Lorne's Missing Links: Steve Martin's Best Show Ever and The New Show

Lorne's Missing Links: Steve Martin's Best Show Ever and The New Show

Lorne Michaels stepped away from Saturday Night Live after the show’s fifth season, and his creation was kept alive by other producers, writers and actors for the next five years; when he returned to the show in 1985, he had a whole new cast, but many of the behind-the-scenes personnel were those who had been associated with his original five year tenure, and there were a handful of additions that would shape the show’s tone and look for years to come. Because the Jean Doumanian and Dick Ebersol eras each had their own specific directions and mostly unique personnel. one wonders what the show would have been like if Michaels had stuck around during that time. There are a few hints of what a Michaels-helmed SNL would have looked like in two of his TV productions during that period: Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever, a special Martin did for NBC in November 1981, and The New Show, Michaels’ ill-fated return to weekly network television

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SNL Up Close: 1985-86

SNL Up Close: 1985-86

In four seasons, executive producer Dick Ebersol had brought Saturday Night Live back from the cancellation, had the hottest comedian in America in the cast, and oversaw its transition from a live incubator of new comic talent to an increasingly prerecorded showcase for established comedians. By 1985, though, Ebersol found himself tired of the show’s grueling schedule, and, after toying with staying with a mostly-prerecorded version of the show that wouldn’t premiere until the next January, decided to step away. Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment, had to consider his options, and fast.

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On Trump

The Flip Wilson / Stevie Nicks review will be posted next week, but I thought I'd weigh in on the controversy over Donald Trump hosting the show. I'd be lying if I said that it didn't bother me that the show booked him: he did the show in 2004 and was adequate for a non-actor, but this was before he made racist comments about Mexicans and misogynistic retorts to Megyn Kelly for calling him on his sexism, actions which have only endeared him to a frightening group of the American electorate. I remember being upset that the show allowed Chris Brown to appear as musical guest in 2011, but this seems much worse.

I realize that the first duty of the show is ratings and advertising revenue for NBC, with comedy as the byproduct that hooks the audience in, but this move just seems so incredibly crass on Lorne Michaels' part. It's not just a political disagreement that fuels my discomfort: by booking Trump, the show is legitimizing a political candidate that incites hatred towards an ethnic group. This controversy, so far, is at least giving the show extra attention: it's drawing protesters, and a group is offering money to anyone who heckles Trump in tonight's show, an act that has some precedence on the show (Andrew Dice Clay and Sharon Stone were heckled during their monologues, but security were quick to act and both segments were replaced with dress rehearsal takes in reruns). Various media outlets, from the A.V. Club to Rolling Stone, have also weighed in and said that to give Trump this platform is a bad idea. 

I'm more concerned about the quality of the show. I get the impression Trump's sense of humor about himself has only decreased as his presidential ambitions come closer to fulfillment, and there are reports that he's vetoing "more risque" sketches to avoid alienating Iowa primary voters. SNL usually does better when the hosts surrender themselves fully to the process, but whatever the writers come up with this week has to serve the extra agenda of having Donald Trump look good.

The backstage atmosphere at SNL must be interesting this week. I'm sure there are people on the show that see Trump as just another politician or celebrity they have the opportunity to meet while doing their dream job (which I don't fault them for), but I wonder how many writers, performers and crew members have to bite their tongues so hard that a combination of blood and spit will be seeping out of their mouths tonight.

I can't tell anybody what to do, and I'm sure that the NBC, Lorne Michaels, and Donald Trump will get their ratings no matter how many people they've angered by this arrangement. I likely won't be watching the show myself, but Trump has nothing to do with it: I'm going to a party.

SNL Season 40: A post-mortem

SNL Season 40: A post-mortem

After Brooks Wheelan, Noel Wells and John Milhiser were fired from Saturday Night Live last July, I wrote a particularly visceral piece blasting Lorne Michaels and company for only making cosmetic changes to the show's makeup instead of trying to fix SNL's deep-seated problems in the writing department. The 2013-2014 season was not very good; and was the first year where I was deliberately skipping episodes. Of course, my curiosity got the better of me after checking out the fan reaction on the SNL message boards (which, admittedly, are not the kindest to the cast and writers either), but there were very few shows that felt worth the time investment of watching live. Despite talk from producers that this year would reflect some lessons learned, the big issues with last year weren't resolved at all: the show's problems only seemed to entrench themselves further. 

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Fired Rookies, Designated Stars and the Troubling SNL Status Quo

Fired Rookies, Designated Stars and the Troubling SNL Status Quo

Brooks Wheelan, Noel Wells and John Milheiser have all been fired from Saturday Night Live last week.  That’s one half of the cohort of featured players brought in at the beginning of the 2013-14 season.  Despite trumpeting their collective SNL debut in the season premiere with two sketches devoted to the new hires, it felt like the show lost faith in them by the end of November...

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Giving up on SNL

I've been watching SNL regularly for about 20 years.  I still have my original tapes from when I first started recording the show back in March 1994; in fact, I can tell you that the first episode I taped was a rerun of the show with John Malkovich and Billy Joel.  I've stuck with the show through that horrible season with Janeane Garofalo.  I've seen the historically bad years that almost got the show cancelled.  I've sat through that godawful 10 minute sketch with the sub at the bottom of the ocean.  None of these low points has made me want to give up on the show as much as this current season has.  

Last month, I wrote that I mainly watch the show out of a routine I can no longer justify to myself.  I was originally going to pack it in at that point, but held out hope that the next four shows would show some flicker of life that's been noticeably absent this year.  That would not be the case.

Josh Hutcherson was dull.  Paul Rudd had cameos and a Bill Brasky sketch, but weak writing pretty much everywhere else.  John Goodman's long-overdue return to SNL had more tepid writing, plus a sketch starring Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro that felt like a rejected script from a bad Bob Hope special; the kind of sketch that SNL would make fun of when it spoofed bad variety shows.

The Jimmy Fallon show that aired last night was a bit more fun than the show's been in a while: Fallon has come a long way since he was the messy-haired new kid 15 years ago, and his collaborations with Justin Timberlake guaranteed several fan favorites would be trotted out.  That said, so much of the show felt like pandering: Paula Pell's Dancing Mascot sketches doesn't do much for me (it just feels too by-the-numbers and obligatory), and the cameos by Paul McCartney, Madonna, Barry Gibb and Michael Bloomberg felt like they were intended to distract from how lifeless the writing is on the show.  The episode came off as self-congratulatory towards Lorne Michaels' takeover of NBC late night.; an extended commercial for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, if you will.

It's not that the show is actually terrible: a truly bad year would at least be interesting.  Yet, more than ever this season, it feels like the show's on auto-pilot.  There's no need for the show to try anymore; it's one of the few relative successes NBC has left, so there's no impending cancellation to force the show to correct course.

Sketch comedy shows by their very nature are uneven, and even SNL's best seasons have had their dud shows.  This season feels different; I don't think "mediocre" is the right word, though, because even something mediocre can have an appreciable effort behind it.  The six new faces added to the show in the wake of the recent departures of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis just feel purely cosmetic; only a mask to cover stagnant and lazy writing.

The cast has too much potential that's not being used properly.  Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon are in a class by themselves on the show, and could potentially carry a new era of the show, but they're weighed down by so many people who have overstayed their welcome.  The move to make Kenan Thompson the cast anchor (a la Hader or Sudeikis) is baffling; Thompson doesn't have the range to pull off that role in the cast, and he's already demonstrated everything he's capable of as a performer years ago.

The real dead weight is in the writers' room.  There are 23 writers on staff this year, including Lorne Michaels, who always gets a credit.  Steve Higgins and Paula Pell have been with the show since the last big changeover in 1995 (Pell is part-time); their tenure with the show is longer than those of the original writers who were still with the show before Michaels cleaned house.  James Anderson has been around since 2000; he and frequent collaborator Kent Sublette seem to be the writing staff's equivalent of Kenan Thompson, in that they recycle their bag of tricks and that their output tends to annoy more than amuse.  There are a handful of prolific and talented newer writers (Zach Kanin, Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly) and a fair bit of turnover in the staff over the last five years: the only trouble with this is that it's the newer writers that leave, while the veterans stick around and churn out the same old material.

I need a break from the show.  I've come to the conclusion that I'm getting too frustrated by SNL this season to justify watching live anymore; until some non-superficial changes are made to the creative side of the show, I'm not going to be tuning in.  Whatever's worth checking out will be on the internet the next day (unless it has a music clearance issue).  

My original plan was to finish the 1982-83 season reviews, but I think I'm going to take a break from those as well.  I'll try to resume those in a few months.

SNL Season 36: Still ill.

I wrote last year about how SNL was showing signs of severe creative fatigue, with an over-reliance on recurring material, and a higher number of disappointing shows than in seasons past.I mentioned that unless the show took steps to fix some of these very noticeable signs of wear, the show is only going to get worse. SNL is still sick.I would argue it's a bit worse than last season, ever so subtly.There weren't any violently obvious symptoms like with last season, but the times when it appears to be firing on all cylinders are fewer and further between.

The staleness has been lingering for years now and the stench is starting to get pungent.At least when the show was at its worst they took quick emergency measures to fix the show.I do hope for next year that the creative powers-that-be realize they need to operate, or we're going to watch the show suffer and decay even further.

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SNL 35.22 Alec Baldwin (and season 35) post-mortem

Last week, I presented the possibility that the SNL cast and writers would have used up all their energy on the Betty White show.This week seems to have confirmed that theory, with an episode not only underwhelming by Alec Baldwin's usually high standards but for a season finale in general.I don't know if they were expecting that Baldwin's presence alone could elevate mediocre material (to be fair, he did help somewhat) or if it was just exhaustion on everyone's part, but either way the finale was another letdown in a season full of them.

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SNL: Live vs. Rerun

There are a number of reasons why I'm a SNL fan, including an appreciation for sketch comedy in general as well as the massive cultural impact the show has had over the past 35 years.  It can be hit or miss, and some seasons are definitely more 'miss' than 'hit', but when the show is running at its peak in terms of cast, writing, and cultural relevance, it's really something.

One thing about the show that fascinates me is that a rerun of a show that plays either on the network or on cable may not necessarily be the same thing that aired from 11:30 pm to 1:00 am ET the night of the original show.   When I was building up my collection I noticed that the sketch rundowns of the shows I taped off the Comedy Network didn't quite match the order listed on the episode guide; sketches would often be shuffled around and, on occasion, something would be dropped in favour of either a sketch from another show or material that never made it to a live broadcast.   On these shows you could see a disclaimer run at the very beginning:

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Most of the reruns I taped were pretty representative of the original show that aired, but when it turned out there was a big omission in the rerun, it could get pretty annoying.  There are still a few holes in my collection that I haven't been able to fill just because rerun versions of SNL are so much easier to come by than original airings: by default, any episode aired after the live air date is the rerun version unless none exists (usually the weak and controversial shows would fall into this category).  

Older reruns sometimes substituted bits for segments from other shows: a lot of material added to a rerun also appeared in a show without the rerun disclaimer; if a show without a disclaimer turned up in the rerun package, it usually meant the show was not repeated on NBC.  Later reruns were a little more unusual in that the content that replaced what was cut didn't seem to be from any other episode.  Sometimes it would be a live sketch done in the studio with the same host and cast, sometimes it would be a short film or commercial.  One of these bits was actually the Roberto Benigni segment of Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes".

The reruns from the last 25 years or so (from the point where Lorne Michaels returned to the show after his five-year hiatus) have some more subtle changes.   Fans with sharper eyes and ears than mine had mentioned in various places online how the reruns sometimes replaced sketches from the live shows with performances from dress rehearsal.  The differences were usually very minor, not really noticeable unless you made a point to look for them or if they made the change to remove something offensive.  I did notice, though, the clock on the main stage with no other purpose but to show the time in the studio would sometimes visibly show it was a point earlier during the evening during monologues and musical guest introductions. 

From what I guess, the strategy is to make the best possible rerun: if something went better in dress, then that's what they'll use.  As well, because a new episode of SNL is live, it's more prone to technical screw-ups, miscues, and awkward "dead seconds"; reruns give a chance to fix some of that.  The audio is also remixed a bit for the rerun, which often includes a faint bit of 'sweetening' to the audience response (just a few extra laughs mixed in).

I'd heard of all these things from different sources and noticed a few things here and there when I watched reruns of shows I'd seen when they aired live, but it didn't come together until the night I finally saw a recording of the live broadcast of the first show of 1985-86 hosted by Madonna.   This episode is probably the most extensively edited SNL rerun; the most well-known change being that reruns remove the cold opening about Brandon Tartikoff getting urine samples from the cast for drug testing, giving the impression that the show just went straight into the opening montage.  Other changes include a second Simple Minds musical performance added to the later part of the show, the replacement of the original Sarah Charlesworth "collage" opening montage with the filmed "limo ride" used from the fifth show of the season on (as well as all bumpers to keep consistent), dead seconds removed, hot mics were fixed, the Weekend Update title card was changed to the one used for the rest of the season, and Don Pardo's line "Two Junkies be located..." in a commercial parody was removed (probably for the same reason the drug testing had to be taken out).

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The thing about that live show that really brought everything together for me was the opening seconds of the Weekend Update segment: usually, when the bit starts and Pardo announces "Weekend Update with Dennis Miller", the audience cheers and applauds.  On this first show there is no response whatsoever.  Miller actually sarcastically quips, "Thank you, Don Pardo, for whipping them up into a frenzy".  I didn't remember the audience being dead when I saw the episode before so I checked my recording from Classic SNL, and sure enough, there were cheers and applause (and Miller's comment was left in, dethorned by the editing).   It became clear to me how much of a do-over the rerun really is. 

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What's better?  The rerun version seems to be the final product judging by how prevalent these are in SNL packages and how much is done to ensure these are the strongest product.  But part of the show's title is that it's live: it's still live in a sense that the sketches were performed in front of a studio audience, but a lot of what's done to the rerun is essentially cheating.  Part of the appeal of watching the live broadcast is that anything can happen.  Something may not go right.  Actors may break character.  Somebody might drop a "shit" or "fuck" or tear up a picture of the Pope.  You lose the unexpected aspect with a rerun anyway, but the extra editing only takes it further away from being "live".