Saturday Night Live: The First 3 Episodes


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Thoughts on watching the first 3 episodes of Saturday Night Live (1975)...

Episode 1

I tell my wife that this is when (host) George Carlin was edgy, meaning "coked up." You can't really tell, except his delivery is a little too rehearsed and "energetic." And I regret saying he's edgy, because most of his jokes are really mundane. For example, my favorite joke is: "I wonder what dogs do on their day off? They can't lay around, because they do that all the time." Edgy. Later on he redeems himself (sort of) with an oddly hostile rant about the stupidity of religion. Maybe NBC forced him to use that material later in the evening, but not as an opener.

Billy Preston, singing that "Nothing From Nothing" song...the first ever SNL musical performance, and a good song. I always associate Billy Preston with the Beatles, because he played on Let it Be. In fact, that was the first time someone other than a Beatle was credited on a recording: The Beatles with Billy Preston. He cheered the Beatles up, and he cheers you up, watching him here. Although it's easy to laugh at his outfit: purple silk scarf, weird giant blossoms arranged level with each other on his lapels. I like his gap-toothed grin. His other keyboardist looks like an audio-animatronic mannequin from Disneyland, rocking back and forth mechanically.

The sketches seem to start and end with no rhyme or reason. Very Monty Python-influenced, much more so than later years. Sometimes there isn't even really a joke, such as in the notorious "bees" sketch, which somehow I find hysterical anyway, because the actors commit to it so much. "Congratulations, it's a worker." "Oh...a worker." I never thought I'd say this, but Larraine Newman is hot (she was so young then).

George Carlin isn't appearing in any of the sketches. Instead, to remind you of his presence they cut back to him onstage doing more stand-up.

Andy Kaufman does the Mighty Mouse routine, recreated in the "Man on the Moon" biopic (where Carlin played himself). The real deal is so much more funny than Jim Carrey's impersonation. Something to do with the ambiguity of Kaufman's performance. Is the Kaufman character waiting awkwardly for his next line, or is he confident in his performance? It's like the Mona Lisa's smile! You're nervous, you're uncertain, and you laugh--that razor-thin line for which he always aimed.

Weekend Update: jokes about Gerald Ford being clumsy. Chevy Chase doesn't know which camera to look at (either that, or the camera-queuing is mistimed), and at one point it seems like he's going to make a joke about it (a little physical comedy as he looks from one camera to the other quickly, blinking), but then he withdraws nervously. Great live TV awkwardness.

Janis Ian sings. I have never heard of her before, although I recognize the song ("At Seventeen"). A beautiful woman and a beautiful voice. I'm in love. I'm going to buy some old Janis Ian albums now. She sings about being ugly and not getting picked for a team during gym class. Yes! Very 70's singer-songwriter, right down to the way they film: I love when she goes out of focus so the camera can focus in on the candles in the foreground...which aren't even fancy enough to look at. I love her. She only reluctantly smiles after the audience has been clapping for a few seconds.

Jim Henson's muppets--not recognizable ones, but SNL ones, acting out a kind of Honeymooners concept but in a fantasy world of smoking craters and ancient ruins. A critic, reviewing this DVD, compared these scenes to Fraggle Rock, but they remind me of a Ralph Bakshi cartoon, a little Wizards, a little Heavy Traffic.

A really wretched stand-up, Valri Bromfield, is one of the names that draws a blank here. You want to give her credit for being a female stand-up in a time when it was very male-dominated, but her bit is more like an actor's overcalculated, overwritten audition.

Lots doesn't work, but it's so much better than modern SNL. Because the series doesn't have a structured format yet, you never know what you're going to get next. The Albert Brooks film is unfunny - just a collection of jokes that don't work, disappointingly - but at least it's something different. On the whole, it's much more interesting than the formula settled upon in later years. I like the messiness. Paul Simon comes on at the very end and says he'll be reuniting with Art Garfunkel on next week's episode, and you remember Lorne Michaels wanted the Beatles to reunite on his show too.

Episode 2

Paul Simon is hosting. This episode is almost entirely devoid of the Not Ready for Primetime Players. They cameo in a very funny gag, hoping to reprise last week's failed bee skit, but Simon refuses. I appreciate self-depracating humor.

A quick summary of this episode: Paul Simon sings...Paul Simon sings....Paul Simon does a filmed skit...Simon and Garfunkel reunite and sing...and do another, and another...Art Garfunkel sings solo...Paul Simon sings...Randy Newman sings...Phoebe Snow sings...Paul Simon sings with Phoebe Snow...etc, etc. They should just sell this episode separately to Paul Simon fans. At least he's at the height of his solo career, and the songs are all outstanding. Oddly, Simon seems excited to reunite with Garfunkel, but the feelings don't seem mutual. Simon says something like "Done acting yet?" and gets no laughter in response. Garfunkel is still five years from Nicholas Roeg's Bad Timing.

Another great 70's TV technique: Paul Simon singing in long-shot, while a second camera, zooming in for a close-up, blows up the image and places it right next to his head. So it looks like he's singing to a deity, and the deity is Paul Simon.

The filmed sketch with Paul Simon taking Connie Hawkins one-on-one (set to "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard") is really charming, although Simon's comic timing with Marv Albert is awkward (long pauses while he seems to think of what to say). Enjoy it, you're not getting much more in the way of comedy in this one.

The Albert Brooks film is a winner this time. Brooks introduces himself (after asking an armed security guard to forcibly remove his young, whining daughter from the room), then shows some home movies shot by his father, and some outtakes from Brooks' failed attempt to make a Candid Camera-style film for SNL. It's all Brooks' typical meta-comedy: high-concept jokes attempting to pass themselves off as documentary.

The Muppets sketch contains a valuable lesson for political leaders: if you sacrifice your people by dumping them down a pit, you will have less mouths to feed, and your economy will improve.

Episode 3

Rob Reiner hosting, he begins with a sort-of-funny bit where he impersonates a lounge singer. Maybe this felt more fresh in 1975. Later, he introduces his wife Penny Marshall, who looks astonishingly young.

The Not Ready for Primetime Players return with a vengeance, and they have some funny sketches here. The Bees invade a Reiner/Marshall sketch, and Reiner refuses to perform with them: Belushi, in bee regalia, makes an impassioned speech. Later Belushi becomes an instant star with his impression of Joe Cocker singing "With a Little Help from My Friends" (pouring beer over himself and staggering around the stage). This is the first episode where you really become conscious of Belushi. Strange that Chevy Chase was the first breakout star of the show, as so far he seems awkward, sweaty, and nervous in all his appearances, although he probably is the most dashingly handsome. Chase, like Ackroyd and Belushi, looks like a college kid, and their humor is expectedly smirky and self-satisfied--still, the writing is good, the enthusiasm is big, and you laugh in spite of its shortcomings.

A group called the Lockers perform. This is black funk looking for some new form of expression--waiting anxiously for rap (or breakdancing, I guess). The performers flip around the stage like members of Cirque du Soleil, and they dress like early 20th century French clowns. The music is typical 70's funk. At one point one of them shouts, "Turn off the music! We don't need music!" In fact, they do. Of note: my wife thinks this is straight out of Spike Lee's Bamboozled. Also of note: when one of the Lockers emerges with lit light bulbs attached to his uniform, the audience goes, "Ooh!"

Andy Kaufman does another record routine, this to "Pop Goes the Weasel." Not as funny. Still somehow hysterical.

Comedy team "Dillon & Hampton" perform. That's Denny Dillon from HBO's "Dream On." She's funny here, but the material really isn't.

The Albert Brooks film is the best yet, paving the way for his first real films, in particular "Real Life." He announces that he's going to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a doctor, simply by putting out an ad requesting anyone who is willing to submit themselves to open-heart surgery; victim in tow, he hires an international crew of doctors to assist him (they're not legally allowed to operate in the United States). Some of the best Albert Brooks material I've ever seen, and a reminder that I should go back and watch "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" again, a very underrated comedy.

The Jim Henson sketch features a pot-smoking Muppet. Now we're deep into Ralph Bakshi territory. The message seems to be that smoking pot makes you stupid, but you should do it anyway because everybody else is.

In sum: glorious. If SNL were still like this, I would watch it religiously. I eagerly await the next disc from Netflix.



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