Robin Duke: Despite a strong start, Duke seemed to have a slightly rougher go this year than her fellow female players. She didn't have the advantage of anchoring SNL Newsbreak that Mary Gross and Christine Ebersole had, which gave both significant screen time and the privilege of appearing as "themselves", both things that make connecting to a performer easier for the audience. She was barely featured in several shows (James Coburn, Johnny Cash, Robert Culp) and also visibly missed a cue in a sketch. Despite this, I find it hard not to root for her or enjoy her performances. Duke also added small little details in sketches that really add to her enjoyability once you notice them (the change in vocal tone in The New Celibacy coming to mind). She reminds me quite a bit of either Cheri Oteri or Almost Live's Nancy Guppy, two other sketch comedy performers of similar physical qualities and ability to pull off more manic and fearlessly abrasive characters.
Christine Ebersole: A one-seasoner who had some outstanding moments on the show (particularly musical numbers and the acting challenges of a Marilyn Suzanne Miller piece), and no bad performances. Even her tenure on SNL Newsbreak was adequate at the very least. Once the show started getting away from the musical numbers and the sadder slice-of-life material, Ebersole just seemed relagated to being a support player. A very good one, mind you, but it felt like the changed creative direction of the show was selling her talents as a performer short.
Mary Gross: Gross seemed to have the reverse of Duke's season on some level: in her first few shows she still seems very green and her performances lack the confidence that the other two have, but she doesn't take long to come into her own. Towards the end of the year, she was cast more successfully as a ditzy persona (add in a little bit of delusion and that is where Gross rocked), but I also felt that she really did well with sarcastic delivery, and they tapped into one of her other strengths the next year (manic mode, hints of which can be seen in the Blythe Danner monologue) when she would start rattling off the lists of things that piss her off. She would evetually grow into the most well-rounded female performer of the Ebersol era.
Tim Kazurinsky: Kazurinsky seemed the castmember most likely to be mesh with one of the Lorne Michaels seasons' casts: there was a sarcasm and bite to some of his commentaries on SNL Newsbreak that was sorely lacking elsewhere. Kazurinsky's specialty is slightly weird, obnoxious characters (kind of like Robin Duke: they both also excel at old geezers), but is a good straightman and benefits from being able to play off the other cast members' reactions in a sketch (must be that Second City training). "I Married A Monkey" had diminishing returns but these qualities made Kazurinsky the only one in the cast that could make that idea work.
Eddie Murphy: The performer that shone brightest this year was undoubtedly Murphy, who had started off without any lines in his first show the previous year; by the start of this season, he led the first real sketch of the year, and by year's end, he was the star, receiving significantly more cheers from audience than the other players as their pictures flashed in the opening montage. Next year he would only be bigger: he wasn't quite at the level of fame as he attained following 48 Hrs, and seeing him playing support in a sketch alongside Robin Duke or Tim Kazurinsky is interesting, if a little odd. He may not have been an impressionist on the level of Piscopo, but Murphy could just appear on home base as himself and you would know something funny was going to happen.
Joe Piscopo: Piscopo was dominant this season, largely benefiting from the recognition he received as a bright spot the previous season. I would actually argue that Piscopo was a more dominant presence this season than Eddie Murphy: both were in a class of their own but Piscopo seemed more woven into the fabric of the cast at times. Looking back, Piscopo was a good, if somewhat overrated performer: his solid Frank Sinatra and Saturday Night Sports were able to bring the audience to life, and he was a very effective sketch performer, but sometimes an impression would merely be passable and there are times when he wouldn't necessarily be as funny as some of the lesser acknowledged cast members. Still, 1981-82 was undoubtedly Joe Piscopo's year as much as Eddie Murphy's, if not more so: the season remains a document of the period before Murphy would begin to eclipse him the next year.
Tony Rosato: Rosato ended up being the biggest surprise for me; his short tenure on the show in the time when SNL was "The Joe and Eddie Show" made him easy for me to overlook, and I had written him off based on a few of his more cartoonish roles (usually as a wacky Italian but once as an Indian). However, I found that he was solid in sketches and could do a wide variety of roles. Late in the season I figured out he was 1981-82's Jason Sudeikis: a confident performer who usually delivered whether it was carrying a sketch (Table Talk, The Vic Salukin Show) or in a support or bit part, faring best when he was either playing a gregarious sleaze or the reality anchor in a sketch. Rosato was fired after this season reportedly because he was not one to shy from challenging Dick Ebersol, and never got his due as a cast member, but managed to keep busy as a supporting actor in the time since SNL. Sadly, in recent years he had a few mental health issues and suffered a miscarriage of justice that led him to spend several years in prison.
Brian Doyle-Murray: Doyle-Murray has the reputation of being one of the weakest news segment anchors SNL has ever had, largely because SNL Newsbreak was nowhere as well-written as the best Weekend Updates, relying too much on lengthy crawls and photo montages to fill time. His delivery was underwhelming but he served as an "anchor" for both the news and the show, but only really started appearing more prominently in sketches after the March hiatus (notable exception: the Bill Murray episode). Not really a great cast member by any stretch (more of an ascended writer), he would do better as a character actor.
- Tim Curry / Meat Loaf & The Neverland Express: Tim Curry was by far the best host of the entire season and was able to bring the show to a certain level just by showing up, but this show also shows a more confident cast and writing staff emerging from the shadows of the original show, proving they can come up with something just as good. Even so, this is Curry's show through and through, from the Mick! variety special to the Zucchini Song.
- Bill Murray / The Spinners, The Whiffenpoofs of Yale 1982: A little underwhelming considering who's hosting, but Murray brings a jolt of cheer to the show, and the resulting show doesn't have any truly bad sketches. "At Home With The Psychos" is O'Donoghue's last attempt at asserting himself on the show, and while what aired was a compromised version, it was a good swan song for the self-styled "Reich Marshall's" tenure.
- Danny DeVito / Sparks: SNL gets itself a new "great host" after a year filled with more than a few bookings of questionable fit and relevance: Danny DeVito has the most enthusiasm of any host in a long time. The show is a return to form after a few odd or lackluster outings, and hints at what the show would become next season.
- John Madden / Jennifer Holliday: Surprisingly, Madden didn't weigh down the show too much; in fact, he provided the funniest moment all night with his locker room story. This particular show just felt like Michael O'Donoghue's firing took the creative wind out of everyone's sails, and the cast and crew had yet to regain their bearings. Most of the material was forgettable at best (the surprisingly melancholy Solomon & Pudge and the recasting of Tom Snyder as kiddie-show host being the exceptions) and the cast seemed to be having a bad night in general.
- Robert Conrad / The Allman Brothers Band: The first post-O'Donoghue show wasn't much better than the second: this one benefits from the meta-sketch about overexposed characters and an excuse to have Tony Rosato bring his Lou Costello out of mothballs, but this show was weak for a number of reasons. First, Conrad was a bad host that was front and center in quite a few sketches. Second, between a mess of a 10-minute sketch, a 12-minute sketch that didn't quite justify the length, and three performances by the Allman Brothers Band (featuring Gregg in very rough shape), it was apparent that they were struggling to fill 66 minutes of airtime. I've said this in my review, but Conrad and the Allmans seem to be the kind of booking that cemented that SNL was no longer as cool as it was a few years before.
- Donald Pleasence / Fear: I had to choose between this and Robert Culp as my third place choice. Culp was more all-around mediocre, weighed down heavily by a long, terrible sketch, but this episode was a larger mess. Yes, there were some daring moments such as the Vic Salukin Show (easily the most fucked up thing that made it to air that season), and Michael Davis; makes a welcome return appearance, but Brian Doyle-Murray solo on Newsbreak is painful, Pleasence was easily a worse host than Culp, and the whole episode seemed disorganized and felt like an uneasy compromise between the kind of show O'Donoghue wanted to do and the kind of show Ebersol found acceptable.
- Ebony & Ivory: Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy at the same level and the top of their respective games. Deservedly a classic and one of the token Ebersol-era clips that always seem to make the compilation specials. It mixes topicality with great impressions, but just feels like an inspired idea from the get-go. The execution couldn't be better as well.
- Mick!: A supersized sketch carried by Tim Curry's impression of the Rolling Stones' frontman, with significant screen time for a lot of the cast, and appearances by the two big stars' signature characters: Eddie Murphy's Buckwheat and Joe Piscopo's Sinatra.
- Tuna Melts & Typing / The Party (tie): Marilyn Suzanne Miller filled a niche on SNL that the show really hasn't been featured in the last 25 years with her low-key, bittersweet one-act plays. Her style would eventually be forced out of the show (she was gone by year's end) but both these sketches have to be her work. I couldn't decide which was better: Tuna Melts & Typing creates two very real characters and is just a beautiful sketch all around, while The Party is a sketch that reveals itself halfway and has an excellent payoff.
Honorable mention: Any appearance by Michael Davis would usually end up being the highlight of the show he was featured in.
- Sunken Submarine: Let me say once again that I hate this sketch, which is easily the biggest turd of the Ebersol era by a long shot. The sketch has a lethal combination of a 10-minute-plus running time, a dead audience, an endless string of material that just fails and an atmosphere of desperation throughout. Whatever the Doumanian eras' weaknesses are, they never let a sketch bloat so long as this one did. The set also didn't seem to help matters, as the longer you spent time watching the sketch, the more you really wanted to get the hell off that sub and just drown already.
- Wild Wild Wild West: Dreadful for a lot of the same reasons as Sunken Submarine: a very long running time, an unresponsive audience, too many diverse elements that fail to combine into a cohesive whole (really, an atom bomb?). Actually, come to think of it, both of them featured a lackluster host (I'd say Conrad was more painful to watch than Culp), and both had the main laughs come from Eddie Murphy. It doesn't help the women ended up playing prostitutes, the old cliché role for a woman in sketch comedy (at one point, Velvet Jones calls out "Sing, you hos!" I wonder what was going through the female cast's mind when they were doing this sketch). This had a few more funny moments than Sunken Submarine (from Tony Rosato) and was commendable in its ambitions, but overall, it was just a mess onscreen.
- Mafia Name Giver: Aside from a few clever in-jokes mainly aimed at Second City fans and SNL buffs, I still can't tell what the point of this sketch is. Besides a general pointlessness to it, the sketch was weighed down by everyone just seeming off (Tim Kazurinsky speaking in an irritating high voice, Robin Duke actually blowing her cue in the live show). It was down to this or "Papal Tour", and while I find that 9-minute plus sketch painfully boring, it did have more coherent concept and a decent enough performance from Joe Piscopo.
Dishonorable mention: Andy Warhol's TV: These weren't long enough to make any significant dip in the quality of episodes, but even at their best, they felt like hipster wanking, with an atmosphere of "Andy Warhol's in it so it must be good" instead of actual entertainment value. I have a feeling if Andy Warhol agreed to shoot one of him talking about his favorite pinecones while taking Number 2, it would have still made it on the air.
Best musical guests
- Rick James & The Stone City Band: Before James' behavior and legal problems made him a punchline, he was a hell of a performer. His two numbers are some of the tightest, funkiest R&B the show's ever had.
- Jennifer Holliday: "And I Am Telling You That I'm Not Going" ended up being a cockroach of a song that just will not go away (largely due to the prevalence of people thinking that singing that song automatically makes them a good singer), but you can't deny that Holliday's performance was not only a highlight of an otherwise bad show, but one of the entire season.
- Luther Vandross: Two outstanding performances that demonstrate his full talent as a singer.
Worst musical guests
- The Go-Go's: The band's playing seemed amateurish and sloppy. Even Belinda Carlisle considers this the worst performance they ever did, largely because she admits to being very fucked up on coke and booze that night in her autobiography.
- The Allman Brothers Band: A band long past their commercial decline at the time of their appearance, and despite a better than average second number, they didn't seem to be at their best that night.
- Miles Davis: Only in comparison to some of the others, and largely because he seemed to be having an off night compared to his sidemen. His rough physical shape made him saunter stiffly around the stage, and he often had his back to the camera.