Classic SNL Review: December 7, 1985: John Lithgow / Mr. Mister (S11E04)

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

OPENING: HALLEY’S COMET

  • Dr. Federico (John Lithgow) and Bruce Winston (Robert Downey Jr.) warn Reagan (Randy Quaid) that Halley’s Comet is on a collision course with Earth, but the President won’t spare a missile to destroy it.

  • I’m kind of iffy on the premise, but Lithgow (who’s essentially playing a renamed version of Dr. Emilio Lizardo from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) is already doing a great job tonight, starting with his wild-eyed performance here. Downey still seems as green as ever, though it works for his character (particularly during his pointless fishing anecdote).

  • For some reason, Randy Quaid doesn’t even bother slicking down his hair as Reagan tonight; he also has a few funny moments, such as being caught air drumming when Federico and Bruce call him, and his slightly delayed realization of the comet’s danger (“Planet Earth? Why…that’s us!”)

  • Rerun alterations: Mild audience sweetening.

***

MONTAGE

  • Tony Garnier subs for T-Bone Wolk on bass tonight; he will appear semi-regularly over the next four seasons before joining Bob Dylan on his “Never Ending Tour”.

MONOLOGUE

  • John Lithgow thinks he’s performing the dress rehearsal until director Dave Wilson reminds him he forgot to change his watch from L.A. time.

  • A little predicable in the concept, but I thought this was executed really well, largely due to Lithgow’s performance; his wordless terror as soon as he realizes he’s doing the televised broadcast is priceless, and this does a nice job at circling back to the anecdote he told about getting nerves during a childhood performance of The King and I.

  • Rerun alterations: Minimal audience sweetening (if any).

*** 1/2

COMMERCIAL: WHERE YOU’RE GOING (repeat of 11/09/1985)

  • This is Anthony Michael Hall’s only appearance all night, as he was away filming Out of Bounds at the time; he would miss several more shows over the next few months.

  • Rerun alterations: None.

SKETCH: POSTERIOR ARTHROPOD

  • A visit to the doctor uncovers the cause of Bob Danielson’s (John Lithgow) sarcastic, uptight and grouchy demeanor.

  • The build-up was a little slow, but I give points for the whole thing being structured quite well; it helps a lot that the the big reveal wasn’t tipped off at the beginning of the sketch. The list of warning signs at the end was pretty funny too.

  • I got an laugh from Damon Wayans’ stiff walk as he leaves the doctor’s office.

  • Written by Al Franken and Tom Davis, per Robert Smigel.

  • Rerun alterations: Mild to moderate audience sweetening. A “pop” sound effect is added when Lovitz removes the bug from Lithgow’s butt.

*** 1/2

SKETCH: MASTER THESPIAN

  • Master Thespian Jonathan Ianculovici (Jon Lovitz) and mentor Baudelaire (John Lithgow) duel with their superior acting ability.

  • The debut appearance of Lovitz’s pompous Shakespearean actor also features Lithgow’s first appearance opposite him as the equally grandiose Baudelaire. There’s just something timelessly funny about these two grown men playing completely unsophisticated tricks on each other while treating it all as examples of their skillful “ACTING!” (particularly Lovitz’s final “I am dead, and merely ACTING alive!”).

  • Written by A. Whitney Brown and Jon Lovitz.

  • Rerun alterations: Mild audience sweetening.

****

COMMERCIAL: DOUBLE R ROLLS

  • Texan businessman Rudy Randolph Jr. (Randy Quaid) bought the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s Rolls Royce collection in bulk, and he’s passing the “savings” on to the customer.

  • Quaid debuts his Double R character with a topical sketch (the Bhagwan had just deported from the United States); his character work is good but the main joke really isn’t that funny. It may have played a little better back then when the reference was fresh (or now that Wild Wild Country brought the story of Rajneeshpuram back into the public consciousness).

  • I did like some of Quaid’s lines (particularly his discounting one car because “the inside is pink and is smells like incense” and Downey’s excitable Rudy Randolph III makes me laugh (particularly the dopey grin and clapping).

  • Rerun alterations: None

** 1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: “BROKEN WINGS”

  • Mr. Mister play the lead single from their second album Welcome to the Real World, which hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 that month. A good chunk of this song is actually prerecorded synthesizer tracks; Richard Page is definitely singing live (and lets out an impressive long falsetto note at the end) and there are enough differences in the keyboard sounds that Steve George plays to indicate he’s playing some of his parts live, but this sounds a little too much like the studio recording.

  • Mr. Mister was chosen as musical guest for tonight’s show over Michael McDonald, according to a December 1985 New York Times article.

  • Rerun alterations: audio remixed; synthesizer track at beginning of song is at a consistent volume in the rerun.

COMMERCIAL: AD COUNCIL

  • Pitchman’s (Rex Robbins) spiel through various stock commercial settings embodies “wasting your time in various ways for no good reason”.

  • I’ve always enjoyed this one, which does a good job at capturing and transitioning the various advertising cliches of the mid-80s.

  • Robbins’ delivery of “Mmm! That’s cracklin’ good” always cracks me up.

  • Written by Mark McKinney; directed by Mark Story, the real-life commercial director who previously helmed the Fur commercial that appeared in the Robert Urich episode in 1982.

  • Rerun alterations: None

****

SKETCH: CLICHES

  • Debbie (Joan Cusack) is experiencing marital trouble, but her well-meaning father (John Lithgow) can only respond with an endless stream of cliches.

  • This felt like something the show would have done in the earlier seasons with Gilda Radner or Laraine Newman in the daughter role. Again, Lithgow’s performance is what makes this work as well as it did.

  • Rerun alterations: None

***

WEEKEND UPDATE

  • Best jokes: Mary Lou Retton, Find Cap’n Crunch, granola inventor

  • Miller’s still coming into his own with his “I just don’t give a fuck” delivery; the audience responds well to the “Punch Mary Lou Retton in the Teeth Lottery”, and even though the “President stuffs the turkey” felt like an old joke, Miller gives it extra leverage by adding “easy…easy…”. He’s still doing the videotape footage jokes, this week as a grim punchline to the story about the Find Cap’n Crunch contest.

  • Damon Wayans returns with a follow-up commentary about what the Reagan-Gorbachev summit accomplished. Most of it is forgettable, aside from Wayans’ warning about terrorists “hijacking the planet in the name of Allah” being more of an threat than a US-Russia nuclear war, and hypothetical scenario where “Abdul straps an MX on his back and threatens to jump off the World Trade Center”.

  • Rerun alterations: Mild audience sweetening.

***

SKETCH: VEGAS NANCY

  • Bored during one of Ron’s (Randy Quaid) meetings, Nancy Reagan (Terry Sweeney) fantasizes about the road not taken, where she’s a Vegas headliner performing “That Old Black Magic”.

  • A good showcase for Sweeney’s talents; this was more entertaining than laugh-out-loud funny, though it does have a few good comic bits (Quaid absent-mindedly playing with a paper chip chain and his pen stand, Sweeney throwing up his dress, the dancers trying to keep up with Sweeney).

  • The dancers in this sketch were from the Alvin Ailey School, who receive a credit in the scroll at the end of tonight’s show.

  • Rerun alterations: Echo feedback after the scene transitions back to Reagan’s desk is fixed in rerun.

***

GUEST PERFORMANCE: SAM KINISON

  • Sam Kinison does stand-up about failed relationships, using his coat to intimidate convenience store employees, and Jesus.

  • This was hit and miss; there were some funny moments like Kinison interacting with the audience member and the bits about Jesus (particularly the one about him being the only person that didn’t scare people when he came back from the dead), but the “why I wear this coat bit” was too long and didn’t pay off.

  • Rerun alterations: Kinison’s whole routine is replaced with the dress rehearsal version in the rerun version (Lithgow’s intro and Kinison thanking the audience at the end are edited in from the live show). The dress rehearsal take is the better one: Kinison seems more “on” here, he doesn’t do the bit about the coat, and there’s more Jesus material after the routine about the disciples trying to call in sick, including Kinison ruminating on how anyone who tries to help humanity gets assassinated (with “That’s why they only wounded Reagan” serving as the final joke).

** 1/2 for live, *** 1/2 for dress

SKETCH: U.S.S. CAMERON

  • Sailors’ poor organization and easy capitulation doom their attempts at a mutiny against their captain (John Lithgow).

  • Good concept, and I liked the ineptitude of the sailors’ mutiny (one admits to being pretty happy, one couldn’t remember his demand), The ending felt a little weak, though.

  • This was likely written by Jack Handey; the ending with the sailors singing “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” to the captain was reused from one of his New Show sketches where Steve Guttenberg smooth-talks his way out of the wrath of a lynch mob.

  • Writer John Swartzwelder plays one of the mutinous sailors; he also has one line of dialogue (“More wood!”).

  • Rerun alterations: Moderate audience sweetening. Some accidentally audible keyboard/synthesizer notes audible during Quaid’s “Could you excuse us for a moment” are mixed out of the rerun.

***

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: “KYRIE”

  • This performance still sounds augmented by taped bits, particularly the background vocals during the final repeats of the chorus, though it is funny to see drummer Pat Mastelotto clearly not trying to bother keeping the illusion he’s singing along to the full lyrics.

  • Rerun alterations: Possible remixing (not perceptible in my copy).

SKETCH: THE LIMITS OF THE IMAGINATION

  • In this installment, customers at an “all you can eat” fish fry are paid to be force-fed seafood.

  • This worked better than the Limits in the Madonna episode, largely because it leans into the whole so-bad-it’s-funny/“cut-rate Twilight Zone” aspect, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome or build up too slowly. I like Danitra Vance’s over-the-top performance as the evil waitress.

  • Written by George Meyer and Jim Downey, per A. Whitney Brown.

  • Quaid sounds a little hoarse at the beginning of the sketch.

  • Before the sketch begins in the live show (actually prior to the Omni Berkshire Place promo), there is a bumper memorializing original SNL cue card man Al Siegal.

  • Rerun alterations: None

***

GOODNIGHTS

  • Lithgow thanks the audience for watching; Damon Wayans sticks his tongue out, and the dancers from Alvin Ailey School are on stage with everyone. Don Pardo announces Tom Hanks, Sade and Steven Wright will appear on next week’s show and wishes a happy Hanukkah to all his Jewish friends.

  • R.D. Rosen is no longer credited as writer; according to the Times article, he had resigned after not having any of his material included in the first three shows of the season. Tonight would also be the last credited show for Michael O’Donoghue, who was fired for his comments about the show’s quality in said article.

  • Rerun alterations: Don Pardo’s announcement of next week’s show is removed; unlike in previous seasons where the audio is replaced with a pre-recorded version of the closing theme, Pardo’s voiceover is merely mixed out.

Final thoughts: A pretty solid show and pretty enjoyable all the way through. A lot of this was thanks to Lithgow; while he didn’t take over the show the same way Pee-Wee Herman did, he was a great host and gave every sketch he appeared in a lift, particularly the first installment of Master Thespian. The only comparative weak links were the Double R ad (a quickly dated topical reference, but largely saved by Quaid’s performance) and Kinison’s slightly off performance in the live show (which was replaced in the rerun version with the much better dress rehearsal routine). As well, Anthony Michael Hall’s absence opened up opportunities for Robert Downey Jr., who’s starting to show some improvement in tonight’s show.

SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Master Thespian

  • Ad Council

  • Monologue

  • Posterior Arthropod

SHOW LOWLIGHTS:

  • none

MVP:

  • John Lithgow

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Joan Cusack: 3 appearances [Posterior Arthropod, Cliches, The Limits of the Imagination]

  • Robert Downey Jr.: 5 appearances [Halley’s Comet, Posterior Arthropod, Double R Rolls, U.S.S. Cameron, The Limits of the Imagination]

  • Nora Dunn: 2 appearances [Posterior Arthropod, The Limits of the Imagination]

  • Anthony Michael Hall: absent, appears in repeated segment only

  • Jon Lovitz: 4 appearances [Posterior Arthropod, Master Thespian, U.S.S. Cameron, The Limits of the Imagination]

  • Dennis Miller: 1 appearance [Weekend Update]

  • Randy Quaid: 6 appearances [Halley’s Comet, Posterior Arthropod, Double R Rolls, Vegas Nancy, U.S.S. Cameron, The Limits of the Imagination]

  • Terry Sweeney: 3 appearances [Vegas Nancy, U.S.S. Cameron, The Limits of the Imagination]

  • Danitra Vance: 2 appearances [Posterior Arthropod, The Limits of the Imagination]

featured players

  • Damon Wayans: 4 appearances [Posterior Arthropod, Weekend Update, U.S.S. Cameron, The Limits of the Imagination]

unbilled crew, extras and bit players

  • A. Whitney Brown: 1 appearance [The Limits of the Imagination]

  • Mark McKinney: 1 voice-over [Master Thespian]

  • Don Pardo: 1 voice-over [Double R Rolls]

  • Rex Robbins: 1 appearance [Ad Council]

  • John Swartzwelder: 1 appearance [U.S.S. Cameron]

  • Dave Wilson: 1 voice-over [Monologue]

guests

  • John Lithgow: 7 appearances [Halley’s Comet, Monologue, Posterior Arthropod, Master Thespian, Cliches, Vegas Nancy, U.S.S. Cameron]

  • Mr. Mister: 2 appearances [“Broken Wings”, “Kyrie”]

  • Sam Kinison: 1 appearance [Guest Performance]

REBROADCAST HISTORY:

  • March 8, 1986

Known alterations:

  • Trojans I (from 11/16/85) added

  • Audience sweetening:

    • None to mild: Halley’s Comet, Monologue, Where You’re Going, Master Thespian, Double R Rolls, Ad Council, Cliches, Weekend Update, Vegas Nancy, The Limits of the Imagination.

    • Moderate: Posterior Arthropod, U.S.S. Cameron

  • Dress substitutions: Guest Performance (all but intro and outro)

Additional screen captures from this episode are available here.