Classic SNL Review: April 12, 1986: Oprah Winfrey / Joe Jackson (S11E14)

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

OPENING: BACKSTAGE

  • Oprah Winfrey tells Lorne Michaels she won’t do any stereotypical sketches; a la Celie in The Color Purple, his “assistant” Danitra Vance tells him to beat her.

  • There’s a real-life basis to this piece: Al Franken had actually ill-advisedly pitched a sketch that week with Winfrey as Aunt Jemima being laid off from the pancake factory. That said, I don’t think this opening is that much better; despite a few laughs from the sketches Winfrey mentions she won’t do (including the Refrigerator Perry sketch) and Danitra’s performance, it doesn’t really work too well as a commentary on the show’s inability to write for a black woman, and the ending with Winfrey having Michaels in a headlock comes across as a little insulting regarding her body size.

**

MONOLOGUE

  • Oprah Winfrey tells an anecdote about wearing an uncomfortable dress to the Oscars; pathological liar Tommy Flanagan (Jon Lovitz) gives her Walter Brennan’s Academy Award.

  • Unsurprisingly, Winfrey is in her element here, and her story about the Oscars had some good lines. Lovitz’s part felt a little superfluous (and, being the fifth consecutive show with a Liar appearance, came off as a bit of insurance in case Winfrey’s monologue flopped), but as usual there were some good lines, including some digs at The Color Purple’s shut out at the Academy Awards.

  • Winfrey’s attempt at a Liar impression is so bad it’s funny; it just goes to show how much the character had become identified with the show by this point, though.

***

COMMERCIAL: JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP’S LOOKING AT AMERICA

  • John Cougar Mellencamp’s (Robert Downey Jr.) shows small-town life in the heartland as seen through his eyes and hair in his new video.

  • Nothing special, though some of the song titles in the crawl made me laugh, and the best joke was somewhat obscured (the line in his song about the camera crew following him).

  • Written by Tom Davis.

** 1/2

SHOW: THE PAT STEVENS SHOW

  • Oprah Winfrey’s experience and advice on hosting a talk show is lost on Pat (Nora Dunn).

  • Pat Stevens’ first appearance since the Jerry Hall show is unfortunately another weaker installment. Nora Dunn tries her best here (and gets some great Pat Stevens ditziness in with lines like “Babies and children are similar aren’t they?”), but this plays too much like a serious interview.

**

SKETCH: CABRINI GREEN

  • Cabrini Green (Danitra Vance) has to break the news of her pregnancy to her stern mama (Oprah Winfrey).

  • This sketch has a little bit of a “shoehorned” quality to it, mainly because the character’s already stated she’s a mother of two in her first appearance, and appeared in a beauty pageant for pregnant teenagers, but if you ignore those earlier sketches, this works as a sweet standalone piece and a good showcase for both Vance and Winfrey.

  • The opening scene with Nora Dunn and Joan Cusack playing Cabrini Green’s fellow inner-city high school cheerleaders has one of Dunn’s most underrated performances; she does a spot-on “urban” voice here. I get the impression that Cusack and Vance’s “Yo mama” scene over whose mother is nicer was supposed to get a bigger laugh, though.

  • Mark McKinney contributed to this sketch; one big issue was that abortion was not to be discussed.

***

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: “RIGHT AND WRONG”

  • Joe Jackson returns to SNL with a pared-down band comprised of Vinnie Zummo (guitar), Rick Ford (bass) and Gary Burke (drums) to play tracks from his recently released Big World album. This song sounds about the same as the album version, which makes sense because Big World was recorded live but with the audience told to keep quiet.

WEEKEND UPDATE

  • Best jokes: Gun control, Warren Beatty, Superbowl Shuffle choreography

  • Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall review WIlliam F. Buckley’s novel High Jinx by making a bunch of fart noises. The audience is laughing, but this was just stupid and repetitive (though I did like Downey’s “One man’s *pfffft* is another man’s croissant” line); the whole “we didn’t read it” angle felt a little too obvious as well. Miller’s

  • Dennis Miller has some particularly good jokes this week, but he also has a bit of a rough run shortly after his Line of Death gag (which has an unplanned blooper where his lapel mic cord yanks him back) and gets a few more laughs with his ad-libs than his actual jokes.

  • A. Whitney Brown returns to put Libya and terrorism into the Big Picture, with some digs about the ease of Grenada, nobody defending Libya and the French selling crappy military equipment to everybody. As usual, Brown has some good lines and some prescient insight.

***

SKETCH: THE WART HOG

  • Legendary detective (Randy Quaid) doesn’t believe that his fellow investigators don’t consider him grotesque even after they enter him in the World’s Most Handsome Man Contest.

  • A noble failure. The concept was great, and Quaid gave a strong performance, but something about it didn’t really translate in the execution. It also doesn’t help that the audience doesn’t really know what to make of the sketch. Maybe this would have worked better with different performers a few years later? I don’t know.

  • I did get a few laughs from Terry Sweeney’s bad Swedish accent while accepting the “Mr. Congenital” (Congeniality) award and the credits (which reminds me of the Phil Hartman drill sergeant sketch a few years later).

  • Is that Terry Sweeney singing the closing theme?

  • Written by Jack Handey and George Meyer.

** 1/2

MISCELLANEOUS: I PLAY THE MAIDS

  • To the tune of “I Write The Songs”, Danitra Vance sings about black actresses being confined to the mammy archetype.

  • This is easily the best sketch of the night, a pointed two-minute musical interlude with Vance singing about the limited representation black women have in film and television, with references to the cliches of these roles such as the “hearty laugh”. Vance has a good voice and puts in little flourishes like a resigned “zippity doo dah”. One of the better social commentary pieces the show’s done.

  • This was another import from Danitra Vance’s stage show.

**** 1/2

SHOW: ACTORS ON FILM

  • Jimmy Chance (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ashley Ashley (Nora Dunn) discuss Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple, and the importance of smoking in acting.

  • I like the characters, the performances from Downey and Dunn are great as usual, and there are some funny moments (mainly from Downey’s hyperbole about The Color Purple and his pathetic story about the brush with Spielberg), but it feels like they’re being wasted in this setting. It’s also too similar to the sketch they did in the previous show.

  • It sounds like they were still clipping Nora Dunn’s microphone at the very beginning of the sketch.

** 1/2

SKETCH: CRAIG SUNDBERG, IDIOT SAVANT

  • Outwardly dunderheaded teenager Craig (Anthony Michael Hall) is summoned to help the Center for Strategic Materials create a titanium substitute.

  • The worst sketch of the night, consisting mostly of Anthony Michael Hall saying “Really? Sorry” over and over. Unlike the first sketch, which was fairly short, this outing lasted six minutes and played to near-silence from the audience.

  • Production designer Akira Yoshimura has a speaking role in this sketch as Professor Chen; it’s telling that he’s better at live sketch comedy than Hall.

  • Written by Al Franken and Tom Davis.

*

SKETCH: THE CUTE SHOP

  • Stuffed animal shop proprietor (Joan Cusack) lures customer (Oprah Winfrey) with increasingly adorable merchandise.

  • This was a nice rebound from the previous sketch. Joan Cusack’s tendency to sound “slow” in some sketches actually works in the context of this piece, as she and Winfrey coo over stuffed animals. I also liked thee twist with the store being a trap and Winfrey’s character being an undercover police officer. This also has what is probably Winfrey’s funniest performance all night.

  • Written by Jack Handey and Robert Smigel

*** 1/2

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: “SOUL KISS”

  • Joe Jackson and band play a jazzier piano-based track from Big World; this is notable for what happens at the end: as Vinnie Zummo starts his solo, Jackson takes out a stopwatch, blows a whistle and gestures for the band to stop. As they do, he says “That’s it, four minutes. They gave us four minutes”. According to Zummo, the band was told the show was running long and was asked to cut his guitar solo. Jackson agreed but instructed the band to play the song with the solo anyway.

SKETCH: ONE-SHOE EMMA

  • Diner waitress Emma (Danitra Vance) endures customers’ mockery of her lopsided walk until a prince (Dennis Miller) arrives with her missing footwear.

  • Not bad for the end of the night; this sketch has a charm to it, and is helped by another solid performance from Vance, some nice live piano flourishes, and the randomness of Dennis Miller’s appearance as the prince, which could best be described as “Dennis Miller as himself wearing a prince outfit”

  • Written by Mark McKinney; during the week, there was a disagreement over casting as McKinney’s first choice Randy Quaid was taken out of the sketch and replaced with Terry Sweeney until Al Franken thankfully stepped in. It’s a good thing he did, as Quaid’s slightly dumber redneck is one of my favorite parts of the sketch (I particularly like him happily waving goodbye to Vance and Miller as they leave).

***

GOODNIGHTS

  • Oprah Winfrey thanks the audience for watching and brings Joe Jackson forward; Winfrey and Terry Sweeney sandwich Danitra Vance in a hug, while Jon Lovitz plays with the crown on Dennis Miller’s head.

  • Tonight’s show features a credit for Winfrey’s cousin Dr. Jo Baldwin as “Consultant to Miss Winfrey”.

Final thoughts: The weakest show in a while, thanks in part to an awful and lengthy sketch starring Anthony Michael Hall, some forgettable sketches, a few pieces that felt like they were expected to play better than they did (The Pat Stevens Show, The Wart Hog), and a fairly questionable cold opening. Oprah Winfrey was comfortable in front of a live audience, and this has a bit of a curiosity factor going for it due to the glimpse of her before she became as powerful and recognizable as she would be (her introductions to Joe Jackson’s songs are definitely her trademark style), but it felt like the writers really didn’t know how to write for a black woman host. However, Danitra Vance had the best night of her tenure on the show, getting to show a bit more of her range and performing one of the best pieces of the season (“I Play The Maids”). It makes me wonder what Damon Wayans might have contributed to the show had he not been fired a month beforehand.

SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • I Play The Maids

  • The Cute Shop

SHOW LOWLIGHTS:

  • Craig Sundberg, Idiot Savant

  • Backstage

  • The Pat Stevens Show

MVP:

  • Danitra Vance

CAST & GUEST BREAKDOWN:

cast

  • Joan Cusack: 2 appearances [Cabrini Green, The Cute Shop]

  • Robert Downey Jr.: 5 appearances [John Cougar Mellencamp’s Looking At America, Weekend Update, The Wart Hog, Actors on Film, One Shoe Emma]

  • Nora Dunn: 4 appearances [The Pat Stevens Show, Cabrini Green, Actors on Film, Craig Sundberg, Idiot Savant]

  • Anthony Michael Hall: 2 appearances [Weekend Update, Craig Sundberg, Idiot Savant]

  • Jon Lovitz: 4 appearances [Monologue, The Wart Hog, Craig Sundberg, Idiot Savant, One Shoe Emma]

  • Dennis Miller: 2 appearances [Weekend Update, One Shoe Emma]

  • Randy Quaid: 3 appearances [The Wart Hog, Craig Sundberg, Idiot Savant, One Shoe Emma]

  • Terry Sweeney: 2 appearances [The Wart Hog, Craig Sundberg, Idiot Savant]

  • Danitra Vance: 4 appearances [Backstage, Cabrini Green, I Play The Maids, One Shoe Emma]

featured players

  • A. Whitney Brown: 2 appearances [Weekend Update, The Wart Hog]

  • Don Novello: 1 appearance [The Wart Hog]

unbilled crew, extras and bit players

  • Tom Davis: 1 voice-over [John Cougar Mellencamp’s Looking At America]

  • Mark McKinney: 1 voice-over [The Pat Stevens Show]

  • Lorne Michaels: 1 appearance [Backstage]

  • Evie Murray: 1 appearance [The Cute Shop]

  • Nils Nichols: 2 appearances [The Wart Hog, The Cute Shop]

  • John Swartzwelder: 1 appearance [The Wart Hog]

  • Bob Van Ry: 1 appearance [I Play The Maids]

  • Akira Yoshimura: 1 appearance [Craig Sundberg, Idiot Savant]

guests

  • Oprah Winfrey: 7 appearances [Backstage, Monologue, The Pat Stevens Show, Cabrini Green, Craig Sundberg, Idiot Savant, The Cute Shop, One Shoe Emma]

  • Joe Jackson: 2 appearances [“Right and Wrong”, “Soul Kiss”]

REBROADCAST HISTORY:

  • Not repeated on NBC (not counting a 1999 NBC All Night airing)

Additional screen captures from this episode are available here.