Classic SNL Review: November 5, 1983: Betty Thomas / Stray Cats (S09E04)

RATINGS SYSTEM:

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

COLD OPENING: ASTRONAUT

  • Most of the Democratic candidates look alike, but not Jesse Jackson (Joe Piscopo).
  • This is only a minute long; I find Piscopo's impression isn't particularly accurate, but the take on Jackson's wordplay brings it up somewhat. The other element of the joke, a fakeout from the expectation that the man in the astronaut suit would be John Glenn (Glenn declared his candidacy and The Right Stuff was released around that time), seems to have faded with the years.
  • Piscopo doing the Jesse Jackson impression instead of Eddie Murphy is the first sign that Murphy wasn't doing the show live that week. This also raises the issue of the show using white performers to impersonate black celebrities.
  • Written by Nate Herman and Eliot Wald.

** 1/2

MONTAGE

  • A "portions pre-recorded" disclaimer appears tonight.

MONOLOGUE

  • Betty Thomas uses a few visual aides to bring her Hill Street Blues recognition factor to SNL.
  • Nothing special, but Thomas is having fun; she starts to laugh when she mentions the gun she's wearing in her leg holster "feels good down there". The last joke, where Thomas, who has been slapping a baton in her hand for a few seconds, mentions how painful it is to her hand, gives this a strong finish.

*** 

COMMERCIAL: MEMOREX

  • Security camera video footage shows an obtuse Lee Iaccoca (Joe Piscopo) frustrating FBI agents' (Brad Hall and Jim Belushi) drug sting.
  • Hall and Belushi are good here opposite Piscopo, whose impression of Iacocca is one of his better ones. There's a funny line where Piscopo responds to a comment about profit with "I don't think you know the car business!". Nice reveal with Kazurinsky watching the footage on a monitor: "If I drop a word, they may drop the charges".

***

SHOW: JAMES BROWN'S CELEBRITY HOT TUB PARTY

  • The Godfather of Soul (Eddie Murphy) funks his way into the hot tub.
  • One of Eddie Murphy's best-remembered SNL bits; this always struck me as a rewrite (and improvement) of the last time Murphy did James Brown (the Annie commercial from the Robert Culp show). Murphy nails it here.
  • This was recorded on September 21, 1983 at the special "preview show".
  • Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield receive a separate credit in tonight's show for writing this sketch.

*****

SKETCH: CURLY AUDITION

  • Elvis-like Sergio (Joe Piscopo) auditions for the role of Curly in a Three Stooges-tribute musical.
  • A funny short bit featuring two strong Joe Piscopo impressions. It cuts off early for the next segment, but that doesn't actually hurt the sketch.
  • Written by Kevin Kelton; this was originally intended as a standalone piece.
  • Former SNL Band member Cheryl Hardwick is the piano player; not sure who the guy at the very beginning of the sketch with the Moe-like hair is.

***

MISCELLANEOUS: SPECIAL REPORT

  • A breaking story: the United States has invaded Switzerland to avenge a shortchanged tourist (Gary Kroeger).
  • The start of a multi-part runner: Kroeger has an understated performance as the tourist, while Kazurinsky gets a meaty role as the shopkeeper, who has already had his family killed for his transgression (which turns out to be nothing because the change just slipped under the rubber mat on the counter, which placates Kroeger's character more than it does the military).
  • I really like how they set this up; instead of having a familiar face from the cast appear right away, the first anchor is Ed Van Nuys, an actor who appeared as Dean Rusk in the Kennedy TV movie that aired that month on NBC, and head writer Andrew Smith plays White House press secretary Larry Speakes. The cast only appears after the premise has been established.
  • This appears to be inspired by the U.S. Government's invasion of Grenada less than two weeks before this episode first aired.

*** 1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "(SHE'S) SEXY + 17"

  • Betty Thomas jokingly introduces the song's title as being about her and her waist size.
  • Very good, energetic performance of their Top 5 single from Rant 'n Rave with the Stray Cats; Lee Rocker practically assaults his upright bass.

MISCELLANEOUS: UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

  • Havnagootiim Vishnuuerheer (Tim Kazurinsky) ponders some of the universe's great mysteries and invites viewers to submit their own.
  • Essentially a set-up to the season's recurring viewer submission set-up; this was a little too long and dry. Some lines were funny (wondering why there is only one sex organ, the answers given without questions), but the whole thing felt like a lull in the show.

**

SHOW: YOU WIN A DOLLAR

  • Dale Butterworth (Jim Belushi) endures torturous game show challenges for the chance to win one dollar.
  • A very quick-paced, laugh-heavy game show spoof; some nice fake blood in the "Find The Marble" (in a bowl of razor blades) segment. For some reason, Robin Duke's broad smiles to the camera as the show's nurse crack me up.
  • Written by Andy Breckman; this is the debut of the character name "Dale Butterworth", which would be a hallmark of his SNL contributions for years to come. Breckman has a small cameo in this sketch as the beekeeper.

****

SHOW: PERFECTLY FRANK

  • Advertising executive (Joe Piscopo) seduces psychology professor (Betty Thomas) during a panel discussion of subliminal messaging.
  • This is particularly interesting because the same basic concept would be used for Kevin Nealon's Mr. Subliminal character. This sketch isn't bad, but Nealon's take is better, largely because Piscopo overdoes his "subliminal" lines. The sketch ends with a very good closing joke, though.
  • Written by Kevin Kelton; Piscopo was originally intended to say "oral sex" before Thomas' business with the banana but that line was rejected by Standards.
  • Gary Kroeger's host character originally had a mustache in dress rehearsal, as seen here.

*** 1/2

SKETCH: SWAN BREAK

  • A welder-turned-dancer (Jim Belushi) incorporates Flashdance moves into her debut Swan Lake performance with the Pittsburgh Ballet.
  • Another front-and-center role for Jim Belushi, this time dressed (crudely) as Jennifer Beals and throwing himself into some physical bits. I have to commend his efforts, even if the piece is merely OK. 

***

SATURDAY NIGHT NEWS

  • Best jokes: John Glenn/Tom Landry, Big Bird dead
  • Stronger jokes this week. The Switzerland runner dominates tonight's edition of the news; first, a report that uses completely inappropriate and outdated stock footage (including the correspondent himself), followed by a "man on the street" segment where people react to the news of the invasion.
  • The rerun version removes a few of the "man on the street" responses (including the guy talking about the 14-year-olds), as well as a joke Brad Hall tells about heavy casualties in the middle least that ends with him remaking about how nice it is to report good news for a change.
  • Jim Belushi is brought out to debate America's "get tough" foreign policy, but after rudely interrupting Brad Hall's opening resolution ("OH COME ON! GIVE ME A BREAK"), he tries to rebut using catchphrases from the old SNL cast ("Brad, you ignorant slut.") This gets a good response from the audience at first, but the whole bit stretches the joke a little too thin.
  • Ronald Reagan (Joe Piscopo) holds a press conference to discuss the Swiss crisis. This has a few quick jokes (the "shore of Switzerland", the tourist board letter that prompted the invasion, the weapons build-up being Swiss Army Knives) before leading into Slopes Of Fear, a propaganda film that's a little too slow and dry, but gets laughs at the part with the subtitle yodeling. Reagan concludes by denying this is another distraction from Grenada, Beirut, and high unemployment, which felt a little on-the-nose to me.

***

SHOW: JANE FONDA'S PREGNANCY, BIRTH, LABOR, RE-ENTERING THE JOB MARKET, TRYING TO CATCH A MAN, TRYING TO KEEP A MAN, MAKING NEW FRIENDS, HOLDING YOUR BREATH, AND GOING OVER YOUR CREDIT LIMIT WORKOUT

  • Jane Fonda (Betty Thomas) ignores obvious signs that one of her workout demonstrators (Robin Duke) has gone into labor.

 

  • This is pretty quick; Thomas does well carrying the sketch and making Fonda look self-satisfied, but Mary Gross almost steals it from her with her gleeful "I was drunk!" and quitting the workout to smoke a cigarette. The business with Duke giving birth was a little predictable, though. 
  • Not sure who any of the extras behind the female cast are; Julia Louis-Dreyfus again has no lines.

** 1/2

SKETCH: THE GUMBY STORY

  • Gumby (Eddie Murphy) tyrannically calls the shots during the filming of his film biography.
  • Not as strong as the previous Gumby appearances, but this has some nice work from Gary Kroeger (check out the scene where he's demonstrating different motions while Piscopo's character talks on the phone).
  • Another sketch from the September 21 taping; for some reason, this really felt obviously taped and inserted into the show. Maybe it's the slightly duller picture quality of the video tape, but the energy also felt a little off here.

***

MISCELLANEOUS: CRISIS '83 UPDATE

  • Brad Hall reports on the latest developments in the U.S. Invasion of Switzerland; Reagan (Joe Piscopo) announces that the country is now under the control of the U.S. Marines and solicits suggestions for the next invasion.
  • This only serves to wrap up the runner, but for what it is it's not bad.
  • The pre-taped footage of rescued Americans returning home, complaining about the heavy sauces, cuckoo clocks, etc was directed by Claude Kerven. The tall bearded guy wrapped in the blanket ("So boring!") is writer Andrew Kurtzman.

** 1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "I WON'T STAND IN YOUR WAY"

  • A doo-wop number featuring a sax solo and guest vocals by one-time SNL musical guests 14 Karat Soul.

SKETCH: MISFITS

  • At a support group meeting, male-to-female transsexuals express their post-transition frustrations.
  • This hasn't aged well; I'll give them credit for not going the obvious route and casting the male cast in these roles, but it's still based too much on "these women obviously used to be guys" for my tastes. Thomas, Duke and Gross do as much as they can to make it work (Julia Louis-Dreyfus seems to slip in and out of her voice), but even then, this just seems a little too reliant on easy "men are different than women" jokes.

* 1/2

GOODNIGHTS

  • Someone prompts Betty as to when she can begin; she ecstatically thanks Dick Ebersol and the audience (Gary Kroeger reminds her to mention Bob Tischler), and mentions the writers "worked their butts off". Gary Kroeger says "Happy birthday, I love you, Leslie!"
  • The credits cut off early in the live broadcast; Michael McCarthy is added to the list of writers this week.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

A slight improvement over the October shows, boosted by one of the show's most famous pieces (James Brown) and You Win A Dollar, as well as an interesting format break with the Crisis '83 runner. While the show falls a little bit short of being the season's first classic, it's got a lot going for it. As host, Thomas was above-average (owing to her Second City experience) but mostly out of the way, only really getting spotlights in the Jane Fonda and Misfits sketches. As well, with Eddie Murphy only appearing on tape this week, Joe Piscopo, Brad Hall, Jim Belushi and Tim Kazurinsky are particularly busy, while Gary Kroeger makes the most of his airtime. Murphy's limited presence on the show would provide more challenges and more opportunities in the months to come. The women are unfortunately underutilized, though, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus only getting a speaking role in one of her three sketches.

SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party
  • You Win A Dollar
  • Perfectly Frank

SHOW LOWLIGHTS:

  • Misfits
  • Unanswered Questions

MVP:

  • (tie) Eddie Murphy / Joe Piscopo

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Jim Belushi: 6 appearances [Memorex, Special Report, You Win A Dollar, Swan Break, Saturday Night News, The Gumby Story]
  • Robin Duke: 4 appearances [You Win A Dollar, Jane Fonda, The Gumby Story, Misfits]
  • Mary Gross: 3 appearances [Jane Fonda, The Gumby Story, Misfits]
  • Brad Hall: 6 appearances [Memorex, Special Report, You Win A Dollar, Saturday Night News, The Gumby Story, Crisis '83 Update], 2 voice-overs [Astronaut, Jane Fonda]
  • Tim Kazurinsky: 6 appearances [Memorex, Curly Audition, Special Report, Unanswered Questions, Swan Break, The Gumby Story]
  • Gary Kroeger: 3 appearances [Special Report, Perfectly Frank, The Gumby Story]; 1 voice-over [Saturday Night News]
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus: 3 appearances [You Win A Dollar, Jane Fonda, Misfits]
  • Eddie Murphy: 2 appearances [James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party, The Gumby Story]
  • Joe Piscopo: 7 appearances [Astronaut, Memorex, Curly Audition, Perfectly Frank, Saturday Night News, The Gumby Story, Crisis '83 Update]

writers, crew & extras

  • Tom Barney: 1 appearance [James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party]
  • Jackson Beck: 2 voice-overs [Special Report, Crisis '83 Update]
  • Michael Brecker: 1 appearance [James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party]
  • Andy Breckman: 1 appearance [You Win A Dollar]
  • Hiram Bullock: 1 appearance [James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party]
  • Cheryl Hardwick: 1 appearance [Curly Audition]
  • Andrew Kurtzman: 1 appearance [Crisis '83 Update]
  • Tom Malone: 1 appearance [James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party]
  • Andrew Smith: 1 appearance [Special Report]
  • Clint Smith: 1 voice-over [James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party]
  • Ed Van Nuys: 1 appearance [Special Report]

guests

  • Betty Thomas: 5 appearances [Monologue, Special Report, Perfectly Frank, Jane Fonda, Misfits]
  • Stray Cats: 2 appearances ["(She's) Sexy + 17", "I Won't Stand In Your Way"]
  • 14 Karat Soul: 1 appearance ["I Won't Stand In Your Way"]

REBROADCAST HISTORY:

  • March 3, 1984
  • September 15, 1984

Known alterations:

  • Saturday Night News edited
  • Very minor edits (pauses taken out) to Memorex and Jane Fonda

Sketches included in the 03/24/84 Best Of special:

  • James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party
  • Swan Break

Additional screen captures from this episode can be seen here.