1980 began an extraordinarily difficult period for Saturday Night Live. The plan was for showrunner Lorne Michaels to step away from the program and promote writer Al Franken into the top spot. However, NBC President Fred Silverman passed on this after Franken delivered a monologue on Weekend Update near the end of the fifth season titled “A Limo for a Lame-O.” This piece involved Franken cracking jokes about Silverman being responsible for poor ratings on NBC programs during his tenure, and people were actually very shocked at how mean Franken was. I don’t know if this was intentional self-sabotage, but it basically sealed the deal that Franken was out. Silverman gave the job to Jean Doumanian, who had been an associate producer under Michaels. But things were not settled in any way, and the next five years would be chaotic.
For this round of episodes, I watched these. Remember, these are the episodes from each season that have the highest user ratings on IMDb.
Season 6 – Bill Murray
Season 7 – Johnny Cash
Season 8 – Chevy Chase
Season 9 – Don Rickles
Season 10 – George Carlin
With that lineup of hosts, you might think these could be some stellar episodes. Oh, how wrong you would be. The first red flag that things aren’t good comes from the choices made by Peacock. The Bill Murray episode has been edited down to 22 minutes on the platform. Minus the musical numbers, which they can’t get clearance for, you should be left with a good 45 minutes or so. I can’t find any documentation if these episodes were shorter than average or anything, so it’s pretty confusing. I can only guess that sketches either included IPs that NBC no longer owns or objectionable material that wouldn’t fly today? Johnny Cash’s episode is 29 minutes, Chevy Chase’s entry is a healthy 48 minutes, the mess that is Don Rickles’s episode is 40, and George Carlin gets 45 minutes.
Another thing that is shocking as you make your way through these episodes is the insane cast turnover. One episode after another seems to have none or very few performers carry over into the next season. For example, season six has six different Weekend Update anchors with guest hosts sometimes taking the duties. In the Murray episode, he’s anchoring the news desk. The cast for season six consisted of Denny Dillion, Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius, Joe Piscopo, Ann Risley, and Charles Rocket. Eddie Murphy starts out as a featured player, and he’s definitely not given much to do. Season six only has thirteen episodes and the season finale only keeps Piscopo, Matthius, and Dillion with new people added…at the END of a season?!
I appreciated the meta opening of the Murray episode with him giving a pep talk in a locker room to the cast, having expertise as a veteran of the show. There’s an acknowledgment that the show is not doing well in the ratings, and having a sense of humor about the program’s failings is healthy. There’s a mention of Charles Rocket dropping an f-bomb in the previous episode by accident, with Murray giving each cast member some words of wisdom and telling Rocket to clean up his mouth. Unfortunately, so many skits have been cut that we’re left with a way too long Weekend Update. There’s a clever bit where Murray is a writer, and the cast plays his story’s characters, acting out the narrative behind him, including his revisions. We get a bizarre two-person sketch with Murray and Dillon as a divorced Southern couple sharing joint custody of a laundromat. What lingered with me most was how this felt like an excerpt from a more extended stage play. The characters seem to have more going on than what’s shown, and it feels unlike other SNL skits.
In season seven, we watched Johnny Cash’s episode. The cast is now composed of Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy, some other people you probably never heard of or don’t remember, and Brian Doyle Murray (Bill’s brother and longtime SNL writer) as a featured player. By this time, SNL’s ratings had been overtaken by ABC’s derivative Fridays, which was certainly not good. Jean Doumanian was booted, and Dick Ebersol was brought in as showrunner instead of just a network exec. This was certainly not a good move because Ebersol’s background was not in sketch comedy. NBC was now being run by Brandon Tartikoff, and near the end of the previous season, he had Ebersol spy on the show from the control room without Doumanian knowing she was about to be fired. He oversaw the late-night programming, but in his later career, Ebersol would become much better known for producing sports content on NBC, particularly their coverage of the Olympic Games. In the Johnny Cash episode, an odd choice of host, he only appears in three sketches and plays himself in two of them. You know this is a bad episode when I cannot remember a single sketch without referring to notes.
Season eight is unfinished as a writer’s strike broke out in 1981. The cast still retains Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. Joining them are Mary Gross, Brad Hall, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, and some forgettable carryovers from the previous season. The Chevy Chase episode is remarkable because, firstly, Ebersol encourages broad, dumb humor, so we don’t get many clever or memorable sketches. I think I remember the Whiners with Piscopo and Robin Duke, ugh what a terrible obnoxious concept. Mary Gross isn’t too bad; she will carry over for a few seasons, which is evidence she was doing something right. Chase was not in the studio, the excuse in the guest monologue being that he couldn’t get his flight to the East Coast; instead, he’s on a monitor via satellite. Some funny things could have been done with that, but…it is wasted.
Season nine really only saw one change, Jim Belushi joined the cast. The problem with this episode is Don Rickles. His comedy has not aged well with its basis on racial and gender stereotypes. He also wraps it in this “I make fun of everybody” schtick which is fine, I guess. The more significant problems happen in how he breaks from the script constantly in the sketches. Joe Piscopo seems to enjoy it, but it’s frankly embarrassing. There’s productive chaos in the first five seasons of SNL as they figure out what this show is. The chaos in the Rickles episode just drags the whole showdown. It’s funny and feels so cringingly sloppy. Weekend Update, hosted by Rickles, continues to be a mess, with the definition of that segment a long way from being realized.
Then we reach season 10, which guts the cast once again. The remainders are Dreyfus, Hall, Gross, Belushi, and Gary Kroeger. Joining them in what is one of the most baffling things I’ve ever seen are Rich Hall, Pamela Stephenson, Harry Shearer (returning after a short stint in season five), Martin Short, Christopher Guest, and Billy Crystal. Crystal’s addition is the most confounding as he was a well-established actor at this point. He has been one of the more prominent cast members on Soap in the late 1970s and had a burgeoning movie career. It feels very apparent that cast members have broken off into clusters and are just doing their own thing, not working together as a cohesive unit. Guest and Crystal feel like they are doing one thing, Short is basically continuing many of his characters from SCTV, and Shearer would end up leaving halfway through the season citing “creative differences.” The holdovers from last season are kind of isolated in their own sketches, and nothing really meshes. Guest host George Carlin is just sort of doing his Carlin thing, and it’s clear Ebersol has tried all kinds of arrangements, and nothing is working here.
I am honestly surprised Saturday Night Live survived these five years. If this had been the modern era, I think the network would have canceled it. There’s an interesting balance to think about, though, as the current version of SNL is a very well-oiled but exceptionally bland brand. You certainly get surprised during the 1980-85 seasons though very little is enjoyable here. I actually think, given time, Jean Doumanian could have made something out of the show; Ebersol certainly did prove himself a better showrunner. There’s a fantastic book you should read if you want to know more about SNL, Live From New York. It’s a compilation of interviews with cast members, writers, showrunners, and even guest hosts. You get a lot of insight about this period which most people won’t even acknowledge anymore. Things can only go up from here…right?