By the Former "Heystu," Starting Second Baseman for the World Champion Kansas City Royals and Well-To-Do Amateur Critic
The eleventh season of SNL will probably always be remembered for being the one that almost killed the show. While the acting and writing may have hit rock bottom in Year Six, the network executives knew that the show was merely underwhelming and wiped out the problem factors with Dick Ebersol's single swipe. Of course, by the eleventh season, some were arguing that the show had run beyond its course, with the recent all-star casts merely serving as a crutch to a presumably dying show.
In retrospect, Lorne Michael's first year after coming back to the show was not as bad as some remember. While the writing was top-notch (original cast veterans such as Al Franken, Tom Davis, and Don Novello had returned, and Jack Handey and Robert Smigel were both in their first seasons), it was the horrible cast that brought the show down. The cast featured actors that were mostly in their early twenties and had little to no experience in television. While Michaels also sprinkled the cast with familiar names like Randy Quaid and child actor Anthony Michael Hall, even they were a little out of place in a troupe full of unproven actors. In fact, the one person who seemed the most comfortable on stage was comedian/cable TV veteran Dennis Miller, though eventually his appearances would be limited strictly to his duties on "Weekend Update."
Of course, the cast did not fall off the face of the earth a la the 80-81 ensamble. Indeed, it provided a jump start to the careers of Robert Downey, Jr., Joan Cusack, and Damon Wayans, not to mention longtime cast members like Miller, Jon Lovitz, and Nora Dunn. Rounding out the cast that year were three total unknowns, Danitra Vance (who did disappear from the limelight, then died in 1994), Terry Sweeney (a veteran sketch-comedy writer), and Dan Vitale (who, despite appearing in only two episodes, has become a moderate success on the stand-up circuit).
The host of this particular episode (#6 for the season) is actress/easy listening afcionado Teri Garr, making her third and most recent appearance on the show. Providing the music are two memorable one-hit wonders, The Cult and The Dream Academy.
And now, a sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: Vance's best-remembered recurring character, teenage mother Cabrini Green, runs afoul of "The Wrapper Rapper" (Wayans) during her Christmas shopping. I liked the freestyle rhyming, but you can tell they were trying to partonize the show's thin minority audience.
OPENING CREDITS: Replacing the gaudy "cut and paste" credits that opened the first part of the season, the first filmed intro has the cast hanging out on the streets of Manhatten. Along with the intros for the 79-80, 84-85, and 03-04 seasons, this was probably one of the show's best. The helicopter view of the NYC skyline is a nice touch, as was the intro music that would serve the show until Year 19.
MONOLOGUE: Teri Garr walks in, announces she's the first female pope, and Father Guido Sarducci (as "Pope Maurice") walks in and sings "I Got You Babe" for no cohearant reason. For the several million of you who just walked in, in an earlier episode from that season, Sarducci (Novello) complained about how so few people receive the oppurtunity, so he formed a branch of Catholism where anybody can be His/Her Holiness. Now that we understand what's going on, I still think this was a mediocre monologue.
"Critic": Sorry Jay Sherman fans, but this a repeat from the Madonna/Simple Minds episode. A spoof of movie promos about a reknown metropolitian film scribe (Lovitz) whose poisoned pen results in a crusade for sticking up to the man. If only I could have that effect on people...
"The Price of Eggs": An American businessman (Quaid) argues for the price of one night with a South American floozy (Garr) with her adoptive father/pimp (Lovitz). The whole sketch, more than likely a homage to some old Humphrey Bogart movie, is about how she's worth- one dozen eggs or three? It's utterly silly, but it's not awful.
"Hildy": Terry Sweeney, SNL's first and thus far only gay cast member, had a knack for performing in drag on a regular basis. Here, in this spoof of the 60's sitcom "Hazel," a daffy housekeeper (Sweeney) takes advantage and manipulates an emotionally distant family (Cusack, Downey, and Lovitz). It probably worked on paper.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: The British trio, not to mention a small army of assorted studio musicians, blow us away with "Life In a Northern Town." Is it just me, or does the lead singer look a lot like a girl? I'm confident it's a guy, but doesn't he look a little like Paula Poundstone?
WEEKEND UPDATE: Miller's sixth-ever "Update" finds our host still has to work out the kinks. He comes off looking a little nervous and fumbling one or two jokes, which is a far cry from the smug, knowledgeable Miller we know. The real highlight, however, is his interrogation of "Mr. X" (Novello), a mob informant that acts quite the opposite.
"A Roy Orbison Christmas": In conjunction with the RCA/GE buyout, NBC is forced to air any unaired programming from the past. In this case, this is the last ten minutes or so of a 1965 Christmas special that was interrupted by news coverage of some late-season hurricane. Orbison (Quaid) churns through "Oh, Pretty Woman" before introducing Connie Stevens (Garr) in a revealing top, Leslie Uggams (Vance), Edd Burns (Hall), and Don Adams (Lovitz). Two nit-picks: First, was this supposed to be funny, or was this just a showcase of some cast member's top impressions? Second, did it bother anybody that this "lost" footage was in color, which wasn't commonly used on TV until later that decade? Third, didn't it feel just a little too contemporary for 1965?
GUEST PERFORMANCE: Appearing sporadically through this season is Penn Jillette and his silent partner Teller, who provided real laughs with on-stage demonstrations of their Vegas act. Tonight, Teller is "The Amazing Electric Boy," a peculiar man who sits in an electric chair while Penn demonstrates his incredible abilities. The twist is when Teller tires of Penn's motor-mouth bragging, and persuades him to sit in the hot seat. It's almost a shame I've never seen their act in Sin City, cus' I've heard it's awesome.
"The Big Tree" (Part 1): Another spoof? Will there be anything original appearing in this episode? This ensemble sketch tribute to films like "The Towering Inferno" and "The Poseidon Adventure" finds a swanky Christmas party interrupted by the goings-on of the monstrous Christmas Tree outside. Dennis Miller makes a rare sketch appearance as a youthful, albeit corrupt politician. There's also a little soap opera-type tension, which results in a cliffhanger.
"The Big Tree" (Part 2): According to Teri Garr, the audience took a vote to determine the climax of the sketch, and apparently they hated the skit so much that it prevented the ending from ever being performed. It also provides a clever segue into
The Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary." A psychedelic camera technique is the one saving factor of a stiff effort by this flash in the pan.
"Time Machine Trivia Game": Two couples (Dunn and Lovitz, Quaid and Garr) playing Trivial Pursuit have their answers altered by a teenager's (Hall) wayward time machine upstairs. Like the eggs sketch from earlier tonight, it's surreal but only moderately funny.
It's safe to say that in the most uneven of seasons, a so-so episode such as this comes as no surprise. Some things worked (Penn & Teller, any sketch with Jon Lovitz), and other things did not (the ten-minute "The Big Tree"), but at least most of the cast was sacked after one season before the weaklings could contaminate or tarnish SNL's reputation. Garr was adequate but nothing special as host, and The Dream Academy proved to have more stage presence than The Cult and thus outshined the quartet.
Footnote: At the end of the 1985-86 season, the writers devised a cliffhanger of their own in which a wrap party in the green room turns into an inferno, and Lorne Michaels only has time to save Jon Lovitz. The show had been practically breathing on its inevitable demise for so long now that the writers felt that it should go out with a bang, and it certainly generated buzz. Ultimately, NBC renewed the show for only thirteen episodes in 86-87, and demanded that Lorne make a few changes. By replacing the likes of Randy Quaid and Terry Sweeney with Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks, SNL was reborn once more, and the rest, as they say, is TV history.
"HelloStuart" lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, USA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org