Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Fine Historical Document, Nothing More Saturday Night Live - The Complete First Season On DVD.

The Good: Moments of humor, Great historical relevance
The Bad: Becomes far too self-referential, Early episodes are scattered, Repetitive, Does not use whole cast well.
The Basics: A trip down memory lane for those who lived it, a mediocre historical document for the rest of us, NBC's Saturday Night's first season is unremarkable.

Every now and then, I come across a work that I pick up on DVD to review and when I'm done, I know that an objective review of the material I've just witnessed will bring about a small storm of negative comments. As I finish my viewing of the mistitled Saturday Night Live - Season 1, I find myself overwhelmingly underwhelmed. Yes, I am overcome with how unimpressed I am with this boxed set. Capturing the 1975 - 1976 season of the sketch comedy show NBC’s Saturday Night and Saturday Night, what would become Saturday Night Live, this eight disc set follows on the heels of years of terrible "Best Of" collections which focus on individual performers from the Saturday Night Live family of performers. What this boxed set reveals, more than anything, is how tenuous a start the cultural phenomenon that is Saturday Night Live had.

With all twenty-four episodes on eight discs, the first season of the show that became a sketch comedy series is presented almost as it originally appeared in the mid-1970s. NBC’s Saturday Night starts out as a variety show, with almost all of its parts divorced from one another. Executive Producer Lorne Michaels assembled a show that featured a guest star - usually a comic or musician -, musical guest(s), Muppets, and a sketch comedy troupe that soon became known as the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players." That troupe was quickly whittled down to Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtain, Chevy Chase, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner.

The series began as far more of a variety show, with the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" contributing far less in the beginning than they did by the middle and end of the season. So, for example, the first episode starred George Carlin, who held court on an open stage several times in the episode. But less of his standup routines, he presented himself in a more philosophical light. And he bombed. That's not just me saying that, listening to the audience reacting, I was wondering if they had a cricket machine they could have plugged in to give feedback! Alas, they did not and it took until the last set before Carlin began to get laughs from the audience. His musings now seem somewhat banal and very dated. And I like George Carlin!

In addition to Carlin, there were two musical guests who each did two sets, a short film presented by Albert Brooks, the Muppets from the land of Gorch, and a few sketches, most notably the news, which was hosted by Chevy Chase. I swear I cannot recall what any of the sketches that first episode were. But there were very few. And they were fairly unmemorable as they squeezed in between Carlin mellowly lecturing the audience, rock stars of the day and the somewhat surreal experience of adulterous monstrous Muppets.

Beginning with the second episode, Chevy Chase opens each episode with a pratfall, which he begins to reference as the season progresses. But the second episode is an exceptional example of how different NBC’s Saturday Night is from the Saturday Night Live it became. Paul Simon was the host, not the musical guest, and almost the entire program involves him singing. The show opens, he sings two songs, Art Garfunkel is brought on, they do two songs together, Garfunkel does one alone and Simon gets an additional song (maybe two) on his own. Before you know it, the episode is over. And, again, sketches are stuck in between the other stuff.

That said, this season introduced the world to the physical and satirical comedy of Chevy Chase. He falls into most episodes and relentlessly mocks president Gerald Ford and the deceased president Franco of Spain. He fumbles his way through the news and has the honor of delivering the "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" line every outing. As well, it contains the Samuri (he's a tailor, deli chef, divorcee etc. depending on the week), Gilda Radner's hearing-impaired social activist Emily Litella, and the Headmaster for the New York School For The Hearing Impaired. As the season progresses, the sketches begin to be tailored to the guest host, like a short film containing Raquel Welch dancing (and nothing else!), Ford's Press Secretary portraying Press Secretaries Through History, and Buck Henry playing nervous white guys.

It's intriguing to watch the first season and see who was considered famous and cutting edge enough to present the show as a guest host. The first season was hosted by: George Carlin, Paul Simon, Robert Klein, Buck Henry, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, Rob Reiner, Lily Tomlin, Candice Bergen, Peter Boyle, Dezi Arnez, Madeline Kahn, Ron Nessen, Raquel Welch, Anthony Perkins, Elliot Gould, Dyan Cannon, Louise Lasser, Kris Kristofferson and Richard Pryor. The musical guests are interesting for their mix of artists that have remained well known, like Paul Simon, Patti Smith, Abba (who lip-synched one of their songs for some reason), Gordon Lightfoot and Carly Simon (who had a recorded performance, though it's cool because Chevy Chase actually joined her on "You're So Vain!") and those who seem to have been either one-hit wonders or whose works faded from the general popular rotation, like Janis Ian, Betty Carter, Martha Reeves, Phoebe Snow, John Sebastian, Leon Redbone, Harian Collins and Joyce Everson, and Leon and Mary Russell. Indeed, two of the most memorable musical performances involve Garrett Morris singing an opera piece and John Belushi's one-trick pony sweaty rock star (it starts as a Joe Cocker impression) interrupting Leon and Mary Russell. It is also worth noting that Howard Shore, the composer for Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings films (among others) is the band leader and composer for the orchestra this season!

And I'll admit, I was cheesed when Belushi cut Gordon Lightfoot's guitar strings because I was hoping he might perform "Sundown!" The problem here is that this DVD set is presenting a sketch comedy/variety show that is very dated. The reason is simple; the humor is topical. It's fresh and funny in 1975 to comment on Gerald Ford and the wide-open 1976 Primary contest. Those of us who lived through the Reagan Regime will delight to hear Chevy Chase (and others) relentlessly mock his first presidential bid as he loses the Republican primary to Ford (which ought to have been the death knell of his political career!). But it's pure nostalgia and it often makes references that will leave the less educated viewers completely lost. So, for example, most high school history courses will not teach students that George Wallace was a vociferous racist, which becomes the focus of all non-wheelchair jokes pertaining to Wallace.

There are two general categories of sketch comedy series: current events and broadbased satire. Cultural Events sketch comedy rely heavily on observations of politics, societal trends and pop culture of the day. Broadbased satire attempts to more frequently comment on the nature of human existence and immutable social institutions. It's the difference between comedy that pokes fun at Gerald Ford and Jaws (reviewed here!) and comedy that lashes out at Monarchy and male/female relationships. Are the two mutually exclusive? Absolutely not, but very few comedy troupes find a decent balance (though most do a Jaws, Star Trek, - the first of many Trek parodies appears late in this set! - and Star Wars parody at some point) and Saturday Night, when it becomes more of a sketch comedy show leans heavily toward the Cultural Events category as opposed to the Broadbased Satire grouping.

The final problems with the content are that as it evolves, the show begins to take some weird turns and becomes much more self-referential. Albert Brooks's short films, which were generally not terribly funny to begin with (though some were not supposed to be), were replaced by similar short films from someone whose name I don't even remember now (it's Weis, by the way). Come to think of it, I couldn't tell you the subject of even one of his short films despite having just finished watching the first season finale less than two hours ago. Albert Brooks, by the way, had short films that included him performing a bypass surgery and searching for the next big thing (there was a blind cab driver in that one); I might not have dug them, but they were vaguely memorable. Come to think of it, the other guy did one where he intercut a p.i. recalling how he catches cheating spouses and a new couple expressing their love for one another. The thing is, as the season progresses, fans were invited to send in home movies and they included peanuts slicing up a guy who ate a ton of peanuts, a choral song presented from a men's bathroom, and apple strippers (peelers); I recalled three instantly.

The point here is that the show is dramatically erratic, episode to episode and within episodes. It does not take long before the adult Muppets are canned, as are some of the writers who begin as part of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. But most of all, it's dated. As well, there are several bits that are repetitive. The season featured parody commercials, many of which are replayed more than once, which is accented as a problem on the DVDs when one sits and watches them back to back.

Saturday Night Live - The Complete First Season goes a long way toward proving the argument I made when I reviewed Star Trek - The Complete First Season (Remastered), which is that the technology exists to clean up the old series', but it is often too costly to be realistic for restoration. Recently, Star Trek has been given a complete face-lift for HD and while the visual effects have been altered, the cleanup for HD removing film imperfections and the general grain of 1960s filmstock makes for a decent presentation. What we get with this DVD set is a series plagued by light burns, dust spots and the grainy quality that comes with the filmstock of the time. Yes, there has clearly been some remastering (though there are still fall-outs on the soundtrack at various points), but this is not the archiving of a historical document, nor the restoration of it to the best it could possibly be. Instead, we get a half-measure, a compromise print that makes the thirty year-old series look respectable, but not as good as it could look (and sound).

As well, this boxed set makes poor use of the DVD medium by presenting little in the way of bonus features. There are no commentary tracks and only two featurettes, both from 1975 - an interview and casting tapes. Those who are invested enough (emotionally) in this series to invest in the capital to purchase the set are likely to be disappointed that there are no featurettes discussing the cultural impact, the relevance or even the effect the show had. Some of that is addressed within the series in self-referential comments, but much of it is a complete mystery. The series is a fair historical document of mid-70's humor, music and celebrity, but there is nothing to make this set valuable for that by actually addressing it.

As it stands, the photo booklet gives the most information on that sort of thing and it is woefully little. Die-hard fans (the ones I lost with my opening lines of this review) who might have been waiting for this boxed set for the years it took to get all of the musical clearances needed to assemble this set are likely to be even more disappointed than I was (a lowly cinematic historian) by the lack of extensive bonus features exploring either the development of the season, commentary on specific sketches, or the impact or even any form of retrospective from surviving cast members on their impressions thirty years later.

But alas, there is nothing like that. Instead, we have endless references to Gerald Ford's stupidity, Patty Hearst (the O.J. trial of the day, I suppose), Francisco Franco's continuing death, and the rising political lights of the 1976 primary race. We have pained performances by Andy Kaufman (he comes on and lip-synchs, one of which where he has guests performing with him and he's electric on) that are sometimes more disturbing than funny, there is a broad array of musical guests that appeal to a huge segment of society as opposed to the narrow visions of 12 - 24 pop culture (that's something that actually is pretty okay), and the endless opening falls of Chevy Chase. And it might have been great in its day, but now, it's a historical document in a way that other sketch comedy shows are not (but someday The Daily Show will be!).

My final comment on this is this: this set is not ideal for fans of today's Saturday Night Live. If you have a youngster that loves Saturday Night Live, this is the ideal gift for that kid's parents, so they have something to bond over. Nowhere near as relentlessly (attempting to be) funny as today's Saturday Night Live, this requires a lot more patience and despite the supposed genius of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, this is very skewed toward Chevy Chase and Jane Curtain (as the season goes on and Gilda Radner picks up the recurring Barbara Walters impression, she gets good airtime as well). How Dan Aykroyd made it big based on the first season remains a mystery. Laraine Newman, John Belushi and Garrett Morris are given ridiculously little to do as well.

Lopsided and dated, this boxed set is best for those who appreciated it the first time around, but it's more likely they'd get as much out of renting it as opposed to buying it; this eight-disc set has little to come back to more than once.

For more work with Lily Tomlin, please check out my reviews on:
The Pink Panther 2
The West Wing
A Prairie Home Companion
Orange County


For other television reviews, be sure to check out my Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Well, first seasons are seldom solid. SNL's is no different. There is some strangeness and shakiness synonymous with any beginner (Episode 2 seems to be just a Paul Simon special, and Louise Lasser's last act monologue may or may not be a nervous breakdown). But we all know the series did get better, and Season 1 has its gems: Richard Pryor's Exorcist II sketch, Norman Bates' guide to hotel management, the girl's slumber party about sex, the Final Days, etc. The history behind these episodes is rather interesting. Ron Nessen's guest shot was an attempt to win votes for Gerald Ford. Didn't work out...

  2. Thanks for the comment! Yes, first seasons can be rough. I think I was surprised given how long-running "Saturday Night Live" is and how hyped the first season was to me to find it . . . so mediocre.

    Thanks for reading!