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saturday night dying

9.27.99

This past Sunday saw SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE's 25th-anniversary prime-time bash, and if ever there was a sadder, more masturbatory toast to past glories, I must've blinked and missed it (unless it was the SEINFELD finale -- and speaking of Jerry, he's hosting SNL's season premiere next week). Now that SATURDAY NIGHT has been going live from New York for a quarter-century, the big question presents itself: Does the show still matter?

It's not as if any other TV variety shows have leapt up to take the crown. From THE NEW SHOW (Lorne Michaels' own short-lived attempt to catch lightning in a bottle anew) to FRIDAYS to the more recent MAD TV and THE ROSEANNE SHOW, most every stab at capturing the old SNL magic has been toothless. IN LIVING COLOR, which kickstarted the careers of the Wayans brothers, Jim Carrey, Jennifer Lopez, and Rosie Perez, may be the only exception. And even good old NATIONAL LAMPOON -- the magazine that started it all -- died a dog's death in the '80s, around the same time they started producing inane Chevy Chase movies. A new NATIONAL LAMPOON web site is in the works, but they'll have stiff competition from THE ONION, which feels more like where humor is really at these days.

I freely admit I haven't stayed up for SNL in years. The fellows from A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY are strangers to me; I'm vaguely familiar with Cheri Oteri and Molly Shannon, and I know Tim Meadows because he seems to have been there since forever, but that's about it. The last time I committed to the whole 90 minutes was either when Quentin Tarantino hosted or the last time Christopher Walken hosted, I'm not sure which. Even when actors I admire have hosted, I find myself wary. It's just too painful to see a Kevin Spacey or a Joan Allen marooned in a desperately unfunny sketch, so I leave the TV off.

Sometimes I've missed classic stuff that way, though: Spacey's STAR WARS audition sketch, where he mimicked Walken and Walter Matthau dead-on, is already legendary, and I've never seen the fucking thing. (I stayed up for the damn 25th Anniversary special hoping they'd run it, but no luck.) Mostly, though, SNL just doesn't seem essential any more -- doesn't feel like something you have to see and be armed with at the watercooler on Monday -- and it hasn't for years.

And it's too bad, because SNL has always been a launching pad for great talent -- even 1980, the year of despair under Jean Doumanian's infamous regime, introduced Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. And for every Chris Farley who never breaks out to do anything better, there's a Jay Mohr who escapes. For all I know, there may be a great comic ensemble on SNL right now; but I'd never know, because the sketches they're in are generally so lame. Not even the finest comedians can make unfunny material funny. Ask anyone who saw NEIGHBORS.

SNL has often been criticized, and rightly so, for being a boys' club -- a hostile environment for its equally talented female performers. There was a fascinating piece in US magazine a few years ago to that effect, and a devastating article in NEW YORK magazine detailed Janeane Garofalo's misery during her blessedly brief tenure at SNL. In a recent TV GUIDE article, Cheri Oteri claimed that things at SNL are better now for women, but who knows how much of that to believe? She may sing a different tune a few years from now when she doesn't depend on NBC's paychecks and Lorne Michaels' good graces. Until Eddie Murphy changed everything, SNL was also a very white show -- Garrett Morris was the token black guy for the first few seasons, and he got thrown a lot of crumbs. (Some have said it was because he simply wasn't as funny as the other performers; others have said he got increasingly unstable on the set and therefore wasn't used as much.)

One unhappy legacy of SNL is the impact it's had on movies. Occasionally you get a Mike Myers who has the taste to avoid doing idiotic comedies for the money, but most SNL veterans -- including the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players -- have had more than their share of turkeys. Even Adam Sandler will falter one day: Nobody was hotter than Belushi after ANIMAL HOUSE, and except for BLUES BROTHERS he never duplicated that success (although I have a soft spot for 1941). Sandler and Myers have had unusually consistent post-SNL movie careers; the only other veteran with a comparable track record is Eddie Murphy from, say, 1982 to 1987, and even Eddie has had his ups and downs since his first major misstep (HARLEM NIGHTS).

Has SNL had its day? It's certainly no longer the cutting-edge humor factory it once was; when Michaels returned to the show in '85, he apparently decided to dumb it way down for the frat boys in the audience -- a development that maybe speaks volumes about the intelligence of college kids in the '80s and '90s as opposed to the '70s. There may still be good moments here and there, but SNL has become an institution, like MAD magazine -- a brilliant comedy comet that torched the sky and then burned out. It had to.

So, how was the 25th-anniversary special? Some random thoughts:

- Being a live show, it was supposed to be two and a half hours but went way over, finishing up at five past midnight -- what was this, the Oscars?

- Bill Murray's intro (as Nick the lounge singer) was killer, especially when he embarrassed the hell out of Michael Douglas and "Mrs. Zorro," but his bit with Garrett Morris sadly demonstrated why Morris never made it. All these years later, he was still rehashing his two best-known shticks: "berry berry good" and the interpreter for the deaf.

- David Bowie and Jerry Seinfeld: what the hell was that? "So, you have a black wife." "Yes, Iman." "Yeah, but you're English." Huh?

- Adam Sandler's bit with his three writers was funny but way overextended, like a lot of stuff Sandler did on SNL.

- There have been some kick-ass musical guests over the years, and the montages were like a capsule history of the last 25 years in rock. But if they were going to show Sinead O'Connor, why didn't they show her ripping up the Pope? That's part of the show's history too. In fact, I looked in vain for any of SNL's more infamous moments, such as when Charlie Rocket (remember him?) slipped and said "fuck" on the air during a DALLAS sketch. (Hell, they could've bleeped it this time around.) The only such moment on the special was that notorious bit when Elvis Costello stopped in mid-song and went into "Radio Radio." In retrospect, that wasn't such a daring moment, just an anti-corporate song nobody knew Costello was going to do. The special, of course, brought back Costello to reprise it, with the Beastie Boys. If the special's producers had any wit, they'd have had him sing it with Sinead.

- Billy Crystal's "You look mahvelous" was never that funny, and he wasn't funny this time either; he basically rehashed Murray's baiting-the-audience routine, even to the extent of sitting on someone's lap. I did enjoy his line to Danny DeVito: "You are a little Pokemon. I want to find you in my Happy Meal and trade you with my friends."

- Michael O'Donoghue was one of the guiding forces of SNL in its infancy, and he deserved more of a tribute than a photo of him. As for the other tributes, only Belushi's really captured the comic wildness of SNL at its best; the Gilda clip (one of her Lisa Loopner sketches with Murray) wasn't one I would've picked, and Phil Hartman was represented by a serious Tom Schiller short film he did with Jan Hooks -- beautifully done, but not funny. The Farley one was okay, but if they were going to show one of his fawning interviews, the one I would've picked is Scorsese (they went with Paul McCartney).

- The bit with Lorne Michaels and Mike Myers in the dressing room was okay (particularly the Mini-Lorne), but I expected Kevin Spacey to have more to do on this show than walk in and say "Hey, Lorne, you were great in AUSTIN POWERS." (The bit took off from Myers' basing Dr. Evil partly on Michaels' mannerisms.)

- The oldest clips didn't make me laugh as much as some of the better clips from the '80s and '90s -- because I haven't seen the newer ones a thousand times. I mean, how many times can you laugh at the Bass-o-Matic sketch or the Festrunk Brothers? Whereas I was blindsided by some of the early-'90s stuff I haven't seen in years, like Chris Rock as Nat X interviewing Kevin Bacon as Vanilla Ice. (And, as the montage of '90s musical guests showed, Ice actually did appear on the show. Lorne, you need to atone for that in a big way.) Some things don't change, though: G.E. Smith still makes that stupid guitar face, Candice Bergen is still hot, and that chess club cheerleader routine is still dreary.

- Best line: Dennis Miller to Chevy Chase during the Weekend Update retrospective: "Hey, pal, you only did one season. I did six. You knocked her up, but I married her. I spent more time at this desk than Kubrick spent at the editing bench spanking to the dailies from EYES WIDE SHUT."


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