Sexual muppet innuendo makes Judge Cynthia Boris nauseous.
Our reviews of Saturday Night Live: The Complete Second Season (published December 19th, 2007), Saturday Night Live: The Complete Third Season (published May 21st, 2008), Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fourth Season (published December 8th, 2008), and Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fifth Season (published December 14th, 2009) are also available.
"Generalísimo Francisco Franco is still dead!"
It's 1975. A factory worker in the Midwest stays past the news to see what's on Saturday night and finds himself confronted with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase hurling racist epitaphs at each other. And then there's Garrett Morris singing, "I'm gonna get me a shot gun and kill all the whities I see…" And wait a second, is that guy doing the news actually mocking the president? It was a whole new world, one that kept the censors on their toes and the actors teetering on what could be the end of the careers or the first flash of stardom. It was NBC's Saturday Night and it was unlike anything the world had ever seen.
Facts of the Case
In order to give Johnny Carson a weekend break, NBC asked Dick Ebersol to develop a late night variety show that could be filmed, for budget reasons, out of Rockerfeller Center in New York (most TV production had fled to the west coast by the mid-seventies). Ebersol hired a young unknown producer Lorne Michaels. Filmmaker Albert Brooks and Jim Henson's Muppets were hired to handle the bulk of the show with musical guests, revolving hosts, and a small repertory company of improv trained actors filling out the bill. There was a heck of a lot of talent on that small stage. But the studio was expecting the standard variety show format—and that's not at all what they got.
Keeping to the spirit of improv, the show wasn't fully developed when it went on the air. The first few episodes were loaded with musical performances from a variety of artists and the hosts were stand-up comics who performed their routines solo at several spots throughout the show. The Muppet segments revolved around a cast of prehistoric looking creatures from "The Land of Gorch" and then—oh my—Andy Kaufman stood by a record player and lip-synced to the Mighty Mouse theme. Their place was secured in history.
The original "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" were Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O'Donoghue and Gilda Radner. Just before the series premiered, Lorne and his troupe paid a visit to Tom Snyder's Tomorrow Show. Snyder offered them well wishes on the new endeavor but he seemed perplexed by what to make of it all. Not that Lorne Michaels was much help, since even he had trouble describing what the show was all about. When Snyder, apparently unused to such a large ensemble cast, asked if all of them would be performing in every show, Michaels glibly replied, "Not all of these people will become stars. We're hoping for two."
He ended up with seven—three of which could be labeled bone fide "movie stars." How amazing is that?
You get twenty-four, ninety minute episodes on this DVD set.
Host: George Carlin
Host: Paul Simon
Host: Rob Reiner
Host: Candice Bergen
Host: Robert Klein
Host: Lily Tomlin
Host: Richard Pryor
Host: Candice Bergen
Host: Elliott Gould
Host: Buck Henry
Host: Peter Cook & Dudley Moore
Host: Dick Cavett
Host: Peter Boyle
Host: Jill Clayburgh
Host: Anthony Perkins
Host: Ron Nessen
Host: Raquel Welch
Host: Madeline Kahn
Host: Dyan Cannon
Host: Buck Henry
Host: Elliott Gould
Host: Louise Lasser
Host: Kris Kristofferson
I don't think people have the proper respect for television as part of our history. They'll ooh and aah over rocks from the moon or a two hundred year old bone in the ground. A Picasso gives you chills and Beethoven's sheet music is to die for. But what about the first time Chevy Chase said, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night," or the first time Belushi and Ackroyd put on those Blues Brothers suits? And when Garfunkel sat down with Simon and their voices melded together in "The Boxer"—now that sends chills down my spine.
Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season isn't without it's missteps. With it's barely-there sets, low-tech production values, and frequent sketches that weren't any funnier then than they are now, this isn't exactly top notch TV. But it is a piece of history. Think about it. Thirty plus seasons, twenty Emmy awards, the producer of dozens of stars and spin off movies; this series is a juggernaut and it's wonderful to look back at the humble beginnings.
Though the show has gone through a number of changes over the years, the basic structure was there from the start. A live audience in close proximity to the action. Opening sketch, live from NY, host monologue, more sketches, musical guest and so on until the night is done. Right off the bat, though, you'll notice two big differences. First, you'll find a greater ratio of music to sketches in the early episodes. The Paul Simon hosted episode has so many songs it's really more of an homage to the singer than an episode of SNL. I particularly enjoyed the sense of intimacy with the audience. Neil Sedaka crooning "Breaking up is Hard to Do," Randy Newman with "Sail Away;" it sounds like a live performance and not a high tech pre-recorded mix—and it's wonderful.
The other big change is the hosting duties. A good number of the early hosts were stand-up comics who brought their own material to the show. Many of them, like George Carlin, performed their routines at various points through the show, never appearing in the SNL sketches. Dudley Moore and Peter Cook are a very rare example in that they perform their own sketches without any of the other cast members, something you're unlikely to see on the show today. Moore and Cook's episode is one of my all-time favorites, though their deadpan Brit-style humor is likely to fall flat for many viewers. I, however, can still quote the "Frog ala Pesh" sketch and it tickles me to no end.
Other highlights on this DVD include Lily Tomlin's cheer for NY, Norman Bates School of Motel Management, Star Trek, Jaws III (Land Shark), Belushi as Joe Cocker and Beethoven, and anytime Dan Ackroyd plays a TV pitchman. Even though it doesn't have the same impact on DVD, you will still get caught up in those great SNL faux commercials. Keep an eye out for Triple Track, the first commercial that was so subtle in its parody most people thought it was a real ad right up to the end.
Looking at the DVD itself, I found the audio and video to be very good considering the age and the low-tech production values of the original material. The box is unique in that it's more like a nice book than a DVD case. No plastic. Classic black with sharp lettering, it says this is a piece of history and not just a "watch it and trade it" DVD.
The set comes with a 32-page photo booklet but I would have preferred some text giving the history of the show or bios of the cast members. On Disc Five you'll find the short Tomorrow Show interview I mentioned above which is truly a find and eight cast member screen tests. These screen tests are much more revealing than I expected. Gilda Radner, for example, doesn't know what to do during her test but with coaching from her friends off camera her sweet, amazing personality just leaps off the screen. Definitely a feature not to be missed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I guess after years of seeing "the best of" Saturday Night Live in specials, cut versions of the series, and on DVD, we've been trained to think that the show was constantly funny. But that's not true. When you watch an episode in its entirety, you'll find an awful lot of bad material.
Much of the problem stems from basing so many jokes on current events of the time. Best case is that the jokes just aren't funny anymore, for example, "The Jerry Rubin Wallpaper Collection" is covered with Hippie slogans and symbols. The sketch makes it clear that no one would want to hang hippie graffiti on their walls and therein lies the joke. But today, that kind of wallpaper would probably be a big seller for real, so the joke falls completely flat. Even worse are the jokes that are mocking commercials and news stories that were hot at the time that no one remembers today. Do you think the average person remembers the news story that launched the oft quoted joke, "Generalísimo Francisco Franco is still dead!"?
And let's talk Muppets. Kermit and Missy Piggy own me. Sexual innuendo from Cookie Monster's third cousin just makes me nauseous, and the skits ran entirely too long. Thank heavens these were eliminated in later seasons.
Finally, for a show with a thirty year history, don't you think they could have come up with more special features? Commentaries? Other guest appearances by the cast? The screen tests are great but they're just not enough.
Saturday Night Live is part of our collective consciousness. People who weren't even around in the seventies recognize Jake and Elwood Blues. They can finish the phrase, "I'm Chevy Chase…" (and you're not) and they can imitate Gilda Radner doing Emily Litella or Garrett Morris as the headmaster of the school for the hearing impaired. For that alone, this box set is a must have in any DVD collection. But there's another reason to own it and that is for the great musical performances. Not since The Ed Sullivan Show has any one series had such an eclectic blend of great music. From commercial successes such ABBA to staples such as Carly Simon and Neil Sedaka to the fabulous blues of St. James Infirmary by Lily Tomlin and Howard Shore and His All Nurse Band, the music of Saturday Night Live can't be beat.
After thirty-two years, this court is fairly sure that Generalísimo Francisco Franco is still dead but Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season is still going strong.
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Scales of Justice
• Limited Edition Photo Book with Rare SNL Photos of the Cast and Lorne Michaels (32-pages)
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