SNL 1985-86: Final thoughts

In summary:

Lorne Michaels’ first season back at SNL following his five year hiatus from the show is considered one of the worst seasons in the show’s history, along with 1980-81 and 1994-95. Indeed, there are quite a few unignorable problems with this season, and as a whole the quality was below the standard of the first four seasons of the show, or even the later Dick Ebersol years. Yet for some reason, this year has a certain watchability to it that 1980-81 or 1994-95 don’t have.

The big problem this year was the cast. Dick Ebersol may have been able to have a strong season by adding big names to the cast the year before, but Michaels’ group of all-stars were people who weren’t especially versed in sketch comedy, and half the cast was taken up by performers who seemed more like hosts of varying quality than a solid ensemble. Randy Quaid, owing to his skill and experience, caught on pretty fast, but the younger performers’ inexperience was obvious almost immediately. Joan Cusack and Robert Downey Jr. showed promise, but would have benefited from a little more time to hone their skills before being thrust into the SNL grind.

The weakest performer this season was Anthony Michael Hall. What may have been a coup for Michaels in terms of getting a big movie star to join the show ended up being the big glaring problem of the season; Hall was just too green at live performance to work as a regular cast member, something that wasn’t helped by a mid-season break to film a movie. His strange mixture of hammy mugging, visible cue-card dependence, and awkward line delivery also tended to detract from most of the scenes he appeared in. Hall may have brought some attention to the show, but it was a trade-off in terms of quality: if Michaels had responded to the departures of Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg in 2012 by making Justin Bieber a regular, the results would have been similar.

There were also a few performers that were nominally a better fit for the show, but the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with them. Terry Sweeney broke down a huge barrier in terms of being the first openly gay performer on the show, and his drag performances (specifically those as Nancy Reagan) usually brought laughs, but he was pretty much pigeonholed into mostly doing just that. Danitra Vance was a fairly solid performer, particularly in solo performances directly addressing the audience, but the writers didn’t really know how to work her into the fabric of the show, something her dyslexia made more difficult due to the show’s reliance on cue-cards. Damon Wayans was also a reliable presence when he was used, but his growing sidelining on the show as the season went on led to the “Mr. Monopoly” incident that got him fired.

The writers seemed to have the best luck with the performers closest to the mold of the old show, Jon Lovitz and Nora Dunn, whose original characters ended up providing a decent backbone to the season, even if the show would lean a little to hard on them. Behind the Weekend Update desk, Dennis Miller also ended up being a solid fit; he hadn’t completely found his groove by season’s end, but he still managed to bring personality back to the flagging news parody, and made it an island of consistency in the middle of the show. When Lorne Michaels had to revamp the show over the summer, he wisely found a group of performers that meshed perfectly with these three cast members.

It may be the benefit of hindsight talking, but you can see the seeds of the second golden age starting to take root this year. This year had a very solid group in the writer’s room, though a few were still learning how to write for television at the time, and some of the veterans were a little rusty. Despite being hamstrung by the cast’s inability to gel, the writers came up with quite a few good sketches throughout the whole season; it’s just that the overall shows were usually good at best. The best moments of the season were when the show experimented with the format, worked with a host that clicked, or just let a solid performer do their thing.

As perilously close the show was towards cancellation this year, it doesn’t have the ineptitude and doomed aura of 1980-81, nor does it have the burned out, lazy atmosphere of 1994-95. I would also argue that this year is much more watchable than some of the more recent seasons like 2004-05 or 2009-10, where the show seemed to be coasting. Maybe it’s because SNL hadn’t completely ossified into a late night institution at this point in its history, but even the weakest shows this year felt like people were making an effort; Lorne Michaels was just trying too hard to change up the ingredients on a recipe that worked.

Strongest shows:

  1. George Wendt & Francis Ford Coppola / Philip Glass (average sketch rating: 3.35 / 5)

  2. Dudley Moore / Al Green (average sketch rating: 3.33 / 5)

  3. Ron Reagan / The Nelsons (average sketch rating: 3.2/5)

Weakest shows:

  1. Jerry Hall / Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble (average sketch rating (2.55 / 5)

  2. Griffin Dunne / Rosanne Cash (average sketch rating 2.65 / 5)

  3. Teri Garr / The Cult, Dream Academy (average sketch rating: 2.67 / 5)

Best sketches:

  1. Finale (George Wendt & Francis Ford Coppola / Philip Glass, 03/22/86)

  2. Fire (Anjelica Huston & Billy Martin / George Clinton & The Parliament-Funkadelic, 05/24/86)

  3. Fantasy (Tom Hanks / Sade, 12/14/85)

Worst sketches:

  1. Movie Theater (Anjelica Huston & Billy Martin / George Clinton & The Parliament-Funkadelic, 05/24/86)

  2. Craig Sundberg: Idiot Savant (Oprah Winfrey / Joe Jackson, 04/12/86)

  3. A Mother’s Day Message (Catherine Oxenberg & Paul Simon / Ladysmith Black Mambazo, 05/10/86)

Best musical guests:

  1. Philip Glass

  2. Queen Ida

  3. Dream Academy

Worst musical guests:

Like 1980-81, this was another season where even the “worst” musical guests weren’t truly bad. The Nelsons were probably the weakest on a technical level, but they were literally a high school band; similarly, the Replacements’ sloppy, drunken performance is legendary in its own right. There also were a few acts that were less live than others, but nothing was really underwhelming on the same level as some of the Ebersol-era clunkers.

Writer tally and turnover:

(*) indicates the writer remained credited on-staff next season and (~) indicates a returning writer from an earlier season.

  • A. Whitney Brown (*)

  • Tom Davis (* - returned mid-season, ~)

  • James Downey (*, ~)

  • Al Franken (*, ~)

  • Jack Handey (* - returns as guest writer in May 1987, rejoins staff full-time for 1987-88)

  • Lanier Laney

  • Carol Leifer

  • Bruce McCulloch (uncredited)

  • Mark McKinney (uncredited)

  • George Meyer (*)

  • Lorne Michaels (*, ~)

  • Don Novello (~)

  • Michael O’Donoghue (~, 11/09/85 - 12/07/85 only)

  • R.D. Rosen (11/09/85 - 11/23/85 only)

  • Suzy Schneider (11/09/85 - 12/21/85 only)

  • Robert Smigel (*)

  • John Swartzwelder

  • Terry Sweeney (~)

Guest writers:

  • Andy Breckman

  • Kevin Rooney

  • Tim Stack

Special thanks to the following people who have contributed to the process of writing these reviews: Troy Bellam, A. Whitney Brown, Andrew Dick, Nora Dunn, Pat Durkin, Guillermo Gomez, William Ham, Raj Kaup, Carol Leifer, Dave Mackey, Mark McKinney, Paul Myers, Dennis Perrin, Callie Ray, Robert Smigel, Andrew Savoy, Donald Smith, Terry Sweeney, Charlie Thomson. As well, thank you to all those who regularly visit the site and leave comments; while I may not reply to all of you (particularly if I don’t feel like I have anything to add to what you say), I do appreciate it a lot.

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.

Right now, I’m going to take a break from the reviewing game. This project takes a considerable amount of work, and I want to be able to sit back and enjoy SNL without the analytical mindset, or do other things without feeling like I should be working on my next review. I’ve also been feeling a little tapped out these days, and don’t really feel I have much to say that hasn’t been said before. That said, I still hope to finish off my Deep Cuts series in the next little while, and am interested in exploring topics other than SNL on the blog. I just want to focus on a few other things for now.