
  • The Rocket Report
  • The Livelys
  • Mona Lisa
  • Sinatra & Reagan
  • Foundation for the Tragically Hip

EPISODE LOWLIGHTS

  • What's It All About
  • National Handgun Association

MVP:

  • (tie) Karen Black / Charles Rocket

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Denny Dillon: 5 appearances [White House Strip, The Livelys, Hospital Bed, Turnpike Diner, What's It All About], 1 voiceover [Mona Lisa]
  • Gilbert Gottfried: 4 appearances [The Livelys, Sinatra & Reagan, Saturday Night Sports, What's It All About], 1 voiceover [Hospital Bed]
  • Gail Matthius: 3 appearances [The Livelys, Sinatra & Reagan, Weekend Update], 1 voiceover [White House Strip]
  • Joe Piscopo: 7 appearances [White House Strip, Sinatra & Reagan, Weekend Update, 60 Minutes, Saturday Night Sports, Turnpike Diner, National Handgun Association]
  • Ann Risley: 3 appearances [White House Strip, Weekend Update, National Handgun Association]
  • Charles Rocket: 9 appearances [The Legendary Composers, The Livelys, Sinatra & Reagan, The Rocket Report, Mona Lisa, Weekend Update, Hospital Bed, Saturday Night Sports, Saturday Night Live Action Dolls]

featured players

  • Yvonne Hudson: 2 appearances [Hospital Bed, Neighbor]
  • Matthew Laurance: 4 appearances [White House Strip, Sinatra & Reagan, Saturday Night Sports, National Handgun Association]
  • Eddie Murphy: 3 appearances [Hospital Bed, Neighbor, National Handgun Association]
  • Patrick Weathers: 3 appearances [White House Strip, Sinatra & Reagan, Saturday Night Sports]

crew and extras

  • Barry W. Blaustein: 1 appearance [60 minutes]
  • Pete Fatovich: 1 appearance [60 Minutes]
  • Jeannine Kerwin: 1 appearance [60 minutes]
  • Neil Levy: 1 appearance [Turnpike Diner]

guests

  • Karen Black: 5 appearances [Monologue, Mona Lisa, Hospital Bed, Turnpike Diner, What's It All About]
  • Cheap Trick: 2 appearances ["Baby Loves To Rock", "Can't Stop It But I'm Gonna Try"]
  • Stanley Clarke Trio: 1 appearance ["Wild Dog"]
  • Bill Martin: 1 appearance [Foundation For The Tragically Hip]
  • Michael Nesmith: 1 appearance [Foundation For The Tragically Hip]

REBROADCAST HISTORY:

  • Not rebroadcast on NBC.

Additional screen captures from this episode are available here