Every Christmas, Judge Erich Asperschlager asks Santa for a Johnny Switchblade Adventure Punk. Here's hoping this is the year!
Our reviews of Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season (published January 24th, 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.
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Chances are, fans of Saturday Night Live have seen at least the most famous sketches and characters from the show's early years ("Samurai (insert job title)," Emily Litella's confused commentary, Irwin Mainway's dangerous toys/Halloween costumes). Though there have been no shortage of compilation and "best of" specials, until last year's release of Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season, most anyone who wasn't watching in the late '70s never got the chance to see those skits in their original context.
As nicely as Saturday Night Live carves up into bite-sized chunks of funny, the show deserves to be experienced as it aired. Each week, people tuned in not only to laugh, but to share 90 minutes in a tiny New York studio. Watching meant you were part of an exclusive club, witness to something fleeting and funny. Sure, the cast flubbed their lines; read off cue cards; stepped on punch lines; broke each other up. But that was part of the thrill, part of the fun. Like the emerging punk rock scene, being rough around the edges made Saturday Night a refreshing alternative to the bland polish of network programming. So what if wasn't perfect? It was live.
Watching the full episodes of Saturday Night Live: The Complete Second Season isn't exactly like what that early audience experienced, but it's the closest most of us will ever get.
Facts of the Case
Host: Norman Lear
Host: Eric Idle
Host: Steve Martin
Host: Buck Henry
Host: Paul Simon
Host: Jodie Foster
Host: Ralph Nader
Host: Ruth Gordon
Host: Steve Martin
Host: Sissy Spacek
Host: Jack Burns
Host: Julian Bond
Host: Eric Idle
Host: Shelley Duvall
When NBC's Saturday Night hit the airwaves in the fall of 1975, it signaled a turning point for TV. Lorne Michaels and his group of renegade writers and performers pushed the boundaries of what you could say and do on television, and who and what you could make fun of. Jokes about sex and drugs mingled with scathing political satire and cutting edge music and comedy acts. It staked a place in TV's late night no-man's-land—a weekly live "happening" for an audience of politically and socially like-minded viewers and critics.
Season One's popularity spurt gave way to big changes for season two: the Muppets got axed, Gary Weis's short films replaced those by Albert Brooks, and Chevy Chase—whose pratfalls and weekly reminders that he was Chevy Chase, and, well, you weren't made him the show's first breakout star—announced he would leave Saturday Night to pursue a movie career (establishing the SNL "launching pad" template so many later stars would follow).
Chase's November departure put the other Not Ready for Primetime Players in an awkward position. Would the show lose momentum without its most recognizable member? Thankfully, instead of faltering, the show flourished. Jane Curtin took over at the Weekend Update desk (she would be joined in season three by Dan Aykroyd), and the cast's shared responsibility for the show's "cold opens" (the bit leading up to someone yelling "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!") allowed for more variety than seeing Chase fall down each week.
But they would be short a member for only a month or so. In January, they were joined by a comedian who, despite a rocky start, became a fan favorite and a big star in his own right: Bill Murray. Before joining the show, Murray was a member of the Primetime Players—the inspiration for Saturday Night's "Not Ready For…" cast name—on Howard Cosell's Saturday Night Live, which aired earlier in the evening on ABC (Lorne Michael's show wouldn't be able to change its name until Cosell's series got cancelled). Whether because of unfair comparisons to Saturday Night's departed superstar, or because he spent so much time playing minor sketch roles, Murray had a tough time early on. He felt so out of place, in fact, that he made an on-camera appeal to the audience during his sixth episode, admitting that he "wasn't working out" and asking for their support.
For everyone else in the cast, Saturday Night's second season was a chance to grow: expanding on existing characters (John Belushi's Samurai, Gilda Radner's Baba Wawa, The Killer Bees) and trying out new ones. By far the most important character addition to the second season was the debut of Curtin, Aykroyd, and Laraine Newman as the iconic "Coneheads." The mass-quantity-consuming family from Remulac—which started as an Aykroyd idea for a sketch called "Pinhead Lawyers from France"—made their debut in the dead zone near the end of the season's eleventh episode. Three episodes later they took their rightful place at the beginning of the show and made several more appearances, culminating with a season-ending return home by way of a rocket-powered Chrysler Building.
Season two also brought an interesting mix of hosts. Six of them had hosted at least once before—Candice Bergen's second season stint was her third appearance, as was Elliott Gould's, while Buck Henry ended the season with a then-record fourth hosting gig. This season also marked the first appearances by Eric Idle and, more significantly, series staple Steve Martin. As excited as I was for the Martin episodes, they're actually among the year's weaker efforts (fans of the swinging Czech brothers and King Tut will have to wait for season three). Surprisingly, some of the best shows were those hosted by people with virtually no showbiz experience, including consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Georgia state senator and civil rights activist Julian Bond, and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton.
The format of Saturday Night Live's early years was much more "variety show" than it is today. Musical guests might play three or more songs, perhaps all in a row. Comedy sketches were interspersed with viewer-submitted home movies, and offbeat acts like comedian Andy Kaufman and magician Ricky Jay (on my short list of coolest living human beings). Oddest of all to a modern audience, not all of the sketches were meant to be funny. There was a series of dramatic, bittersweet character pieces like "Romance" (part of the Emmy-winning Sissy Spacek episode) which featured Spacek and Belushi as husband and wife barely holding a new marriage together. Part of the joy in watching these complete early episodes is seeing acts and skits that just wouldn't have a place on SNL today.
Music has always been a huge part of Saturday Night Live. Though seeing full original episodes is reason enough to recommend these SNL sets, getting the chance to see once-in-a-lifetime performances by musicians as varied as The Band, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, and Chuck Berry is pure gravy. Notable performances include a medley of hits by The Kinks, Joe Cocker's duet with "himself" (John Belushi), Neil Innes as Ron Nasty playing the Rutles' hit "Cheese and Onions," and Brian Wilson's solo piano performance of "Good Vibrations." Arguably the best musical reason to pick up this set is seeing Paul Simon and George Harrison onstage together, performing two classic songs: Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" and Simon's "Homeward Bound." The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and full frame video are mostly impressive, considering that the source material is 30 years old and was recorded live. Of the two, the video fares slightly worse, with the occasional lighting and picture problems you'd expect from the period.
No doubt many fans will want this set for the long-lost "Mardi Gras Special," a two-hour Sunday night show which aired live from the streets of New Orleans—a special infamous for having nearly everything go wrong. Jane Curtin and guest Buck Henry were stationed along the Bacchus Parade route so they could provide commentary throughout the episode; not only was the parade rerouted because of an accident—missing them entirely—they had to fill time with furiously rewritten jokes while revelers pelted them with beads. Guest stars got lost. Crowds proved difficult during the on-street sketches. Lorne Michaels felt the whole thing was such a disaster he decided the special should never re-air. Good thing someone changed his mind. Though the Mardis Gras special is rough—at times it threatens to fall apart—it's nowhere near the disaster it was perceived to be. Randy Newman, onstage at the Performing Arts Center, fills in the gaps with amazing performances of songs like "Louisiana 1927" (made all the more haunting since Hurricane Katrina), "Marie," and "Sail Away;" even without a parade, Curtin and Henry get in some good one-liners; and we get to see Belushi play Brando doing Streetcar. The other extras, which include an Andy Kaufman screen test and dress rehearsal audio, are certainly interesting, but it Ã s "Mardi Gras" that makes the extras extra-special.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As has always been true of Saturday Night Live, for every few inspired skits there's at least one real clunker. As part of the "let's paint the barn and put on a show" feel of the series, taking chances is one of the reasons SNL has been so groundbreaking. If you're expecting a steady stream of top-notch classics, however, you'll be disappointed. Another warning: a lot of the show's humor is topical and assumes an understanding of "current" (late '70s) political and social events, so unless you're intimately familiar with Patty Hearst, the Carter-Ford debates, Swine Flu, and the Bobick-Norton fight of '77, lots of jokes will go over your head.
Bill Murray fans should also note that, although the back of the box makes a big deal out of Murray joining Saturday Night, his slow start means most of his famous sketches and characters are a no-show. Though lounge singer Nick Summers made his first appearance during season two, classics like "Star Wars" and the nerds would have to wait until season three.
And while commentary tracks are an often unnecessary addition to TV box sets, considering these Saturday Night Live episodes are three decades old, commentaries would have helped put the show in context. Even if they could only have brought together a few of the original writers, or made the commentaries sketch-specific, it would have been worth it to get a peek behind the scenes. Why, for instance, Buck Henry, Chevy Chase, and Jane Curtin wear bandages on their heads during his Halloween show (Henry sustained an actual head wound during the "Samurai Stockbroker" sketch, so the rest of the cast donned forehead band-aids as a show of support). Early SNL episodes are interesting not only for their content, but for their historical importance. A little inside info would have been nice.
Saturday Night Live's 1976-77 season proved that the show was a lot more than a star vehicle for Chevy Chase; it proved for the first time (and certainly not the last) that it could not only survive change, but thrive on it; and—with the addition of Bill Murray—it proved that new people could bring just as much to the cast as those who'd left. The second season of Saturday Night Live may not have as many memorable sketches as the groundbreaking first year or the more polished seasons that followed, but as an early example of the series' ability to weather change, it gave Lorne Michael's thirty-year-plus experiment a template for success.
Not Quilty? How could anyone be declared "Not Quilty?" I can't think of a single person I've ever met who was stuffed and stitched and squishy! It's ridiculous! It's outrageous! It's…! What's that? You say it's "Not Guilty"? Oooooh. That makes much more sense…
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Scales of Justice
• SNL Mardi Gras Special
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