The Paul Simon-hosted second episode of Saturday Night Live is unique in the show’s storied history. The future comic institution was still mutable enough that Michaels and the gang weren’t shy about changing the show's format dramatically to suit its hosts. George Carlin is coked out of his gills and scared of acting in sketches? Fine, he’ll just do extra stand-up and leave the sketches to the professionals. Paul Simon is maybe a wee bit more comfortable singing than doing comedy? Fine, for one week only Saturday Night Live will morph temporarily into a Paul Simon & Friends variety special, complete with an impromptu Simon & Garfunkel reunion.
Michaels bent over backwards to accommodate his close personal friend Paul Simon but Art Garfunkel wasn’t anywhere near as lucky. Heck, Art Garfunkel wasn’t even his own damn musical guest, despite lending his castrated-angel falsetto to four, count ‘em, four songs. No, that “honor” went to adult contemporary also-ran Stephen Bishop.
Ironically, music was easily the weak link in an otherwise great-to-classic episode of Saturday Night Live. Garfunkel is rightly or wrongly considered Andrew Ridgley to Paul Simon’s George Michael and Pras to Simon’s Lauryn Hill. He’s the prototypical “other guy” despite decades of solo work, a sideline in poetry and a film career that started out strongly with key roles in Catch 22 and Carnal Knowledge only to fizzle out in the eighties and nineties. Semi-fun fact: Garfunkel was reportedly a finalist for the Greg Kinnear role in As Good As It Gets.
I’ve gotten criticized before for making generalizations about musical acts based on the one or two songs they performed on Saturday Night Live thirty-two years ago. But isn’t being a musical guest on SNL all about first impressions? You have to wow audiences with your eight minutes in the spotlight or you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. O.K, here’s a question for y’all: what artists have you been turned onto by Saturday Night Live? Whose SNL performance made you want to avoid them like the bubonic plague? The one that sticks out in my mind is Lily Allen. I knew nothing about her, saw her on SNL and thought, “Wow, those are some catchy fucking songs.” The fact that they were later revealed to evil catchy fucking song was icing on the cake.
Garfunkel has a beautiful, ethereal voice that’s purty like a girl’s but judging by the four songs he performed tonight his solo material is sleepy to the point of being coma-inducing. The divergent careers of Simon and Garfunkel prove that great material and songwriting genius beat the holy living shit out of having a dynamite set of pipes every time.
As for Bishop, the most satisfying part of his performance today came when he tried to get into a KISS concert by identifying himself as the hitmaker behind “On and On” in a sketch and John Belushi’s doorman/security guy bars him from entry on the grounds that he hates that fucking song.
But enough about the narcotizing tunes: onto the sketches. After a cold open that only really makes sense after a “Weekend Update” bit about Charlie Chaplin’s corpse being stolen Garfunkel uses his monologue time to sing “What A Wonderful World” only to have his speaker blow out. John Belushi bounds onstage in angry-hipster mode and proceeds to do a funny spiel about how NBC doesn’t appreciate the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, persuasively arguing “There’s no reason why Garret Morris should have to get up early and drive Jane Pauley to work every day.” As students of the show know, he’s definitely kidding on the square.
A clever, very comedy writery fake commercial for a high-end watch so complicated it takes three people just to operate it follows and then a knockout Tomorrow Show sketch where Dan Aykroyd’s pitch-perfect Tom Snyder accidentally/obliviously outs and humiliates an abused husband (played by a typecast Garfunkel largely in shadow) hoping and failing to hide his identity to save himself from public ridicule. Snyder summarizes the man’s Job-like existence for viewers just turning in by identifying his guest as a man who is “afraid of his wife…cries in the dark” and is “a battered masturbator.”
As a third-generation Chicagoan, I experienced a neat little shiver of recognition during a Saint Patrick’s Day sketch where the ghost of Richard J. Daley (played by Belushi) shows up at an Irish bar in Chicago with a turkey and magically uses his connections to get “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra” plugged into the jukebox because no Irish bar in Chicago should be denied that song. Even in the afterlife, Daley has pull. The sketch wasn’t that, you know, funny, but c’mon, a sketch about Daley and Chicago machine politics! That's kinda awesome. It’s strange to think that Chicago was once synonymous with sleazy, corrupt politicians. It’s good to know those days are long behind us.
From there the show leapt from high to high, with two stone-cold classics. Andy Kaufman returned in a fancy, albeit hideous tuxedo (that’s what happens when you buy your clothes with Tony Clifton) to announce in a vaguely British accent that while he usually comes on and does a crazy character he’s going to be himself that night and favor them with a reading of The Great Gatsby so that they can have a highbrow discussion immediately afterwards about whether it is or is not the greatest novel in American literature.
The Saturday Night Live studio audience considered themselves supremely hip and in the know yet as Kaufman drones on and on the crowd turns on him and begins to boo. Are they merely “playing” the role of the annoyed crowd for the sake of the bit or are they genuinely irritated? I suspect the answer is a little of column A and a little of column B.
I’m something of a crazed Gatsby super-fan. To me, it’s a book that practically begs to be performed live, albeit not in a nightclub or live-comedy venue, which is where the meta-comedy comes in. The capper of the bit is that Kaufman gets so irritated by the crowd’s irritation that he snippily insists he won’t play a record to finish his bit. He eventually relents but instead of playing the “Mighty Mouse” theme the record Kaufman plays is of himself reading The Great Gatsby. End scene!
In an even more famous bit, the episode’s short film is the haunting, depressingly prophetic/ironic Don’t Look Back In Anger. The elegantly filmed black-and-white short finds an ancient John Belushi, buried under layers of old-man make-up, visiting the graves of all his castmates. Disconcertingly enough, the first grave he visits is that of Gilda Radner, who would be the second original castmember to die an untimely death.
Belushi rattles off the sad fates of his onetime colleagues as he passes their graves: Jane Curtin died in a cosmetic surgery accident, Aykroyd died on his Harley (leaving his best buddy Belushi to identify his remains in just one of the many moments in the short rife with bleak irony) while Garrett Morris died of a heroin overdose.
As you might imagine, it is agonizingly hard to watch Anger in light of what was to come but it’s also a gorgeous elegy for Belushi and an absolutely brilliant showcase for his vulnerable, dramatic side. The piece, directed by Tom Schiller as part of his “Schiller’s Reel” collection, is wonderfully cinematic, a perfect short film.
The piece ends, heartbreakingly enough, with Belushi, inhabiting for a brief, golden moment the old age he’d never come to experience firsthand, commenting wistfully, “The Saturday Night show was the best experience of my life. And now they’re all gone and I miss every one of them. Why me? Why did I live so long? They’re all dead. I’ll tell you why: cause I’m a dancer!” before doing an exuberant Zorba-style jig. If only it were that simple, friend. If only it were that simple.
—Garfunkel: best Jewfro in existence.
—“Excuse me, I’m Paul Stanley’s brother. I’m in the Air Force and bailed out over the city to get here.”
—The “Looking for Mr. Goodbar Sleepytime playset” was also utter genius. It felt very Michael O’Donoghuey to me. Can anyone confirm or deny?
—I wasn't able to include any clips this time around but "Look Back In Anger" should be available on Hulu. That shit is highly recommendedified.