“Candice Bergen” (season one, episode eight; originally aired 12/20/1975)
Introducing the first SNL Christmas show, Candice Bergen—who had made history a onth earlier as the show’s first host, and now, six months and four episodes later, was making it again, as the first returning host—apologizes to the audience for not having a real monologue prepared; she’s hosting, she says, as “my Christmas present to myself.” After paying ritual tribute to Lorne Michaels “for creating a show that is so special, with such special people,” Bergen wearing a sparkly black, green, and pink blouse that's a holiday parade all by itself, throws it over to Martha Reeves, who sings “Higher And Higher.” Later in the show, Reeves sings “Silver Bells,” and in between, the Stylistics appear, sans proper introduction, and just bust out with “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” And in case anyone wasn’t feeling seasonal enough, Garrett Morris sings lead on “Winter Wonderland,” backed up by Howard Shore and the house band, the other regulars, and Candice Bergen.
The multiple musical numbers constitute a Christmas present to the singers, to the audience, and to the writers, who had thus much less air time to fill. This episode is really Saturday Night’s Christmas present to itself: After a couple of historic episodes with high-voltage hosts, nobody can blame the cast and the writers for wanting to take things easy before holiday break. Not that the episode feels lazy or half-assed. The desire to entertain is very much present; this is also the show’s Christmas present to the faithful audience that it had attracted during its first few months on the air. There are a lot of singles numbers and duets, bits that give the technical crew a chance to kick back a little, just point the camera at one performer or a couple of performers, and then let them go for broke.
You know you’re seeing a cast member treating himself when Dan Aykroyd repeatedly does a high-speed, high-volume riff straight into the camera, in a series of commercials for a steakhouse where the customers kill and butcher their own cows. (Aykroyd always loved to play abrasive characters, and unlike John Belushi or Chevy Chase, he had both the technique and the control he needed to prevent it from ever seeming that it might just be the actor himself who made you want to hide behind the couch.) At the opposite extreme, Belushi and Gilda Radner, neither of whom ever made it to Hollywood’s A-list for romantic leads, get to do a sweet, mild-mannered mime sketch in which they wordlessly flirt in a laundromat. (Radner also does another bone-chilling-in-retrospect monologue about her compulsive eating, which ends with Bergen telling her that they need to get on with the show, and Radner saying that she was starting to even gross herself out. Happily, there’s Emily Litella to make up for it; in her second appearance as part of the “Weekend Update” news team, she comes out strongly against the trend of encouraging employers to fire the handicapped.)
Laraine Newman does a strange, engaging Swedish chef routine, which must set some kind of record for how long it requires Newman, ‘70s late-night comedy’s answer to Vampira, to keep relentlessly smiling. Chevy Chase has “Weekend Update,” but he also really distinguishes himself playing Gerald Ford and taking his fall during the cold opening. Chase’s falls were always well-executed, but this is the first one that really accounts for how legendary they were to become, because it’s the first one where it really looks like he’s going to kill himself. (He climbs a ladder and basically rides a tall, toppling Christmas tree to the floor.) Even Don Pardo gets a couple of voice-over comedy bits to himself, touting items from his digital gift catalog. (I guess “digital” seemed like a funny word back in 1975.) Only Jane Curtin never really gets to take center stage; she spends the bulk of her onscreen time playing Mrs. Dan Aykroyd. She looks kind of miserable during “Winter Wonderland,” as if she didn’t have the holiday spirit, but is that the reason for her low profile, or is her low profile the reason for it?
The most fully shaped sketch is a beauty: Bergen comes home and catches her brother (Chevy Chase) prancing around, dressed as a Christmas elf. She’s shocked to discover that he’s “a latent elf.” “You were always a red-blooded American boy going off to football practice.” “Only I wouldn’t go off to football practice,” says Chase. “I’d go off to some leafy glade and make merry.” I can personally testify that this is funny even if you see it when you’re too young to get the gay subtext, let alone put it together that “elf” is a synonym for “fairy.” (Come to think of it, it may be funnier if you don’t get it.) The silliness here is bone-deep, which somehow enhances the holiday-party effect. I could say the same for the best really dark joke in the show, the “Weekend Update” item about “the Texas chain letter massacre,” a mass murderer who sends out letters reading, “Dear Occupant, send eight copies of this letter to friends and then kill yourself. Please don’t break the chain.”
The episode also features another casual chat between Bergen and someone, this time Margaret Kuhn the then-70-year-old activist for the rights of the elderly; a short film of Bergen and the Bees cavorting at the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center, which serves as a notice inviting viewers to send in their own short films, since Albert Brooks’ contract was almost up and soon they wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore; and a poignant, no-room-at-the-inn sort of Muppets sketch in which nobody comes to King Ploobis’ big Christmas party because they’re all at the big bash being thrown by the Bees. (By now, the in-joke about how nobody wanted the Muppets on the show had advanced to the point where they were even considered lower down on the totem pole than the once-hated Bees. In the smallest of mercies, Bergen finally drops by and sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Lily Tomlin having seemingly inaugurated some weird tradition of hosts singing duets with Scred.)
If the Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor episodes showed SNL pushing the envelope of network TV, just the way the show had promised it would, this one shows just how much sweetness the format could be made to support without turning into an Andy Williams special. (The show mostly discharges its duty to be both “generational” and edgy in a brief sketch about Chase calling home to his father, Dan Aykroyd, to tell him that he’s been arrested, and, from the sound of it, was an accomplice of the Texas serial killer Dean Corll. Chase explains to his pop that he assisted “Mr. Eli” in the torture-murder of “26 boys;” when Aykroyd tells Mom, Jane Curtin, that their son is in trouble with the law, Mom is just grateful to hear that it’s not anything to do with marijuana.) Mostly, this episode shows SNL finding its way to express sweet feeling in its own way, as in the short film of people meeting friends and family at the airport, set to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”—a scene that only gets more poignant as standards of airport security that lax become more and more distant a memory. In the oral history Live From New York, Lorne Michaels says that the first Bergen show was a triumph—which it was—but that this one wasn’t as good. I take that as the sound of a hardened old pro who can scarcely believe he was once young and human enough to sign off on something like this. But he’s to be congratulated for it.
- Somebody needs to do some research and determine the exact point at which the whole country got on board with an agreed-upon pronunciation of Ronald Reagan's last name. In earlier installments of "Weekend Update," Chevy Chase went with the one that that rhymes with "vegan." Tonight, he's saying "Ray-Gun," but Garrett Morris is using "Ree-gan."