Universal // 1978 // 1353 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // December 8th, 2008
"That's so funny I forgot to laugh!"
Everything there is to love about the early years of Saturday Night Live -- the cast, the writers, the characters, the energy -- can be found in its fourth season.
If the first season was a year of discovery, the second a year of change, and the third a year of growth, then the fourth was a year of consistency. With the show at peak popularity, the writers and cast churned out comedy like a well-oiled machine. Packed with classic sketches and characters, the season's only downside is that it was the last for two of the show's brightest stars: John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fourth Season features all 20 episodes, across seven discs:
Host and Musical Guest: The Rolling Stones
Special Guest: Mayor Ed Koch
Host: Fred Willard
Musical Guest: Devo
Host and Musical Guest: Frank Zappa
Host: Steve Martin
Musical Guest: Van Morrison
Host: Buck Henry
Musical Guest: Grateful Dead
Host: Carrie Fisher
Musical Guest: The Blues Brothers
Host: Walter Matthau
Special Performance: Garrett Morris
Host: Eric Idle
Musical Guest: Kate Bush
Host: Elliott Gould
Musical Guests: Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger
Special Guests: Bob and Ray
Host: Michael Palin
Musical Guests: The Doobie Brothers
Host: Cicely Tyson
Musical Guest: Talking Heads
Host and Musical Guest: Rick Nelson
Musical Guest: Judy Collins
Host: Kate Jackson
Musical Guest: Delbert McClinton
Special Guest: Andy Kaufman
Host: Gary Busey
Musical Guests: Eubie Blake and Gregory Hines, Gary Busey
Host: Margot Kidder
Musical Guest: The Chieftains
Host: Richard Benjamin
Musical Guest: Rickie Lee Jones
Host: Milton Berle
Musical Guests: Ornette Coleman
Host: Michael Palin
Musical Guest: James Taylor
Host: Maureen Stapleton
Musical Guests: Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow
Host: Buck Henry
Musical Guest: Bette Midler
Considering their importance in the 33-plus-year longevity of Saturday Night Live, it's hard to believe the original Not Ready for Primetime Players were only around for five seasons (four for Aykroyd and Belushi; three and a half for Bill Murray). In those few short years, they laid the groundwork for all those to come, and set the standards by which all future casts would be judged. And while there are moments of originality in the first three seasons that shine brighter, the fourth season stands as the best of those early years because it established the rules that all seasons since have followed. For better or worse, it cemented the importance of returning popular characters, catch phrases, and celebrity impressions. It assured the audience that the next time they tuned in, they'd see something they recognized. It also proved that, as bad as that rigid formula sounds, in the right hands the results could be hilarious.
Those talented hands belonged to the tightly knit group of writers and performers first assembled by Lorne Michaels, whose level of comfort and confidence comes through every episode on this fourth season set. John Belushi, fresh off the success of Animal House, is in fewer sketches this year, but he steals them all; Gilda Radner is as charming as ever, whether she's playing Lisa Loopner or strung out punk rocker Candy Slice; the ever-versatile Dan Aykroyd fills any and all available roles; Bill Murray, who came a long way from his "new guy" status in season two, is a powerhouse; and Jane Curtin anchors the news desk, and the show, in much-needed reality.
The surprise performance of the season belongs to Garrett Morris, who steps out from the shadows of his white male counterparts to stake his much-deserved claim as legitimate comic actor. Whether giving sports commentary as fictional ballplayer Chico Escuela or sharing a d-d-d-duet from "Porky and Bess" with host Cicely Tyson, he's terrific (and his visibility would only increase in season five, after the departure of Aykroyd and Belushi). The only fourth season disappointment is Laraine Newman, not because she gives less than anyone else, but because she's usually playing second fiddle to her co-stars. Without any returning characters to push herself into the weekly line-up, Newman can't make the same impact -- one reason why she, like Morris, never enjoyed the superstardom of her fellow actors.
The cast is great, and, for the most part, so are the hosts. Bringing back ringers like Steve Martin, Buck Henry, Elliott Gould, and ex-Pythoners Michael Palin and Eric Idle was a sure bet. Other hosts were more of a gamble, and not all of them paid off. Stars like Margot Kidder and Carrie Fisher clicked into the show's rhythm, and their episodes are two of the season's best. The musical guest hosts are more of a mixed bag. The Rolling Stones do a fine job with their duties in the season premiere, mostly because they only appear in a handful of sketches and play a tight set of songs from their Some Girls album -- "Beast of Burden," "Shattered," and "Respectable" -- in the middle of the show. Frank Zappa, on the other hand, is one of the worst hosts of the season, and perhaps the history of the show. After middling audience response during dress rehearsal, Zappa infuriated everyone by deciding to make it very obvious he was reading from cue cards during the live show. The Milton Berle episode is another train wreck, from his racist opening monologue to his constant mugging to camera.
Seasons two and three introduced many classic characters and sketches -- the "wild and crazy" Festrunk brothers, the Olympia diner, nerds Todd and Lisa, Nick the lounge singer, the Coneheads, Roseanne Roseannadanna -- and they're all back for season four. In fact, they're back again and again and again. It's hard to complain about getting more of so many great things, and for the most part these classic sketches are the best on the set -- especially those that star my favorite SNL alum of all time, Bill Murray. The nerds, in particular, are inspired. I can't think of any other two cast members that had the chemistry of Murray and Radner. I know Michaels hates it when performers crack up on stage, but I have to believe even he smiled when Gilda lost it during the nerd seduction sketch.
There weren't too many new characters introduced during the fourth season, but the few that were remain classics, like Dan Aykroyd's Fred Garvin: Male Prostitute, his blood-gushing take on Julia Child, and Buck Henry's lovable pedophile Uncle Roy (a sketch that could never be done today). Others, like the big-bottomed Widettes and the Loud family, are one-note jokes that shouldn't work but somehow do. And though he technically made his first appearance the year before, one of the best reasons to watch the fourth season is Don Novello's Vatican gossip columnist Father Guido Sarducci. If Murray is my all-time favorite cast member, Sarducci is my favorite character. Even without the "Find the Popes in the Pizza Contest" bit (that comes in season five), his weekend update commentaries are the funniest thing about every episode he's in.
If you own the previous sets, you know what to expect from the packaging and presentation. The discs are in a cardboard fold-out housed in a sturdy box decorated with a stylized photo of the nerds outside, and a full cast photo inside. The third season set came with a set of character postcards; no such luck this time around. The full screen video looks like a live show from the late '70s, and the 2.0 mono audio sounds as decent as can be expected. Once again, we're just lucky to have these episodes at all.
The writing is sharp, the cast is focused, and the sketches are hilarious, but this set has the weakest extras so far. Universal hasn't made much of an effort to give any of these SNL box sets the bonus material they deserve, but they've done a better job than this. The Season Two set featured the complete infamous Mardi Gras episode, and Season Three had the long-lost "What We Did Last Summer" special. This season, the extras are limited to two Today Show interviews -- one with Belushi and another with Radner -- and a Tomorrow Show appearance by Mr. Bill creator Walter Williams, adding up to less than 15 minutes of bonus content. Belushi's summer '78 interview with Gene Shalit lasts barely two minutes, and though Gilda's lasts slightly longer, it's from April of 1980 -- well into the fifth season. As much as I enjoy his clay creation, Williams' interview is interesting only because it shows just how dead-on Aykroyd's Tom Snyder impression is. What happened? I can't believe none of the rest of the cast was interviewed, and I have no idea where the dress sketch audio extra that was previewed on Amazon.com went. I'm not even going to bother complaining about the lack of audio commentaries for the third review in a row.
There's not much to complain about in the actual shows, though anyone who bemoans SNL's "lather, rinse, repeat" formula for popular sketches and characters might be put off by the lack of originality this season compared to the first three years. Don't be. This stuff is hilarious.
Fans of Saturday Night Live's early years can look forward to one more DVD set, but let's face it: Season Four marked the end of an era. It's the last season with the original cast -- minus Chevy Chase, of course -- intact. Lorne Michaels did the best he could to hold his group of budding mega-stars together, but for Aykroyd and Belushi the lure of Hollywood proved too strong. Luckily, we have Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fourth Season to relive one of the show's finest years. The references may be dated, but the comedy is timeless.
Zero lashes with a wet noodle.
Review content copyright © 2008 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 1353 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Archival Interview Footage
* Official Site