Friday, December 14, 2007

The Geek In Milford

It's been a very long week, friends. A deeply emotional, rocky week, what with the hangover from Holly's murder still pounding my head, and some intra-family anguish which turned our house inside-out for several days. I feel like shit, look cadaverous, bloodshot eyes squinting in a pale, haunted face. What headlines I've caught only darkens my mood, and I crave a big plate of White Castle cheeseburgers, washed down with a 40 of Labatt Ice.

Aren't you glad you stopped by? And don't forget to visit the gift shop on your way out!

I claim no uniqueness here. Everybody goes through hard emotional times, and some survive better than others. Comes with the slaughterhouse tour. My son's boundless optimism is a big help to me, and he performs routines and slapstick to lift my spirits. He's a great kid. When an early X-mas present arrived the other day, the boy became very eager to share it with me: the DVD box set of SNL's complete second season.

For years and years, I tried to never look back, labeling nostalgia as a distraction and emotional trap. But as I've aged, this has gotten harder to pull off, especially since the book after "Savage Mules" will be largely autobiographical, recording and dramatizing incidents that you might not believe ever happened. I wish to God they hadn't. Yet, not everything was awful, and I retain a few very happy memories amid the insanity I witnessed and endured.

SNL's second season, 1976-77, was my senior year of high school, in a small school in a small resort town in northern Indiana. My father was going through a rough patch professionally and financially, and my stepmother was alternately encouraging and emotionally unbalanced. She'd praise my initial efforts to write and perform, then suddenly tear me apart, going on rampages that could last for days. I never really knew which person might walk into the kitchen or living room. In retrospect, she may have been bipolar. I haven't spoken to her in 25 years (when my father and she divorced), though I hear stories now and then. But back in the day, it could be frightening. SNL served as one of my few sources of pleasure, taking me to a creative place I longed to make my own.

The show's first year, while interesting as comedy history, was wildly uneven, to be expected as it tried to find its balance and voice. By that season's end, SNL began to gel, and once the second year commenced, the show really bloomed, mixing varied comedy moods and styles, taking conceptual chances. It remains SNL's most experimental season (Marilyn Miller's dramatic scenes a true standout), and this made a serious impression on my 17-year-old mind. It was when I decided to try comedy as a career.

Opening the box set flooded my brain with memories I hadn't encountered in quite some time. The listing of each show's host and date took me back to my tiny Indiana bedroom where I listened to the audio of sketches taped by a cheap recorder I held inches from the TV's speaker (pre-home video days). It also reminded me that some Saturday nights, I could barely make out the picture, since the nearest station that carried SNL was in Fort Wayne, making the reception iffy at best. NBC's South Bend affiliate, which was much closer, refused to broadcast SNL because it satirized the Catholic Church. So if the weather was stormy, I was lucky to get the barest human outline. The sound always came through, however, which I recorded and replayed for days on end, imagining what the sketch might've looked like. The show meant so much to me then that a lack of picture clarity couldn't dampen my enthusiasm. And naturally I memorized most sketches and acted them out, driving my father and stepmother even crazier.

No problems with picture clarity now. These shows are in mint condition and are a supreme joy to watch. Since these are the entire shows, complete with musical guests, there is much I'd forgotten, pieces I hadn't seen since they originally aired. I've only viewed five of 22 shows so far, and already the emotions these episodes have unleashed render me useless. A certain line, recurring character, type of performance, specific cast member, fills me with feelings of old inspiration, sadness, wistfulness, happiness, sometimes making me laugh, too often making me cry, or at least tear up. I cannot watch SNL's second season without being 17 again. And that, overall, was not a terribly pleasant year.

The cast members are all fine, with the early exception of Bill Murray, who joined the show in mid-season. Murray struggled with timing and mangled his lines, sometimes blowing jokes and cues to such a degree that it's amazing he survived the season without getting canned. In the Broderick Crawford show, he pleads to the audience to laugh at his performance no matter how poorly he does. Still, as we all know, Murray weathered it to become one of the best actors SNL's ever produced. But man -- what a ragged start.

The boy loves much of this stuff, Belushi's Samurai most especially. I'm trying to get him to appreciate Tom Schiller's "Bad" pieces, but he doesn't quite see the point to something being intentionally terrible. "That's the joke: it's bad!" He finds it more weird than anything else, which I'll take, though he did laugh at the short film "Ooh La La Les Legs," shown on "Bad Cinema," as Aykroyd's Leonard Pinth-Garnell applauds its awfulness. Give the kid time.

Watching these performers in their prime, acting out scenes conceived by a first-rate, diverse writing staff, I remain thankful that I've actually hung out with, in some cases gotten to know, many of my comedy heroes. If only that frightened, insecure 17-year-old kid sitting alone in his bedroom knew that would happen in his lifetime. Might've lifted the load just a taste.