Classic SNL Review: October 8, 1983: Brandon Tartikoff / John Cougar (S09E01)

RATINGS SYSTEM:
***** - Classic
****  - Great
***   - Good / Average
**     - Meh
*     - Awful

OPENING: BRANDON'S OFFICE

  • Mary Gross, Tim Kazurinsky and Eddie Murphy break into Brandon Tartikoff's office to investigate how he managed to get himself booked as tonight's host.
  • Nothing great, but not terrible. Kazurinsky manages to screw up a line early on (he says "more viewers than phonelines" before correcting himself), while Murphy gets some cheers and applause for just showing up. Gross's facial expression after Murphy insults Mr. T over the phone (the highlight of the sketch) was hilarious, though.
  • When Murphy goes over Tartikoff's schedule, the show is listed as starting at 12 midnight; the clocks on home base (visible during the John Cougar performances) support this. 

**

MONTAGE/OPENING THEME

  • The same montage from last year, although the SNL Band has now been pared down to a six-piece group featuring returning members Tom Malone and Leon Pendarvis and new members Michael Brecker and Tom Barney. For this and next week's show, Late Night band members Steve Jordan and Hiram Bullock fill in for returnees Buddy Williams and Georg Wadenius.

MONOLOGUE

  • After the red carpet is rolled out for the boss's entrance, Brandon Tartikoff says SNL is an example of NBC's commitment to quality programming. An on-screen crawl undermines Brandon's claims.
  • Tartikoff gets a groan-worthy joke (his hosting is something new: a president becoming an actor), before discussing his preference television with integrity. He's a little stiff, but does alright. The crawl is essentially the same kind of thing that was done whenever Buck Henry hosted in the earlier seasons, but the jokes (a list of bad NBC programming that he allowed on, etc.) were stretched a little too thin.
  • The list of references to NBC programming is too long to go into detail but "He wanted you to believe Sandy Gallin was Ed Sullivan" refers to the variety mini-series Live...and in Person, which aired September 27-29, 1983 on NBC.
  • At the time of hosting, Tartikoff had just recently gone through chemotherapy for Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and wore a hairpiece during the show (source: interview with Lily Tartikoff,  Tom Shales & James Andrew Miller, Live From New York).

** 1/2

COMMERCIAL: CALVIN KLEIN CREAM PIES

  • Vain model Martha (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) always gets her way and doesn't like to lose.

 

  • A parody of a then-current Calvin Klein Jeans ad campaign featuring Martha Plimpton (the "I love to win and I hate to lose" section is taken from one of the real ads). Louis-Dreyfus does well here, in what would be her only appearance all night. Good punchline ("for girls you hate").

***

SKETCH: JAMES WATT

  • James Watt's (Joe Piscopo) staff tries to cheer him up following the blowback from his comments on affirmative action.


  • Watt was one SNL's most frequent punching bags of the Reagan administration, and this is mostly an excuse for the show to get their last digs before his inevitable resignation (which was tendered the next day). A few of the jokes (the aides trying to cheer Watt up by killing a tree, oil slick in the office) are a little too on the nose, but the prop with the oil well dispensing Watt's drink was nicely done. The performances go a long way in selling this sketch (particular favorite moment: Kroeger's "Hey hey!" after Kazurinsky mentions a percentage of poll responses as "undecided"). The punchline (which references the remark that got Watt into trouble) lands, ending the sketch on a strong note.
  • Eddie Murphy gets a small bit of applause for his entrance for a relatively minor role.

*** 1/2

SHOW: JAZZ RIFFS

  • Art Hammond (Tim Kazurinsky) interviews a disguised saxophone player who admits to "prostituting himself" by playing weddings, bar mitzvahs and sweet 16 parties.
  • A little slow moving, but I enjoyed this; good character work from both Kazurinsky and Murphy.  A lot of the humor comes from the stories Murphy tells about humiliating gigs (having to dress as the Penguin during a Batman themed party, the keyboard player nearly electrocuting himself from crying over his instrument).
  • The March 31, 1984 rerun of the Smothers Brothers / Big Country show features an alternate take of the sketch (see above). It appears to have been taped at the September 21, 1983 preview show where a number of Eddie Murphy sketches were taped for use during weeks he didn't appear live. The remake in Tartikoff works a little better, though.
  • Opening theme music is "Humph" by Thelonious Monk; the outro music sounds like another Monk tune but I'm not sure of the title.

***

COMMERCIAL: FELN'S DISCOUNT FOOD AND CLOTHING WAREHOUSE

  • Herb Feln (Joe Piscopo) has everything you want to wear and eat for cheap.
  • Piscopo doing what he's done well for the past few years; it picks up steam as it gets sillier with the food and clothing combos, and Piscopo starts to get looser as the sketch goes along.
  • Written by Nate Herman.
  • This sketch was not included in the repeat version of this show.

****

SKETCH: SHOW IDEAS

  • Eddie Murphy rejects Brandon Tartikoff's efforts to poach him off SNL and put him on prime time, but The Whiners (Robin Duke and Joe Piscopo) are more receptive.
  • Tartikoff is the main reason this works; showing more willingness to look silly and poke fun at himself, wearing black leather (with a rhinestone-studded "BE THERE" - NBC's current slogan - on the back) and ineptly using slang to try to ingratiate himself with Murphy ("Oh, you're talking Negro!"). The Whiners segment was better than average for the characters, even if the reveal that they're a Nielsen family was a little predictable (although Doug and Wendy being the audience for The Fall Guy was funny).
  • Murphy's comments about SNL being "home" to him and not wanting to leave are more interesting in retrospect, since he didn't return to the show or participate in any reunion specials for over 30 years before his appearance at the 40th anniversary special this past February. Murphy also usually compares his time at SNL to being at school.
  • I can't identify who played Brandon's secretary (youngish, short hair, lower voice). I think that's her voice in the James Watt sketch.

***

SKETCH: GUMBY & POKEY

  • Gumby (Eddie Murphy) is cantankerous while rehearsing a reunion special with an achy and flatulent Pokey (Joe Piscopo).
  • This was bloated and overlong, but the Murphy & Piscopo chemistry is still there, as well as the visual of Piscopo in a giant orange foam rubber "horse" costume. Piscopo is pretty loose here, at one point ad-libbing "they can't see me laughing behind this thing". Gary Kroeger gets a straight role, while Brad Hall has a brief appearance as a flamboyantly gay choreographer ("Get out of here, funny boy!")

**

MISCELLANEOUS: MAN ON THE STREET

  •  Brandon Tartikoff tries to get new viewers for NBC's fall line-up on the streets of New York City.
  • This is quite good, with Tartikoff proving to be even more game and unafraid to look pathetic: here, he approaches people as they eat lunch, sticks flyers for Manimal on windshields, is escorted away by a security guard for bothering someone about The Yellow Rose, and uses a bullhorn to tell pedestrians listening to a CBS representative's offer that "he's filling you with lies". Nice ending with Tartikoff discussing his (limited) progress with boss Grant Tinker over the (pay) phone too (and trying to get the quarter at the end).
  • The NBC fall schedule in 1983-84 ended up being a disaster, with none of the shows that premiered that fall renewed; some, like Bay City Blues were cancelled after a few episodes; several mid-season premieres (Night Court, Riptide) fared better.
  • Tonight's bumpers appear to be shot at the same time this was taped.

****

SHOW: LARRY'S CORNER

  • Larry Rolans (Brad Hall) dispenses with his talk show's usual serious focus to have his high school buddies (Andy Breckman, Tim Kazurinsky and Gary Kroeger) crack him up.
  • This is a classic; a simple, largely visual and well-executed sketch that has the audience going wild.
  • Written by Breckman, who will quickly become a major writer on the remaining two seasons of the Dick Ebersol era, as well as one of the few Ebersol writers to work on the show after Lorne Michaels returned in 1985, contributing sketches well into the late 90s.

*****

SATURDAY NIGHT NEWS

  • Best joke: Chevy Chase
  • A fairly streamlined edition of Saturday Night News; not really much to write about joke-wise, but the audience doesn't react at all to the implied joke in the "10 Hispanic people on TV" item (Charo counting as three).
  • Joe Piscopo returns with Saturday Night Sports to discuss the baseball playoffs. More of the same (some stumbles, though), with jabs at Steve Howe's drug use and Tommy Lasorda's weight. 
  • Brandon Tartikoff has a brief cameo handing Hall a bulletin about a new special with Joe Dimaggio and Mr. T ("Mr. Coffee and Mr. T"). The walk-on was funnier than the actual joke.
  • Tim Kazurinsky returns with another Salute to Journalism, with more New York Post headlines: the first few are actually the first references to AIDS that appear on SNL. This one's in the middle of the pack for these segments: he grabs the wrong headline by mistake, but there are a few good ones here.
  • Cut from dress rehearsal: a segment with Mary Gross wearing a nun's habit and an eyepatch.

** 1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "PINK HOUSES"

  • Off the Uh-Huh album, which was released the day before; this was his first album to be credited to "John Cougar Mellencamp", but SNL still billed him as Cougar tonight; I will refer to the singer individually as Mellencamp.
  • Good performance, although the blocking seems a little off here. Mellencamp tells the audience to sing along at one point.
  • Mellencamp's band: Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitar, Toby Myers on bass, Kenny Aronoff on drums, Pat Petersen and Caroll Sue Hill backing vocals.

SKETCH: RENT-A-GUN

  • A sporting goods store clerk (Joe Piscopo) is oblivious to the obvious intentions of a customer (Tim Kazurinsky) looking to rent a firearm.

 

  • Another thin sketch improved by the performances and small jokes here and there (Kazurinsky claiming he left his ID at the yacht club, the questionnaire Piscopo gives about Kazurinsky's intentions). The ending felt a little predictable.
  • Nice segue into the next segment, though.

** 1/2

MISCELLANEOUS: SISKEL & EBERT

  • In the studio 8H balcony, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert discuss what they liked and didn't like so far in tonight's show.
  • Like with last year's Siskel & Ebert review, I won't give this one a rating, although there's some good banter and a funny bit where Siskel praises Tartikoff's performance in a bid to have their syndicated show picked up by NBC (Ebert retorts that they'd be better off in syndication than on NBC).

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "CRUMBLIN' DOWN"

  • Tartikoff hands Mellencamp and his band flyers for Manimal ("Not another crummy NBC show!") before they launch into a fiery performance of the lead single from Uh-Huh. Caroll Sue Hill's vocals are especially loud here.

COMMERCIAL: NBC: BE THERE

  • Eternal damnation and heart disease await those who watch other networks.
  • Very short and filler-ish; this is only about a minute long and originally aired between two commercial breaks. The show was running long tonight so it could have been a replacement for a cut sketch.
  • Looks like Andrew Smith as the minister (a backstage picture of Smith in costume can be seen in the bonus DVD footage from Kenneth Bowser's 2005 documentary Saturday Night Live in the 80's: Lost and Found) but I can't place the doctor (an outside actor, perhaps?).

**

SKETCH: TERRIBLE DAY

  • Diner owner Ethel (Mary Gross) remains resilient after getting bad news about her relationship, home, family and health.
  • Very weak and one-joke, even if there are some small details that were somewhat funny (Gross addressing Kroeger's character as "male nurse Hal", the family being killed by a berserk horse and some Marines). The audience was mostly dead for this one, though, and the final punchline (Ethel's silver lining: "Business is sure picking up!") wasn't worth it.
  • This sketch was not included in the repeat version of the show.

* 1/2

GOODNIGHTS

  • Brandon Tartikoff jokes that when "The Boss" was announced as tonight's host, everyone was disappointed when Bruce Springsteen didn't show up. Joe Piscopo has son Joey with him tonight.
  • In the original live broadcast, the goodnights cut off before the credits run; the band doesn't start playing until late, and the closing theme sounds slower and sparer than usual.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

A uneven beginning to the season; I've learned long ago not to expect season premieres to be great, but what's good is very good, and the weaker sketches have a few worthwhile jokes. As host, Tartikoff did OK in his limited use, not really stretching too far outside his comfort zone, but willing to make himself (and the network) the butt of some of tonight's jokes, and he seemed to enjoy himself. Tonight's show was a bit of an off night for Eddie Murphy, who seems to be coasting; Joe Piscopo has a bit more fire in him, anchoring a good number of sketches and stealing Gumby & Pokey away from Murphy. Tim Kazurinsky gets as much screentime as Piscopo in mostly supporting roles, but  Gary Kroeger, Robin Duke, Mary Gross and (especially) Julia Louis-Dreyfus are all underutilized in this week's show.

SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Larry's Corner
  • Man On The Street
  • Feln's Discount Food & Clothing Warehouse
  • James Watt

SHOW LOWLIGHTS:

  • Terrible Day
  • NBC: Be There
  • Gumby & Pokey
  • Brandon's Office

MVP:

  • Joe Piscopo

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Robin Duke: 3 appearances [James Watt, Show Ideas, Terrible Day]
  • Mary Gross: 3 appearances [Brandon's Office, James Watt, Terrible Day]
  • Brad Hall: 4 appearances [Gumby & Pokey, Larry's Corner, Saturday Night News, Terrible Day]
  • Tim Kazurinsky: 7 appearances [Brandon's Office, James Watt, Jazz Riffs, Larry's Corner, Saturday Night News, Rent-A-Gun, Terrible Day]
  • Gary Kroeger: 4 appearances [James Watt, Gumby & Pokey, Larry's Corner, Terrible Day]
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus: 1 appearance [Calvin Klein Cream Pies]
  • Eddie Murphy: 5 appearances [Brandon's Office, James Watt, Jazz Riffs, Show Ideas, Gumby & Pokey]
  • Joe Piscopo: 7 appearances [James Watt, Feln's Discount Food & Clothing Warehouse, Show Ideas, Gumby & Pokey, Saturday Night News, Rent-A-Gun, Terrible Day]; 1 voice-over [NBC: Be There]

crew, writers and extras

  • Andy Breckman: 1 appearance [Larry's Corner]
  • Joe Dicso: 1 appearance [Gumby & Pokey]
  • Nate Herman: 1 voice-over [Calvin Klein's Cream Pies]
  • Andrew Smith: 1 appearance [NBC: Be There]

guests

  • Brandon Tartikoff: 4 appearances [Monologue, Show Ideas, Man On The Street, Saturday Night News]
  • John Cougar2 appearances ["Pink Houses", "Crumblin' Down"]
  • Gene Siskel: 1 appearance [Siskel & Ebert]
  • Roger Ebert: 1 appearance [Siskel & Ebert]

REBROADCAST HISTORY

  • June 30, 1984

Known alterations:

  • Feln's Discount Food and Clothing Warehouse and Terrible Day removed
  • Crazy Edelman (10/15/83), Eddie in New Jersey (10/22/83) and Dopeball (11/12/83) added

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

  • Larry's Corner (ending edited)

Additional screen captures from this episode can be seen here.