Those Unlucky Andersons (Chevy Chase / Sheila E., 11/16/1985)
What it's about: Bob (Chevy Chase) recommends "put some butter on that" as a solution to injuries incurred by his family's continued spell of specifically targeted bad luck.
Why it's worth checking out: This sketch was written by John Swartzwelder, who wrote for the show in 1985-86 before writing the largest number of The Simpsons' episodes, and it's pretty much the kind of sketch you'd expect him to write: absurdist and packed with gags like a cat that only eats winning lottery tickets and the mother (Nora Dunn) having her eye fall out.
Dinosaur Town (Pee-Wee Herman / Queen Ida, 11/23/1985)
What it's about: Pee-Wee Herman tries to save his friends' (Randy Quaid and Joan Cusack) business by looking for a bottle of Coke with a mouse in it.
Why it's worth checking out: Probably the best use of Pee-Wee Herman in the entire show he hosted; I love how the fate of a business displaying giant plastic models of fighting dinosaurs is treated as serious enough business for them to take the time to drain cases of Coke bottle-by-bottle or Pee-Wee to use his connections to two shady figures in Chicago (played by Damon Wayans and Anthony Michael Hall).
Time Machine Trivia Game (Teri Garr / The Dream Academy, The Cult, 12/21/1985)
What it's about: Bobby's (Anthony Michael Hall) school science project alters the answers of the trivia game his parents are playing.
Why it's worth checking out: The altered trivia answers are hilarious (particularly Nora Dunn's character randomly being the person who broke Babe Ruth's home run record), as well as the implications that changing history is less of an annoyance than running up the power bill.
Target Earth (Jay Leno / The Neville Brothers, 02/22/1986)
What it's about: Big-talking alien invaders (Jay Leno and Robert Downey Jr) turn out to be from a far less advanced civilization than Earth's.
Why it's worth checking out: The aliens acting superior about their network of dirt roads, stagecoaches and muskets are funny, but this also has an interesting backstory: Jim Downey had originally written this sketch the previous season, which then-producer Dick Ebersol passed on. I would have loved to see how that year's cast would have handled the script.
I Play The Maids (Oprah Winfrey / Joe Jackson, 04/12/1986)
What it's about: Danitra Vance sings about the typecasting she faces as a black actress to the tune of "I Write The Songs".
Why it's worth checking out: Before landing SNL, the classically-trained Vance had gained notice for her off-Broadway revue "Danitra Vance and the Mell-o White Boys"; but aside from a few sketches where she imported characters from her show, the SNL framework didn't really have much room for a black lesbian performer. Vance seems to channel her frustration in this short musical interlude, where she bitterly sings of all the cliched roles black women usually take in film and television.
Blind Man (Steve Guttenberg / The Pretenders, 12/13/1986)
What it's about: Gay man (Steve Guttenberg) repeatedly tricks the blind guy (Jon Lovitz) he's trying to bed by disguising his voice.
Why it's worth checking out: This sketch prevented the Guttenberg show from getting a repeat airing that summer; while I agree that it is somewhat offensive (the non-consensual angle as well as Lovitz repeatedly stating that he feels sick when he realizes the trick), Guttenberg's performance (particularly when he is pretending to be "arrested") is great, and the fourth-wall-breaking PSA at the end (which concedes that this likely doesn't happen but is still not a good thing to do to anyone) takes some of the edge off.
SNL Memories (Paul Shaffer / Bruce Hornsby & The Range, 01/31/1987)
What it's about: Paul Shaffer sings a summary of Saturday Night Live's (then) 12-year history to the tune of "It Was A Very Good Year".
Why it's worth checking out: The SNL trivia nerd in me loves this, which mentions the evolution of the show from 1975 to 1978 through the eighties, mentioning characters, players and even the other producers [Jean] Doumanian and [Dick] Ebersol by name, as well as working in a brief moment of sadness for the loss of John Belushi.
It's A Girl (Bill Murray / Percy Sledge, 03/21/1987)
What it's about: A reporter (Nora Dunn) uncovers the unsettling truth about an obstetrician's (Phil Hartman) 4000-plus deliveries yielding only girls.
Why it's worth checking out: Easily one of the most disturbing sketches the show has ever done, with the doctor having performed non-consensual gender reassignments on thousands of babies. This is also a great showcase of Phil Hartman's acting talent: he goes from kindly small-town doctor to collapsing into weeping after a deranged rant ("You see.. boys are.. bad. They have bad thoughts! Sometimes they disobey their mothers.. they have to be punished!")
Cross Country (John Lithgow / Anita Baker, 04/11/1987)
What it's about: Cab driver (John Lithgow) takes his fare (Jon Lovitz) all the way from New York to his wedding in San Francisco in 9 minutes.
Why it's worth checking out: A fun, fast-paced piece that makes good use of green-screen, sped-up film, and even a model car to depict the weather. It's full of great little bits, and even the requisite "stopped by a police officer for speeding" has a good visual joke.
Support Group (Garry Shandling / Los Lobos, 05/16/1987)
What it's about: Stu's (Garry Shandling) stories about the awful things his mother did to him enrage his support group to the point they go to her house to confront her, but the truth is far more disturbing.
Why it's worth checking out: Shandling plays such an unlikable character even before the truth behind his stories comes out (he even breaks character at the end It's Garry Shandling's Show-style to say "God, this is the worst character I've ever had to play"), but Jan Hooks (as Stu's mother) and Dana Carvey (as Brad, the support group member who later was brought back for a different group therapy sketch) both have great moments in this sketch, the latter pretty much walking away with it.
Wall Street Week (Sean Penn / LL Cool J, The Pull, 10/24/1987)
What it's about: Most of Louis Rukeyser's (Jon Lovitz) guests are panicky and despondent after Black Monday, except for Future Man (Kevin Nealon), a time-traveler from the year 2013.
Why it's worth checking out: The combination of topical and absurdist humor., as well as great performances by Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks, a random non-Update appearance by Dennis Miller as the carny who helped Rukeyser with his opening monologue's metaphors, and a so-bad-it's-good performance by Sean Penn as a cocky Wall Street whiz kid.
Mascot Ideas (Dabney Coleman / The Cars, 10/31/1987)
What it's about: The student council of a new high school debate different ideas for their sports teams' mascot.
Why it's worth checking out: I love the various bad choices and how they each seem to fit each of the characters, such as Dana Carvey's slightly dumb kid suggesting "The Communists" or Victoria Jacksons character using her mother's suggestion of "The Super Winners" (a term writer George Meyer borrowed from his own childhood), and Dabney Coleman's skill at understated frustration made him a perfect fit for the role of principal.
Wedgie Fever! (Angie Dickinson / Buster Poindexter, David Gilmour, 12/12/1987)
What it's about: Contestant Dale Butterworth (Jon Lovitz) competes on a game show that punishes incorrect answers to trivia questions by hoisting people up by their underwear.
Why it's worth checking out: Another great premise and well-constructed sketch from Andy Breckman, one of the few Ebersol-era writers to continue to contribute to the show after Lorne Michaels returned in '85. Sure, this is lowbrow as all hell, but I dare you not to laugh at the sight of Jon Lovitz hanging from a crane by his underwear and saying "Ooooklahooooma!" in an increasingly higher pitch.
The Garden (Carl Weathers / Robbie Robertson, 01/30/1988)
What it's about: A hairdresser (Nora Dunn) makes decoupage art projects out of dead people, much to the ire of her landlord.
Why it's worth checking out: By 1988, SNL had largely phased out the more esoteric aspects of the show's earlier seasons, so this black-and-white film by Tom Radtke feels like a throwback to the earlier seasons' tendency to include pieces that weren't so much about the hard laughs as the absurdity of the concept.
Giant Businessman (Tom Hanks / Randy Travis, 02/20/1988)
What it's about: The titular character (Phil Hartman) tries to deal with his neighbor's (Tom Hanks) noisy band practice politely.
Why it's worth checking out: Besides the great visual of Phil Hartman crouching in a tiny living room set with a tiny prop telephone, this sketch by Jack Handey also has some fun with subverted expectations, and it's also amusing to see Tom Hanks play a belligerent asshole.
Gay Communist Gun Club (John Larroquette / Randy Newman, 10/22/1988)
What it's about: The only call-in show devoted to gayness, communism and guns; nothing more, nothing less.
Why it's worth checking out: The seeming incongruity of all three of the groups' focus makes for a great laundry-list sketch, where the hosts (John Larroquette and Phil Hartman) explain to callers that only identify with part of (or more than) their group's focus why they can't join. Nice joke at the end with the "presidential endorsement" too.
The World of Dr. Know-It-All (Demi Moore / Johnny Clegg & Savuka, 11/12/1988)
What it's about: A kids' show host (Phil Hartman) teaches Becky (Demi Moore) and Tommy (Dana Carvey) about air pressure by killing small animals.
Why it's worth checking out: Phil Hartman was the king of playing seemingly straight-laced authority or mentor figures giving questionable lessons, and this sketch has him sucking a gerbil into a vacuum cleane and taking a fish out of water, not to mention teaching sexism ("Becky is wrong because she's a girl") and insulting the model planets Carvey's character made.
Johnny Canal (John Malkovich / Anita Baker, 01/21/1989)
What it's about: In 1820, frontiersman Johnny Canal (John Malkovich) tries to sell the idea of waterways connecting every town in America to the president (Phil Hartman).
Why it's worth checking out: Another Jack Handey sketch, with the debut of his "sketch sponsors" running gag ("The Atlantic Puppy Grinding Company: maybe it's evil, but think of the jobs!") and a great use of Malkovich, who is prone to violence when the impracticality of his plan is called out.
Jealous of Janelle (Glenn Close / Gipsy Kings, 02/25/1989)
What it's about: The sister (Glenn Close) of recently-deceased Janelle complains bitterly to her daughter (Jan Hooks) about how despite she was prettier and smarter, her dead sister got all the attention, even at her own funeral.
Why it's worth checking out: This two-hander has great performances from Close as the old woman still holding on to her resentment (implied to be over a man), and Hooks playing right off it as the daughter who's just tuned it out.
Frost White and the Seven L'il Men (Geena Davis / John Mellencamp, 04/22/1989)
What it's about: NBC tries to avoid invoking a lawsuit from Disney by making minor cosmetic alterations to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves"
Why it's worth checking out: The slightly altered Snow White bits (the character names and songs like "Ho-Hi" and "Hum While You Work") are funny in themselves, but the best parts of the sketch are Jon Lovitz's lawyer going into a panic over the use of "Someday My Prince Will Come" ("DISNEY! We're talking DISNEY!") and Nora Dunn's hammy performance as the evil step-cousin ("...but it's not a mirror! It's a PLATE!")
New Commissioner (Rick Moranis / Rickie Lee Jones, 10/07/1989)
What it's about: New Commissionor of Baseball Fay Vincent (Phil Hartman) goes too far in memorializing his recently-deceased friend and predecessor Bart Giamatti.
Why it's worth checking out: I always love madness played completely straight, and the gradual rise from appropriate tributes (dedicating the World Series to him) to questionable changes (renaming positions and the game itself) to insanity (insisting himself and every club owner in the room be renamed after Giamatti) always makes me laugh.
Attack of the Masturbating Zombies (Robert Wagner / Linda Ronstadt & Aaron Neville, 12/09/1989)
What it's about: A small town is under siege by the living dead getting their jollies.
Why it's worth checking out: Besides the great premise, this sketch has some great jokes in the town hall meeting scene (the sexologist talking about the shame the zombies feel, the scientist's always proposing dropping a nuke in the town square as his solution to everything), and another scene-stealing performance from Phil Hartman as the living (but still creepy) sheriff.
I Got What You Need (Ed O'Neill / Harry Connick Jr., 01/13/1990)
What it's about: Shopkeeper Stash (Ed O'Neill) makes recommendations for his customers' diverse needs as if he were about to expose himself.
Why it's worth checking out: Another simple and lowbrow premise, but this one also has some fun characterizations from the regulars (particularly Nora Dunn as the snooty older woman and Phil Hartman as the meek man looking for a scary costume), and the different double-entendres for innocent products are pretty funny.
Dials & Gauges (Quincy Jones, 02/10/1990)
What it's about: After a tragedy involving a ferris wheel, the House Committee on Dials and Gauges questions Frederick J. Amalgamated (Kevin Nealon) about the unnecessary and unsafe settings on his products.
Why it's worth checking out: Despite this playing to near-silence from the SNL audience, this feels like something that would have wound up as a classic on another comedy show. The ridiculousness of meters and gauges with deliberately unsafe settings is funny in itself, but there are quite a few random jokes thrown in (Nealon not getting that "Do you see any cannibals in this room" was rhetorical, the random-fourth wall break about the temporature control being "for the purpose of this sketch") that make the sketch stick with you long after you watch it. (Oh yeah, that's Bob Odenkirk as the congressional aide).
The Nude Talk Show (Alec Baldwin / The B-52s, 04/21/1990)
What it's about: A man with a dream (Jon Lovitz) refuses to compromise his vision and sees his idea of a nude talk show to success.
Why it's worth checking out: Like Dinosaur Town, this has a premise of an extremely specific thing with limited stakes being taken absolutely seriously, and this also has a lot of funny side bits (the proposed changes to Lovitz's show, the names of the other cable shows, including "Bill Moyers' Dirty Time") and performances from the cast and first-time Alec Baldwin.