SNL 1985-86: Final thoughts

SNL 1985-86: Final thoughts

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 obvious 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.

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SNL 1984-85: Final thoughts

SNL 1984-85: Final thoughts

Dick Ebersol’s “Steinbrenner season” gambit, where he loaded the SNL cast with established comedy writer-performers, paid off for the most part. Compared to the preceding seasons, the show was more consistently funny, and even the weakest show of the year wasn’t truly bad. The professionalism that the ringers brought to the show and increased use of prerecorded material gave this year an increased slickness; in a way, this may have given the show a bit more of a blandness than in previous seasons, but only insofar that the risk of failure wasn’t as big a factor as it had been before. Indeed, there were a number of enduring classics that came out of this season, and even though the big stars dominated every week, the returning cast and writers contributed some of their best work.

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SNL 1982-83: Final thoughts

In summary:

This has always been an "in-the-middle" season for me; it has some good shows, some weaker shows, but none of the peaks or valleys of 1981-82, nor does it have that oddball feel the previous season had. The renamed Saturday Night News wasn't great, but it has more energy than the often sluggish SNL Newsbreak, particularly the bloated spring 1982 editions. Like with the latter portion of 1981-82, it feels a little too "safe" at times, with less space for weirder, conceptual material, and the political material has little bite to it. There's also a tendency in the second half of the season to bring out some racial humor (particularly some stereotypical Asians in what seems like every other show in March, April and May), as well as some unusually bold sexual references.  

As for the cast: Eddie Murphy stands out as usual, dominating even more after his hosting gig; however, Joe Piscopo also has a very good year, managing to improve on his weaknesses from the previous season and demonstrating some more relaxed energy. The remainder of the cast is decent, with Gary Kroeger already establishing himself as a solid player in his first year, but the focus on Murphy and Piscopo constrains them considerably, and they only display hints of their full potential. Robin Duke is particularly underused.

I can understand why it made sense to base the show around Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, and rein in some of the more "cutting-edge" tendencies that were associated with the old show. It's still frustrating to think about what was sacrificed in the name of pragmatism, though.

Strongest shows:

  1. Stevie Wonder (Average sketch rating: 3.25/5)
  2. Howard Hesseman / Men At Work (Average sketch rating: 3.17/5)
  3. Joan Rivers / Musical Youth (Average sketch rating: 3.12/5)

Weakest shows:

  1. Jeff and Beau Bridges / Randy Newman (Average sketch rating: 2.5/5)
  2. Ed Koch / Dexy's Midnight Runners (Average sketch rating: 2.5/5)
  3. Ron Howard / The Clash (Average sketch rating: 2.5/5)

Best sketches:

  1. Buckwheat Buys The Farm (March 12, 1983)
  2. Merry Christmas, Dammit! (December 11, 1982)
  3. Buckwheat Dead (March 19, 1983)

Worst sketches:

  1. Dung In The Oval Office (April 16, 1983)
  2. Heil Hits (March 19, 1983)
  3. Whiner Vietnam (May 14, 1983)

Best musical guests:

  1. Stevie Wonder
  2. Kenny Loggins
  3. Queen

Worst musical guests:

  1. Duran Duran
  2. Laura Branigan
  3. Musical Youth

Writer tally and turnover:

(*) indicates the writer returned the next season, (~) indicates a previous writer returning to SNL.

  • Paul Barrosse
  • Barry W. Blaustein~
  • Robin Duke*
  • Ellen L. Fogle
  • Nate Herman*~
  • Tim Kazurinsky*~
  • Andrew Kurtzman*
  • Eddie Murphy*
  • Pamela Norris*~ (Caesar through Koch)
  • Margaret Oberman*~
  • Joe Piscopo* (Howard through Koch)
  • David Sheffield~
  • Andrew Smith*~
  • Bob Tischler*~
  • Tracy Tormé (Chase through Moranis/Thomas)
  • Eliot Wald*~

Special thanks to Paul Barrosse, Nate Herman and Gary Kroeger for their insight on this time in the show's history; I will also update previously published reviews with new information as it becomes available. If anyone with further information about SNL during the Ebersol era would like to get in touch, provide background or correct previously published information, I would appreciate it.

I will be taking a short break from reviewing, but plan to begin 1983-84 in early July.  Over the next two months, I will be posting on roughly a bi-weekly schedule, including my thoughts on the current season in about two weeks (after the season finale airs on May 16).

Final thoughts on SNL season 6 (1980-81)

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.