Judge Ryan Keefer wonders why Buck Henry doesn't write more for TV and movies anymore, and wonders why Horatio Sanz writes as much as he does now.
"Repeat after me: I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines."
It's amazing to think what would have happened if a talented writer named Lorne Michaels had cast different comics for a new comedy show named Saturday Night, which was originally intended to replace late-night reruns of Johnny Carson shows. The cast that came together delivered a splendid mix of humor, consistency and imagination, all of which helped propel Saturday Night Live from an almost forgotten project to mandatory viewing. The show launched a wealth of comedic talent through the years and has evolved into a stalwart of network programming and an entertainment landmark. Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Bill Murray, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner became inspirations for a new generation of comics.
The first feature on this disc, Live From New York, originally appeared as a televised special and includes ample interview footage with almost the entire surviving cast of the era (except for Curtin and Murray), some of the staff, and even a few of the hosts during that time. It is full of memories from all, and covers most of the usual retrospective topics in its 80-minute running time. Michaels and Dick Ebersol discuss the origins of the show, along with who was cast. Everyone shares his or her thoughts about the show and about their fellow cast members. These views are quite frankly nothing new: Aykroyd was the versatile energetic one; Belushi would do anything for a laugh. Newman was quiet and underrated. Morris was someone the other writers and cast tried to write for, but couldn't because he was black. Radner was a ball of energy, and Chase was the one that broke out first. They also share their thoughts on how they all seemed to understand when the writing was on the wall.
The issue that many viewers may have when watching this feature is its weak content. One could easily assume that this would be full of clips from that groundbreaking era. There are some clips, with some of the bigger laughs, along with some of the lesser known hilarity. However, they are all only brief looks at the whole story. Elvis Costello's performance from 1977 is here, but the part where he stops his band and starts to play another song during the broadcast is missing. Sacrilege! Murray and Chase had an offstage brawl (that some people say Belushi helped provoke) that is not even discussed.
Given the rather bland nature of the interviews in Live From New York, the "bonus" doc on the disc, entitled The First Five Years…The Rest of the Story, may actually be the better presentation. In it, the crew discusses some of the extracurricular activity and digs a little more of the dirt that occurred on the shows. They talk about the drug use, the romances, and some of the guest hosts during that time. It's funny to hear them talk about some of the minor headaches they had to endure when a Burt Reynolds or a Gary Busey was hosting the show for a week. Also, some of the clips that appear here are much better than in the main feature, and a couple of them are even new to those who have grown up watching the show. One clip features Curtin and Newman as the members of Charles Manson's "family," where they discuss what they do in prison. This dark humor, a trademark of writer Michael O'Donoghue, was one of the quieter driving forces of the show that made it so good in its early years. O'Donoghue, by many people's recollections, seemed to ensure that the show wouldn't "sell out" in the early years, even almost willing the staff to write for each other. When O'Donoghue left, and Aykroyd and Belushi exploded into mainstream success shortly thereafter, everyone seemed to realize the show could never really be the same.
(For those looking for more meaty information about SNL, there is an outstanding book by Tom Shales and James A. Miller entitled Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live which features warts-and-all recollections of the show from the more of the casts through the years. It is recommended reading for even casual fans and covers not only the groundbreaking first few years, but the show's history up to 2002. Its details are vivid and the book is strongly recommended.)
Despite the complaints about the approach to this area of outstanding entertainment, Saturday Night Live—The First Five Years still manages to provide a decent look at a show that has left an indelible mark on the social landscape. Those who have read the Shales book won't learn too many new tidbits of information about it. Hopefully, just having some of these clips on such a pristine video presentation may lead NBC to release season-by-season sets of Saturday Night Live on DVD sometime soon.
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• "The First Five Years...The Rest of the Story" Feature
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