Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"Live from New York, it', who gives a hoot?"

Thinking about the Saturday Night Live-like show we so far haven't seen much of on the show that's supposed to be about producing said Saturday Night Live-like show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, has me wondering.

Just how funny was Saturday Night Live?

Was it ever truly funny?

Is it funny now?

For all it has mattered to me, SNL might as well have gone off the air when Dan Aykroyd left. I watched it on and off over the years, including the benighted early 80s shows, the Lost Years followed by the Eddie Murphy Show featuring Joe Piscopo.

Do the names Charles Rocket, Robin Duke, Denny Dillon, Mary Gross, and Brad Hall make your heart sing? The only reason I remember Julia Louis-Dreyfus from that time is that just as I was forgetting who she was she turned up on Seinfeld and I was shocked that she had not only grown a lot prettier but had learned how to be actually funny.

But I think I've seen maybe four episodes since Will Farrell moved on. The last one was a year or so ago, and all the skits seemed to be about how stupid and ugly people can be. One of the skits, Appalachian Emergency Room, was actually about laughing at the cripples and retards.

In the old days a skit like that would have been condemned to the last half hour when the cast was too coked up to remember their lines anymore and the only audience left watching on TV were those of us too desperately lonely to go to bed or whose roommates still had the sock hanging from the doorknob.

There was a kind of train-wreck fascination keeping you glued to the screen. The joke wasn't in what was happening on the screen but in wondering what the idea must have sounded like when they came up with it and at what point they stopped bothering to write any of it down, figuring that Belushi would save it by improvising or going nuts or both.

Except by that point Belushi was usually comatose.

I've often wondered how many of the skits done in the last half hour were back-ups, if at around 12:15 Lorne Michaels began looking around to see who was still coherent.

"Shit. Ok, we'll save the Killer Bees for next week, again. What do we got that that Jane and Gilda can do? Oh hello, Garrett, what's on your mind? Can whatever it is wait?"

But Applachian ER came in the first half of the show, I'm pretty sure before Weekend Update, since I was only watching to see who they had anchoring the news. Prime real estate, in other words.

Tell me that was while Tina Fey was off making Mean Girls.

Still, the old show had its share of clunkers in the first half hour. Not surprising, really, when you consider that the first and most critical audience a joke or a sketch has to make laugh is the other writers and when you read about the smorgasbord of drugs being sampled backstage, even if as much as half the shit was going into Belushi, you have to think it must have been pretty easy for the writers to crack each other up.

But how much of what we thought was funny was funny?

Saturday Night Live has always had an easy audience. It comes on about the time its target demographic is staggering back to the dorm or the apartment, stoned or half-drunk, with their morale flagging. Everybody's realizing, "Ok, there are no good parties, we're not going to get laid, and, what the fuck, Sergei's delivers, might as well turn on the tube."

People are looking for something, anything, to cheer them up and send them to bed thinking the night's not been a total waste.

You're just ready to meet the Coneheads, Gumby, the Church Lady, Wayne and Garth, the ambigously gay duo half way.

More than half way.

Was it funny or were we just too ready to laugh? I loved the original cast but did they ever do anything more than provide us all with a set of catchphrases we could use to sound funny to ourselves later and employ as code words at parties to identify ourselves to each other as would-be hipsters?

We are two wild and crazy guys.

Vito, you're blocking.

Let us consume mass quantities.

Good evening, I'm Lance Mannion and you're not.

Jane, you ignorant slut.


And there was just something reassuring, almost magically healing, in knowing, when you were home alone, or at least not with the girl or the friends you wanted to be with, again, on a Saturday night, that at that very moment, live, in New York, there was this gang of really cool, truly funny, mildly dangerous people having a ball for your benefit.

There was Steve Martin! There was George Carlin! There were the Stones, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstdat! There was Fran Tarkenton, for crying out loud! And you were on the same planet as they were, alive in the same moment, sharing a joke, thinking the same thoughts, enjoying the music together.

Damn, it was fun. In a totally and, later on, depressingly vicarious way.

But was it funny?

Sometimes I don't see how it could have been, because those people were not good at focusing on their jobs.

It's part of their own self-legend that putting on a live comedy show week in and week out was brutally difficult, it was amazing to them, and ought to be amazing to us, that they managed to fill the first half hour with anything, let alone all the brilliant stuff they did fill it with---think what it was like then to have to fill 90 minutes.

Of course, like I said, they didn't fill 90 minutes, those last 30, often the last 45, were almost always a waste. But still. What they did verged on the heroic, didn't it?

They were heroes and heroines in the service of Comedy.

Except that Milton Berle and Sid Caesar did the same thing, and they had to do it close to 40 times a year.

And the turn-around on sitcoms that film before live audiences is pretty quick.

Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Selma Diamond---they expended as much energy every week as Michael O'Donohue and his writers, but they didn't expend it getting in their own way. Belushi and Aykroyd and the rest may have worked as hard as Sid Caesar, but a lot of what was work for them was just holding themselves enough together to make it through the week until 1:00 AM Sunday morning.

Yes, it's amazing Lorne Michaels had a whole 90 minutes of show to point cameras at every week, but considering the uncontrolled self-destructive and self-indulgent impulses of the cast and the writers it's amazing that any work got done at all.

If some of that work turned out to be funny it must have been a miracle.

How miraculous was SNL?

It's still the highest compliment that can be paid to any succeeding incarnation of SNL that it's as funny or funnier than the glory days. I've heard people say that under Tina Fey the show was better than it ever was. I wasn't as devoted a fan, but I thought the Phil Hartman-Dana Carvey-Jan Hooks-Mike Myers era produced more consistently funny episodes, and, by the way, Kevin Nealon is one of the most under-rated of all the SNL alum and I'm glad to see he's having a good time on Weeds.

Going back to watch old episodes wouldn't help me make up my mind. If I laugh, I won't know if it's nostalgia or my funny bone at work. If I don't laugh, that doesn't mean anything because so much of the show's humor was topical and I've probably forgotten many of the topics. Dan Aykroyd's Jimmy Carter struck me as brilliant and The Pepsi Syndrome was one of my favorite skits of all time, but how much of the effect depended on Jimmy Carter being in the White House at the moment and The China Syndrome in the movie theaters?

I want to believe it was funny. I want to believe I was smart, hip, cool, and funny because I liked it.

But there are too many doubts.

It's always something.

Questions it would be more fun to contemplate if you're 20: Is SNL funny now? What's funny? Who's funniest? Who's doing Bush? Who was the best President anyway---Aykroyd's Carter? Aykroyd's Nixon? Phil Hartman's Reagan? Dana Carvey's George Herbert Walker Bush? Phil Hartman's Clinton? ("You gonna eat those fries?") Will Farrell's Dubya? Darrell Hammond's anybody doesn't count. It's unfair competition. Hammond's a god.


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