Universal // 1979 // 1320 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // December 14th, 2009
Saturday Night Live changed forever in the fall of 1980. Under new leadership, with a brand new cast and new writers, nearly everything Lorne Michaels and the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players had worked for was crumbling. Except for a few bright spots, the show was a humorless shadow of its former self, alienating viewers and advertisers. Of course, no one knew any of that in the fall of 1979, when SNL began its fifth season. If they had, they might not have been so hard on Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris and the rest of the cast and crew. Critics might not have complained that the departure of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd for the bright lights of Hollywood had destroyed what had once been a hallowed comedic institution. They might have been able to see that, even though things weren't the same as they were before, they were still pretty darn good. If only they knew what was coming...
Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fifth Season features all 20 episodes, across seven discs:
Host: Steve Martin
Musical Guest: Blondie
Host: Eric Idle
Musical Guest: Bob Dylan
Host: Bill Russell
Musical Guest: Chicago
Host: Buck Henry
Musical Guest: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Host: Bea Arthur
Musical Guest: The Roches
Host: Howard Hesseman
Musical Guest: Randy Newman
Host: Martin Sheen
Musical Guest: David Bowie
Host: Ted Knight
Musical Guest: Desmond Child & Rouge
Host: Teri Garr
Musical Guest: The B-52's
Host: Chevy Chase
Musical Guest: Marianne Faithfull
Host: Elliott Gould
Musical Guest: Gary Numan
Host: Kirk Douglas
Musical Guests: Sam & Dave
Host: Rodney Dangerfield
Musical Guest: The J. Geils Band
The 100th Show
Musical Guests: Paul Simon, James Taylor, and David Sanborn
Hosts: Richard Benjamin & Paula Prentiss
Musical Guest: Grateful Dead
Host: Burt Reynolds
Musical Guest: Anne Murray
Host: Strother Martin
Musical Guest: The Specials
Host: Bob Newhart
Musical Guests: Bruce Cockburn, and The Amazing Rhythm Aces
Host: Steve Martin
Musical Guests: Paul & Linda McCartney, and 3-D
Host: Buck Henry
Musical Guest: Andrew Gold & Andrae Crouch, and The Voices of Unity
For a show that lives with perpetual predictions of its death, Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fifth Season is a reminder that change isn't a bad thing. Sure, two of the show's most beloved performers had left, but they were replaced by an ensemble of talented "featured players" (the first time that designation existed on the show), including Paul Shaffer, Brian Doyle-Murray, Peter Aykroyd, and old timers Don Novello, Al Franken, and Tom Davis. The season also introduced a disgruntled Harry Shearer as a cast member -- though his full-fledged status took half a year to iron out.
The ensemble nature of the season, combined with the sense that it would be their last, gave the writers and performers license to take more chances. Although the fourth season was arguably the best of the early years, it relied heavily on popular characters. The fifth season moves away from that formula -- in large part necessitated by the departure of Aykroyd and Belushi. Although characters like the Nerds, Roseanne Roseannadanna, Iris, Uncle Roy, and Nick the lounge singer return, the bulk of the season is made up of one-off sketches, some of them surreal even for SNL. One of the most infamous weird sketches is "The Mystery of Toad Island," in which host Buck Henry visits an isolated Maine island where the inhabitants' throats inflate in frog-like fashion. Like many of these experimental pieces, "Toad Island" isn't particularly funny, but it's worth seeing. In fact, you could say that about much of the season. There are far more misses during the fifth year than the preceding seasons, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In its heyday, Saturday Night was as predictable as it was funny. The fifth season isn't as funny, but in many ways it's more interesting to watch.
As the only leading man the writers seem to care about, Bill Murray gets a lot of screen time this season -- maybe more than he should have. Murray is one of my favorite comedians, but he seems to struggle under the weight of so many leading roles. It's harder to make smart-ass comments from center stage. The Murray blitz is especially disconcerting because it points up just how much of a (white) boy's club the show really was. You'd think that with more women than men in the main cast, Radner, Curtin, and Newman would have had at least equal screen time as their male counterparts, but they mostly play supporting roles. Even Radner, who built an entire live stage show around her popular characters, is largely absent for the first half of the season (although much of that absence was due to her work on that stage show and its accompanying Gilda Live! movie).
As returning Weekend Update co-anchor, Jane Curtin has the most visibility of all the women, and it's great to see one of the show's most underrated cast members get her due. On the other hand, it's once again frustrating to see Laraine Newman pushed to the background. She's in more sketches this season, but never quite breaks through. The same is unfortunately true for Garrett Morris. He paved the way for all the black SNL cast members who followed him, but paid for that privilege by having to play an endless stream of token black roles and stereotypes ranging from borderline (limo chauffeur) to outright offensive (the flying monkey in a Canadian retelling of the Wizard of Oz).
It had to be frustrating for Morris and Newman to see some of the featured players get more screen time than them, but as a viewer it's hard to complain about someone like SNL-lifer Paul Shaffer being front and center in a lot of sketches this season. It's also a big year for Don Novello, a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci, who has a regular gig as special correspondent for Weekend Update. Some people complain that Sarducci is on too much in the fifth season. As for me, I can't get enough. I could, however, do with less Mr. Bill. Franken and Davis are back this year, though Al Franken gets the most screen time thanks to his ongoing series of Weekend Update commentaries promoting the '80s as "The Al Franken Decade." One of those pieces -- a vicious skewering of then-president of NBC Fred Silverman, called "Limo for a Lame-o" -- is one reason he and Davis weren't chosen to succeed Michaels as the show's producers.
During the fifth season the '70s became the '80s, and nowhere is that cultural transition more obvious than the wide variety of musical guests. Bob Dylan and Blondie. Tom Petty and Randy Newman. The Grateful Dead and the B-52's. Gary Numan and Anne Murray. Perhaps the most memorable musical guest is David Bowie, whose picture adorns the front of the inner DVD case. Bowie and his entourage are in fine freaky form. His outfits get progressively weirder, from a bizarre Tweedle Dee costume for "The Man Who Sold the World" to a green screen puppet body for "Boys Keep Swinging."
Hosting duties for season five go to fan favorites and notable newcomers. Steve Martin and Buck Henry each host one episodes at the beginning of the season and another at the end (Henry's season finale is a perfect capper to the early years). Elliott Gould makes his fifth appearance, Eric Idle his fourth, and an obviously high Chevy Chase returns for his second. Of the first-time hosts, Ted Knight, Martin Sheen, and Bob Newhart seem the most at home on the show; Rodney Dangerfield is funny, but doesn't quite gel with the cast; while Kirk Douglas has surprising success. Burt Reynolds is the biggest disappointment this year. It feels like he's doing an impersonation of Norm MacDonald doing Burt Reynolds, and most of the sketches he's in are built around the idea that he's just a sleazy lech.
The fifth season also marks the series' 100th show -- a SNL-stravaganza that features duet performances by Paul Simon & James Taylor, the return of John Belushi, and Paul Shaffer accidentally saying the F-word. Other season highlights include the "Find the Popes in the Pizza" contest, a live interview with Paul and Linda McCartney, Andy Kaufman wrestling female audience members, Buck Henry and Gilda Radner as Lord and Lady Douchebag, and the final shot of the season: the cast filing out of the studio, followed by the "On Air" light turning off.
Once again, this season is presented in full screen with 2.0 Mono sound. The video quality isn't great, but it gives the show the proper "historical" feel. Bonus features have varied wildly in these first five seasons -- from audition footage to rare videos to the second season's long-lost Mardi Gras episode. Every time I review one of these sets, I bemoan the lack of audio commentaries. Someone finally listened; I just wish they'd listened a little harder. The Complete Fifth Season's only extras are audio commentaries by Elliot Gould and Buck Henry for their respective episodes -- three in total. They are casual affairs. Both men sit back and watch the episodes, making the occasional observation. They're fun, if a little sparse. I wish there were more of them. Even if the original cast and hosts weren't available, there must be a few writers or crewmembers who aren't busy these days.
Now that Universal has released the first five seasons of Saturday Night Live, I wonder what they're going to do next. Do they continue in chronological order and release the much-hated, shortened sixth season, or follow The Simpsons DVD lead and jump ahead to the most recent episodes? Skipping ahead would make the SNL releases more accessible to a modern audience -- trading outdated references to the Shah and Abscam for soon-to-be-outdated jokes about Sarah Palin. It would also let Michaels and co. cash in on the Blu-ray craze. Still, even with the Jean Doumanian stinkfest on the horizon, I hope they stay the course and release the '80s seasons next. Saturday Night Live didn't die with the original cast. There's a reason this show has lasted more than three decades, and viewers deserve the chance to find out why for themselves.
Not guilty! You Douchebags are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 1320 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Official Site