HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Friday, November 15, 2013


(NOTE: This article, in slightly different form, originally appeared at in 2005.)

In 1961, former FCC chairman Newton Minnow described television as a "vast wasteland."  But rarely in the medium's history did this wasteland ever seem quite so vast, or quite as wasted, as it did when the unmitigasted disaster known as "Saturday Night Live '80" polluted the airwaves.

"NBC's Saturday Night" premiered in 1975, and immediately became a hit with young people who had never seen anything this fresh, hip, and irreverent on television before.  The brainchild of Canadian producer and former "Laugh-In" writer Lorne Michaels, the show introduced the world to up-and-coming stars Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Chevy Chase (Bill Murray later stepped in to replace the Hollywood-bound Chevy) and made household names of such unlikely characters as Belushi's Samurai ______ (fill in the blank), Radner's Baba Wawa, and Ackroyd's Beldar Conehead. 

The unpredictable subject matter encompassed uvula care, blender drinks made out of bass, wolverines, "puppy-uppers" and "doggy-downers", and a brand of jam called "Painful Rectal Itch."  ("With a name like 'Painful Rectal Itch', it's got to be good!")

 Although the series had its ups and downs, and was thought by many to be running out of steam as the decade drew to a close, the show (which was renamed "Saturday Night Live" as soon as ABC's Howard Cosell series of the same name was cancelled) maintained much of its quality and popularity until Lorne Michaels decided to leave, along with the original cast, at the end of the 1979-80 season.   

Michaels' choice to replace him as executive producer was SNL featured player and writer Al Franken, but Franken's relentless on-air bashing of NBC president Fred Silverman (culminating in his harsh "Limo For A Lamo" Weekend Update monologue) put the kibosh on that idea. 

Eventually show staffer and Woody Allen pal Jean Doumanian was appointed the task of rounding up a brand new cast and getting the show ready for the fall season in only two months, with less than half of the million-dollars-per-episode budget Michaels had been getting. 

The show began to fall apart long before the first new episode was aired.  Doumanian wasn't an experienced television producer, and she had little knowledge of how to deal or get along with comedy writers or network executives, resulting in bad relations with both.  And worst of all, she didn't really understand SNL-type humor all that well to begin with. 

But there was nothing else to do but forge ahead, assemble a group of untried performers, somehow get some sketches written and produced, and stick the results in front of a skeptical television audience, with critics already sharpening their knives in anticipation.

On November 15th, 1980, I was at a friend's apartment where several of us had been waiting for hours for the new show to appear.  As fans of SNL since its George Carlin-hosted premiere, and unable to imagine how it was going to be with none of its original cast on hand, we were intensely curious to see the results of the show's first major cast and staff overhaul. 

I was doubtful, but cautiously optimistic.  After all, NBC wouldn't allow such a successful and highly-rated staple in its late-night programming to go to the dogs, would they?

And then, finally, after all the months of build-up and anticipation, it was time.  "Saturday Night Live '80" was on the air.

The show opened with the entire cast in bed with host Elliott Gould.  If Elliott seemed a bit dazed, it was because he had shown up for rehearsals earlier that week with no knowledge of the cast change, completely unaware that he had just stepped into the hallowed halls of television infamy. 

The sketch was about -- well, I don't remember what it was about.  I know the very first sketch of the very first episode in '75 was about wolverines, because it was memorable.  But this one?  Not a clue.  All I remember is that it was lame.  Just a bunch of nobodies in bed with Elliott Gould.

After the familiar "Live!  From New York!  It's Saturday Night!", veteran announcer Don Pardo  introduced the new cast:  Charles Rocket, Denny Dillon, Joe Piscopo, Gail Matthias, Gilbert Gottfried, and Ann Risley. 

It wouldn't be until the next week's episode that an ambitious young comic named Eddie Murphy would make his first small (non-speaking!) appearance on the show, but not as part of the cast.  He would, of course, break out and become SNL's most popular player later on, after being allowed to fill in a few unexpected extra minutes at the end of one fateful episode with his audition stand-up routine, which, although not one of his best performances and delivered with understandable nervousness, qualified as a home-run with audiences and network executives. 

But that was later.  This particular night would see no break-out performances or home runs. 

The list of sketches included: "Jimmy Carter's Libido" (punchline: "It was either the erection or the election", ha-ha), "Billy-Gram," "Gail Matthius's Breast Exam," "Nose Wrestling," "The Accordian Killer," "Speed Listening," "The Rocket Report," and "Foot Fetish." 

Not a very encouraging line-up, and the sketches were about as funny as the titles.  The only thing I recall as being remotely of interest was Gail Matthias' "Vicky the Valley Girl" -- in fact, she's the first person I can remember ever doing such a character, and probably the best. 

But the rest of the show slid gradually downward into the abyss.  (I remember it mainly as a disorienting blur of unfunny.)  After slogging their way through it, the cast stood onstage for the traditional goodbye as Elliott Gould pronounced:  "We're gonna be around forever!"  I don't know what other startling predictions he's made during his career, but I hope they turned out more accurate than this one.

In the weeks to follow, viewers were treated to dubious delights such as:

Denny Dillon's S & M Weather Girl whipping a slave-outfitted Charles Rocket who was strapped across her map in the "Leather Weather Report"

Joe Piscopo's gratingly obnoxious "Paulie Herman" character ("I'm from Joisey!  Are you from Joisey?  Heh, heh, heh!")

More sketches with unfortunately descriptive titles such as "White Baby Salesman", "Stop-A-Nut", "Don't Look In The Refrigerator", and "Chapstick Celebrities"

And, perhaps most infamously, the "Who Shot C.R.?" episode (a spoof of the "Who Shot J.R.?" season finale of "Dallas") featuring a running gag in which various cast members are suspected of shooting Charles Rocket.  During the show-closing goodbye, Rocket is seen sitting in a wheelchair, and host Charlene Tilton (a "Dallas" regular) asks him what it's like to get shot.  "Oh, man," Rocket mumbles, "it's the first time I've ever been shot in my life.  I wish I knew who the f*** did it." 

Whoa, Charles!  This is live, network TV in the early 80s, remember?  Well, I guess for one brief, exciting moment, he didn't remember.

This ad-lib ended up costing Rocket his job, and it didn't set well at all with NBC executives who weren't pleased with Jean Doumanian or her stewardship of the show, which had gone steadily downhill in ratings and popularity since its inception. 

The Rocket incident, it turned out, was the excuse they needed to fire her as well -- and just like that, the worst era in the entire history of Saturday Night Live, from 1975 to the present, lurched to an ignominious end.

After that, former ABC producer Dick Ebersol -- who had originally hired Lorne Michaels -- took over, and the purge of the "Really, Really Not Ready For Prime-Time Players" began.  Charles Rocket (naturally), Gilbert Gottfried, Ann Risley, and, later, the rest of the cast with the exception of Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo -- bit the dust. 

Personally, I didn't care at all for most of their replacements, such as the annoying Tim Kasurinsky and the non-descript Robin Duke and Tony Rosato, and I actually thought Gilbert Gottfried and Gail Matthias had shown promise if only they'd been given better material to work with (Gottfried bounced back with a fairly successful solo career, while Matthias later showed up in a syndicated comedy series called "Laugh Trax", which, while no SNL, did indeed give her a chance to be funny at last). 

Jean Doumanian went on to produce a string of films including BULLETS OVER BROADWAY and SUNBURN.  Denny Dillon continued to make small appearances in movies (GARBO TALKS, HOUSE IV, the voice of "Glypto" in ICE AGE) and television (a regular role on HBO'S "Dream On"). 

Charles Rocket never achieved post-SNL stardom but managed to stay busy in the years to come, landing a number of roles in films such as WAGONS EAST, MURDER AT 1600, and DUMB AND DUMBER, as well as showing up on the small screen in "Moonlighting", "The X-Files", and "Law And Order."  He committed suicide near his Connecticut home in October 7, 2005.

Ann Risley appeared in about nine films after SNL, mostly made-for-TV.  Joe Piscopo had a fairly eventful career for awhile after leaving the show, but never emerged from the shadow of his SNL rival, Eddie Murphy, and today appears in movies that you'll probably never run across.  As for Eddie Murphy, well...

In the years since 1980 there have been several cast changes, with some groups coming close to rivalling the original line-up (especially when outstanding performers such as Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Will Farrell, Molly Shannon, and Cheri Oteri were involved), while others threatened to drag the show down to its lowest level once again (just name a few of your least-favorite performers). 

But there's little chance that there will ever be a season as hideously unremittingly just-plain that rancid, maggot-ridden slice of TV history known as "Saturday Night Live '80."

(Thanks to Wikipedia,, and IMDb for some of the factual information used in this article.)


No comments: