“Buck Henry” (season one, episode 21; originally aired 5/22/1076”/ “Elliott Gould” (season one, episode 22; originally aired 5/29/1976)
Although these are the last two episodes of the spring, neither is technically the season finale; SNL returned that year with two new, back-to-back episodes in the middle of the summer. Taken together, though, these both feel like a season finale, a feeling that’s reinforced by the presence of two beloved return hosts. (The most beloved, most-returning host of the early years, Steve Martin, won’t be making his first bow until the second season.) The hosts aren’t the only callbacks. Once again, Michael O’Donoghue does his sicko act, “impersonating” Tony Orlando reacting to having steel needles driven into his eyes. (He’s accompanied by a pair of black woman, representing Dawn.) Leon Redbone once again a musical guest, on the Gould episode. And Lorne Michaels makes one more onscreen pitch to the Beatles. Once again, someone does something onstage—in this case, it’s Garrett Morris singing a Schubert aria—while a written text undercutting him scrolls up the screen.
It’s not just people doing the same thing they’ve done before with new words, either. One sketch, in which concern is shown over Gilda Radner’s uvula, is a more spirited performance of a sketch from the third episode, without much changed, except that it used to be the condition of John Belushi’s pancreas that was keeping people up nights. And “Show Us Your Guns,” a filmed number that first appeared in the premiere episode, is given one more trip around the block. I’m not complaining. These are, on the whole, triumphant episodes. There’s a rationale, beyond how hard it is to come up with new material, for doing something again just for the sake of getting it right, and “uvula” is a funnier word than “pancreas.” In 1976, when a bit like “Show Us Your Guns” wasn’t just broadcast on TV as a prelude to loading it onto the Internet so people could do the promotional department’s work for them by sending it around to their friends, it was almost a public service to rerun it a few times.
It’s just a little sad to see the recycling impulse creeping in this early in the show’s history, knowing where it would lead. It’s been exciting for me to revisit the show’s first season, partly to see what its creative energy was like before it began to lean on “recurring characters” as a crutch. I doubt there are many people who would deny the writers and actors on a show like this access to a few repeatable, fail safe routines, but at some point, Michaels began to see recurring characters—characters that bring down the house every time they shuffle in front of the live audience, as if the real point of this satirical revue is to give Uncle Charlie and Aunt Kate the chance to brag that when they went to New York, they were in the same room as the fat weirdo who whinnies about his kitty cat—were the very life’s blood of the show.
It’s an attitude that has led to such debacles as the 1994 sketch in which David Spade and Helen Hunt play flight attendants who reply to every complaint or request with an insincere smile and “Buh-bye!” That sketch represented a watershed moment for the show, because when it was broadcast, NBC reported a staggering number of complaints, from viewers and critics alike, about how over-dependent the show had become on annoying, one-joke recurring characters. The show’s representatives professed to be baffled by this, because the flight attendants weren’t recurring characters; they’d never appeared before. But they clearly had the markings of characters that would be back, and as they lingered pointlessly onscreen, doing nothing but hammering their intended catch phrase into the viewers’ skulls, it was unmistakable that characters on SNL achieved “recurring” status now because they were so popular with audiences, but because they were so easy to write and perform. (Have actor enter, insert play on actor’s name and the phrase “Ma-kin’ copies!” Repeat 3000 times.) And in fact, Michaels did have Spade do his character again, perhaps in the same spirit that, having gotten a single note from the network after the premiere, telling him to drop the Bees, he made the fateful decision to keep bringing them back.
Michaels could have learned something from this, but probably all he learned was that the viewers are nuts and he should ignore all feedback from them. In the end, this attitude has led to such embarrassments as last season’s Justin Timberlake show, which was predicated on the notion that, since Timberlake is such a game, talented guy, a hosting gig should amount to a greatest-hits package in which he doesn’t do anything he hasn’t done before—and, so long as that spirit is already permeating the building, why not call Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd in and see if they can still squeeze into their Czech brothers costumes? The upshot is that several people who once took pride in doing things that no one had done on TV before are now actually self-congratulatory about how relentlessly they can repeat themselves.
The acknowledged sketch-comedy masterpiece in these episodes is “The Last Voyage Of The Starship Enterprise,” a marvelously detailed Star Trek parody with a very fan-geek sensibility—which is a surprise coming from the writer, O’Donoghue, who you might not think of as the kind of person who would declare fealty to a cult sci-fi TV show. Maybe that, too, is in indication of how much the world has changed. Here’s another: The network suit played by Gould who appears on the deck of the Enterprise to explain the show’s cancellation has nothing to say about demographics or desirable marketing niches, but simply “low Nielsen ratings.” Chevy Chase’s Mr. Spock explains to his captain that Nielsen ratings “were a primitive system of estimating television viewers, once used in the mid-twentieth century.” In the original script, he had gone on to say that the Neilsens were later found to be tremendously inaccurate. Would that line have been cut if SNL’s Nielsens hadn’t started creeping upwards?
- Buck Henry’s best sketch is a near-solo number in which he plays a phone-in TV host whose phones don’t ring. Though not strictly a callback, it’s almost an homage to one of the precursors of SNL, The Groove Tube, in which Ken Shapiro does a bit as a TV news anchor who remains trapped on camera after he has no new left to deliver.
- You probably don’t have to know that the Italian director Lina Wertmuller was going through a vogue at the time to appreciate Laraine Newman’s impression of her in “Not For Ladies Only.” I still think that Newman was, except maybe for Dan Aykroyd, the most freakishly daring and gifted of the original (pre-Bill Murray) SNL cast. According to the show history by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, she found it harder and harder to get material on the air as the show progressed—because, in her eagerness to try different things, she had limited interest in developing recurring characters.
- After Gordon Lightfoot’s second number on the Buck Henry episode, Belushi comes out in his samurai gear and cuts the strings on Lightfoot’s guitar, presumably because it was the only way he could be talked out of crashing another musical performance as Joe Cocker. This does give those who’ve seen Belushi’s guitar-smashing scene in Animal House a chance to compare Gordon Lightfoot’s comedy technique with that of Stephen Bishop. Bishop wins this contest, and not by a nose.