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TV Review: Saturday Night Live in the ’80s: Lost and Found

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In 1980-81, critics were bemoaning the death of Saturday Night Live, as they intermittently have since before the show burned out in its original incarnation.  It’s not like the show hasn’t deserved the lambasting it’s received for at least some of its run, either.  Lately, the New York Post‘s Page Six and other various forms of media have started the “Saturday Night Dead” chants anew, which says something about the timing of Saturday Night Live in the ’80s: Lost and Found (NBC: November 13, 9:00PM).  The special, the second in a series of official retrospectives about SNL, tries to analyze the show in what no one’s going to call its salad decade.  The folks at Broadway Video and SNL Studios are by and large honest about SNL‘s fluctuation in quality during the 1980s, but one’s enjoyment in the special will invariably be tied in with how one felt about the show during that decade.

What does my little diatribe about SNL have to do with its current incarnation?  Lately, I find the show pitiful in its trying to recapture the feel of the Ferrell/Oteri/Macdonald years without displaying the quality of writing during that era.  Sure, Schwetty Balls is an extended sexual double entendre, but compare that to last night’s sketch about caulk.  Schwetty Balls works as a sketch because of the quality of the performers and their deadpan deliveries.  By comparison, the caulk sketch is too obvious.  Caulk sounding like “cock” just isn’t a premise that can sustain a four-minute sketch.  This isn’t even the first time in recent years that this flimsy premise has been used – remember Cork Soakers?  What worked in 1996-97 doesn’t work now, but that doesn’t stop Tina Fey’s writing staff from trying to rehash the past.  Sadly, SNL‘s past is much more interesting than its present, and SNL in the ’80s is better than the current product by a country mile.

SNL in the ’80s is a grab bag of interviews, clips and stills from seasons six through fifteen of SNL.  Two hours isn’t enough time to go through ten years of SNL, and the special proves this point succinctly.  SNL in the ’80s focuses, in large part, on seven seasons of SNL (1980-87), but cramming a decade into two hours of documentary makes the special seem rushed.  In addition, the musical guests are taken out of context, with a clip of the Cowboy Junkies singing “Sweet Jane” being used to underline a point about the Doumanian era of SNL.  It might make sense dramatically, but the use of the clip seems disjointed.  That was one of the problems with the original Live From New York: The First Five Years of Saturday Night Live documentary, and the problem is worse here.  Linking clips only make sense if the clips are true to the eras in which they were aired.

The strength of SNL in the ’80s, of course, lies within the interviews of people involved with the show.  People like Eddie Murphy, Larry David, and Harry Shearer don’t appear on the special, but a wealth of other people involved with the show during the 1980s do.  Some interviewees are enlightening, in particular Gilbert Gottfried, Tim Kazurinsky and Mary Gross.  Some, like Jim Belushi, aren’t – he seems infatuated with a sketch where he sported a gigantic toilet-paper penis, for one thing.  Michael O’Donoghue’s ill-fated return to SNL is skimmed over, as are the gravy years of the late 1980s.  There are too many slams directed towards Jean Doumanian, and not enough towards Dick Ebersol (in my opinion, anyway – I find shows from his era dated and just not generally funny.)  Anyone expecting anything close to objectivity in an official SNL special is expecting too much, but SNL in the ’80s does its best in trying to be as objective as it can about itself through the people that were on the show back then.

The best thing about the special is the fact that it makes the bad seasons of SNL look better than they really were.  Make no mistake, 1980-81 and 1985-86 were horrible years for the show, with casts and writers thrown into a bran tub without anything congealing into something recognizably coherent.  I’m also not fond of Dick Ebersol’s reign either, the writing being, in some cases, worse (see: I Married a Monkey – actually, don’t see; it’s just Tim Kazurinsky talking to a monkey for four minutes) than during the Doumanian season.  Still, so much bad is focused on that SNL in the ’80s forgets to focus on how good the Hartman/Carvey/Lovitz era really was.  Do Kevin Nealon and Jon Lovitz receive long segments about their tenures on SNL?  No, but Martin Short and Billy Crystal are allowed entire minutes extrapolating on the one season they slummed on the show.  Point is, this special is as good as Live From New York, but it isn’t comprehensive at all.  Maybe that’s just as well.

Doubtless there’s going to be a forthcoming special covering SNL in the 1990s.  Will it appease those (like me) that find 1995-2000 to be better comedically than 1986-90?  Probably not, but SNL is good at documenting itself.  I just wish the show was better at maintaining a certain level of quality during this current season.  2005-06 looks like the absolute nadir for the current incarnation of SNL, and I wish the show would figure out how to reinvent itself for this decade.  If SNL itself was as well done as SNL in the ’80s, maybe the show wouldn’t be as bad as it is now.  It’s never a good sign when one’s past is lapping one’s present.  I just wonder if Lorne Michaels and/or NBC realize that as well.
ed: JH

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About Cameron Archer

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    By the 1980’s, SNL was trash. Talk about beating a dead horse.

  • http://www.sweetposer.tk/urbmn/index.php Cameron Archer

    Exactly why do you think it became trash, though? It has won three Emmy awards for Outstanding Writing in a Variety, Music or Comedy Program (1975-76, 1988-89, 2001-02.)

    I’m curious to know why you’re no longer fond of SNL. The “because it became a comedy wasteland” excuse is common enough that I need clarification.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    I ground my teeth watching this. There *were* good things about SNL’s ’80s, but as you note, there simply wasn’t time to do more. But spending all that time on the Crystal-Short year? What a waste. The ’80s were a hit-or-miss decade for the show, but they should have shown more Hartman/Carvey/Lovitz. The editing was slapdash (moments after a huge section on how the cast that followed the original Not Ready for Primetime Players was axed en masse, what do we see — a clip featuring *the fired cast*. Huh? Where’s the continuity? And why so much emphasis on Conan O’Brien? Oh, I bet that has more to do with the fact that O’Brien is the new Jay Leno. Don’t get me wrong, I love Conan, but his is a minor role in SNL history. If the documentary had had more time, sure, it would be great to hear him expound on how SNL taught his “everything,” but clips of Hartman/Carvey/Lovitz would have been more entertaining, IMO. And the music — the way the clips were handled was atrocious and off-putting.

    Best thing about tonight’s special: We got to see the ill-fated “Dallas” sketch ending, wherein the late Charles Rocket dropped the F bomb. The show never said farewell to Rocket on the air (or to ’80s SNLer Danitra Vance, who died from cancer, for that matter), so it was nice to see Charlie onscreen.

    I must agree, though: This doc, whatever its flaws, was way better than SNL ’05-’06 so far. I had really high hopes for Tina Fey’s return and the Jason Lee guest spot, but alas, bleh.

    I suppose it’s time to re-read Live from New York again for a fuller skinny on SNL of the ’80s.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    1. A good satire program needs good writing and a strong ensemble to continue successfully. During its first four or five seasons, SNL had both for the most part. Afterwards, it has had either just one or neither.

    2. “After three days guests, like fish, begin to stink.” (Benjamin Franklin) This epigram could just as well be applied to satire shows generally, if you extend the amount of time generously. Five years is generally the amount of time a satire show can last.

    I will not comment on the quality of TV programming world wide. I just ate.

  • http://uk.pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/yasmin_anjumuk/my_photos yasmin

    Charlie Rocket’s body was found only a few hours before he was due to film the SNL 80’s lost & found documentary. Coincidence? I think not…

    I understand that SNL hardly did any tribute for him, which was a real shame. click on my name above for Charlie’s pics

    yasmin

    reason for suicide

  • Jesse

    It’s really a shame that this show goes through high times and low times like it does. I was reminiscing on the best 80s SNL skits and thinking about how the last couple of seasons it was okay but this season is just not doing it for me. I wonder about the writer turnover…