"Dyan Cannon"

“Dyan Cannon” (season one, episode 20; originally aired 5/15/1976)

At the end of this episode, the host, Dyan Cannon, gushes about how “It’s over with so quickly!” and, thanking the writers and Lorne Michaels, gushes, “I’ve never had a better time in my life. It was really a fabulous night.” She probably meant it. As an actress, Cannon had a track record of being the best thing in some really crummy movies, and in 1976, movie actors did not sign on for a TV show, even the hot, hip zeitgeist show of the moment, expecting to find better material than they were used to performing on 30-foot screens.

Cannon is the best thing about this episode, too. She doesn’t have any great moments comparable to those of Madeline Kahn in the previous episode, but that comes down to the material. She does have a perfectly introductory routine, doing a jazzy, spoken-word number, with Paul Shaffer accompanying her on the piano, in which she talks about her dream of being swept off her feet by a man on a while horse. It ends with Shaffer jumping up, throwing her over his shoulder, and toting her off-stage. It’s hard to say which is the bigger surprise: The very notion of Paul Shaffer expressing a libidinal urge, or the news that he had the upper-body strength to pick up Dyan Cannon.

It’s also the setup for a dire running gag: Throughout the evening, all the male cast members take turns trying to impress Dyan with how well they’re delivering on her dream, but apparently overwork and excessive cocaine use has damaged their hearing, and they all screw up: Dan Aykroyd tries to show that he’s hoarse and succeeds in sounding a lot like Scred). John Belushi appears riding piggyback on a fellow named Horace (played by writer and “Spud” star Alan Zweibel), and Garret Morris, in a real breakthrough for taste and racial stereotyping, comes on in a pimp hat and introducing her to some ho’s. I guess Michaels, who soon became famous for the amount of material he would allow to be developed in the course of a week before cutting it hours before show time, felt committed to this shit because he didn’t want to lose the punch line: Chevy Chase, riding up during the closing credits, not just on horseback, but shirtless. Hello, ladies!

Was anything cut from this episode? There’s a long, dead-on-its-feet sketch with Cannon and Chase, trying to explain to her clueless husband (Aykroyd, of course) why he found them rolling around on the sofa together when he came home early from work. There’s also a hopeless bit about a priest with hiccups delivering a eulogy, and a strange skit in which Cannon sings “Johnny Angel” in her parents’ living room while a trio of Hell’s Angels trash the place and tie up Mom and Dad before carrying her upstairs to the bedroom. (Did Cannon have a clause in her contract stating that she wouldn’t have to walk whenever a reason could be found to have her carried?) The best thing about it is the chance to see Cannon looking adorable in pigtails. In fact, from sketch to sketch, most of the interest is generated by the prospect of seeing her next fashion change. Did she bring her own clothes?

There’s also a surfeit of TV commercial parodies, the bulk of which eschew actual satire for pure shock laughs. Laraine Newman drinks from a glass labeled “PHLEGM”; John Belushi hawks a toothpaste for dead people; Dan Ayjroyd sells the bathwater of celebrities; Anita Bryant (Jane Curtin), then best known as a washed-up singer with an endorsement contract for Florida orange juice and not yet an anti-gay rights activist, is executed by Arab terrorists. The funniest bit of the night is a talk-show sketch in which John Belushi, using a funny-foreigner voice, offers a running commentary to what’s meant to be a film promoting tourism in Bulgaria. It’s nice to see him get a chance to cut loose a little while remaining seated and not rampaging through the set. (He also does his Joe Cocker impression during one of the appearances by the musical guest, Leon Russell. The bit is starting to look as long in the tooth as Leon.)

This is probably the lamest episode since the one with Robert Klein and ABBA, and it’s certainly the lamest one since the show hit its full stride. What accounts for such a sudden drop-off in quality? The likeliest explanation I can offer has to do with the fact that, two days after it aired, Saturday Night Live won the Emmy for best Comedy-Variety Or Music Series, a category that it shared with only one other contender, the venerable Carol Burnett Show. The show also won Emmys for director Dave Wilson, for Chevy Chase (“Outstanding Continuing Or Single Performance By A Supporting Actor In Variety Or Music”), and the entire writing staff. The recipients were on hand to accept their awards, and I suspect that in the week leading up to the reading of their names, they must have been a little… distracted, maybe too distracted to do anything but pull stuff out of their bottom drawers and try to scrape most of the mold off it.

This was an important win for the show, at a ceremony not usually inclined to seize upon its first chance to recognize something new. Many people who were paying attention at the time, even think that it was from this point on that NBC began to think of SNL as something to take pride in and crow about, that might be on the air for a while. (It was already critically acclaimed and a hit with its intended audience, but there had been rumblings suggesting that the network assumed it wouldn’t be much longer for this world after they had found just the right prime time vehicle to drop Chevy Chase into; who knew how many people would want to watch this sordid silliness after the tall, good-looking guy was gone? Everyone working on the show would have been pretty tired by now, and it’s easy to imagine Lorne Michaels dropping signals that, if they were fated to put out a dud show at some point as the first season was heading down the home stretch, it would be a lot better if it happened two days before the Emmys than a week after, just in case they won something, and that inspired anyone who hadn’t seen the show to check to find out what the noise was about.

 

Stray observations:

  • In her monologue, Cannon says that the dream of meeting a perfect man on a white horse is the only dream she’s ever had that’s never come true. The woman was married to Cary Grant. Just saying.
  • Gary Weis’ film cuts back and forth between newlyweds at Niagara Falls talking about how happy they are to be together with interviews with jaded investigators who specialize in providing unhappy spouses with evidence of their partners’ infidelity. It’s actually one of the high points of the evening.