TV Review – When Was SNL Funny? Part 3 (of 9)

Saturday Night Live was at a crossroads by 1985. Dick Ebersol’s four-year run had ended in shambles with a constant reshuffling and discarding of cast members. The 1984-85 season was actually Ebersol’s most successful, but it wasn’t a ratings winner. In preparation for the next year, Ebersol proposed making the majority of the show’s content pre-taped segments sort of undermining the whole Live part of the title. NBC said no, and the show was on the verge of cancellation. Lorne Michaels was brought back along with Al Franken and Tom Davis as producers. Jim Downey (the debate moderator from Billy Madison) was made head writer.

Funny enough, Lorne Michaels had not strayed too far from comedy since leaving SNL. In 1979, he founded Broadway Video while running SNL. After his departure in 1980 from NBC, he leaned into producing and oversaw Gilda Live! and The Three Amigos. In 1983, Michaels returned to NBC to create the sketch comedy series The New Show. It aired on Fridays, and its cast was a strange variation on SNL. There were some regular cast members like Buck Henry, Valri Bromfield, and Dave Thomas. Then you would have multiple guest stars acting as cast members for that week. For example, the first episode featured appearances from Steve Martin, Jeff Goldblum, and Catherine O’Hara. The following week saw John Candy and Carrie Fisher appear in sketches. It’s not a terrible concept, but it scored the lowest ratings of all 94 programs during that television season. All of that said, Michaels’s return was heralded by critics.

From this new Lorne Michaels era, I watched the following episodes. As always, these were the highest-rated episodes per IMDb users:
Season 11 – Anjelica Huston
Season 12 – William Shatner
Season 13 – Dabney Coleman
Season 14 – Steve Martin
Season 15 – Tom Hanks

Season 11 is a weird one because Michaels has a big miss right away. Most of his new cast would not last beyond this season, and I think many people are either unaware of them or forgot how strange it was. In the cast were Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr., Nora Dunn, Anthony Michael Hall, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Randy Quaid, Terry Sweeney, and Danitra Vance. Damon Wayans, Al Franken, and A. Whitney Brown were featured players, with the latter confined to Weekend Update monologues. It’s clear Michaels was picking people not necessarily from an improv comedy background.

Anthony Michael Hall had already been in three John Hughes movies at this time and starred alongside Randy Quaid in National Lampoon’s Vacation in the early 1980s. He was only 17 when he was cast on SNL. It’s also pretty wild that Danitra Vance was the first black female regular cast member taking the show over a decade to get there (Yvonne Brown had been featured in an early season). Terry Sweeney was another first openly gay male actor in American network television. Robert Downey Jr was a bit player in some movies like Weird Science, and Randy Quaid was pretty known at this point. Of the regulars, only Lovitz, Miller, and Dunn would return for season 12. I actually found Joan Cusack to be one of the best of this bunch, and that makes sense with her and her family’s background in the Chicago theater scene.

The episode I watched has Anjelica Huston as the guest host but also Billy Martin. If you’re asking yourself, “Who the hell is Billy Martin?” well, so was I. Doing some research, I found out he was a former Major League Baseball player who had been the manager of the New York Yankees up until 1986. I do not know why he was on the show. The episode is decent; you can definitely see why this cast was reworked the following season. Without being told Lorne Michaels was back, you might still think Dick Ebersol was at the helm due to the unevenness. It’s pretty awful that when the next season came along, players like Vance and Sweeney were cast aside for performers that made the show whiter and straighter again.
When people my age, in their 40s, think of Saturday Night Live Season 12 onward is what they remember. Lovitz, Miller, and Dunn return, and this time they are joined by Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and Victoria Jackson. A. Whitney Brown continues to be featured, with Kevin Nealon joining him. It’s this framework where you start to see SNL formulas coming into place. I also stand by my belief that Victoria Jackson might be one of the most deadweight members of the show’s history.

Weekend Update, which had been this strange, ever-changing feature, becomes solidified into just a monologue of one-liners, and Dennis Miller is very good at this very sort of comedy. You rarely see him leave the Update Desk, which would become a common thing with many future hosts. I was surprised how little I saw of Carvey when he was a more significant player from my memories, but as I found that was something that developed more as he would play Garth and President Bush. The episode I watched was hosted by William Shatner, and it says a lot that what I remember is one sketch and sketch that was cut off of the Peacock version. There’s a bit where Shatner and Hooks play a married couple, and he becomes obsessed with flexing and complimenting himself in the mirror. It’s Shatner being a goofball, and it’s hilarious. I noticed the famous Trekkie convention sketch was absent, which I guess couldn’t be included due to costumes being used? That was the sketch I was looking forward to, and so it was disappointing that Peacock couldn’t have it even on the grounds of parody.

Season 13 suffered a premature hiatus due to a writer’s strike, and from the episode I saw, hosted by Dabney Coleman, it wasn’t a major loss. The only cast change here is that Kevin Nealon was promoted to a regular cast member. It seems that Michaels thought he’d found a formula that worked and was hanging on to it. From here on, we’ll see very few dramatic cast changes. The numbers will balloon by the mid-90s and then settle into a steady flow in and out each season. What I remember of this episode is not great. The show definitely plays into the chauvinism of Coleman’s persona and not in a good, critical way. There’s a sketch about a marriage counselor (Coleman) mediating between an arguing couple (Nealon and Dunn). The counselor ends siding with the man, wanting to talk about sports and drink beer as the wife is told to buzz off. The tone I got was not mocking toxic masculinity (see I Think You Should Leave on Netflix) but rather “this broad is such a battleax.” Very weird and not funny.

Season 14 changes nothing about the regular players. Looking at the featured list, Al Franken is added mainly for his pretty stellar Weekend Update monologues. You also have the first appearance of Mike Meyers. Ben Stiller was featured for part of the season but left when he realized he just didn’t gel with the show’s tone. The episode I watched was hosted by Steve Martin, an SNL perennial, and he does an okay job. However, I don’t think this was one of his best appearances. That episode was filmed on the same day Gilda Radner died after she struggled with cancer. They acknowledge it in the show by showing her famous dance number with Martin back in the 1970s. It’s a sweet moment. The only sketch that remains in my head is Toonces the Driving Cat, which got quite a big chuckle from me. It’s such an absurd dumb premise and feels like the sort of thing a tired writer’s room came up with and kept themselves laughing as they talked it out. However, Michaels shows he has no qualms about the show, and the ratings encourage him to keep things steady.

After a solid four years, Jon Lovitz leaves the show in Season 15. David Spade and Rob Schneider were writers and made some uncredited appearances. My episode was hosted by Tom Hanks, and I actually remember a couple sketches. The first is Wayne’s World, where Aerosmith (that week’s musical guest) comes down to the basement. It reminded me how much more I appreciate the Wayne’s World films than the sketches on SNL. What I did find amusing was Lovitz hosting Tales of Ribaldry. Despite his horrible politics, Lovitz does weird, off-kilter characters so well. His choices about pronunciations and reactions to this parody of smoldering romance novels are genuinely hilarious.

Saturday Night Live had managed to be saved by Michaels and entered a period of consistent success, one that would only get more acclaim. I didn’t find myself amused by these sketches too much, but there are higher points here than any previous season. Next up, we will enter the era of Sandler & Farley and all that comes with it.

One thought on “TV Review – When Was SNL Funny? Part 3 (of 9)”

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