SNL Up Close: 1985-86

In four seasons, executive producer Dick Ebersol had brought Saturday Night Live back from the cancellation, had the hottest comedian in America in the cast, and oversaw its transition from a live incubator of new comic talent to an increasingly prerecorded showcase for established comedians. By 1985, though, Ebersol found himself tired of the show’s grueling schedule, and, after toying with staying with a mostly-prerecorded version of the show that wouldn’t premiere until the next January, decided to step away. Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment, had to consider his options, and fast.

Tartikoff explored several possibilities, including cancelling the show or putting it as part of a wheel series. After several rounds of negotiations with with SNL creator and original producer Lorne Michaels and his manager Bernie Brillstein, they ultimately came to an agreement; Michaels would return to his show and rebuild it with a fresh cast and a number of familiar faces behind the scenes. Michaels had suffered a blow to his finances and reputation with the failure of his prime-time comedy series The New Show a year and a half earlier, and his return to the show came as a chance to rebuild both.

A number of the show’s leadership positions were members of the SNL old guard that had worked on The New Show: original SNL writers Al Franken and Tom Davis were soon named as producers, and Jim Downey, who had been around for Ebersol’s final season, was the show’s new head writer. The rest of that year’s writing staff included a mix of familiar and eventually-familiar names: early SNL writers Herb Sargent, Michael O’Donoghue and Don Novello; from The New Show, Jack Handey and George Meyer; from the SNL 1980-81 staff, Terry Sweeney, as well as his partner Lanier Laney; from the Canadian stage troupe The Kids in the Hall, Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney; and stand-up comedians A. Whitney Brown, Carol Leifer and Suzy Schneider; R. D. Rosen, Robert Smigel and John Swartzwelder rounded out the staff.

Similar to the previous season, Michaels’ cast was built heavily around established names, though unlike Ebersol’s all-star cast, most of these performers were not particularly known for being comedians. Aside from Oscar-nominated actor Randy Quaid, Michaels tended to skew younger with his casting strategy, with a very young Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr. and the 17-year-old Anthony Michael Hall taking up prominent spaces in the cast. Michaels also brought in a few more diverse voices to the show that year, including openly gay SNL writer Terry Sweeney and Danitra Vance, a stage actress and performance artist who was the first black female repertory player in SNL’s history. The rest of the cast came from more traditional backgrounds for the show’s players, particularly improv (Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz) and stand-up comedy (Dennis Miller, Damon Wayans and Dan Vitale).

Unfortunately, the season gained notice right away for the wrong reasons. The season premiere with Madonna was roundly criticized in the press for a number of its sketches, particularly the opening with Tartikoff showing a tray of specimen cups and announcing the new cast will undergo drug testing. Rosen, O’Donoghue and Schneider all quit or were fired within two months of the new season, while Vitale’s problems with substance abuse largely prevented him from getting screen time before he too was fired. The rest of the cast never fully gelled: while Quaid showed himself to be a capable ensemble performer, Cusack, Downey and Hall’s inexperience became apparent fairly quickly. However, Sweeney, Vance, and Wayans provided a number of the season’s high points despite a writing staff that often didn’t know how to use them (and Wayans’ growing frustration leading him to get himself fired for sabotaging a sketch on-air). Lovitz and Dunn also had a strong year, developing a number of the show’s more enduring characters, while Dennis Miller re-established Weekend Update as a highlight of a show and outlet for the show’s more political humor.

Despite the troubled atmosphere, this season was a breakthrough on a technical front: it was the first year to be broadcast in stereo, the first year where the dress rehearsal was videotaped, and the first year where the repeats would have increasingly sophisticated post-production. The taped rehearsals gave Michaels an option to fix technical issues, use alternate line readings or even entire unaired segments when a sketch had to be removed from the rerun version. As well, one trick imported from The New Show was to add laughter and applause to sketches that played to underwhelming audience response in the live show for the repeat.

SNL ended up surviving this season, though not before a near-cancellation and last-minute reprieve in May. Most of the cast would not return the following October, but the resulting rebuilding effort that followed brought about what would be considered the show’s second golden age.

As usual, I will be posting sketch-by-sketch reviews, with new posts uploaded every weekend. Any information regarding the sketches (such as sketch authorship) and shows is certainly welcome, and will be incorporated into my reviews with acknowledgement

The episodes (with links to episode summaries in the SNL Archives):

I will be using the original live versions for these reviews when available, and keeping track of any differences between live and repeat broadcasts. That said, there are several shows where I don’t have copies of the original live airing; I can still identify content that was added or removed from the reruns, but will not be able to track dress rehearsal footage or sweetened audience response; as well, there is one sketch (the AT&T commercial parody in Danza) that I am unable to find a copy of. If anyone has copies of the original live airings of Chase, Reagan, Wendt / Coppola or Danza, please contact me.