Classic SNL Review: February 22, 1986: Jay Leno / The Neville Brothers (S11E11)

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

OPENING: STUDIO TOUR

  • A lost Jay Leno gets a quick tour of Studio 8H from “executive producer” Tommy Flanagan (Jon Lovitz).


  • The second cold opening in a row to use Lovitz’s Liar character, but I enjoy any excuse to show the backstage goings on at the show, and this has a fast-paced and loose quality to it I’ve always liked.

  • The balding blonde guy with the walker is Leno’s writing partner Kevin Rooney, who is credited as a guest writer this week. SNL writers John Swartzwelder and Lanier Laney are also visible here.

  • Sets visible in the studio: Target Earth, The Stand-Ups, Star Search.

  • Rerun alterations: None

***

MONTAGE

  • Damon Wayans is back in the credits this week.

  • Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) fills in on bass with the SNL band this week; Levin had actually appeared on SNL twice before with Paul Simon in 1975 and 1976, and would appear on the show again with Robbie Robertson in 1988 and Peter Gabriel in 1993.

  • Rerun alterations: Audience sweetening.

MONOLOGUE

  • Jay Leno does stand-up about TV Guide, dating shows, celebrity endorsements, and Charles Manson’s parole hearing.

  • A fairly long monologue, but Leno actually had some pretty funny observations about the state of society where TV Guide is considered reading material and dating shows paring off genetically inferior people to bring the literacy rate down. It wasn’t amazing, but compared to the spoonfed jokes he used to serve on The Tonight Show, this was pretty good.

  • Rerun alterations: The level on Leno’s mic is fixed for his first lines.

***

SKETCH: TARGET EARTH

  • Invaders from the planet Mitron (Robert Downey Jr. and Jay Leno) talk big, but their civilization is hundreds of years less advanced than Earth’s.

  • This is one I’ve always enjoyed, particularly due to all the details of how far behind the aliens’ civilization is (oil lamps, sheep herding, dirt roads, stagecoaches) and how smug the aliens act about it (I particularly like “…or do you want to face the awesome power of our muskets?”). Downey’s overacting actually works in the context of this sketch, and there are some good laughs from Dennis Miller (making a rare sketch appearance) and Nora Dunn flat out dismissing that the aliens have anything of value to teach, and Quaid being more upset about the aliens’ superior attitudes.

  • Jim Downey originally wrote this for the previous season, but Dick Ebersol felt it was too conceptual. It would have been interesting to see how this would have played out with that year’s cast and whoever was hosting the week he wrote it. According to Robert Smigel, Tom Davis and George Meyer may have also had a hand in this version.

  • Rerun alterations: Mild audience sweetening. Audio enhanced on Randy Quaid’s first line. A few seconds removed from the transition from the spaceship to the Washington D.C. still. Footage removed from “One Week Later” transition to remove shot where Leno is visibly waiting in the spaceship for his cue to march out. Dress rehearsal footage for scene where Quaid asks the aliens about their spaceship (Leno’s hair peeks out during dress).

****

SKETCH: DINNER WITH MIKE

  • Mike the Dog’s former owner (Randy Quaid) has dinner with his now-famous pooch at Ma Maison.

  • Randy Quaid does the heavy lifting in this sketch built around the dog in Down and Out in Beverly Hills nodding or shaking his head on cue; he does his customary good job, but the premise is a little too thin and gimmicky.

  • Ma Maison was a real Los Angeles restaurant and celebrity hotspot, though declining fortunes caused it to close a few months before this sketch aired.

  • For some reason, the bumper for The Neville Brothers appears before this sketch in the live show instead of before their performance, which is preceded by a picture of Jay Leno. Maybe a last-second schedule switch? Incidentally, tonight is one of the earliest times where the show’s first musical performance appears after the third commercial break and before the network ID, which would end up being the standard slot for the first musical performance.

  • Rerun alterations: Mild audience sweetening. The opening scene with the maitre d’ is replaced with the dress rehearsal take, while the background piano music now plays continuously through the sketch instead of fading out shortly after Quaid’s entrance and restarting later. A few seconds are removed during the time-lapse dissolve as Quaid reminisces about Mike’s tricks.

**

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: “THE BIG CHIEF”

  • A lively rendition of Earl King’s New Orleans standard first recorded by Professor Longhair; the brothers are joined by Brian Stoltz (guitar), Daryl Johnson (bass) and Mean Willie Green (drums).

  • Cyril Neville accidentally dislodges the microphone from the stand during the first verse and has to quickly adjust it back into place as he sings.

  • The Neville Brothers didn’t seem to be promoting anything for this appearance; Rhino Records did release a compilation of the brothers’ collected works from the previous 30 years that year, but I’m guessing they were more likely booked due to their opening for Al Franken & Tom Davis’s favorite band, The Grateful Dead, notably at their New Years Eve and Mardi Gras shows (Davis and Father Guido Sarducci were two of the hosts during the New Years ‘85 show).

WEEKEND UPDATE

  • Best jokes: RC Cola buys water supply, Mondale, Geraldine Ferraro’s son

  • Another average-ish night for Miller, though the Mondale joke where he muses about almost getting as many electoral votes as the candidate without even running is the highlight.

  • Another Weekend Update Dancers appearance, this time interpreting the current flu epidemic to James Brown’s “Living in America”. There really isn’t much to say about this but the choreography was fun as usual and it was an entertaining diversion.

  • The still-uncredited A. Whitney Brown returns to put the Haitian coup and the Iran-Iraq war into The Big Picture; while not the slam dunk his first commentary was, this has some pretty trenchant insights, especially about Saddam Hussein being a questionable person to root for (something that would come home to roost five years later), and a great button (“You’re an American - bet on the winner.”)

  • According to GettyImages, Damon Wayans had a commentary that was cut after dress rehearsal.

  • Rerun alterations: Mild audience sweetening. Microphone feedback removed during Update Dancers exit.

***

SHOW: STAR SEARCH

  • Ed McMahon (Randy Quaid) presents singers (Terry Sweeney and Jay Leno), actors (Dennis Miller and Joan Cusack), comedians (Jon Lovitz and Damon Wayans) and more.

  • While I appreciate the effort to give everyone in the cast something to do, this sketch is overlong and doesn’t hang together as a whole; Randy Quaid’s McMahon impression is also fairly weak but they give . That said, there are some good moments sprinkled throughout, including Dennis Miller and Joan Cusack doing the Olympia Cafe sketch as a badly-acted two-hander, and they save the best for last with Damon Wayans’ bit as “The Angry Comic”.

  • I liked Nora Dunn’s 30s-style screwball comedy characterization for her spokesmodel character, but the bit didn’t really seem to have much of a point to it.

  • For some reason, Robert Downey Jr.’s voice when his mime character says “I was building a computer!” reminds me of Chris Kattan.

  • According to Robert Smigel, he was one of the co-writers on this piece but he can’t recall who his collaborators where.

  • Rerun alterations: Mild audience sweetening.

** 1/2

SKETCH: EVIL TWIN

  • Jay Leno’s “evil twin” Wayne emerges from the kitchen after his date (Joan Cusack) politely declines to sleep with him.

  • A very short and to-the-point bit; there are some laughs from Jay’s over-the-top displays of feminism (reading aloud from Our Bodies, Ourselves) and the reveal, I think the biggest laugh for me was Cusack’s character being the one to bring up the “evil twin”.

  • According to Robert Smigel, this sketch was Leno’s idea. I wonder if Kevin Rooney also worked on this one.

  • Rerun alterations: None

***

SKETCH: STAND-UPS

  • Veteran comic Jackie Niles (Jay Leno) meets observational stand-ups Bob (Jon Lovitz), Keith (Damon Wayans) and Steve (Dennis Miller) backstage at the club.

  • Not quite on the level of the first outing (Tom Hanks is missed, though Dennis Miller does a decent job trying to fill his shoes), but this has some funny bits (sports jackets, the existential dilemma, Fred Flintstone’s three toes), and Leno worked well as the old-timey comic conversing in his own style.

  • Like the first Stand-Ups bit, this was written by Robert Smigel; Smigel says either George Meyer or Bruce McCulloch helped with this one.

  • Rerun alterations: Mild audience sweetening

***

COMMERCIAL: MAN BEAT

  • Lyle Alzado (Randy Quaid) dominates Jack (Robert Downey Jr.) during a commercial shoot.

  • Aside from Terry Sweeney’s part as the androgynous operator Sandy (which was probably the biggest laugh out loud part for me), this is pretty much a beat-for-beat parody of a real series of Sports Illustrated commercials that were running at the time. Quaid doesn’t really sound like Alzado, but he has some funny background business.

  • For some reason, the "sexy” picture of the guy in the cowboy hat and boots always makes me laugh.

  • Rerun alterations: Mild audience sweetening. A tiny bit of dead air is removed before Terry Sweeney’s final line.

***

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: “THE MIDNIGHT KEY”

  • More of a straightforward 80s-style rocker, with a guitar solo from Brian Stoltz.

  • This song was written by Jimmy Buffett (!), Will Jennings and Michael Utley; the Nevilles would record this for next year’s Uptown album.

  • Rerun alterations: The vocals seem to be mixed better in the rerun.

SKETCH: THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF BIFF AND SALENA

  • Childlike luncheonette waitress Salena (Joan Cusack) and her equally innocent friend Biff (Jon Lovitz) are too shy to directly admit they like each other.

  • This sketch seems to be going for a low-key character piece (the official synopsis calls Biff and Salena “two sweet sort of sad people”). I give Cusack and Lovitz credit for trying to give their characters their dignity, but Cusack’s acting chops aren’t quite at the level the role requires, and her line delivery and body movements seem a little too broadly “disabled” here, and the piece as a whole misses the mark.

  • Rerun alterations: Mild audience sweetening, including applause added after the title and Lovitz’s entrance. The microwave sound-effect is quieter in the repeat. A few seconds are trimmed from the end.

** 1/2

GOODNIGHTS

  • Jay Leno and Randy Quaid are crouching down with Mike the Dog (who does a “shake a paw” wave) before Leno gets up to thank everyone. The feed from the studio cuts off before Lorne Michaels’ credit in the live show.

Final thoughts: A step up from the weak Jerry Hall show, though most of it is pretty much in the middle: decent enough, but not especially memorable enough to be a highlight or lowlight of the season. As a host, Jay Leno was OK; stand-up comedy or playing himself was clearly what was most within his skill set, but he didn’t weigh sketches down like Hall did. The Mike the Dog guest appearance was a curiosity at best, though.

SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Target Earth

  • Damon Wayans’ scene in Star Search

SHOW LOWLIGHTS:

  • Dinner with Mike

MVP:

  • Damon Wayans

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN

cast

  • Joan Cusack: 5 appearances [Studio Tour, Dinner with Mike, Star Search, Evil Twin, The Further Adventures of Biff and Salena]

  • Robert Downey, Jr.: 4 appearances [Studio Tour, Target Earth, Star Search, Man Beat]

  • Nora Dunn: 3 appearances [Studio Tour, Target Earth, Star Search]

  • Anthony Michael Hall: absent

  • Jon Lovitz: 4 appearances [Studio Tour, Star Search, Stand-Ups, The Further Adventures of Biff and Salena]

  • Dennis Miller: 5 appearances [Studio Tour, Target Earth, Weekend Update, Star Search, Stand-Ups]

  • Randy Quaid: 5 appearances [Studio Tour, Target Earth, Dinner with Mike, Star Search, Man Beat]

  • Terry Sweeney: 3 appearances [Studio Tour, Star Search, Man Beat]

  • Danitra Vance: 2 appearances [Studio Tour, Star Search]

featured players

  • A. Whitney Brown: 1 appearance [Weekend Update]

  • Damon Wayans: 2 appearance [Star Search, Stand-Ups]

unbilled crew, extras and bit players

  • Tom Davis: 1 voice-over [Star Search]

  • Jim Downey: 1 appearance [Studio Tour]

  • Lanier Laney: 1 appearance [Studio Tour]

  • Nils Nichols: 2 appearances [Target Earth, Dinner with Mike]

  • Kevin Rooney: 1 appearance [Studio Tour]

  • John Swartzwelder: 2 appearance [Studio Tour, Target Earth]

guests

  • Jay Leno: 8 appearances [Studio Tour, Monologue, Target Earth, Dinner with Mike, Star Search, Evil Twin, Stand-Ups, The Further Adventures of Biff and Salena]

  • The Neville Brothers: 3 appearances [Studio Tour, “The Big Chief”, “The Midnight Key”]

  • Mike the Dog: 2 appearance [Studio Tour, Dinner with Mike]

REBROADCAST HISTORY:

  • May 31, 1986

Known alterations:

  • Audience sweetening:

    • None to mild: Studio Tour, Monologue, Target Earth, Dinner with Mike, Weekend Update, Star Search, Evil Twin, Stand-Ups, Man Beat, The Further Adventures of Biff and Salena

  • Edits: Target Earth, Dinner with Mike, Man Beat, The Further Adventures of Biff and Salena

  • Dress substitutions: Target Earth (one scene), Dinner with Mike (first scene)

Additional screen captures from this episode are available here.