Friday, December 18, 2009

Dissolve Into Air

When Jake and Elwood Blues took their act onscreen, they left behind a thriving, coke-fueled franchise. SNL's fourth season was its most popular to date, and naturally its growing fan base expected more of the same. But TV is a cruel lover, indifferent to audience needs. After four years, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were done with SNL, refusing to go through the paces one more time. The show's enthusiasts would have to get high and laugh without them.

In those innocent, pre-internet days, news of such a major defection traveled slowly, if at all. I'm sure plenty of SNL viewers were shocked to find Belushi and Aykroyd missing from season five's premiere. I certainly was. I had no clue that the show's stars bolted for Hollywood. So when the cast credits began with Jane Curtin and Garrett Morris, I thought, man, this is gonna blow. And for the first few episodes of that season, SNL more or less did.

Unavoidable. Four years of accumulated chemistry vanished, something not easily replicated. Aykroyd and Belushi took with them the Coneheads, Samurai, the Olympia "Cheeseburger" Cafe, and the Blues Brothers. All established icons. All audience favorites. SNL had elevated these characters and catchphrases, only to be left with a massive hole in its rotation.

Yet such sudden change held serious comic potential. Many of the show's writers hated recurring characters, and here was a chance to reimagine SNL while it maintained a large, loyal audience. Losing Aykroyd was the greatest obstacle to overcome, his precision and presence, while not as intense as earlier years, remained singular, peerless, powerful. Belushi, on the other hand, had been phoning it in for over a year. Once he achieved stardom, his craft was strangled by celebrity and all the distractions and poisons that came with it. Belushi did SNL a creative favor by leaving, his descent accelerating amid LA's wild palms.

Faced with the the duo's absence, Lorne Michaels took a subtler route. The sole cast addition was Harry Shearer, a founding member of The Credibility Gap and collaborator with Albert Brooks. Shearer possessed Aykroyd-like intensity and played fast-talking pitchmen with the same energy and precision. But Shearer's writing wasn't as otherworldly as Aykroyd's; he stayed closer to his targets, creating believable, accessible situations that he meticulously parodied. Here, Shearer was perhaps closest to Don Novello, whose Scotch Boutique sketches the year before touched on the dramatic. But overall, such attention to detail distanced Shearer from the rest of SNL's writers. He was outside looking in, never fully blending with a deeply-entrenched staff.

Watching "SNL: The Complete Fifth Season" in sequence reveals not only Shearer's isolation, but how the show struggled to regain its balance. There were inspired moments, experiments in style and tone ("The Mystery of Toad Island" one of my favorites, where inbred villagers mutate into human toads, complete with expanding throats). There were also many retreaded concepts and reliance on what old favorites remained: The Nerds, Roseanne Roseannadanna, and Father Guido Sarducci received familiar applause, welcome reminders of the show's recent past.

In addition to Shearer, Michaels promoted several writers to featured player status, betting that this would fill most of the show's evident gaps. All it really did was highlight SNL's weakness that year. Paul Shaffer emerged as a reliable performer, shining in a number of sketches, some of which he helped create. But as good as Shaffer was, he and the other featured players merely made Aykroyd's and Belushi's ghosts loom larger.

Bill Murray and Jane Curtin stepped into the breach using every trick they knew. Murray began the season in an angry monotone, his demeanor short-tempered. He apparently wasn't thrilled being left to carry the show's load, and this is clear early on. But as the year progressed, Murray's stranger, playful side surfaced; by mid-season he was at full strength, delivering the finest work of his SNL career.

Curtin never lost pace. From the first season on, she was the show's steadiest force, in many ways its spine. Curtin could do and did whatever she was asked. Her steadiness paid off in the fifth season, where she finally spread her wings. Unlike Laraine Newman, who became thinner and muter, and Gilda Radner, whose energetic outlines were beginning to fray, Curtin seized her moment. It may have come too late, but it's a pleasure to watch all the same.

The fifth season touched on two political events: the upcoming 1980 presidential election, and the American hostages in Iran. With Aykroyd gone, Jimmy Carter became a rumor. For some reason, Lorne Michaels decided against recasting Carter, the most logical choice being Harry Shearer. This made it SNL's oddest election season, where an incumbent president, facing political mutiny at home and crisis overseas, was kept completely off-screen. Laraine Newman's Rosalynn Carter appeared instead, the premise being that she could move about while her husband was hunkered down in the White House. What might have worked for a few shows grew strained over an entire season. In that year of all years, you wanted to see how Carter was holding up. A lot of satirical potential was missed, the majority of it falling on Ted Kennedy.

Murray's Kennedy was the main political target that season. As his intra-party challenge to Carter eroded, Murray showed Kennedy's increasing desperation, pleading to a New Hampshire audience to support him simply because they share the same New England accent. Of course, there were Chappaquiddick jokes galore, some of which elicited shocked groans from the audience (as did a related joke by Shearer as Tom Snyder, saying that Kennedy was "an only child"). If one's political fortunes are determined by how SNL treats you, then Ted Kennedy had no chance whatsoever. He was the show's second Gerald Ford.

The Iranian hostage crisis inspired less pointed humor, for fairly obvious reasons. National tension, frustration, and anger about being an "impotent" country didn't leave much room for savage parody. The Ayatollah Khomeini served his role as all-purpose devil, an easy target, guaranteed to get a response. But there was a general hostile mood to anything Middle Eastern, Arab or Persian that season. Again, no surprise. SNL has long flirted with, when not succumbing to anti-Arab racism. In the fifth year, one premise really stood out in this regard: The Bel Airabs.

A take-off on "The Beverly Hillbillies," The Bel Airabs tells the story about "a man named Abdul/a poor Bedouin barely kept his family full/ and then one day he was shootin' at some Jews/ and up through the sand came a bubbling crude." The Asad family, newly rich through oil, settle in Bel Air and display the same backward customs and behavior as the hillbilly Clampetts. Threats of violence, amputation for attempted theft, and bribing a federal agent make up much of the Asads' character. But the real prize goes to Gilda Radner's Granny who, wearing an abaya, jumps and screams in gibberish that's supposed to be Arabic.

One can say this is simply a turn on Irene Ryan's Granny, who behaved in a similar fashion. But given the political period in which The Bel Airabs aired, it's clear that the shrieking Arab stereotype was there to provide a racial thrill, a release of anger towards those towelheads holding American hostages. There is no way SNL would portray an Orthodox Jewish woman screaming Hebrew gibberish. If all ethnicities were equally trashed in this manner, then fine. But studying SNL's timeline, Arabs and Persians are treated much differently than other satirized tribes. The Bel Airabs were but the first explicit example of this tendency.

Interestingly enough, the best hosts in the fifth season were not SNL favorites like Steve Martin, Eric Idle, and Elliott Gould. Older, established pros like Bea Arthur, Ted Knight, Burt Reynolds, Strother Martin, Kirk Douglas and Rodney Dangerfield brilliantly hit their marks, providing some of the best, funniest moments of that year. The musical guests were eclectic, with bands like The B-52's, The Specials, The Roches, and Blondie bringing newer sounds to a hippie/arena rock audience. David Bowie's three-song set on the Martin Sheen show remains one of the more conceptual efforts in SNL history.

Writer Jim Downey has said that SNL's fifth season was its bravest. It certainly was its most unusual, gaining steam as the year wore on, culminating in the final show of the original era, May 24, 1980. At the end, host Buck Henry stands with the cast, some smiling, some solemn, holding hands, swaying slightly to the closing piano strains. "Goodnight, and goodbye," Henry says. Music swells, the cast exits home base for the last time, a close-up of Studio 8H's "On Air" sign flickering off, officially ending SNL's golden age. I remember feeling sad while watching this live, part of my youth passing with it. Little did I know that the replicants were coming to turn SNL into television's undead.