Written 5/18/2013

Saturday Night Live Season Six

If you somehow wound up on this web page, you might be wondering why someone would bother writing about a season of a TV show that aired over 30 years ago and is generally considered not just the worst-ever season of the show, but by some accounts is considered completely unfunny and a total train wreck. Well, I think it's partly because season six (which aired in late 1980 through early 1981) was around the time that I started watching Saturday Night Live, and partly because I like to root for an underdog. But mostly because I don't think it deserves the terrible reputation it has.

For those who don't know much about the early history of SNL, the show started in 1975 and the original cast, known as the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" lasted five years (sort of). Then there was a total overhaul both in front of and behind the cameras, and a whole new group came in. That group lasted 12 episodes before NBC pulled the plug on them, brought in a network executive to run the show and aired a 13th episode with new cast members and using partially recycled material, and then a writers' strike brought the ill-fated season six to an early end.

Why the mass change in cast and writers after season five? Apparently producer Lorne Michaels, who was, by most accounts, the driving force behind creating the show and who ran it during those first five years decided that he needed a break from the show's grueling schedule. I think seeing first Chevy Chase and later John Belushi and Dan Akroyd go to Hollywood and become rich and famous stars might have been another motivating factor - he basically created their careers, so why shouldn't he go to Hollywood and get rich too? He asked NBC to put SNL on hiatus for a year. NBC wouldn't go for it. So then he recommended that they hire long time show writer and occasional on-air talent Al Franken as his stand-in producer until he was ready to come back. Unfortunately, in what was possibly the worst timed bit of comedy ever, Franken picked that weekend to do a piece on Weekend Update called "Limo for a Lame-o", the gist of which was that the president of NBC was doing such a horrible job that he didn't deserve a limousine and the car should go to Franken instead.

Needless to say, the network president wasn't amused, and he decided to give the show to associate producer Jean Doumanian, who up until that point had been mostly in charge of booking the musical acts and guest hosts. The remnants of the original cast and most of the writers revolted, choosing to leave the show along with Michaels. Doumanian was tasked with putting together an all-new cast on a budget of less than half of the previous season (the show's budget had been steadily climbing as the cast got more famous, and I guess NBC's logic was that a new cast of unknowns should work on the cheap).

She ended up hiring female comic actors Denny Dillon, Gail Matthius and Ann Risley, and male cast members Gilbert Gottfried, Joe Piscopo and Charles Rocket as the main cast. Yvonne Hudson, Matthew Laurance and Patrick Weathers were added as featured players. These last three only rarely appeared on the show, and when the season fell apart Laurance and Weathers pretty much disappeared. Hudson had done bit parts in earlier seasons and continued to do occasional bit parts after season six. Doumanian also takes credit for discovering Eddie Murphy, but by most accounts she had to be talked into hiring him, and when the season started he wasn't even credited as a featured player. Over the course of this season and the next few, he would rise from an unknown to a featured player to a full cast member to a movie star.

Now, the first five seasons of SNL have gone down in history as comedy gold, and season six is remembered as a complete crap-fest that is rightly forgotten by history. A few years ago I started collecting the DVD boxed sets of seasons one through five, and after five came out I waited for season six. During the original cast years, I was in elementary school, so I didn't really get to see a show that aired from 11:30pm to 1:00am very often. I can clearly remember a sleepover at my cousin's house where we snuck downstairs and watched the season four episode where Devo was the musical guest (neither of us had any idea what to make of the band), and while watching the season five boxed set there would be an occasional sketch or even just a particularly funny line that would spark a memory. But I knew that when I started watching the show regularly was during the Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo years, so I was really anxious for season six to come out. So I waited for that boxed set to come out. And waited. And waited and waited. Apparently Lorne Michaels has no intention of releasing the seasons where he wasn't the boss, so I doubt any of the seasons that introduced me to the show will ever come out.

Eventually I got tired of waiting and turned to the internet. I was able to find and download twelve of the thirteen episodes from season six (the only one I couldn't find was the one hosted by Ray Sharkey where Jack Bruce was the musical guest and Eddie Murphy had to do a stand-up comedy routine late in the show because they ran out of material - if anyone knows where I can get my hands on that one, let me know).

The first shock - I didn't really remember much of anything from season six. The more I think about it, the more I think I probably didn't start watching on a regular basis until season seven, or possibly even season eight. The second shock - season six wasn't nearly as bad as everyone said it was. It surely isn't the greatest season, and it probably is one of the worst, but it certainly wasn't completely devoid of humor as many claim. In the book "Live From New York - An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live", Gilbert Gottfried has absolutely nothing good to say about his time on the show, and Joe Piscopo even says that the cast knew they were taking one of America's favorite TV shows and sending it "into the toilet".

But taken as a whole, the season's really not that bad. It took a while to get going, and the writers were way too obsessed with trying to push boundaries, make tasteless jokes and work sex into the show as much as they could. But the cast was actually pretty good at turning what little they had to work with into decent shows. And the writers gradually got better - the last few episodes of this doomed season stand up pretty well.

People forget that the "original cast years" weren't always great. When you see footage from those years nowadays, it's ususally in "Best of SNL" specials that show the best sketches and most famous characters, so those are what people remember. But if you actually watch the boxed sets of the entire seasons, you quickly realize that for every bit that killed, there was a sketch that just went nowhere or a joke on Weekend Update that just died. For the life of me, I'll never understand why people thought the "cheesburger cheeseburger" sketch was so funny or why they repeated it nearly every other week. And if you compare season six to the first half of season one, you'll see that the "replacement" cast got off to a quicker start than the original show did. Granted, they had the advantage of having the show's format already worked out, but those early episodes of season one are pretty bad. There are episodes where the musical guest and/or host completely dominated and you hardly saw the Not Ready Players at all. And there were muppets. Who remembers the muppets being on Saturday Night Live? I'm not kidding, the first couple seasons had lots of sketches with muppets, and they usually weren't very funny.

I think the season six cast's biggest problem was that the audience just wasn't ready for a wholesale change. They had come to know and love the original cast, and it was kind of unprecedented for a popular, successful show to completely change the cast between seasons. So popular opinion was against the new cast from the start. But think about it - the original cast had been falling apart ever since season two. Chevy Chase left early in that second season for a movie career, and Belushi and Akroyd followed suit after the forth season. By the last season of the "original" cast, they were down to just the female cast members (Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman) and Garrett Morris (the only remaining male cast member). Bill Murry had been added to make up for the departing Chase, and Harry Shearer was brought in to fill the hole in season five, although he was little used and apparently the rest of the cast and writers had a difficult time working with him.

So the show had been headed downhill and was actually in need of some new blood. But an entirely new cast was too much for most people. Another problem was that Jean Doumanian was convinced that Charles Rocket was the cast member most likely to become the next big star of SNL, so she featured him in nearly every sketch and had him do the news segment by himself. He even got a feature called the "Rocket Report", which was a pre-recorded bit where he'd go out on the streets of New York and interview regular people, sometimes making jokes about them behind their backs. I've got nothing against Rocket - he was actually good at the job and could be really funny at times, but they leaned too much on him when they should have been playing up Gottfried, Piscopo and especially Eddie Murphy more. Piscopo routinely stole the show with his go-for-broke performances of characters like his "Jersey Guy". But Doumanian was somewhat vindicated in that Rocket was one of the few people whose career survived the mass firings at the end of this season - he appeared in several comedy movies and TV shows in the 80s and 90s, even into the 2000s. He was eventually found dead near his home in a somewhat suspicious "suicide" (who goes out in a field and cuts their own throat as a form of suicide?)

Anyway, the writers weren't giving the cast much to work with early on. There's a famous sketch (at least amongst people who like to bad-mouth this season) in the second episode of the season (considered by many the worst episode of SNL ever) where the male cast members play a bunch of rednecks waiting for official "Commie Hunting Season" to start. Piscopo asks Rocket how you can identify a commie, and Rocket replies something along the lines "If it looks like a Jew or a nigger, go ahead and shoot, it's probably a commie". At first I thought this sketch actually made a pretty good satirical point for the early 80s - at the time, it was no longer acceptable to be a racist or an anti-Semite, but people talked freely of hating communists and wanting to kill them. It was only later that I found out the sketch was based on a real-life event where some southern KKK members had gone to a communist-run rally and killed some black people, and then were acquitted of murder by a southern jury. Knowing the sketch was based on that kind of puts it in the "really bad taste" category and ruins the joke.

There were also a lot of sex-obsessed sketches. There was a completely bizarre one that involved a dominatrix doing a weather report while beating Rocket with a whip. And in the infamous "Who Shot C.R.?" episode, Rocket gets shot while half-nude and implying that his wife (in the sketch) has sex with the family dog. And then there's the sketch that opened the season. Elliott Gould was the host - about a decade earlier, he had starred in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a movie about two couples making an attempt at group sex. His SNL episode opened with a tight shot of Gail Matthius in bed, just waking up. The camera pulls out to reveal Gould sleeping next to her, and as she tries to wake him and get him ready for the show, the camera keeps pulling back to reveal that the entire cast is in bed together. It was a funny idea, but as each new cast member is revealed, they introduce themselves by comparing themselves to original cast members - for example, Rocket calls himself a cross between Chevy Chase and Bill Murry, and Ann Risley says she's a cross between Gilda and Laraine. Gottfried goes even further and insults Shearer by saying he's like "that guy who played Rod Serling - the one who's name no one remembers". I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time - a way of linking the new show to the old, but it caused a lot of backlash with viewers resenting the new cast for comparing themselves to the old cast.

The writers were also very, very liberal and took every cheap shot they could at newly elected Ronald Regan and republicans in general, which probably didn't endear them to the overwhelming majority who had voted for Regan.

But as the season progressed, they came up with some memorable bits and good recurring characters. There was a talk show hosted by Dillon and Gottfried as an elderly Jewish couple who wanted to talk about anything other than what the guest was there to promote. A particularly funny one had Gottfried's character openly hitting on host Ellen Burstyn while his wife tries to steer the conversation to anything else. There was also a sketch where Rocket played a game show host and Matthius played his wife who showed the prizes on the show, but the sketches were set in the couple's home and they still acted like they were on the game show. Kind of hard to explain, but it was pretty funny. When another couple came over for dinner, they were asked trivia questions and when they couldn't answer, Rocket said "Oh, I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid we're going to have to say goodbye to you" as his wife escorted them out the door.

Murphy had some memorable bits on the news segment, including one where he revealed that the Emancipation Proclamation had never been signed by Lincoln, which meant technically slavery was still legal. He provided advice to white people on how to approach black people on the subject. There was a sketch based on the novel 1984 where Gottfried played Big Brother, and it turns out he's been using his surveillance equipment to spy on a woman he likes - he finally works up the nerve to ask her out. And probably the most famous sketch to come out of this season was the Murphy showcase "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood", which was one of the few things to survive this season.

But negative press and low ratings were making the network contemplate a change. What may have finally forced their hand was the 11th episode. The host was Charlene Tilton from the show Dallas. That show had recently done a cliffhanger season-ending episode in which the main character, J.R. Ewing was shot. All summer long, people pondered "Who shot J.R."? So during this episode of SNL, each of the cast members was given a motive for hating Charles Rocket, and near the end of the episode the camera switched to a shot of crosshairs centered on Rocket, and a shot was heard. The cast started asking "Who shot C.R."? Personally, I think it would have been funnier if Rocket had been shot earlier in the episode and they had done more with the premise - the show actually would run with a very similar premise a couple seasons later with the shooting of Buckwheat. Anyway, when the host and cast came out for the final goodnights, Tilton asked Rocket how it felt to get shot, and he answered "I'd like to know who fuckin' did it" (most sources give the quote as "who the fuck did it", but I definitely don't hear a "the" in there). The look of shock and near-terror on Denny Dillon's face after he said it is priceless, but the cast quickly recovered and tried to laugh it off.

Needless to say, the network wasn't laughing about it and Doumanian was infuriated. Many people who write about this season say that Rocket and most of the rest of the cast was fired on the spot, but that's completely wrong. I think the wheels were already in motion to get rid of the current cast, and this was probably the last straw, but they all appeared in one more episode, hosted by Bill Murry. At that start of that show, the cast asks Murry for advice, quoting some of the horrible reviews the show had been getting. Murry tries to reassure them all, and when he gets to Rocket he ad-libs "watch your mouth". He tells Gottfried to cheer up, because Gilbert had been getting criticised for appearing to be depressed and disinterested during the last few episodes of the season.

That 12th episode was the beginning of the end - they changed the show's format slightly, breaking the news up into multiple short bits throughout the show instead of one long piece in the middle, but other than that it was pretty much business as usual. But shortly after the show aired, Doumanian, Rocket, Gottfried and Risley were fired.

NBC executive Dick Ebersole, who was mostly known for running the network's sports programs, but who had helped Lorne Michaels get SNL off the ground, was brought in to produce, and he lured several members of SCTV to come to SNL to replace the fired cast members. That group managed to put on one show, the 13th and final episode of season six. The show began with guest host Chevy Chase going into an old store room and finding cobweb-covered props that had been used by the original cast, including clay puppet Mr. Bill, who had been trapped in a trash can ever since the season wrap party for season five.

That final show was an odd one, made up of a couple sketches that included the previous season six cast but mostly of sketches featuring the new SCTV folks (who really weren't all that funny). There was one near disaster in a sketch about a man who married a monkey when the baby chimp that was supposed to appear in the sketch didn't want to come out on the stage. The strangest thing though was that there were a few re-run sketches from earlier in the season - just the exact same pre-recorded footage run as if it were "live". Gottfried in particular must have been pissed, as he appears in a Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood re-run after he had been fired.

Following that episode, there was a writers' strike that shut the show down. There had been at least one more episode planned - during the news in episode 13, Al Frankin makes a guest appearance to talk about how horrible the season had been up to that point and to basically air the dirty laundry and blame it all on Doumanian. He also calls for the show to be canceled, until Chase reminds him that he was scheduled to host the show the following week with his old writing and performing partner Tom Davis, with the Grateful Dead as the musical guest. Unfortunately that show never happened.

When the show did resume for season seven, the only season six cast members who were invited back were Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy, and they became the big stars of the show (especially Murphy). Ebersole would continue to run the show for the next five years, until Michaels (who never really succeeded in Hollywood) returned and resumed control of SNL (where he's been ever since). Interestingly, Ebersole knew Michaels would be back so for his last year he hired an all-star cast (that was the year that featured Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer, Martin Short and Christopher Guest - Shearer again didn't get along with anyone and left in the middle of the season). But he only signed that cast for one season, leaving Michaels to have to rebuild the show from scratch the way Doumanian had to when Michaels left. The weird thing is that I was under the impression that Crystal, Short and Guest were on the show for years - I must have watched season ten a lot.

So in summary, season six wasn't the complete disaster that most accounts make it out to be. If people hadn't been so dead-set against any cast replacing the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players, or even if the much-maligned cast had been given a full season to grow on people, I think this season would be remembered a little more fondly. SNL as a show has always had its ups and downs, its great seasons and its lesser ones. Even within seasons or within shows, there has always been strong material and weaker stuff, memorable characters that end up getting repeated over and over and other sketches that bomb and are quickly forgotten. Season six on the whole was probably more "miss" than "hit", but I still think it should be released on DVD so modern audiences and SNL historians can make up their own minds. Unfortunately it seems that as long as Lorne Michaels is in control of the show's legacy, nothing from seasons six through ten is going to see the light of day, which is a real shame. That's the era when I really came to enjoy the show, and I ended up watching regularly from the early 80s through the mid-to-late 90s. But that 1980-1985 era just gets no respect - even in that "Live From New York" book, that era is skimmed over while the Lorne years are gone into in great detail. There are about 20 pages of pictures in the middle of the book with dozens of shots of the original cast and dozens of shots of casts from the 90s, but there are a total of three pictures from the entire early 80s era, two of Eddie Murphy and one of Billy Crystal. It's like Tim Kazurinsky, Brad Hall, Gary Kroger and Julia Louis-Dreyfus never existed.

Free the early 80s SNL.