Younger, Sexier, Inherently Doomed Case File #25: Saturday Night Live’s 1985-1986 season
When it comes to the long, complicated history of Saturday Night Live, perception is reality. It didn’t take long for a cultural consensus to emerge that the 1985-86 season of Saturday Night Live, the show’s 11th, was an almost unmitigated disaster that nearly finished the job the aborted 1980-81 season began in destroying a comic institution. Over time, a general agreement that the 1985 season was the worst thing to afflict the show since the reign of “Ayatollah Doumanian,” the arch-villain of the 1980 season, hardened into conventional wisdom.
Vitriolic reviews, low ratings, and the ever-present threat of cancellation played significant roles in the perception that the 11th season was an epic, unsalvageable boondoggle, but the show itself played into this emerging narrative with sketches, conceits, and an audacious season-ending stunt riffing on the widespread perception that Saturday Night Live had sunk to a new low. Like the final episode of the sixth season, the closing sketch of Saturday Night Live’s 11th year essentially scorches the earth—ending with the studio burning to the ground and only standout cast member Jon Lovitz surviving—and impishly repudiates everything that came before it in a flurry of self-negation. It gave viewers the excuse they needed to pretend the show’s 11th season was a horrible nightmare from which they had awoken just in time to view the next season as a giant cosmic do-over.
As with Julius Caesar, the aesthetic evil that the 1985-86 season did lives on after it, while the good was interred with its bones (or cremated, considering the fiery farewell the season received). History has conveniently forgotten nearly everything that was good about the season while zealously treasuring the memories of everything that went wrong: A disgruntled Damon Wayans was unceremoniously fired after deciding to play a guard as a mincing gay caricature (without informing anyone beforehand); Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall reviewed the new William F. Buckley book via a series of fart noises (true to form, “Weekend Update” anchor Dennis Miller nearly saves the moment by snarkily guessing that those crazy kids might just have written that bit themselves); and an ambitious episode “directed” by Francis Ford Coppola went down in flames due to the egomaniacal filmmaker’s obsessive tendencies.
The 1985-86 season’s awful reputation is even more surprising considering it boasted what I consider one of the greatest writing staffs in the history of American television: Carol Leifer, a gifted comedian and author who became the inspiration for Seinfeld’s Elaine as well as a writer on Seinfeld; George Meyer and John Swartzwelder, both of whom became cornerstones of The Simpsons’ golden age; as well as Al Franken, Tom Davis, Michael O’Donoghue, Jack Handey, James Downey, Herb Sargent, Lorne Michaels, Robert Smigel, A. Whitney Brown, and Don Novello, all of whom made seminal contributions to Saturday Night Live before and after the season literally went down in flames. How could this once-in-a-lifetime aggregation of talent have combined to create what is widely considered one of the most embarrassing and disgraceful seasons in Saturday Night Live’s history?
There was a similar embarrassment of talent in front of the cameras as well. There’s a staggeringly odd sketch in the Francis Ford Coppola episode—covered in more detail below—involving a pair of cast members being brought onstage in suitcases with only their heads popping out. Every Not Ready For Prime Time Player onstage is either a former or future Academy Award nominee: The big galoot hauling his castmates onstage is Randy Quaid—who picked up a well-deserved Oscar nomination over a decade earlier for his heartbreaking performance in The Last Detail—while the unfortunate souls in suitcases are Robert Downey Jr. (nominated for both Chaplin and Tropic Thunder) and Joan Cusack (nominated for Working Girl and In & Out). Damon Wayans took characters and ideas from this ill-fated season and used them to launch In Living Color, while Anthony Michael Hall… well, I have it on good authority that he continues to pursue acting—professionally no less!—to this very day.
How could all of this talent have gone so spectacularly to waste? How could Robert Downey Jr., one of our most gifted, funny, quick-witted, and highly paid actors spend an entire year as a full-on cast member of Saturday Night Live at the height of his youthful beauty and exuberance and make almost no impression—or worse, be remembered fuzzily for that “Weekend Update” bit where he feigned flatulence for ostensibly comedic purposes?
I consequently approached the notorious 11th season of Saturday Night Live with exceedingly low expectations and all manner of questions, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the season is better than its reputation suggests. Much better.
“Weird Al” Yankovic tweeted last year that, for critics, his golden age was whenever the critic happened to be 12 years old. The same dynamic seems to hold true for Saturday Night Live, a similarly resilient comic institution. When I was 12 years old in 1988, Saturday Night Live represented the apex of adult-comedy sophistication. I revered Saturday Night Live and was fortunate enough to turn 12 when the show was experiencing one of its best years, but my age had a lot to do with it as well. As an impressionable comedy-obsessed kid on the scary precipice of adolescence, Saturday Night Live wasn’t just a superior comedy; it was comedy. The show’s well-worn conventions helped shape the contours of my comedy brain. I approached Saturday Night Live with a pre-critical mindset. I loved it unconditionally.
So I suspect that part of my fondness for this season of Saturday Night Live is rooted in a potent combination of nostalgia and familiarity. The season-ending sketch all but promised that Saturday Night Live would throw out nearly everything in that lost year and start again from scratch the next season, but the version of Saturday Night Live I came to know and love pretty much began in 1985. Oh sure, a lot of what was introduced in 1985 was purposefully discarded, but a lot of the hallmarks of the show’s late-’80s golden age began here: the sweaty, weasel-faced vaudevillian hamminess of Jon Lovitz, the perma-smirk and loquacious wit of pre-right wing Dennis Miller, and A. Whitney Brown’s overgrown prep-school über-snob persona among them. More than that, the 1985 season shares a genial, tongue-in-cheek tone with the seasons that followed, a tone that delighted in the artifice and ridiculousness of show business (television in particular).
My fondness for this season might also have something to do with the low expectations engendered by both its abysmal reputation and a recent immersion in the dreaded sixth season of Saturday Night Live, which genuinely was a largely laugh-free gauntlet of failed ideas and strained transgression intermittently redeemed by the dazzling charisma of a young Eddie Murphy. A critical case of Stockholm syndrome might also be a factor: If I didn’t find something to like about the season, watching 18 episodes in a three-day span would likely prove unendurable. Thankfully, I found myself laughing a lot while watching the season. While those 18 selectively chopped-to-bits episodes (like the sixth season, SNL’s 11th season is available on Netflix Instant and Hulu in condensed versions that cut out the musical act and sometimes the monologue and run anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes long) didn’t exactly fly by, the whole immersive experience was strangely and unexpectedly painless. Enjoyable, even.
While the 1985 season featured many of the show’s future hallmarks in embryonic form, Dennis Miller entered that doomed year a fully formed comic entity. Miller didn’t just seem confident or sure of himself: He was punch-me-in-my-smug-fucking-gullet cocky. Given what he’s become, it pains me deeply to have to report that Miller owned the “Weekend Update” desk. He didn’t try to win over a hostile audience; he acted as if the audience should be grateful he favored them with his presence.
Like Eddie Murphy before him, Miller understood intuitively that there’s nothing cooler or more appealing to a hostile audience than not giving a fuck. He transformed not giving a fuck into an art form and one-upped the Zen apathy that characterized Chevy Chase’s performance at the “Weekend Update” desk by actively holding the news and whatever joke he was reading in contempt. Through tone, affect, and bearing, Miller managed to convey that the universe was barely worthy of the snide, sneering dismissal that was his default mode. He was nothing but attitude, a smirk, a graduate-school vocabulary, and a sneering delivery that treated everything as an inside joke he didn’t feel the need to let the viewer in on. This was, alas, pretty much the perfect strategy when it came to surviving this season. Everything about Miller seemed to scream, “You don’t like this? Great. I don’t like this horseshit either, and I am contractually obligated to deliver it.” Sometimes he didn’t even bother to harness that too-cool-for-school attitude into jokes. Sometimes he’d just let fly with a bizarre non-sequitur like, “You know, I’m just fascinated by that USA Today weather map” or, “I saw a rerun of Dragnet last night, and what the hell was that all about?,” secure that his offhanded “Can you believe this shit?” delivery would sell the lines in lieu of actual punchlines.
There is a long tradition on Saturday Night Live of new performers addressing the audience directly in the attempt to ingratiate themselves with viewers. Miller subverts this tradition by ending his first “Weekend Update” with the following viciously sarcastic declaration of faux-sincerity: “Ladies and gentleman, we’ve come to the end of our first newscast together, and I hope it’s the beginning of a long relationship, but, you know, if I can drive home one thing tonight, it’s this: [mock earnestness] Hey, I care. [Laughs mockingly] No, really, really, I do. I care more than you can ever imagine. Well, that’s the news, and I’m outta here.”
It was a brilliant dick move. Miller was defining himself as someone who, as his core principle, simply did not care. He represented the apex of snark before that word was coined. Take, for example, his exquisitely worded takedown of the video for “Dancing In The Street,” starring prancing pals David Bowie and Lorne Michaels’ buddy Mick Jagger (who shockingly contributes a cameo in a 1985 episode hosted by his one-time paramour Jerry Hall):
The basic idea is two loosey-goosey rock stars frolicking around an urban slum like Fred and Ginger on an ecstasy tab. Mick is resplendent in a wonderful flouncy parachute thing, and Bowie, ever the fashion chameleon, opted for one of Kitty Carlisle’s pantsuits… Now here, the boys are feeling so kinetic, so kicky that they begin grinding their rear ends together in the hallway of what appears to be a tenement building. You know, nothing puts a smile on the face of an unemployed coal miner than to know there are two middle-aged millionaires in the foyer of his building using their bums to start a fire.
It’s snark to be sure, mean-spirited and directed at the easiest of targets, but it’s also devastatingly accurate. While the rest of the show could be hit-or-miss (though with more hits than history has generally acknowledged), Miller’s verbal missiles almost invariably worked, and if they didn’t, he had a Johnny Carson-like gift for gleaning laughs out of a bombed joke through quick, clever ad-libbing.
Conventional wisdom holds that the gifted Damon Wayans was so flummoxed by the terrible roles he received that, in an act of desperation that doubles as a sad cry for attention, he sabotaged his future on SNL by queening it up in the infamous “Mr. Monopoly” sketch that sealed his doom on the show.
In a strange development, Wayans was invited back to perform stand-up on the season finale, perhaps as an implicit apology for the show’s longstanding tradition of having its black cast members play roles that can charitably be called a little backward and uncharitably deemed horribly racist. Watching the 11th season, I was nonetheless surprised by how much airtime Wayans received. He was a regular contributor to “Weekend Update” as its “uptown financial analyst” (a.k.a. black guy) playing a variation on the “Mo’ Money” character he rode to temporary superstardom on In Living Color. (Hey, remember when Wayans was going to be as big as Eddie Murphy? Oh, but those were a giddy three-and-a-half months in comedy history).
Wayans also figured prominently in one of my favorite recurring sketches of the season. “The Stand-Ups” is an inspired spoof of observational comedians in general and Jerry Seinfeld specifically in which a group of stand-up comedians (whose ranks include Wayans and Jon Lovitz, in addition to game hosts like Tom Hanks) talk to each other using the same “conversational” cadences they use onstage, desperately trying to figure out what the deal is with everything from time zones to fat-free milk. It’s refreshing in part because it’s one of the only sketches Wayans appeared on that doesn’t traffic almost exclusively in his blackness. On the contrary, Wayans has the same hacky body language and vocal tics as his white peers. He’s a stand-up above all, everything else a distant second. The sketch is also rich in inside jokes: Seinfeld, the ostensible inspiration for the bit, is listed on a poster behind the stand-ups slinging canned wisecracks and lame observations along with a number of other comics who either appeared on SNL or wrote for it: Carol Leifer, Sam Kinison, and Steven Wright chief among them.
It’s not easy being black in show business, and it’s particularly difficult being black on Saturday Night Live. So while Wayans didn’t have it easy, his famously troubled stint on the show was a breeze compared to the ordeal faced by Danitra Vance, who, as a black lesbian whose dyslexia made it difficult for her to read cue cards, faced an overwhelming series of obstacles. Vance has a bright, appealing, and sweet presence, but she was given a shameful assortment of caricatures that were a toxic combination of unfunny, ambiguously (or unambiguously) racist, and an affront to her dignity, particularly Vance’s signature character, Cabrini Green Harlem Watts Jackson, a 17-year-old mother of two and a self-styled expert on teen pregnancy.
The season is full of cringe-inducing moments with disturbing racial connotations, but none is more skin-crawling than a cold open of an Oprah Winfrey-hosted episode that begins with Lorne Michaels asking Winfrey why she’s not in her Aunt Jemima costume. (Nothing creepy or disturbing about that!) Winfrey goes on to tell Michaels she won’t be doing any sketches involving maids, Brer Rabbit, or Winfrey in drag as William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Vance, her hair styled like Winfrey’s character in The Color Purple, then gives Michaels (whom she addresses as “Mr. Lorne”) his coffee and, when Michaels asks Vance what he should do about Winfrey’s rebelliousness, she replies he should “beat her.” The joke is that it’s Michaels who ends up getting his ass kicked while Winfrey’s dignity is affirmed. But the cold open serves as an ugly reminder, as if any were needed, that the only roles the show’s all-white writing staff could come up with for Vance entailed the kind of ugly stereotypes Winfrey purposefully refuses to play.
On a less troubling, but somehow even more embarrassing note, this season’s Christmas episode opens with Wayans and Vance performing the “Wrapper Rap,” a Christmas wrap-themed rap song that’s maybe the most racist thing ever, and that includes Jim Crow laws, the political careers of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, and the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. I suspect that if the heads of the American Nazi Party were to watch the sketch, even they’d say, “Jeez, we would never insult the dignity of human beings that way.” The thinking behind the sketch seems to be something like this: “Aw man. Damon and Danitra need a little airtime. But what could they do? Think, think. What race are they? Oh right. They’re black. What do black people do? They rap! Danitra and Damon can rap! And ’cause it’s Christmastime, they could rap about wrapping! Oh man! This shit writes itself!” As a final indignity, the rap ends with Wayans and Vance gleefully explaining, with plastered-on smiles on their faces, “Every day is special when you love each other right, so live from New York, it’s Saturday Night.”
I will be the first to concede that the broad strokes of Saturday Night Live’s ill-fated 11th season do not work. Michaels might have thought he was pushing the show forward, or at least keeping up with the times, by hiring an eclectic cast that included two black people (Vance and Wayans), a lesbian (Vance), a gay man (Terry Sweeney), two overly excitable children (Anthony Michael Hall and Downey Jr.), and an ill-tempered giant (Randy Quaid). But sticking the gay guy in a dress to play Nancy Reagan, and having Vance and Wayans play regressive caricatures, ended up being a huge shimmy backward where racial and sexual politics were concerned. The show never found much for Sweeney, Downey, or Hall to do, either. But though these broad strokes of Michaels’ bold new vision for the show didn’t work out particularly well, there was a lot about the season that did succeed. Whether motivated by desperation or experimentation, Saturday Night Live had much more of a variety-show quality in 1985, thanks to regular appearances by Penn & Teller and Sam Kinison, as well as a guest appearance by a young Steven Wright.
Watching Penn & Teller’s morbid deconstruction of magic as a medium served as a refreshing reminder that before Penn Jillette devoted himself to proving militant atheists can be every bit as obnoxious and insufferable as rabid fundamentalists, he and his silent partner reinvented the lost art of the card trick in bracingly dark, ingenious, and often funny ways. And before Sam Kinison devolved into bloated self-parody, he was a bold, magnetic, and shockingly new presence, a time bomb of a man so overwhelmed by the unrelenting horror of everyday life that the only way he could exorcise his demons was with a series of shattering, primal screams. Then again, it didn’t take long for Kinison to devolve into self-parody: By the time he was crowing about how wonderful it is to have Reagan kicking Libyan ass and Clint Eastwood in charge of his own police force, he started seeming less like a bellowing voice of ugly truth than an angry lout. As for Steven Wright, I can only imagine how strange, wonderful, and different Wright’s act must have felt in 1985.
Quaid and Cusack proved themselves consummate professionals and gifted physical comedians. What they lacked were breakout characters or a moment that said to audiences, who were understandably skeptical of this seemingly random new cast, “This is who I am, this is what I do, and this is what I contribute to the show.” Jon Lovitz, on the other hand, had such a character in Tommy Flanagan, self-appointed president of Pathological Liars Anonymous. An inveterate untruth-teller squeezed into a suit several sizes too small, skin all but translucent from perspiration, eyes shifty, and mouth fixed into a sleazy little grin of self-satisfaction as he improvises yet another preposterous fib, Flanagan encapsulated Lovitz’s onscreen persona: a lovable creep, a preening, narcissistic, delusional jerk we like in spite of ourselves. In his first year on the show, Lovitz found his niche and claimed it repeatedly. This being Saturday Night Live during a particularly insecure, uncertain period, once the show realized audiences loved Flanagan, the writers trotted him out as often as possible. Like so many characters, he traveled a predictable arc from fresh and funny to a little strained to “all right, you can stop with the fucking pathological liar shit already,” but he got a lot of laughs along the way.
Nora Dunn, one of several cast members to survive the season (the others being Miller, A. Whitney Brown, and Lovitz), similarly found her breakout character in Pat Stevens. A former model (as she reminds us at every opportunity), Pat Stevens brought the glib emptiness of strutting down the runway to hosting an amusingly oblivious morning chat show where she failed to grasp even the most obvious of concepts. Dunn was overshadowed by the high-wattage likes of Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Mike Myers, Miller, and Adam Sandler during Saturday Night Live’s second late-’80s/early-’90s golden age, but she established herself as a versatile, accomplished, and often extremely funny utility player in this season.
This season had some crackerjack cast members but, in a reversal of Saturday Night Live’s usual dynamic, it was driven more by writing than performing, and a lot of that writing was sophomoric in strange, exciting, and singular ways. A prime example: In an episode hosted by Griffin Dunne, there’s a wonderfully silly sketch called “You Can Pick Your Friends, You Can Pick Your Nose, But You Can’t Pick Your Friends’ Noses.” The sketch casts Jon Lovitz as the dour host of a public-affairs show devoted equally to discussing the events of the day and keeping its guests (Dunne and Quaid) from picking each others’ noses. At the risk of invalidating everything I’ve done over the course of my 15 years at The A.V. Club (even my epic assessment of The Oogieloves In The Big Balloon Adventure), I found the sketch utterly hilarious. Oh sure, I could be all pretentious and argue that I found the incongruous juxtaposition of puerile playground nonsense and high-minded civic-affairs programming inspired, but the fact of the matter is there is simply some weird lizard part of my brain that’s utterly delighted by the sight of Griffin Dunne trying to stick his finger in his good friend Quaid’s nose while Quaid drones on.
This Saturday Night Live wasn’t just about quirky conceptual comedy. It had its share of conventionally funny bits as well, like “Ad Council,” an inspired parody of commercials that favor artful, enigmatic imagery over bluntness. Then there was “30 Second Count,” about a brave new boxing world where the 10-second count has been replaced by a 30-second count, forcing networks to fill the dead time with interviews conducted with fighters while the fight is still going on, as well as human-interest pieces that are inevitably interrupted by the downed fighter picking his carcass off the canvas before the dreaded 30-second count can be called.
Nowhere is the lunatic ambition of the season more pronounced than in the episode “directed” by Francis Ford Coppola. The stunt episode’s conceit is that, in a desperate attempt to improve the show’s ratings, it has been given over to a megalomaniacal and obsessive Francis Ford Coppola, who fails to understand that live television is, well, live, and not conducive to second takes or his incessant stylization. It’s an audacious, highbrow conceit (for this episode, the opening credits and theme song give way to a moody opening set to music by special guest Philip Glass) that feels more like the kind of loving parody/homage SCTV would attempt, but it’s fascinating all the same. Like much of the rest of the season, the episode is “funny strange” as much as “funny ha ha,” but it’s strange in a way the show had never attempted before and has never attempted again. In the most bizarre segment, Quaid hauls Downey onstage with his head peeking out of a suitcase and tells the audience, “Ladies and gentleman, Francis thought Robert should do something that expressed himself, who he really is. So I present to you, Robert Downey doing a confrontational monologue. Go get ’em, tiger.” Downey then performs an almost avant-garde parody of a pretentious monologue that doubles as a weird, winking riff on the notion that Saturday Night Live cast members need to ingratiate themselves with audiences while expressing something about who they really are. The scene ends up expressing who Downey was at the time all too accurately: a confused young man who did a lot of drugs, and, in spite of his voluminous talent, clearly did not belong on Saturday Night Live, at least not as a cast member.
The show seemed to view Coppola’s involvement as an excuse to let loose with some of the weirdest, most conceptual sketches of a weird, conceptual season, like a bit where George Wendt plays a fish-market proprietor cursed with trying to unload flesh from a giant whale in the back of his store. The sketch illustrates just how far the show would go for the sake of a weird joke, even if it meant building a fake whale the size of an entire set.
The Coppola episode follows an Apocalypse Now arc as Coppola gets in over his head and ends up presiding over an overblown disaster. It ends with an epic crane shot that travels from a set where Hall and Dunn performed a Honeymooners parody to a Vietnam set to the “Weekend Update” news desk to sets covering seemingly every aspect of the show we’ve just watched, while a gleefully retro ditty about the glory of NBC soars majestically in the background. We finally end with George Wendt watching the shot on a video monitor at a bar where bartenders (and producers) Al Franken and Tom Davis comment that it’s too bad Wendt’s not part of the big finale, and ask him what he thought of doing the show. Wendt’s response: “The horror. The horror.” This sequence isn’t funny, necessarily. Hell, there aren’t even any jokes until Wendt references Heart Of Darkness at the end, but it is a lovely, ambitious look at what the frenzied madness of Saturday Night Live might look like through a cinematic visionary’s eyes. It’s also probably the single most-involved sequence, stylistically, in the show’s run. Is it funny? That gorgeous shot feels as much like a valentine to the romance of live television as a goof on Coppola’s persona.
History has a way of dividing seasons, people, and institutions into winners and losers when real life understandably defies such neat categorization. The 11th season of Saturday Night Live wasn’t an unqualified triumph or a complete disaster; it fell somewhere in between. It was filled with funny sketches, wild ideas, and inspired performances even if its faults were glaring, public, and well-documented. So when summing up the big picture of Saturday Night Live’s wild, wooly, and underrated ’85-’86 season, why don’t we go back to our overgrown prep-school pal A. Whitney Brown’s words on the conflict between Iraq and Iran:
Trying to pick a good guy from this bag of snakes makes me feel real stupid. So, for an answer, I asked myself, what would those wretched bums in Flagstaff [where Brown earlier professed to having been an “apathetic vagabond”] have thought? I think they would have taken a swig of Bali Hai, burped, and said, “Kid, you’re an American. Bet on the winner.”
That’s exactly what Lorne Michaels did at the end of this season. He picked the winners of an ill-fated season: the vast majority of a gifted writing staff, Miller, Lovitz, Dunn, and, appropriately enough, Brown himself. But in deeming them the winners, he relegated everyone else and the entire—uneven but often inspired—season to the loser file. Though this is accurate up to a point, it’s still unfair. If the 11th season of Saturday Night Live was a loser, it was a gutsy, lovable loser that lay the groundwork for the winning seasons ahead.
Failure, Fiasco Or Secret Success: Secret Success