SNL Up Close: 1984-85

Saturday Night Live executive producer Dick Ebersol and producer Bob Tischler had more or less righted the ship by 1984, but Eddie Murphy’s departure that February meant the show had lost its biggest star and a crucial factor in the show’s survival to that point. Despite this loss, the show made it to the end of the season, but SNL’s future was uncertain; the season finale featuring five hosts could have would up being the last show, but was successful enough to earn the show another season and its first Emmy nomination since 1980.

Breaking with the show’s tradition of breaking undiscovered talent, Ebersol and Tischler signed a number of established comedy performers, many to higher-priced one-season contracts: Billy Crystal, already a two-time host the previous season; Martin Short from the just-ended SCTV; Christopher Guest and one-time SNL regular Harry Shearer, fresh off acclaim (and an SNL musical guest gig) for This Is Spinal Tap; Rich Hall from Fridays and Not Necessarily The News, and Pamela Stephenson from NNTN’s British progenitor Not The Nine O’Clock News. All but Stephenson were also credited as writers.  

To make room for the new group, Ebersol and Tischler cleaned house: Joe Piscopo, whose impact on the show slowly waned over the course of the previous season, was out, as were Tim Kazurinsky, Robin Duke and Brad Hall.  In the writers’ room, rookies Adam Green and Michael McCarthy were gone; Pam Norris, Margaret Oberman and head writer Andrew Smith had also departed as full-time writers, though the latter two would still occasionally contribute to SNL on a freelance basis over the coming year. Joining the writing staff that year were Fridays regular Larry David, Second City alum Rob Riley, and returning SNL writer Jim Downey, as well as a number of guest writers over the course of the season.

Despite these big changes, returning players Jim Belushi, Mary Gross, Gary Kroeger and Julia Louis-Dreyfus helped lend the show some continuity. Many key writers from the previous seasons also remained: Andy Breckman and Kevin Kelton returned for their second year, Andrew Kurtzman his third, Bob Tischler, Eliot Wald and Nate Herman their fourth; original SNL writer Herb Sargent also remained on board. Like in previous years, Ebersol and Tischler prioritized sketches featuring the bigger stars, leaving the remaining cast and writers to compete for the remaining airtime; beside the new group of writer-performers, Breckman and the team of Kelton, Kurtzman and Wald contributed a lot of this year’s scripts.

SNL in 1984-85 featured a growing reliance on pre-taped sketches (most directed by Guest, Breckman, Claude Kerven or John Fox), and an even stronger reliance on recurring characters: on any given show, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest and Martin Short usually dominated the first half hour with immediately recognizable characters. Crystal in particular thrived this year, owing much to his professionalism and willingness to collaborate with the other writers, while Harry Shearer’s relationship with the show soured almost immediately. A talented but exacting writer and performer, Shearer’s strengths were less compatible with Dick Ebersol’s more commercial direction for the show, and backstage tensions grew so toxic that Ebersol cut him loose mid-season.

Saturday Night News continued to limp along with guest anchors until Christopher Guest was installed as permanent anchor in December, with mixed results; Guest’s versatility made him a valuable addition to sketches, but on-camera as himself, his aloof demeanor tended to cross over into outright dullness. An SNL staple since the first show, the news parody had de-emphasized political satire in favor of guest commentary pieces by this point, and several shows this season dispensed with the news segment altogether.

A writers’ strike briefly interrupted the season in March, but the show returned for a final three-episode stretch, ending the year a month earlier than normal on April 13. By that point, Ebersol had grown tired of SNL’s grueling production schedule, and opted to focus his energies on Friday Night Videos and Saturday Night’s Main Event, a series of wrestling specials that ran in the SNL timeslot.

As usual, I will be posting sketch-by-sketch reviews, with new posts uploaded every weekend. Any information regarding the sketches (such as sketch authorship) and shows is certainly welcome, and will be incorporated into my reviews with acknowledgement

The episodes (with links to episode summaries in the SNL Archives):

SNL Up Close: 1983-84

By the summer of 1983, Saturday Night Live had re-stabilized, and had a genuine movie star in its cast: Eddie Murphy, who reached box office success with 48 Hours and Trading Places. However, the new season would prove to be his last, as it was only a matter of time before Murphy's burgeoning career would push him beyond SNL. To keep their star an extra year, NBC and SNL executive producer Dick Ebersol allowed Murphy to do the show on a part-time basis, with his appearances on his weeks off made possible by a bank of eleven sketches taped with the cast in Studio 8H on September 21, 1983.

Unlike the previous three seasons, there were no cast departures (though Gary Kroeger was fired and quickly rehired over the summer), and while Murphy was on his way out, he and Joe Piscopo still continued to be the focus of many sketches. Newer hires Kroeger and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, already contributing solid work, got a much-deserved boost in airtime, while Mary Gross began to be credited as a writer alongside Murphy, Piscopo, Tim Kazurinsky and Robin Duke. The sole new face in the cast was Jim Belushi, younger brother of John. Despite a commitment to a production of Sam Shephard's  True West forcing Belushi to miss a handful of shows early in the season, he quickly became one of the show's dominant players.

The writing staff had comparatively more turnover: Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield left for Hollywood and rookie writers Paul Barrosse and Ellen L. Fogle were let go. Brought onboard for 1983-84 were Andy Breckman (poached from Late Night with David Letterman), Adam Green, Kevin Kelton (a former writer for SNL's one-time West Coast rival Fridays), and Michael Clayton McCarthy; founding SNL writer Herb Sargent also returned to take charge of the Saturday Night News segment. Of these new hires, Breckman proved to be an especially solid and prolific addition to the staff. Writer-producer Bob Tischler also began to have a stronger influence on what material made it into the show, which allowed for sharper material than what Dick Ebersol, more a "numbers guy" than a comedy writer, normally kept in the show.

Ebersol's control in other areas still remained, though, and the show still shied away from harder-edged political satire, to the dismay of several writers and performers: Tim Kazurinsky and Brad Hall both clashed with Ebersol about the material that made it to air. Hall was also removed from Saturday Night News mid-season, with the segment's anchor duties usually falling to whoever was hosting the show that week. 

The second half of the season brought two more developments: the debut (and quick demise) of Lorne Michaels' new sketch show The New Show, and the show's increased use of pre-filmed sketches. The New Show's poor ratings and reviews only served to vindicate and reinvigorate the SNL staff, while the filmed sketches that appeared over the next year and a half (usually directed by regular film unit directors Claude Kerven and John Fox) would be some of the show's best-remembered work.

As with the previous three seasons, I will be posting sketch-by-sketch reviews; expect the new reviews of each show every weekend (as my schedule allows), with the Tartikoff review coming tonight or tomorrow. If anyone has information to contribute about the episodes, such as who wrote what, writer cameos, etc., I welcome it and will acknowledge my source in the sketch review.

The episodes (with links to episode summaries in the SNL Archives):