Each week, I will be posting a list of 25 sketches from each 5 year block of the show's history (five sketches per season), a description of the sketch, and what about it that's worth checking out.
- Lonely Old Lady (Ellen Burstyn / Aretha Franklin, Keith Sykes, 12/06/1980)
What it's about: Dared by her friends, a little girl (Gail Matthius) comes face-to-face with the scary old lady that lives alone in the neighborhood (Ellen Burstyn)
Why it's worth checking out: This 10-to-1 sketch was a sign that the new writers and cast of SNL that were so quickly panned did have a knack for the kind of quiet mini-stage plays that the original show tended to abandon after Marilyn Suzanne Miller left the staff. This has great performances from Gail Matthius (nailing the kind of role that would have been Gilda Radner's a few seasons earlier) and Ellen Burstyn, who really sells her character's loss and loneliness.
- Heroin in Harlem (David Carradine / Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, George Rose & the cast of "The Pirates of Penzance", 12/20/1980)
What it's about: Rich white drug users (Joe Piscopo, Charles Rocket, Ann Risley and Gail Matthius) seeking the "real experience" go to Harlem for their heroin.
Why it's worth checking out: The Jean Doumanian era struggled with satire, but this particular sketch is of interest for its early depiction of gentrification, it's snapshot of a pre-AIDS world (there's a line dismissing one character potentially objecting to dirty needles), and an early taste of the 19-year-old kid that would save the show in a crucial part.
- Hospital Bed (Karen Black / Cheap Trick, Stanley Clarke Trio, 01/17/1981)
What it's about: A view from the perspective of stroke victim Morris Birnbaum (voice of Gilbert Gottfried), including the thoughts he is unable to communicate to his nurse (Yvonne Hudson), greedy daughter (Karen Black) and old flame (Denny Dillon).
Why it's worth checking out: Another bittersweet sketch, this time with an interesting first-person perspective and a surprising performance by Gottfried. It's one of the saddest pieces SNL has done in its 43-year history, incorporating themes such as regret and self-pity.
- Pillow Pets (Sally Kellerman / Jimmy Cliff, 02/07/1981)
What it's about: A woman (Ann Risley) is upset her husband (Gilbert Gottfried) seems to favor the dog over her, especially since the "dog" is just a stuffed pillow.
Why it's worth checking out: A quick sketch featuring an oddball premise that wouldn't seem out of place on later, less audience-pleasing and more more absurdist comedy shows. It's also interesting to get a glimpse of the pre-squinting and squawking version of Gilbert Gottfried.
- The Writer (Bill Murray / Delbert McClinton, 03/07/1981)
What it's about: While a writer (Bill Murray) makes revisions to his script, actors performing the scene behind him struggle to keep up with the changes.
Why it's worth checking out: This is a chance to see the ill-fated 1980-81 cast actually have fun for a change, as they not only have to adjust to every change Murray makes, but they also have to repeat the whole thing faster. It's a glimpse of a cast that was only then starting to gel right before Jean Doumanian was fired.
- Strangers in the Night/Strangers the Funeral Parlor (no host / Rod Stewart, 10/03/1981)
What it's about: A two-part sketch in which Ruth's (Robin Duke) bad one-night stand with obnoxious creep Rod (Tim Kazurinsky) is interrupted by a phone call informing her of her father's death.
Why it's worth checking out: This has the distinction of being the show's only live sketch that continues after the commercial break, but it also has a realistic premise, a great script with a mixture of the comic and dramatic, true-to-life characterizations, and solid performances from Duke and Kazurinsky.
- The Vic Salukin Show (Donald Pleasence / Fear, 10/31/1981)
What it's about: Vic Salukin (Tony Rosato), the host of a New York call-in show, offers $100 to the first caller who can successfully scare him.
Why it's worth checking out: This is one of the most genuinely unsettling things the show has ever done, with a black-and-white single-camera set-up (emulating cable access TV) only enhancing the creepy atmosphere, and ending with one of the most violent images ever seen on SNL.
- Nick the Knock (Bernadette Peters / The Go-Gos, Billy Joel, 11/14/1981)
What it's about: A bizarre clown (Joe Piscopo) listens to a fairy (Mary Gross) read a poem about the gift of truth and rewards her by eating her spine.
Why it's worth checking out: This sketch by Michael O'Donoghue and Pam Norris is also unsettling, but in a surreal nightmarish way. An odd blend of slapstick, poetry, and gore (even if it is colored green); the presence of the yodeling record used as the Hans & Franz theme only adds to the strangeness.
- Those Crazy Taboosters (James Coburn / Lindsay Buckingham & The Cholos, 02/06/1982)
What it's about: When Cookie Tabooster (Robin Duke) won't date Medgar Montessori (Eddie Murphy), his parents visit her family and make some unsettling discoveries about Cookie's clan.
Why it's worth checking out: The last two sketches had some pretty disturbing visuals, but this may even top them both content-wise; I'm still not sure how Rosie Shuster managed to get her sketch about a family with a shallow dating and pool on the air, but I'm impressed she did.
- The Party (Elizabeth Ashley / Daryl Hall & John Oates, 02/27/1982)
What it's about: Two identical scenes where four friends (Christine Ebersole, Elizabeth Ashley, Robin Duke, Mary Gross) take a break from a party in the bedroom. The same dialogue is used both when the girls are teenagers and adults.
Why it's worth checking out: I'm a fan of sketches where the main twist doesn't reveal itself until later in the sketch, and I also love how this explores how the same words take on different meanings in a new context. Like "Strangers In The Night", this seems to be a Marilyn Suzanne Miller piece (can't confirm either though) that builds a little world that could be happening at any place, any time, and uses the characters to sketch in much of the detail.
- Video Victims (Chevy Chase / Queen, 09/25/1982)
What it's about: A documentary reveals that video game junkies like Alan are the victims of a multi-billion dollar industry that feeds their addictions.
Why it's worth checking out: This filmed sketch by regular Ebersol-era film director Claude Kerven (who later directed the famous Buckwheat Buys The Farm and Synchronized Swimming sketches) doesn't feature any of the regular cast, but is an early example of how the Ebersol era started to embrace pre-taped sketches, and has a lot of great details in it (I always remember wizened old Lieb Lensky as Timmy asking, in a thick Eastern European accent, "Have you played Tron? It's totally awesome!")
- Nukes In Dunkerton (Ron Howard / The Clash, 10/09/1982)
What it's about: A local ordinance mandates that residents of a small town (Gary Kroeger, Brad Hall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) carry nuclear warheads at all times, but destructive weaponry doesn't deter an armed robber (Joe Piscopo) holding up the general store.
Why it's worth checking out: A trunk piece from the Practical Theatre Company's stage show written by Gary Kroeger (with Brad Hall contributing the ending), this is a good example of what they added to the show during that time. As much as Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo were considered the show's stars, this sketch shows that Kroeger, Hall, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus could have made a bigger impact on the show if Dick Ebersol would have let them.
- Snookie (Michael Keaton / The New Joe Jackson Band, 10/30/1982)
What it's about: David (Tim Kazurinsky) finds that his date Marcia (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) runs hot and cold, and tends to express her true desires through her teddy bear.
Why it's worth checking out: As much as Julia Louis-Dreyfus (and the other women in the cast, for that matter) were misused on the show, there were still hints that she would end up becoming one of the finest comic actresses of our time. This odd and unfarily forgotten sketch provides a good example of how she delivered whenever the writers came up with a decent leading role for her to play, and Tim Kazurinsky has some great reactions to Louis-Dreyfus's daffiness.
- Hotel (Sid Caesar / Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes, 02/05/1983)
What it's about: A door in a hotel room shows how changing times affect an advertiser's (Sid Caesar) hotel room liasons with co-workers in 1953 and 1983.
Why it's worth checking out: This fun sketch is the highlight of Sid Caesar's hosting gig, with a great premise, good escalation, and lots of little details that make the sketch, including a scene-stealing role for Eddie Murphy.
- Club Doolittle (Joan Rivers / Musical Youth, 04/09/1983)
What it's about: E. Eppy Doolittle (Eddie Murphy) woodenly advertises his nightclub as his customer (Joe Piscopo) throws food at him.
Why it's worth checking out: Murphy knows how to play skeezy pitchmen, but this commercial's real humor comes from both the demonstration of the chemistry between Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy and the unpredictability of the live format; Piscopo's main purpose here seems to be getting Eddie Murphy to break character. He succeeds by tossing bits of dessert at Murphy from off-camera until Murphy messes up and yells "this is live television!" and starts dodging the food.
- You Win A Dollar (Betty Thomas / Stray Cats, 11/05/1983)
What it's about: Dale Butterworth (Jim Belushi) endures torturous game show challenges for the chance to win one dollar.
Why it's worth checking out: Andy Breckman's premise-driven sketches were some of the most consistent sources of hard laughs during the Ebersol era, and this is a good example of his work (which often uses the name of his friend Dale Butterworth). New cast member Jim Belushi tended to do best as put-upon everymen, and it's fun in a Mr. Bill kind of way to watch him get mangled in a cheery game show setting.
- A Boy's Life on the Mississippi (Michael Palin & his mother / The Motels, 01/21/1984)
What it's about: Mark Twain recalls his younger self (Gary Kroeger) receiving mentorship from a riverboat captain (Michael Palin).
Why it's worth checking out: Nate Herman's absurdist, wordplay-driven writing carries this silly 10-to-1 sketch that uses Palin's strengths well. Herman's specialty on the show was dotty characters who give questionable advice or operate by their own strange logic (see also "Topol the Idiot", "How High The Noon" or "Not A Cop"), and as much of the humor comes from the dialogue as the performances.
- Witness Protection (Don Rickles / Billy Idol, 01/28/1984)
What it's about: Informant Mr. Booty (Don Rickles) has reason to doubt the abilities and efforts of the FBI's Witness Relocation department.
Why it's worth checking out: If Palin's riverboat captain sketch was silly, that one looks like a documentary compared to this, from the ridiculously weak attempts at protecting Rickles' identity (slapping an oversized cowboy hat on him and calling him "Tex Booty") to the ad-libbing between Rickles and Joe Piscopo that continues throughout the night. SNL has rarely been as much fun as this sketch.
- The Turkey Lady (Barry Bostwick / Spinal Tap, 05/05/1984)
What it's about: A freak accident while demonstrating his teleportation device turns Dr. Phillip Doyle's (Barry Bostwick) fiancee Cindy (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) into The Turkey Lady (Robin Duke).
Why it's worth checking out: Dick Ebersol's SNL rarely did weird or ambitious sketches after the 1981-82 season, so this four-part sketch stands out. You have the main story, but before the sketch is over, there is also a call-in show sketch where Dr. Doyle and the Turkey Lady are guests, an iced tea commercial starring The Turkey Lady, and a random cameo by Soupy Sales at the end.
- Mikko's Got Your Nose Safety Guard (Billy Crystal, Mayor Ed Koch, Edwin Newman, Father Guido Sarducci, Betty Thomas / The Cars, 05/12/1984)
What's it about: A dramatization shows the bloody consequences of not using the device.
Why it's worth checking out: Sketches where someone spews fake blood have been a part of the show since Dan Aykroyd played Julia Child bleeding to death; this commercial parody has a distracted, stressed father (Joe Piscopo) accidentally ripping the nose off his little girl (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) when she wants to play the game with him, and panic ensues, until a pitchman (Brad Hall) enters to ask the age-old question "How many times has this happened to you?" It's ridiculous, it's over the top, and it's barely remembered today.
- Profiles in Sports (George Carlin / Frankie Goes To Hollywood, 11/10/1984)
What it's about: Controversial coach Donald Ramp (Jim Belushi) brings Bobby Knight-like intensity to the world of high school chess.
Why it's worth checking out: Jim Belushi's two year tenure on the show wasn't going to compete with his older brother's run, but it shouldn't be written off because, in addition to his skill at playing everymen (like in You Win A Dollar) and slightly shifty characters, he sometimes found ways to channel his pent-up energy and frustration in characters like Donald Ramp. Kevin Kelton found a great juxtaposition of this force against chess, and this film by Claude Kerven has a number of great visual moments, particularly Belushi drawing a chess board on a blackboard by hand (right down to filling in every other square).
- You Can't Put Too Much (Ed Asner / The Kinks, 11/17/1984)
What it's about: Ambiguous parting words from a retiring colleague (Ed Asner) lead to confusion among nuclear scientists regarding how much water to put in the nuclear reactor.
Why it's worth checking out: As much of a get as the big writer-performer hires Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Rich Hall this year, the return of Jim Downey to the writing staff meant that year also had some more conceptual pieces than in years past; only Downey could come up with a sketch with long stretches of confused silence and a fairly quiet audience that still manages to lodge itself in your mind years later.
- Eyeball to Eyeball (Ed Begley Jr. / Billy Squier, 12/01/1984)
What it's about: Substitute host Elliott Dryer (Martin Short) is more interested in the answers to inane questions than investigating allegations of misappropriated funds at a museum; real host Steven Lamb (Christopher Guest) confronts him but proves to be less right in the head.
Why it's worth checking out: Martin Short's better known for over-the-top and frantic characters like Ed Grimley, but here he plays a subtler eccentricity, treating the answers to questions about how to get to the museum and whether someone brings the paintings to you with the same importance as fraud and embezzlement; Guest manages to one-up him in both subtlety and eccentricity. It's also a very quotable sketch ("You're not a child. You're a special person.")
- Scalper (Roy Scheider / Billy Ocean, 01/19/1985)
What it's about: Glenn (Roy Scheider) won’t settle for less than the full $5,000,000 value of two 50-yard-line Super Bowl tickets he won in a raffle.
Why it's worth checking out: Another Jim Downey sketch with a solid premise, this time focusing on a specific amount of money instead of ambiguous words, and the actual practical reality of trying to get that amount of money standing in front of the stadium (though I doubt people bring securities and million dollar paintings to watch the Super Bowl in real life). This sketch also features a surprising late reveal and a particularly dark ending.
- Small Time Agency (Harry Anderson / Bryan Adams, 02/09/1985)
What it's about: Georgeanna (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has the talent to go solo but owes her untalented Aunt Helen (Mary Gross) for saving her life twice.
Why it's worth checking out: Not only does this have a hell of a performance from Louis-Dreyfus (playing straight) and Gross (whose "bad" singing during "Summertime" is actually pretty great itself...you'll have the "Aunt Helen" lyrics in your head every time you hear that song), this also has a random bit of surreal humor in the stock-footage threats used in the flashbacks.