I always try to keep these things under 500 words, to make them more accessible to you ADHD kids with your glowsticks and your Kardashian sisters and your pogs to distract you. Out of the 135 posts I have on here, I’ve been successful exactly…zero times. But like I always say, one-hundred-and-thirty-sixth time’s the charm.
Saturday Night Live (or, to use the abbreviation I invented for it, SNL) is starting its 38th season, making it America’s longest-running television show (unless it’s not, I didn’t feel like fact-checking that). If you’re Amish and have never seen the show (yet somehow have a computer, an internet connection and are reading this blog), SNL is a sketch-comedy/musical show whose general premise is to put a celebrity in wacky situations for 90 minutes and hope the supporting cast of funny people around them can make a handful of the sketches bearable. And twice per episode they cut away to the musical guest du jour. Some casts are more successful at this than others, and I could probably crank out a pretty healthy 12,000-word article trying to rank each years’ casts in order from best to worst, but man does that sound like a lot of work. Maybe some other time.
One thing that remains consistent throughout SNL’s 38 seasons of laughter is that people are generally unhappy with the current year’s cast, and will deride them as not as funny as <insert any prior year’s cast here, mid-90s, late 70s, and early 2000s are popular go-tos>. Now sometimes these are valid claims (it’s hard to argue against the Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Bill Murray, Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Chevy eras in particular), but what people often forget is that the eras we romanticize into “legendarily funny” status aren’t usually batting a much higher funny percentage than any current cast.
For instance, I’ve been working my way back through classic SNL seasons from the 70s/80s/90s (thanks to the miracle combination of Netflix and copious holiday free time), and I popped on an episode from 1980 — a year whose “heyday status” should’ve had me rolling with laughter in the first 19 seconds. And it sucked. “Okay,” I thought, “maybe that was just a fluke of an episode. Maybe it’ll be funnier if I take my pants off.” So I put on another episode and put off another load of laundry. And you know what? The next episode was awful, too. I repeated this experiment over a half-a-dozen times (I really didn’t wanna do that laundry) all with the same result. At this point I was going through every episode from that year looking for anything that might evoke a “ha,” “haha,” or even a “LOL” — to no avail.
It’s hard to say exactly what the cause of the overall lack of hilarity is, but this is the internet, and the internet is no place for admitting uncertainty. With that in mind, here are a few things that contributed to unfunny SNL year of 1980:
• Joe Piscopo. For years I thought Joe Piscopo was just a made-up name used for a throwaway character on Seinfeld. Turns out I was thinking of “Crazy Joe Davola,” however Joe Piscopo was also an actual person — a comedian/actor/writer/SNL cast member no less — but me confusing him with a Seinfeld character is the closest thing he’d get to being funny on national TV. Some of his SNL highlights are him introducing the show’s musical guest if they didn’t have a celebrity host that week, and a sketch where he played “sportscaster Joe Piscopo” …whose main premise was reading actual sports news in a slightly affected “sports” voice. It’s just as funny as it sounds.
• Good hosts come up flat. In a year where clutch hosts like alum Bill Murray, Tim Curry, and Danny DeVito can’t get more than a passing chuckle, one has to wonder what exactly the writers were smoking (or not smoking maybe?) to squander such talent. Even non-comedian hosts like John Madden, Johnny Cash, and Olivia Newton-John should’ve been good for at least a few unintentional laughs. I mean you could’ve just tossed ONJ in a 90 minute shot-for-shot remake of Grease and probably gotten a few laughs watching Gilbert Gottfried as Danny Zuko. Which brings me to my next observation…
• GILBERT GOTTFRIED WAS ON SNL??? You heard right folks. Contrary to popular belief, Big Gilly Style has an industry credit that isn’t voicing Iago in Disney’s Aladdin. Who knew? G-squared was a MAIN cast member and everything. That means that someone took a look at Gilbert Gottfried and said “yes, there’s a man who can be funny in a wide variety of ways that will enhance our sketch comedy show.” Another fun factoid: G-Love’s trademark “annoying to the point of wanting to Van Gogh one’s ears” speaking voice was nowhere to be found. He spoke in a totally normal (but still surprisingly unfunny) voice the same as you and I. Which means that just like Larry the Cable Guy and The Moon Landing, his whole schtick is fake. And we never knew. Maybe he is a great actor, after all.
• Bad host choices. I’m sure every year has a handful of hosts that make Lorne Michaels look back and regret not springing for the top-grade cocaine to help his decision-making that week, but 1980 was particularly bad — swing-and-missing with ratings-tankers like Blythe Danner, zero-hit wonders like Daniel J. Travant, and “celebs” who sound like misplaced adult-film actors like Donald Pleasence…described in his show’s summary as “film and TV favorite Donald Pleasence.” Here’s a fun game you can play at your next social outing: have your friends and family name their favorite film and TV stars from the 1980s and see how many they list before someone says Donald Pleasence. If he’s mentioned in the first 10,000 names, I will buy you a house.
• Under-used Eddie Murphy. Mind you this was Eddie Murphy back before Dr. Dolittle got his PhD, before we met Dave, and before the Klumps put on the weight…he was raw, he was delirious — he was funny. So what’s the only way to keep Eddie Murphy from being funny in his comedy prime? Simple: don’t put him on air. Eddie wasn’t even bumped up to a full cast member until the end of the season. Out of all the episodes I watched from that year, soon-to-be comic legend Eddie Murphy never had more than five seconds of consecutive screen time — the one exception being a weird sketch about domestic violence whose biggest laugh was from its uncomfortable subject matter. Not exactly comedy gold.
• Charles Rocket. Name not ringing a bell? That’s probably because it’s one of several performance aliases used by the actor that you would likely only recognize as the head bad guy from Dumb and Dumber (“Listen, Mr. Samsonite, about the briefcase…”). Although I must say I respect the cleverness of changing your name every time someone figures out exactly how terrible you are, and having the balls to go through with it. “Charles Rocket? No, no, you must have me confused with someone else. I’m Charles Hamburger.” “Charles Hamburger? Never heard of him. I’m Charles Kennedy. Yes, like the president.” (all actual aliases he used).
I could go on, but you get the idea (and I need to go get dinner). While I’m sure all the aforementioned people would be a riot at parties, and probably a lot of fun in their own right, they didn’t do much to enhance the then-uncertain legacy of Saturday night’s livest show. And yet if you ask people to identify SNL’s golden era, the 80s casts will get brought up right alongside any other contenders. Now luckily for America’s longest-running variety show, casts of great talent were just a few short years away, and they would create a legacy of hilarity so unshakable that almost 40 years of hit-or-missing couldn’t get the show cancelled.
The moral of the story is this: when you see a bad sketch/episode/season of SNL this year (and you will if you watch it at all), remember that the up-and-down nature of SNL’s quality is as much a part of the show as its trademark slogan, and creating 90 minutes of solid material each week is no easy task for even the most talented casts. Cut the new guys a little slack, and try not to over-romanticize the casts of old. And hey, at least they cancelled Showtime at the Apollo, right?
Until next Saturday night.
PS For those keeping score at home, I was only a barely-noticeable 994 words over my 500-word goal this time (that’s 1494 words total). So we all have things we’re working on. Cheers.