I started this review project back in the summer of 2010; at the time, SNL message board regular Stooge was posting reviews of the early 90s shows with screen captures of sketches and occasional tidbits about which scenes were altered in repeats with dress rehearsal footage. I figured I may as well do my own set of reviews for a more obscure part of the show’s history.Read More
A lot has already been written about this season of Saturday Night Live, and a fan is more likely to read extensively about this season before actually watching a single episode. The first time I actually saw these shows was in late 1998, when they ran on the Comedy Network; I was surprised that they weren't anywhere as terrible as their reputation made them out to be. The shows were still weak, but I had already seen worse first-run shows by that point. When watching the show again for these reviews, I have to admit it was a little more draining this time around, but that could have been because I was in a more analytical frame of mind, and trying to identify specific strengths and weaknesses in sketches.
What I saw was a decent group of actors without a strong group dynamic. It usually helps a new SNL cast when some of the members have worked together in the past, the most notable examples being the original 1975 ensemble and the 1986 "second golden age" group. Ferris Butler confirmed that the entire creative staff had not worked together before. Several of the writers were also very young or inexperienced. Twelve episodes would not have been enough time for such a cobbled-together team of cast and writers to find their collective voice (for comparison's sake, the original cast's 12th show was Dick Cavett / Jimmy Cliff). There definitely was no lack of talent in either group, but they would have benefited from a little more time, a little less pressure and better leadership at the top.
A lot of the blame for the season's woes rightly falls on Jean Doumanian's head. Most accounts I've read indicate that she was not suited to a creative role, yet wouldn't cede authority on that particular front. One of the most widely-circulated stories about Doumanian's creative input was her written advice on one 1980-81 sketch: "Make it funnier". For all the criticism Doumanian deserves, though, NBC should get its share for selecting her for the role of producer. Once the network's buyer's remorse about Doumanian set in, their increased meddling with the show probably didn't help matters much either.
That said, I'm not entirely convinced that the show would have been received better under anyone besides Jean Doumanian. One such scenario would be if Al Franken hadn't done the "Limo for a Lamo" bit in May 1980 and succeeded Lorne Michaels as producer as intended. Franken may have been able to retain some key creative staff, and that likely would quell the cries of "pretender" from the viewers and critics, yet that may not have been enough. Franken (and the late Tom Davis) did actually produce the first season after Lorne Michaels returned to SNL in '85, which had similar negative response to the Doumanian year. (Michaels has served as executive producer for every season since except 1986-87 and 1995-96: he had a more hands-on role during these "retooling years" that followed very poorly received seasons). Continuity in creative personnel from season 5 may not have helped the show either, since the season before often had a tired and burnt-out aura.
I sometimes think Doumanian's failures ensured SNL's survival in the long-term, by necessitating the hiring of a network suit (Dick Ebersol) who served as a buffer between the show and NBC. His show wasn't quite as edgy as the Michaels or even Doumanian versions, but Ebersol kept the show going long enough so that by the time he stepped down in 1985, Lorne Michaels was ready to return to the show.
I'm always interested in hearing the different takes on life at the show; I want to thank 1980-81 writer Ferris Butler for his valuable information regarding that season and his identification of show staff in bit parts as well. Special thanks also goes to Raj for his information on the extras. If anyone has more information regarding sketch writing credits, people doing background work, or are just interested in telling their side of their story, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly.
Denny Dillon: Dillon made a strong impression fairly early by carrying a lot of the sketches in the first two shows of the season, having the first recurring character of the new cast, and bringing needed energy to weaker sketches. There was a little bit of a sameness to her performances that became more evident over the season, but she was a consistent, dependable performer. She gave a lot of her castmates a boost whenever she shared sketches with them (Gail Matthius' Vickie was better once she had Dillon's Debbie to play off), and just seemed to exhibit a willingness and commitment in whatever she appeared in. [MVP: Gould, McDowell]
Gilbert Gottfried: It's a little disarming to see Gofffried in these shows, especially since he was so young, with his eyes wide open and not speaking in that famous stilted squawk. Where Dillon jumped in, Gottfried had a tendency to hold back: the legend goes that he didn't want to use his A-material on the show because he was concerned the network would claim ownership. Gottfried's performances would end up being the clearest barometer of the Jean Doumanian era: early on, he's more lively and animated, if a little green, but toward the end of the season, he is a little more sullen and withdrawn. His decrease in spark could have been because he got some of the most thankless jobs on the show that didn't go to featured players (having to wear the Master Po makeup all night in Carradine, playing a vegetable along the featureds in Dazola, and his nadir: being the corpse in a funeral sketch). Like most of the cast, though, he was not without his moments: he worked well with Dillon as the Waxmans, and I thought his collaborations with writer Ferris Butler were particularly fruitful. [MVP: Kellerman]
Gail Matthius: Matthius definitely had potential to be a great cast member, and hit the highest highs out of all three female leads, but she also had a few really frustrating moments on the show. Impressions were her weakest point, and despite her efforts, she didn't really have the ability to rise above some of the material she was given. She had a rough time on Weekend Update as well; fumbling a bit in her early shows at the desk and getting saddled with some of the worst jokes ever written. These missteps seem even more disappointing because when she was actually given good material, she did quite well: I especially liked Francis Lively and the little girl character she played in "Lonely Old Lady", and thought she ended up going out on a strong note with "Same". I can only wonder how she would have fared on a different incarnation of the show. [MVP: Carradine, Harry]
Joe Piscopo: Piscopo ended up being one of the two castmembers that stole Charles Rocket's thunder by demonstrating he was a better fit for the characters and celebrity impressions that the show built its name on in the first five seasons. Piscopo was consistent, well-rounded, and seemed to feel more natural in the prominent roles that Rocket was being schooled for. I'd draw the line at calling Piscopo an MVP of the season: I believe the key to his relative success this year were clear and repeated hooks in his signature bits (SNL Sports and Paulie Herman; Sinatra developed more fully after Ebersol took over), but he was always more of a "safe" performer and didn't have the kind of charisma that demanded attention like what Eddie Murphy provided, a quality that was desperately needed this season. [MVP: Gould]
Ann Risley: I actually thought Risley handled the straighter roles fairly well. Risley never managed to have a recurring character, and there were a few performances of hers that were pretty dodgy (mainly as the hosts of "Dying To Be Heard" and "Was I Ever Red"), but I wonder how much of it was actually her acting style (she's more of a straight actress) and how much of it was the writers not finding a breakout role for her (she did come close with the Toni Tenille sketch). Some say that she was a poor fit for SNL, but I saw a few small glimpses of a potential Kristen Wiig-style performer whose true gift was understatement, although Wiig had the added benefit of being able to write for herself. A key part of success on the show is either writing for yourself or finding the right writer to collaborate with; I don't know whether Risley had that support for herself.
Charles Rocket: Doumanian was banking too much on Rocket to be the breakout star: usually when something is pushed so heavily, it only helps build a backlash toward the performer. Rocket was no exception, and he had a few liabilities that probably hurt him on the show: his impressions were weak, and whenever he tried to play big (like his February Updates or even in Billy-Gram), he chewed so much scenery it was distracting. When he dialed it back, though, he was a decent utility player, and his strengths in those roles presage his respectable career as a character actor. Rocket's true strength on the show, though, was catching people off-guard during The Rocket Report, where a different type of charm emerged than when he was doing sketches. Unfortunately, Rocket became the public face for Jean Doumanian's mistakes on the show, and that one moment during the Charlene Tilton goodnights overshadowed pretty much everything he did since, even after he took his own life. [MVP: Black]
Yvonne Hudson: SNL's first black female featured player was essentially doing the same types of roles she had been doing uncredited for the previous few seasons; aside from some increased prominence in sketches for a few episodes, she was still essentially an extra on the show. There is actually one episode where she has less lines that SNL's resident "old man" extra, Andy Murphy. Despite no longer being in the opening credits, she was kept around as an extra the next few seasons.
Matthew Laurance: Aside from Eddie Murphy, Laurance was the most prominent of the featured players. I thought he was decent as a utility man, and served as a good counterpoint to the more exaggerated performances of Rocket and Piscopo, even if he didn't make a strong impression on his own. I wonder how he would have done with one of Rocket or Piscopo's pitchman roles.
Eddie Murphy: From his first speaking role, Murphy demonstrated why he was full cast material. There were a few appearances that betrayed his inexperience (particularly Newsbreak in Harry), but he had a confidence that the others in the cast seemed to lack, and made stronger impressions in less airtime than most of the cast did in more. [MVP: Burstyn, Sharkey, Hays, Tilton]
Patrick Weathers: His Bob Dylan sketch in Carradine was the main thing that distinguished him; he might have made a bigger impact if he was given more to do. I won't hold Ravi Sings against him.
Robin Duke: Out of Dick Ebersol's three full-cast hires, Duke made a smallest impression of the three, getting a band intro, a leftover Jane Curtin role, a decent part in a five-man sketch and a last-minute voice-over in the bag lady film. None of these roles really showed what she was known for on SCTV, and viewers would get a better glimpse of her capabilities the next season. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Duke was a last-minute addition: Catherine O'Hara was originally slated to be on the show in her place (and was listed in news articles as late as five days before airtime), but O'Donoghue's first staff meeting seemed to justify her reticence towards joining the SNL cast. O'Hara recommended old friend Duke for the show, and a month later, O'Hara was on the same network with the resurrected SCTV. If the strike hadn't happened, Duke could have made an impact as soon as the next show.
Tim Kazurinsky: Kazurinsky seemed to fit SNL immediately, and ended up dominating the first Ebersol-produced show. Part of Kazurisnky's strong first outing comes from his prominence in two of the longer pieces, but being a combination writer/performer, and coming from an improv background certainly helped him hit the ground running. It was John Belushi's recommendation that got Kazurinsky hired on the show, and Belushi's instincts turned out to be correct. [MVP: Finale]
Tony Rosato: Like Duke, Rosato came from SCTV, and like Kazurinsky, he was hired as a writer/performer and made a fairly strong impression in his first show. He and Kazurinsky worked well together in their two main sketches, but he would find a stronger footing the following season.
Laurie Metcalf: One of the most successful people to have an incredibly brief SNL tenure, Metcalf's sole appearance on the show was a pre-filmed "man on the street" piece. I can't assess how she would have fared if Ebersol kept her on based on that one segment.
Emily Prager: Prager didn't even appear on-camera during her only live show. She has, however, appeared on the show before and after her tenure as a featured player: she was a girlfriend of Tom Davis' and appeared occasionally as an extra around 1977-78; she and Davis also appear in the Button film next season.
- Karen Black / Cheap Trick, Stanley Clarke: (Average rating: 3.18/5) The show where everything seemed to go right. It's not flawless (SNL rarely is) but the combination of an energetic host, more determined writing and a receptive audience worked wonders. As much as Black and the audience kept things lively, the victory belongs to the cast and writers.
- Bill Murray / Delbert McClinton: (Average rating: 3.11/5) This is the textbook example of the host bringing a boost to the show. The previous four shows were dispirited affairs, and the prior show in particular contained the moment that overshadowed the rest of the Doumanian-era. Murray shows up and infuses what would be the final Doumanian-produced SNL with energy and the sense of fun that had all but vanished in the second half of the season.
- No Host / Jr. Walker & The All-Stars: (Average rating: 2.88/5) Ebersol takes over, cleans house (as much as the budget would allow), and makes an appeal to nostalgia with his first show. It's weighed down by Chevy Chase's disappointing Weekend Update return engagement, but this one remains consistently watchable if not an all-out return to form.
- Robert Hays / Joe "King" Carrasco & The Crown, 14 Karat Soul: (Average rating: 2/5) The string of mediocre-to-bad sketches that come after Weekend Update is the air seeping out of the SNL '80 tire that they finally were able to inflate the week before.
- Jamie Lee Curtis / James Brown: (Average rating: 2.22/5) The first three shows of the season had enough highlights to counteract the weaker material. Here is where the good to bad ratio finally tips to to the other side; while nothing in this show is as bad as "Commie Hunting Season", a significant number of sketches were underdeveloped and uninspired.
- Charlene Tilton / Todd Rundgren, Prince: (Average rating: 2.26/5) A fair amount of OK material here, but the backstage runner that culminates in "Who Shot C.R." is underwhelming, and the highs don't really offset the lows enough.
- The Writer (03/07/81) Bill Murray is in front but playing it straight, while the new cast gets the fun of acting out the revisions he makes to his story. Just a good sketch done well.
- Hospital Bed (01/17/81) Probably one of the saddest sketches the show has ever done, with Gilbert Gottfried's disembodied voice communicating the thoughts of a stroke victim. It's punctuated enough with humor to avoid mawkishness, but the writers wisely put the emotion of the scene first.
- Mister Robinson's Neighborhood (02/21/81) The debut of one of Eddie Murphy's signature sketches, pretty much fully-formed. The audience is on board by the end of the theme song.
Honorable mention: The Rocket Report - Fifth Avenue Charles Rocket's signature piece remains the place where his talents were best put to use.
- Commie Hunting Season (11/22/80) SNL tries to make a pointed statement about the Greensboro Massacre acquittals; it's uncomfortable and alienating, but without the humor to redeem it.
- Ravi Sings (01/24/81) The only joke in the sketch: a cartoonish portrayal of an Indian musician singing American love songs.
- Badgers (12/13/80) A grating, amateurish sketch that hinges on a pun.
Best musical guests:
- James Brown His sweat-drenched eight-minute medley of classics is a high point of both the season and the series, especially when taking into consideration that the band exceeded their allotted time.
- 14 Karat Soul Five young singers with no instrumental accompaniment get one of the biggest reactions from the audience this season.
- Stanley Clarke Trio Instrumental jazz-fusion that rocks as hard as any other musical guest this year.
Worst musical guests:
To be honest, I couldn't really say that there were any truly bad musical guests. Joe "King" Carrasco may have had a rough and raw sound but it was clear the band was going for energy over technique, and the worst I could really say about Ellen Shipley is that she was decent but a little generic-sounding. The other musical guests only really pale in comparison to the stellar choices Doumanian (and whoever else was involved in snagging musical guests) made this year. I wonder how much of the booking strategy was intentional and how much of it was necessity, but this was where the Jean Doumanian show had some of their biggest victories.
Writer tally and turnover:
(*) indicates the writer returned the next season, (~) indicates a previous writer returning to SNL.
Aside from Ferris Butler's contributions (special thanks goes to Butler for providing a lot of insightful information about the season, by the way), knowledge of Blaustein & Sheffield's partnership with Eddie Murphy and a handful of other sketches whose writers have been identified, I don't really know what each specific writers' voices are in the show and whether any shifts in quality were from writers joining or leaving, or being favored or disfavored. If anyone has more information regarding who was responsible for any sketches, please feel free to drop me a line.
- Barry W. Blaustein*
- Billy Brown & Mel Green
- Patricia Marx
- Douglas McGrath
- Pamela Norris*
- David Sheffield*
- Terrence Sweeney
Full Doumanian run:
- Larry Arnstein & David Hurwitz
- Ferris Butler
- John DeBellis
- Jean Doumanian
- Brian Doyle-Murray*~
- Leslie Fuller
- Mason Williams (head writer, Gould through Carradine)
- Jeremy Stevens & Tom Moore (head writers, Sharkey through finale)
- Nancy Dowd (Gould and McDowell only)
- Sean Kelly (Gould and McDowell only)
- Mitchell Kreigman (Gould through Carradine)
- Mark Reisman (Harry through finale)
- Mitchell Glazer
- Judy Jacklin
- Tim Kazurinsky*
- Matt Neuman~
- Michael O'Donoghue*~
- Tony Rosato*
- Dirk Wittenborn
An essay regarding the season as a whole will follow in a subsequent post.
The ill-fated 1980-81 season is one shrouded in mystery and a negative reputation that grew bigger the less frequently reruns from that season appeared in syndication.Like with 1981-82, I will be doing sketch-by-sketch reviews of the episodes this season.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.Read More