By the early spring of 1981, Saturday Night Live as we all knew it was in shambles. After Joan Doumanian finally came to grips with the fact that she was way over her head, NBC head honcho Brandan Tartikoff handpicked onetime SNL producer Dick Ebersol to pick up the Ayatollah's ruins. After the Bill Murray episode of year six (a minor triumph in itself), Ebersol put the show on a one-month hiatus and immediately started rebuilding, firing and hiring people left and right. When SNL was reborn for the second time in six months, five new cast members (Second City alumnus Tim Kazurinky, Robin Duke and Tony Rosato of "SCTV," and featured players Laurie Metcalf and Emily Prager) joined four holdovers (Denny Dillon, Gail Matthius, Eddie Murphy, and Joe Piscopo) in an attempt to tighten the ship. Joining them were four guest stars (Chevy Chase, Al Franken, Christopher Reeve, Robin Williams) and musical guest Jr. Walker and the All-Stars. This particular episode was awkward in spots but overall it was the tightest show produced since the original cast left.
But "Big Dick" wasn't finished. After the writers' strike of that year turned this experimental episode into a one-off curio, Ebersol continued to tinker with the show's dynamic. Dillon left the show due to burnout, Metcalf and Prager were let go after just one episode, and Ebersol promptly fired the oft-annoying Ms. Matthius. With only five actors left, writer Brian Doyle-Murray volunteered his services as a featured player, mostly so his four years of writing and acting on SNL could balance out a cast of mostly greenhorns. Former head writer Michael O'Donoghue was also brought in to punch up the writing, but his flaring temper and his belief that the show should have a "halfway decent Viking funeral" eventually got him fired at midseason. It was also during this extended summer that Ebersol hired Mary Gross and future Broadway star Christine Ebersole to round out the cast a provide a much-needed feminine presence in the show. By October 1981, SNL had ascended once more.
This particular episode, which aired late in the seventh season, was in some ways typical of Ebersol's tenure as exec-prod. Despite all the effort he took into rebuilding the cast, the two stars of the show were undoubtedly Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, and they received lion's share of the quality sketches. Secondly, Ebersol continued a tradition started by Lorne Michaels to feature musical guests that were either hip or just on the fringe of the mainstream. In this case, the brotherly art-rock act known as Sparks was so delightfully odd it was almost bewildering to see them perform. Thirdly, and despite some struggles early on in the season to find quality hosts (Elizabeth Ashley, anyone?), the show was able to land Emmy-winner Danny DeVito in time for May sweeps. Finally, the famous line "Live from New York" was never uttered by a cast member, though new announcer Mel Brandt was more than willing to do a slight variation on it. The traditional cold opening sketch was essentially a throwaway fake-sponsorship gag, and even the monologue was merely optional.
And now, the sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: More or less just a teaser for the Andy Kaufman interview later in the show.
MONOLOGUE: The cast stands around the host before running off, which leads into an impassioned speech by Mr. DeVito. Apparently, ABC had just cancelled the low-rated yet critically-acclaimed comedy "Taxi," and given the abrupt demise of the show he reads an angry letter from his mother, and then invites Andy Kaufman, Judd Hirsch et al. onstage for a final bow. It was nice to see the cast of "Taxi" receiving this impromptu send-off, but as most of us now know, NBC ended up picking up the show for the coming 1982-83 season.
"Louie's Revenge": The monologue segues into a filmed piece where a vengeful Louis DePalma (DeVito) blows up ABC headquarters. I never would've figured the most colorful character in television history to be an explosives specialist, but it does hit the mark.
"Whiners On An Airplane": As usual, our favorite deliberately-ann couple (Piscopo, Duke) made a plane ride uncomfortable for everyone within earshot, including the man (DeVito) sitting right next to them. Despite a few clever sight gags, this is essentially just your typical Whiners escapade.
"Executive Stress Test": A recent promotee (DeVito) at an unspecified company is suddenly daunted by one embarrassing yet hilarious obstacle after another, only to discover that his boss (Doyle-Murray) is only assessing his pressure-handling abilities. Hearing Christine Ebersole (as a secretary) shout "You gave me herpes simplex- my life is ruined!" in a weird, non-sequitor style is more than enough to give this a thumbs-up.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Danny introduces Sparks keyboardist Ron Mael, a Hitler doppelganger whose fascination with rodents leads into their then-current single, "Mickey Mouse." Yikes.
SNL NEWSBREAK: Some would argue that Brian Doyle-Murray was probably one of the show's all-time worst anchorpersons, but lucky for him the forced, uninspired delivery of Brad Hall a year later saves him the most unwanted of honors. Tonight, we see a number of long-outdated Braniff Airlines jokes, Mary Gross interviewing a dog, and weather girl Christine Ebersole trying (and failing) to prove her one-liner chops.
"Solomon & Pudge": A popular recurring bit with a two aging barflys (Murphy, Piscopo) swapping bon mots. This time around, Solomon and an old buddy of the two (DeVito) dance to the only piano riff Pudge has ever mastered. The plot is loose, which is good for the Murphy-Piscopo banter, but for some reason this simply didn't age well.
"Enzo": A mouthwash perfect for even the outlandish Ozzy Osbourne (T-Kaz). While I must admit that Horatio Sanz's impression of the Oz-man is far more accurate and slightly funnier, it is rather droll to see a man who used to bite heads off small birds doing such a straight-laced testimonial.
"America Is Turning Gay": Mocking the ad campaign Dr Pepper had way back when, a handsome assemblage of people professes their homosexuality en masse. This was definitely one of the more memorable fake ads of the era.
"Table Talk": In an apparent last-ditch attempt to have some sort of lasting impact on the show, the soon-to-depart Tony Rosato throws this potential recurring sketch in the air to see what happens. Essentially, he utilizes his gruff Italian-stereotype charm in a three-star restaurant, where his boorish attitude helps him get through the wine list. For obvious reasons, nobody as seen or heard from Rosato ever since.*
INTERVIEW: A seemingly humbled Kaufman tells Brian that after his cowardly performance against Jerry Lawler, he has given up wrestling for good. Of course, considering he only lived for two more years after this bit aired, will we ever know if he was being honest?
"Looks At Books": A controversial author (T-Kaz) suggests that The Beatles stole ideas from the Nazis, and has the evidence to prove it. Pass.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Another song from their underrated 1982 album Angst in My Pants, the one-of-a-kind new wave ditty "I Predict."
The show comes to an end with Danny's diminutive mother (a two-time guest star on "Taxi," if it matters) cursing the Alphabet Network in Italian. True, she spoke too soon, but her tirade sure was impassioned.
Overall, this episode gave a fairly decent sample of everything we have come to expect in SNL during the reign of "Big Dick." This was definitely a typical "Eddie and Joe Show," with the two stars in the spotlight while everyone else ran around in circles. The result is remarkably uneven, as it appears that even the writers seem to only care out the two men in front, while everybody else fends for themselves with staggeringly weak material. On the other hand, DeVito shows the prowess that made him a frequent guest on the show in the coming years.
Sketches That Will Probably Be Edited Out In The Event This Episode Ever Airs On Cable: "Table Talk," "Looks at Books," and both musical performances.
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*Not quite. I think Tony guest-starred on "Doc" about five years ago.