Classic SNL Review: November 3, 1984: Michael McKean / Chaka Khan (S10E04)

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

COLD OPENING: GERRY AND THE MON-DELLS

  • Resigned to her and Mondale being “about to bite the big one” Reagan, Geraldine Ferraro (Mary Gross) sings a ribald 50’s-style number about how Fritz should have “let the woman get on top”.

 

  • Not the most memorable opening, but a good final showcase for Mary Gross’s Ferraro impression, with some laughs coming from the double-entendre lyrics and the trio of Mondale-masked backing dancers doing humping motions.
  • Written by Rob Riley, who joins the writing staff beginning with this episode.
  • No “Live from New York…” opening. There also seems to be a technical issue during the “paid political announcement” slide that renders the voiceover barely audible.

***

MONTAGE

  • The Folksmen are billed as a "special guest".

MONOLOGUE:

  • Michael McKean attempts to sing an a capella Scottish dirge, only to be interrupted by an audience member yelling “Hey Lenny!”
  • McKean is low-key but comfortable, and I liked the randomness of him using his monologue to sing a dirge. I also found some of the audience member’s lines funny (particularly “How’s your short friend Squiggy?” and his familiarity with McKean from a Eugene O’Neill conference but not Spinal Tap), even if the “Hey Hamlet, where’s Squiggy?” button felt a little obvious.
  • The offscreen voice of the audience member was provided by Larry David; his voice is instantly recognizable now, especially since Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but back then, I think only stand-up comedy fans and people who remembered Fridays would have been able to place his voice.
  • The way the theme music fades out at the beginning of the monologue makes it obvious that it was a recording for the first few shows of the season.

***

COMMERCIAL: THE CHOSEN PRAY

  • Ronald Reagan’s (Harry Shearer) second term priorities include school prayer legislation where students who object wear “I Decline To Pray” armbands.
  • This is one of Shearer’s nastiest bits of satire, which has only become more prescient in the current administration and political climate. From Reagan effectively doxxing the two children (one Jewish, one south Asian) who didn’t pray, him framing the participants as “34 good kids”, and the whole implication with the armbands and the sinister closing line “The two others…well, they won’t have a prayer”, what was pointed in 1984 has become an eerie prediction of what has become accepted as political discourse in 2018.

****

COMMERCIAL: BABY DOUBLE

  • The new film from Brian DePalma features a baby receiving a transplanted stolen criminal baboon heart.
  • Not really a whole lot to it, though the idea of doctors having a criminal baboon’s heart and the end visual of the baby chewing on a knife handle was funny.
  • Directed by John Fox
  • At the time this aired, the Baby Fae transplant was in the news and Body Double was in theatres; Baby Fae would sadly reject the transplant and die less than two weeks after this aired, which may explain why it was cut from the repeat airing.

** 1/2

SHOW: FERNANDO'S HIDEAWAY

  • Barry Manilow cancelled last-minute, so Fernando (Billy Crystal) has cameraman Bobby Fraraccio take his place in the Hideaway.
  • This is one of the most famous moments of the whole season, and rightfully so; giving Crystal’s Fernando a loose segment where he can just vamp with whoever else was in the booth was the perfect way to use the character. Fraraccio, who was one of the extra cameramen necessitated by the two-studio arrangement, is a good sport here and does very well playing along.
  • Kevin Kelton confirms Manilow’s booking was a fabrication; this was just an excuse to get Billy to involve a non-performer in the fun.

*****

FILM: "THE FOLKSMEN" - CHRISTOPHER GUEST

  • Jerry Palter (Michael McKean), Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer) and Alan Barrows (Christopher Guest) reunite after 18 years apart.
  • Anyone who’s seen A Mighty Wind will be familiar with these characters and the songs they rehearse (“Old Joe’s Place”, “Blood on the Coal”, “Barnyard Symphony”), and this is pretty much in the same style as the movie. Once again, Guest steals the entire sketch with his not-quite-there character (the delayed audience reaction to his “when you see a movie like Moby Dick, you know he’s big!” line is one of my favorite parts).
  • Most of the sketch (aside from the Shubb talking head footage) appears to have been shot in the writers’ offices on the 17th floor.

*****

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "OLD JOE'S PLACE" - THE FOLKSMEN

  • There are a few laughs here (Guest’s vibrato, the picked guitar solo, the busted neon sign), but this is mainly a great pastiche of early 60s folk music, with a catchy chorus (“There’s a puppy in the parlor and a skillet on the stove…”) and the fine musicianship of Guest, McKean and Shearer giving this an added authenticity.

COMMERCIAL: BUDDY YOUNG JR. IS BACK!

  • Audiences love being insulted by old-timey comic Buddy Young Jr. (Billy Crystal).
  • Crystal’s a natural as this character, but I think it works better in the live environment of his later appearances. The testimonials of the satisfied audience members lovingly recounting Young’s insults were funny, though.

***

SKETCH: FIRST DRAFT THEATRE

  • Reginald Rose (Nate Herman) drinks while working on 12 Angry Men.
  • I think I liked this one even more than the original installment of First Draft Theatre. This has even loopier jokes (the “judge’s instructions” is a particular favorite of mine), a better throughline in the Reginald Rose segments (he gets progressively drunker to the point where he’s barely able to write, and an ending that makes good use of the whole group of jurors (they break into “Kids” from Bye Bye Birdie) and Rose's drunkenness (he finally passes out).
  • Written by Kevin Kelton, Andrew Kurtzman and Eliot Wald.
  • Aside from McKean and most of the male cast, the jurors include writers Jim Downey and Rob Riley, regular “old man” extra Andy Murphy, and several others I can’t identify (including the frequent Ebersol-era extra I call “mustache man”)
  • Nate Herman confirms that his segments in this sketch were shot on a different floor than the jury room segments.

****

COMMERCIAL: MADONNA NAVEL ACCESSORIES

  • Madonna (Pamela Stephenson) sings “Lucky Star” and demonstrates props and decorations with her midriff.
  • This could almost be a companion to the previous show’s Billy Idol commercial, with Stephenson doing a similar Not the Nine O’Clock News style parody (though more of the video than the song itself). This one is a bit weaker than the Idol piece, though.
  • This is SNL’s first ever Madonna reference, and actually came the same week the single for “Like a Virgin” was released (the album itself came out about two weeks later).

** 1/2

SHOW: PBS PLEDGEBRATION

  • Vincent Price (Michael McKean) previews his new horror-themed cooking show Recipe.
  • Harry Shearer has some good lines as the telethon host (“Only 75% of our funds come from oil companies” gets a huge laugh) and there are some good digs at PBS programming, but this is mainly a showcase for McKean’s impression, one he would bring back to the show ten years later as a regular cast member.

*** 1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "I FEEL FOR YOU" - CHAKA KHAN

  • The band's a little squished sounding (I blame the sound mix and different studio space), but Chaka Khan’s vocals and moves are on point, and her band manages to translate the more production-heavy version of her Prince cover from the Arif Mardin-produced album of the same name into a good live track (check out the drumming during the rap).
  • Chaka’s band is W.G. “Snuffy” Walden (guitar), Jeff Johnson (guitar), Tony Patler (keyboards), Michael Ruff (keyboards), Jimmy Haslip (bass), and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums). Lisa Fischer is one of the backing vocalists, and Chaka’s brother Mark Stevens does the opening rap.
  • W.G. “Snuffy Walden” is better known for his career as a TV and film composer, winning an Emmy in 2000 for the theme music from The West Wing. Jimmy Haslip previously appeared on SNL the previous March in Al Jarreau’s band, while Vinnie Colaiuta has appeared on the show multiple times with other musical guests, including Frank Zappa in 1978, Sting in the 1990s, and most recently with Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck and Tal Wilkenfeld in 2012.
  • Sheila E was originally booked as tonight’s musical guest and was announced as such during the previous week’s repeat of the Five Hosts show, but had cancelled for unknown reasons. She would appear on SNL the following season.

SKETCH: RABBI

  • A rabbi (Billy Crystal) gives dubious religious advice regarding (Martin Short)’s wife’s infidelity.
  • An underrated and very silly two-hander with Short playing straightman to Crystal’s slightly madcap holy man, who uses a hand-written Bible with nine commandments (one of them is crossed out in black crayon) and believes existence is all God’s dream.

****

SATURDAY NIGHT NEWS

  • Edwin Newman returns to the SNL newsdesk as anchor, leading off with a disclaimer that he will not discuss the top story (the Election); as such, he is mainly here to introduce the guest commentaries.
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus makes her first appearance all night as Jeane Kirkpatrick, rebutting Rev. Jesse Jackson’s love jones from the previous show as her heart lies with President of El Salvador José Napoleón Duarte. Aside from the reference to the anti-Communist former Junta leader, this was mainly an exercise in cramming in as many vocal-fry “uhhhhs” and slang terms like “luscious bod” and “bitchin’ dude” as possible.
  • Mary Gross returns as Dr. Ruth, who compares the 1984 election to sex, with the campaign as foreplay and the election as orgasm (which is often faked). This was more of a “get out the vote” message but still a fair bit more memorable than the last few Dr. Ruth appearances.
  • Rich Hall warns of an alarming trend: voting while intoxicated, which is responsible for the election of Jimmy Carter. SNL did a PSA-style bit in 2000 on the same topic, but this takes a different approach, using found footage to show the effects of alcohol on voters.
  • Edwin Newman discusses different amendments on the ballot this Tuesday, lamenting that not one involves changing a state song because, as he demonstrates, too many of them involve spelling out the state names. It’s a little repetitious once you realize where the bit is going, but it’s helped by Newman’s deadpan (he states up front that he will read the lyrics and not sing them), and it builds to the hypothetical Washington D.C. song, which spells out “District of Columbia”. Nate Herman believes he wrote this piece.
  • Newman concludes tonight’s news segment wishing everyone a good night, good tomorrow, good rest of the week, and so forth. Kind of an odd extended bit to close with.

** 1/2

SKETCH: MONDALE HEADQUARTERS

  • Facing certain defeat on Election Tuesday, Walter Mondale (Gary Kroeger) remains optimistic that he will carry his home state of Minnesota.
  • A rare political sketch during this period of the show’s history, though more low-key, and more about the inevitable trouncing Mondale was going to face than policy. Gary Kroeger does well as usual (I especially liked the grin on his face after he resolves that he’ll carry Massachusetts “and possibly even Rhode Island!”), and there are some very good jokes (The electoral map with only Minnesota colored in, “area man runs for President”).
  • I also liked the bits with the Reagan staffers trying to get Mondale to vote for their candidate (because a unanimous election would be cool) and the ending with the Mondale staffers asking the Reagan team whether they got their resumes was strong.
  • Kevin Kelton believes this was a Jim Downey piece; writer Andy Breckman appears in a bit part as another Mondale staffer.

*** 1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "THIS IS MY NIGHT" - CHAKA KHAN

  • Another energetic performance despite the tinny sound mix, punctuated by a wailing guitar solo by Snuffy Walden.

MISCELLANEOUS: SNL FASHION REPORT

  • David Byrne (Rich Hall) sings about his big suit from Stop Making Sense to the tune of “Once In A Lifetime” and “Life During Wartime”
  • Another well-known bit from the season. Hall (who wrote this sketch) is not the strongest impressionist, but he works within his limits and usually finds the right hook for whoever he imitates (in this case, Byrne’s voice breaking), and the visual of him dancing in the suit is memorable.

*** 1/2

GOODNIGHTS

  • Michael McKean explains that Jim Belushi was in California this week and will be back for the next show. Billy Crystal says that Barry Manilow did cancel and introduces Bobby Fraraccio. For some reason Gary Kroeger is on his knees.

Final Thoughts:

A very strong show; perhaps a little lower key than one would expect with one of the stars of Spinal Tap hosting and his bandmates in the cast, but there’s a run of mostly good-to-great pieces throughout the night, with the weaker pieces mainly being short throwaways. The cast is mostly balanced tonight (though the women are slightly underrepresented as usual), and aside from Fernando, there isn’t a whole lot of recurring material dominating the show tonight. McKean was a solid host, though not standing out so much as blending in seamlessly with the cast, which leads one to wonder how this season would have worked with him as a regular. It would have been interesting to see how Sheila E. would have worked in the cramped space of studio 8G and mono mix, but Chaka Khan was a worthy replacement.

SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The Folksmen
  • Fernando’s Hideaway
  • First Draft Theatre
  • The Chosen Pray
  • Rabbi
  • SNL Fashion Report
  • Mondale Headquarters
  • PBS Pledgebration

SHOW LOWLIGHTS:

(none)

MVP:

(tie) Billy Crystal / Christopher Guest / Harry Shearer

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Jim Belushi: absent
  • Billy Crystal: 4 appearances [Fernando’s Hideaway, Buddy Young Jr. is Back!, First Draft Theatre, Rabbi]
  • Mary Gross: 2 appearances [Gerry and the Mon-Dells, Saturday Night News]
  • Christopher Guest: 3 appearances [The Folksmen, “Old Joe’s Place”, First Draft Theatre]; 1 voice-over [First Draft Theatre]
  • Rich Hall: 5 appearances [Baby Double, First Draft Theatre, Saturday Night News, Mondale Headquarters, SNL Fashion Report]
  • Gary Kroeger: 3 appearances [Baby Double, First Draft Theatre, Mondale Headquarters]
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus: 2 appearances [Saturday Night News, Mondale Headquarters]
  • Harry Shearer: 4 appearances [The Chosen Pray, The Folksmen, “Old Joe’s Place”, PBS Pledgebration]; 2 voice-overs [Buddy Young Jr. is Back!, First Draft Theatre]
  • Martin Short: 3 appearances [First Draft Theatre, Rabbi, Mondale Headquarters]
  • Pamela Stephenson: 2 appearances [Madonna Navel Accessories, Mondale Headquarters]

crew and extras:

  • Andy Breckman: 1 appearance [Mondale Headquarters]
  • Larry David: 1 voice-over [Monologue]
  • Jim Downey: 1 appearance [First Draft Theatre]
  • Bobby Fraraccio: 1 appearance [Fernando’s Hideaway]
  • Nate Herman: 2 appearances [First Draft Theatre, PBS Pledgebration]
  • Andy Murphy: 1 appearance [First Draft Theatre]
  • Rob Riley: 1 appearance [First Draft Theatre]

guests:

  • Michael McKean: 6 appearances [Monologue, The Folksmen, “Old Joe’s Place”, First Draft Theatre, PBS Pledgebration, Mondale Headquarters]
  • Chaka Khan: 2 appearances [“I Feel For You”, “This Is My Night”]
  • Edwin Newman: 1 appearance [Saturday Night News]

REBROADCAST HISTORY:

  • March 23, 1985

Known alterations:

  • Gerry and the Mon-Dells, Baby Double, Mondale Headquarters and “This Is My Night” removed
  • Michael’s Message (01/14/84), James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party (11/05/83), Speaking Freely (02/25/84), What Famous Person Do You Look Like (11/19/83), Return of the Torch (10/06/84) and The Web (09/25/82) added.

Additional screen captures from this episode are available here.