1980-85 wrapup: Last words on the "lost years"

I started this review project back in the summer of 2010; at the time, SNL message board regular Stooge was posting reviews of the early 90s shows with screen captures of sketches and occasional tidbits about which scenes were altered in repeats with dress rehearsal footage. I figured I may as well do my own set of reviews for a more obscure part of the show’s history. There were episode guides devoted to the show (Frank Serpas III’s Saturday Net and Joel Navaroli’s SNL Archives; full disclosure, I helped with both), but very little online at the time that went into further detail about the shows.

I started with 1981-82 for a few reasons, but the main one was that 1980-81 was already relatively infamous, but it still largely tried to emulate the original Lorne Michaels SNL formula. In contrast, 1981-82 has some big breaks from the show’s traditions; it also had some of the darkest, weirdest sketches that ever aired on the show, as well as some of the most interminably long and boring ones. Eddie Murphy was on his way up, but he wasn’t quite the star of the show as he would be the next two seasons; he still stands out, but still feels like a part of the ensemble. It’s not a great year, but there is good work, and has the distinction of being the most unique season in the show’s history.

From there, I went back to 1980-81; for all the well-documented problems the show had that year, it’s not the flat-out disaster it’s made out to be; indeed, for a group of writers and performers just getting used to working with one another, dealing with a producer who wasn’t up to the task but still wouldn’t cede control, negative reviews, and the uncertainty of the show’s future, they still managed to do a few good shows.

It was only inevitable I did the rest of the Ebersol era; I was also starting to get a bit of a following around this time as well. Despite the occasional loss of motivation (sometimes for months at a time), I managed to complete these last three seasons, even if it took me five years to do it. It was interesting to compare my general recollection of the shows from watching my tapes of Comedy Network reruns with a more detailed reading of each sketch, and being able to track the influence of cast and writer changes on the material.

Any SNL season (or show itself) is going to be inconsistent; that’s a given with the nature of the show. These seasons are no exception to that rule, but they’ve long been considered inferior to the Lorne Michaels years. Maybe it’s because Michaels tends to gloss over this part of the show’s history in compilations and anniversary specials, and maybe it’s because neither Jean Doumanian or Dick Ebersol were comedy writers or had the same personal stake in the show’s success that Michaels has, but this five year period in the show’s history was probably the most important.

Would Lorne Michaels have been able to keep the show on for 44 years if he didn’t take the five year break? It’s hard to say, but this period established that the show’s success wasn’t tied to a specific group of performers and writers, demonstrated a bad year could be rectified by a few staffing changes and kept the show on the network long enough for Michaels to come back to it in 1985. Dick Ebersol running the show as the network executive he was probably was the big reason why it lasted so long; while his tastes and approach occasionally meant the talent was overlooked, constrained, or alienated, he knew the television business, and while Michael’s The New Show failed in 1984, Ebersol’s SNL was on a steady upswing even as its biggest star Eddie Murphy had one foot out the door.

That said, I always have to wonder how these years would have played out if Lorne Michaels worked with these writers and performers. Would Eddie Murphy have been the force he was on the show, or would he have gotten frustrated and left sooner? Would Tim Kazurinsky, Robin Duke, Brad Hall and Tony Rosato have been more compatible with his leadership? What kind of work would the writers get into the show if they didn’t have to give Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo priority treatment, or compete with the big stars of 1984-85? Would the 1980-81 cast have been able to gel, let alone be hired in the first place? What kind of guests would the talent executives have booked on the show (for the record, I believe that Neil Levy and Liz Welch were the unsung heroes of the rocky 1980-82 years; in particular, the quality of musical guests they booked those two seasons was amazing).

Since I began these reviews, a few other bloggers have taken up the challenge of sharing their thoughts on the shows: Bunker of The Wicker Breaker has been going through every show of the series daily, and Stooge has just begun a similar project. There are also a few podcasts about the show’s history, including That Week in SNL and SNL Afterparty. As for myself, the plan is to at least do reviews the 1985-86 season, as well as update any existing reviews with new information that comes to light (such as writing credits, extra IDs, dress rehearsal changes or cuts, and so forth) or any material missing from my copies (I am still looking for an unedited version of the Robert Blake show from 1982, if anyone out there has it). I will also periodically give my thoughts on the current show, but once I’m done 1985-86, I want to take another break from the SNL reviews for a little while and enjoy the show without having to do the work that goes into each post. I also want to get back into writing about other media besides SNL, but haven’t decided on a subject, or what form this will take.

I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to like, comment, or share these posts, or who has contributed background information about this period of the show’s history. Special thanks goes out to (in no particular order): Frank Serpas III, Joel Navaroli, Raj Kaup, Aaron Jacobs, G. Gomez, Donald Smith, Kabir Bhatia, Charlie Thomson, Troy Bellam, Kevin Kelton, Nate Herman, Joe Bodolai, Rosie Shuster, Dennis Perrin, Gary Kroeger, Brad Hall, Glen Mason, Kyle McElravy, Stuart Allard, Andrew Dick, “Stooge”, and “The Doc”.

Stay tuned for the return of Lorne Michaels…