Dick Ebersol’s “Steinbrenner season” gambit, where he loaded the SNL cast with established comedy writer-performers, paid off for the most part. Compared to the preceding seasons, the show was more consistently funny, and even the weakest show of the year wasn’t truly bad. The professionalism that the ringers brought to the show and increased use of prerecorded material gave this year an increased slickness; in a way, this may have given the show a bit more of a blandness than in previous seasons, but only insofar that the risk of failure wasn’t as big a factor as it had been before. As well, having the Indeed, there were a number of enduring classics that came out of this season, and even though the big stars dominated every week, the returning cast and writers contributed some of their best work this year.
A lot of whether people enjoy this season boils down to whether they like Billy Crystal or not. Crystal was everywhere this season; what helped was he was the all-star who clearly had the most fun this year, and he brought a willingness and a skill set that worked well with the show’s format. It also helped that he was arguably the one cast member most compatible with Dick Ebersol’s production style and more commercial vision for the show; this was in stark contrast to Harry Shearer, who didn’t enjoy himself, wasn’t particularly collaborative, and was the cast member most at odds with Ebersol. Even though his work was regularly of high quality and brought a welcome edge and subtlety to his half of the season, Shearer had the least screen time out of all the cast, and was sometimes lucky to even get one appearance in per show. Dick Ebersol didn’t need Shearer’s facility at writing longer and low-key sketches as Lorne Michaels did five years earlier, where the show had lost two of its regulars (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi), and the writers were starting to burn out from the grind.
While Christopher Guest, Martin Short and Rich Hall didn’t quite take to the show the same way Crystal did, all three proved to be valuable assets to this season. Guest was second only to Crystal (who he often partnered with) in the impact he made on this season through his versatility, ability to understate, and tendency to steal sketches away from the other performers, not to mention his numerous contributions directing pre-taped segments for the show. The one area where he faltered was anchoring Saturday Night News; although he eventually found somewhat of a rhythm behind the desk and served as a good foil to the other performers doing desk bits, Guest was a little too blank without the mask of a character and his delivery was a little too dry. Despite difficulty adjusting to the SNL grind. Short made an impression right away with his collection of oddball characters; Ed Grimley in particular seemed more at home in the setting of a live audience than he did on SCTV. However, he seemed constrained by the SNL pressure-cooker environment and format. Hall’s unique comic voice took a little longer to work into the fabric of the show, but soon adapted well enough to sketch comedy from stand-up.
While the all-star cast members, most of who doubled as writers, were responsible for a lot of the season’s victories, it would be foolish to overlook the contributions of the returning staff writers and performers, particularly Andy Breckman and the team of Kevin Kelton, Andrew Kurtzman and Eliot Wald. As well, Gary Kroeger and Jim Belushi both quickly established themselves as the show’s utility players. Kroeger actually appeared in more sketches than Martin Short and debuted great impressions of Walter Mondale and Julio Iglesias. While Belushi missed three shows (Michael McKean, Eddie Murphy and Kathleen Turner) and occasionally seemed a little too hungry for a hit, he had a number of well-deserved victories this year, particularly Profiles in Sports and Called Shot.
Sadly, the women of the show seemed more sidelined than ever this year. Mary Gross, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Pamela Stephenson actually had a comparable number of roles this year (though Gross and Louis-Dreyfus had a few repeated commercial parodies), but Stephenson’s underuse is particularly frustrating; perhaps it seems worse because of her versatility allowing her to disappear into her roles or background as an established performer in England, but it’s a shame to see her struggle for airtime the way she did. Even though Gross and Louis-Dreyfus didn’t fare much better in terms of screentime, they at least had new characters, and some particularly good performances, and a solid dynamic as a performing duo. The lack of women in the regular writing staff may have been a factor, though a number of female writers (Margaret Oberman, Rosie Shuster, Marilyn Suzanne Miller and Anne Beatts) did come back to guest write for the show this year.
Hiring a number of already famous people to join the cast as regulars normally hasn’t worked; Lorne Michaels tried getting some famous faces in 1985 and 1994, and the results were subpar at best. However, Dick Ebersol and Bob Tischler made it work. Maybe the fact that the stars signed high-priced one-year contracts helped things, maybe Ebersol’s more “network executive” production style was a better fit with this strategy, or maybe the increased reliance on pretapes gave the new additions a medium that would better realize their ideas. Either way, this unique season .provided some of the show’s most enduring material.
Christopher Reeve / Santana (average sketch rating: 3.72/5)
Michael McKean / Chaka Khan (average sketch rating: 3.5/5)
(no host) / Thompson Twins (average sketch rating: 3.38/5)
Ringo Starr / Herbie Hancock (average sketch rating: 2.75/5)
Pamela Sue Martin / The Power Station (average sketch rating: 2.79/5)
Bob Uecker / Peter Wolf (average sketch rating: 2.86/5)
Jackie Rogers Jr.’s $100,000 Jackpot Wad
White Like Me
Lost & Found
Best musical guests:
Robert Plant & The Honeydrippers
Worst musical guests:
Frankie Goes To Hollywood
Writer tally and turnover:
(*) indicates the writer remained credited on-staff next season and (~) indicates a returning writer from previous seasons.
Rob Riley (McKean through Cosell)
Herb Sargent*~ (also script consultant)
Harry Shearer~ (Premiere through Turner only)
Bob Tischler~ (also co-producer)
Barry W. Blaustein
Ian La Frenais
Marilyn Suzanne Miller
Once again, special thanks goes out to Kevin Kelton, Nate Herman and Gary Kroeger for their valuable background information on this season’s shows.
I consider this blog a living document, so any new information that comes to light will be added to the reviews as it becomes available. If any SNL writers, performers, or crew members from this time frame have information they would like to contribute or correct, I welcome their insight and encourage them to get in contact with me.
I will be giving my conclusions on the whole 1980-85 era next week, followed by an introduction to the 1985-86 season, as well as a summary of Lorne Michaels’ failed prime-time sketch series The New Show, before starting to post the reviews themselves. I am tentatively going to have the first review up on October 13th, but schedules are subject to change depending on whether life gets in the way. (The remaining Deep Cuts lists will be sprinkled in there as well).
I am still looking for original NBC broadcasts of the following shows (with no “encore presentation” disclaimer in the opening montage) as my copies may have dress rehearsal substitutions and other post-production edits to the . Please contact me if you have recordings of any of the following shows from the original live or West Coast broadcasts on the specified dates:
11/16/85 Chevy Chase / Sheila E.*
02/08/86 Ron Reagan / The Nelsons*
03/22/86 George Wendt & Francis Ford Coppola / Philip Glass*
04/19/86 Tony Danza / Laurie Anderson*