Thursday, November 25, 2010

Second Time Farce

Saturday Night Live '80 resembled an Andy Kaufman piece. Much of the writing was bad bordering on bizarre; the cast appeared uninspired, shadow puppets dimly lit. Following the original show was certainly an unenviable task, and NBC was rigid about SNL's format. But you'd think that Jean Doumanian's crew would've dug deeper than they did. Watching this season again, it's baffling how wrong they got it.

A lot has been written about Doumanian's SNL, primarily the backstage confusion and insanity that ultimately sank it. Everything you shouldn't do when trying to create comedy Doumanian did, with a few touches of her own. If this were any other new show from that period, few would remember it (Pink Lady and Jeff, which was worse, bowed and died around the same time). But this was SNL, the cultural fuse for the 1980s comedy boom. It's tough to hide from those harsh media lights.

Lorne Michaels has tried to obscure that period. Since returning to SNL in 1985, Lorne solidified his hold on the show's official history, air brushing unflattering moments and personalities from the larger picture. Doumanian's time in Lorne's chair did not please him; and while he insists that he never watched her SNL (which is hard to believe), Lorne and his lieutenants have done much to marginalize Doumanian's mess. It helped that SNL '80 ended after 12 outings. Much easier to erase over subsequent decades.

While the cast and most of the writers were green, a few comedy veterans like Mason Williams (Smothers Brothers), Sean Kelly (National Lampoon), and Brian Doyle-Murray (the original SNL) were on staff, so you'd expect some measure of competence. But Doumanian's insecure grip on what material was chosen for air negated their experience. Williams quit, Kelly was fired, and Doyle-Murray hung on, becoming a featured player the following season. If these comedy pros struggled, then the show's rookies had little chance.

I remember the first promo for Doumanian's cast, wondering if it was a joke.

Granted, I was young and totally devoted to the original SNL, so this skewed my reaction. But gazing at Gilbert Gottfried, Denny Dillon and Joe Piscopo, I thought, who the fuck are these people, and what possible contributions can they make?

I expected a more robust-looking cast, talent worthy to walk that sacred ground. Charles Rocket looked the part, as did Gail Matthius. Ann Risley, while pretty, appeared lost. If anything, this increased my desire to watch their first show. Maybe they were great, but if not, it might make for an interesting failure.

I watched SNL '80's premiere on tape. The night they opened, November 15, marked Kamakaze Radio's inaugural show, which my partner Jim Buck and I took as some kind of comedy sign. Like many on the new SNL, we were doing live sketch comedy for the first time, only KR's debut came after a performance of Waiting For Godot on a spare, desert-like set in front of five or six people.

We went on at almost precisely the same moment as did the cast in New York, boosting our energy level, for we felt weirdly competitive. Later, watching the SNL tape, Jim and I arrogantly agreed that our show was smarter and better. It was a comparison we made throughout KR's brief life. It's what gave us the confidence to end the group and move to NYC.

What crippled SNL '80 from the jump was having Elliott Gould as its first host. Gould made a serious mark on the original show, and his presence on the new SNL merely reminded viewers of the old. This wasn't helped in the show's first minutes, when Doumanian's kids compared themselves to SNL legends. What was intended as exorcism released demons that multiplied weekly.

Fidelity to Lorne's format compounded the problem. What should have been fresh, innovative and surprising limped out of the gate saddled with another show's conceits. Doumanian's only hope was to twist as much of Lorne's format as NBC would allow, and then twist it some more. But Doumanian simply picked up where Lorne left off, minus the talent needed for a smooth transition.

Doumanian's sole exception was stuck on the sidelines for the first two shows, kept on a short leash for the third. But when 19-year-old Eddie Murphy first spoke on camera, SNL '80 sprung to life. Murphy's presence, authority, and connection to the audience were immediate, and one wondered why this kid wasn't front row center at the start. No matter. After his initial Weekend Update bit, Murphy's airtime expanded. Before long, SNL '80 became two shows: Murphy's, and everybody else's. He worked at a higher level, a discrepancy seen on the faces of the cast left in Murphy's wake.

As the doomed season dragged on, Charles Rocket and Gilbert Gottfried became opposite poles. Rocket, cocky and seemingly confident, grew frantic, agitated, mugging and ad libbing to sell weak jokes. Gottfried all but checked out, a sullen stare his comic mask. Joe Piscopo looked pissed off and embarrassed. Gail Matthius and Ann Risley tried to keep their spirits up, but lacked adequate support.

Denny Dillon kept hitting her marks with purpose, doubtless owing to her extensive stage experience. Dillon's work that year is severely underrated. Given the material handed her, Dillon's professionalism was profound. Too bad she didn't work with better writers. Dillon's name would likely be better known.

As awful as SNL '80 was, there were moments of originality. Mitchell Kriegman's short videos brought a downtown sensibility to 30 Rock, something that could have been built on. Kriegman contributed to Mr. Mike's Mondo Video, and it was O'Donoghue who helped get him hired. And while Kriegman's work was one of the few things critics lauded, Doumanian fired him after five shows. Mitchell told me that at the beginning he was "teacher's pet," but as the storm clouds gathered, Doumanian reacted in unpredictable ways.

Firing a singular voice like Kriegman proved that she was not all there, or had no idea what she was doing. The writing on the wall was decidedly hers.

SNL '80 tried its hand at dark humor, too often settling for cheap shock. Again, this wasn't a group capable of comic subversion, at least not initially. Bits about murderous Klansmen, heroin addicts, negligent surrogate mothers, cancer and S&M arrived flat. The strain and effort to offend clearly showed, and this further distanced the cast from the audience, Eddie Murphy excepted.

A few slice-of-life pieces stood out. One featured Ellen Burstyn as an elderly shut-in talking about her missing son to a confused trick-or-treater. Another showed the POV of a stroke victim in a hospital bed, having to endure greedy relatives interested only in his will. Sketches like these hinted at a richer show. But Doumanian's many bad decisions brought NBC down upon her, so whatever new ideas existed had no chance of developing.

Charles Rocket muttering "fuck" at the close of the Charlene Tilton show sealed Doumanian's fate. Bill Murray's subsequent appearance, the best of that season, made no difference. The following Monday, Doumanian got canned.

SNL was handed to Dick Ebersol, who took the show off the air for a month, adding Rocket, Risley, and Gottfried to the unemployment line. In less than a year, NBC's late night cash cow fell onto jagged rocks, bleeding profusely. The network expected Ebersol, a trusted executive, to revive it. One of his first moves was to hire an old hand who wanted to kill it. The seeds of a contentious season took root.