Two Saturday Night Live Christmases: 1975 and 1976

Two Saturday Night Live Christmases: 1975 and 1976

The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn’t sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we’re having a good time. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of television, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day through December 25 to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday special or holiday-themed episode we’re covering that day. We’ve got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit.

When Saturday Night Live first appeared—under the title NBC’s Saturday Night, so as not to avoid anyone confusing it with a prime-time show that had premièred a few weeks earlier and was already staggering toward the tar pits, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell—it was an experiment, a risky venture into uncharted broadcast territory. (Come to think of it, so was Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell.) The idea was to find out if there might be an audience for late-night network programming on weekends, a time slot that NBC had traditionally ceded to its affiliates, which in turn tended to fill it up with old movies and reruns of Johnny Carson. There was another idea tucked inside that one, which was to see if that coveted, college-aged, college-educated young audience that professed to find TV beyond contempt would stay home and sit through commercials for beer and hair products if they were offered something that drew on the sensibilities, and from the talent pools, of magazines like National Lampoon, improv theaters like The Second City, off-Broadway reviews like Lemmings, and movies like The Groove Tube.

A lot has been written about how the original Saturday Night brought the baby-boomers to television, both as an audience and a creative force, and which led to the knowing, hip-sophomoric, implicitly political humor they’d picked up on (from comics who, in turn, were copying their moves from the likes of Lenny Bruce and Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad comics) taking over the mainstream. What isn’t often mentioned is the effect of the early shows, either in original broadcasts or in the reruns or VHS releases that appeared throughout the ’80s, on those who were even younger than the cast members and writers. These shows were thrilling for some of us beneath the intended age bracket because they made being a grown-up look like fun. They were bright and lively and energetic and rude, and for a kid, those are virtues that far outweigh the thing about them that may have most offended Johnny Carson (who famously complained that the show’s breakout star, Chevy Chase, “couldn’t ad lib a fart after a baked-bean dinner”) and that probably most embarrasses Lorne Michaels today: They often are amateur-hour ragged. But if a clown makes you laugh, you’re not likely to complain that his shirttail wasn’t neatly tucked in.

Saturday Night’s first Christmas episode is the show at its most fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants raggedy-ass. I find this aspect of it rather endearing, especially now that I’m old enough to guess that part of the guiding principle behind assembling the episode was that, in a show that aired five days before Christmas Day, nobody wanted to spend a week planning elaborate sketches and then spend any time before the Christmas party striking the sets for them. So there are three mock commercials for “Mel’s Char Palace,” a stun-’em, kill-’em, butcher-’em yourself steakhouse, which basically amount to Dan Aykroyd ranting in front of what looks like a blow-up of a Polaroid photo of Norman Bates’ favorite eatery, while Gilda Radner, standing behind him, awaits her cue to fire up a chainsaw. There’s a short film of host Candice Bergen and people in bee costumes and ice skates goofing around at the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. There’s a cooking-show monologue that’s almost wholly dependent on Laraine Newman’s psychotically happy smile and Swedish-chef accent, a bit involving someone who sounds like Al Franken talking, impenetrably, about the movie Tommy over a screen showing a game of Pong, and a monologue by Radner about her neurotic eating habits over the holidays (“And then I had one candied yam, but I scraped all the candy off and I dipped it in a glass of water before I ate it...”) that, in light of what later became public knowledge about Radner’s struggle with eating disorders, now looks like a nationally televised cry for help. (When Bergen gently tells her that they need to move along, Radner says with a smile, “I was actually making myself sick.”) There are things in the show that don’t qualify as entertaining, but this is the only thing in it that made me a little queasy.

There’s also a lot of music: Garrett Morris singing “Winter Wonderland” with the rest of the cast wearing funny outfits and pitching in on backup, a radiant-looking Martha Reeves doing a pedestrian version of “Higher And Higher” and a surprisingly game attempt to rock “Silver Bells,” and the Stylistics singing “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” a song that had ridden the charts more than a year earlier. I have no idea whether this is indicative of the slower pace of popular culture in 1975 or of who was in New York that the not-yet-big show could book five days before Christmas. (Also pitching in on the musical numbers: the house band, decked out in tinselly angel get-ups, and led by Howard Shore, now best known for scoring movies by David Cronenberg, David Fincher, and the Lord Of The Rings films.) But the guest star who best sums up the anything-goes spirit of early SNL is Maggie Kuhn, the 70-year-old political and social activist who founded the organization the Gray Panthers. I have no idea at whose behest Kurhn was invited on, or if Bergen had anything to do with it, but all that happens is that the two of them sit down in front of the Christmas tree at center stage and, for a few minutes of network time, shoot the shit about age-ism and the emotions that fuel it. “Most of us fear getting old,” says Kuh. “We’re terrified of wrinkles and gray hair.” Bergen, looking like the woman Helen Of Troy always wanted to look like, says, very simply but with a trace of embarrassment, “I am.” I doubt that she’s ever been more likable. I’m not sure than anybody ever has.

The biggest surprise in looking at this episode again is how much sweetness is in it, and Bergen is a major part of that. At the time, she was 29, and, after her appearances in such movies as Carnal Knowledge, T. R. Baskin, and The Wind And the Lion, was widely, and justly, recognized as one of the most beautiful women alive and one of the worst actresses in the history of recorded entertainment. (Charting the progress of her career and the development of her craft by 1971, Pauline Kael wrote, “Hysterical laughing scenes are becoming her specialty, and when she has a hysterical laughing scene, it’s hysterical, all right.”) But on November 8, 1975, she hosted the fourth episode of Saturday Night, and it was like Cinderella’s foot slipping into the glass slipper. It wasn’t that she turned out to be the fireball comedienne that the counterculture had been waiting for; she never really quite made the leap past “good sport.” But after looking miserable and out of place in all those movies, she was suddenly, clearly enjoying herself, and having the homecoming queen come down off her pedestal and beg to play in the poor kids’ sandbox of late-night TV just as clearly thrilled and energized the Saturday Night cast. 

Her return to hosting duties a month later represents the fastest turnaround in the host’s chair in SNL history. She asked to do it, she says in her opening monologue, as “my Christmas present to myself.” Her Christmas present involved a lot of thankless tasks, including delivering the pitch to viewers that they send in their own short films (“Up to two minutes, Super 8 or 16 mm...”) for possible broadcast, and wearing a reindeer hat to do a (real!) commercial pitch for a Polaroid camera, with John Belushi in a Santa Claus suit. Ed McMahon used to do commercials for dog food on The Tonight Show, and he did them without looking as if he wanted to tear out the producer’s heart with his bare hands and eat it on camera. Truth be told, Belushi doesn’t look as if he feels that way either, and Bergen probably had something to do with that. 

She also has a lot to do with selling a later moment when, after the chat with Kuhn, she introduces a short film for the holidays: people smiling, tearing up, and shaking with emotion as they greet loved ones at the airport, back when you could greet loved ones at the airport, to the accompaniment of Simon And Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.” (Paul Simon was always SNL’s ’60s relic-idol and singing poet of choice, an unlikely call that probably had something to do with his willingness to appear on the show and hang out with Lorne Michaels.) When the last image fades, Bergen smiles into the camera and says, “Merry Christmas.” It was at this point—while I was wiping my eyes and trying to regain my composure by thinking of all the people I’d love to beat the shit out of—that I finally realized what Bergen, with her stylish beauty and air of Hollywood royalty, did for SNL that hosts like Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin couldn’t do, and what maybe nobody could do for it now. She gave it permission, for just a little break, to be unhip. 

Bergen came back to host the show for a third time a year later, when it was time for the next Christmas show, on December 11, 1976. By that time, the show was not just an Emmy-garlanded hit, but also turning into a cultural juggernaut that was rewriting the rules of TV at it went along, and it was a lot more likely to lapse into smugness than unhipness. The show had an image to uphold at this point, and most of the raggedness has been smoothed out in this episode; Maggie Kuhn is once again relegated to public television, sharing her viewpoint with Hugh Downs. The musical guest is Frank Zappa, not exactly mainstream but also not exactly Christmas-y. Bergen appears in some sketches, including one with Gilda Radner where she collapses in a helpless, sustained laughing fit after she calls Radner’s character by the wrong name. It’s exactly the kind of thing that can either make live TV an embarrassment or that can seem enchanting if the performer screwing up has built up the kind of goodwill that Bergen enjoyed when she hosted SNL

At the very end, she and the cast hit the ice rink again, but Bergen is called upon to ad lib something, anything, to kill a few seconds because the show is running short, while everyone else skates around behind her. She never looked more like a little girl pleading to take off her princess gown so she could get in the mud puddle with the other kids. But after the credits rolled, Bergen says that she hadn’t enjoyed herself as much as she had the year before. 

At this point in the show’s history, egos had started asserting themselves, and the cast members had stopped being grateful to have jobs doing something they loved and started arguing about screen time and different levels of stardom, and some of them had begun using their money and fame to self-medicate. Chevy Chase had just left the show, eager to pursue a career in horrible movies, and his replacement, Bill Murray, wasn’t on hand. Bergen wouldn’t host again until 1987, after the original cast had moved on, John Belushi had died, Gilda Radner had begun treatment for ovarian cancer, and Bergen herself had become much more of a hard-working, respected “pro” without becoming much more of an actress. The changes in the show had been caused by its success, and they were necessary changes: You can’t skate on amateurish charms forever. That doesn’t mean that what’s been lost isn’t worth mourning.

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