Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Buck Henry/Bill Withers, Toni Basil”
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Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Buck Henry/Bill Withers, Toni Basil”

“Buck Henry” (season one, episode 10; originally aired 1/1/7/1976)

Buck Henry hosted Saturday Night Live 10 times, and he first appeared on the show’s tenth episode. (And John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in a theater and fled to a barn, which is a kind of storage facility, while Lee Harvey Oswald shot John Kennedy from a school depository, which is a kind of storage facility, and fled to a theater. None of this means anything, I just felt like mentioning it.) One of the many notable things about Henry’s connection to the show is that it was he, not John Belushi or Lorne Michaels, who suggested that the Toshiro Mifune impression that Belushi did in the Richard Pryor episode had the makings of a recurring bit. The “Samurai Delicatessen” sketch in this episode is the first time Belushi had broken out his kimono and topknot since the Pryor show, and he never broke it out again unless Henry was hosting. It became a standard thing that a Buck Henry episode tended to kick off with a Samurai sketch early in the lineup, because they always killed.

On the third episode that Henry hosted—the 1976 Halloween show—Belushi, swinging his sword over his head with Henry standing behind him, hit Henry with the sword and, in Henry’s words, “took out a piece of my forehead.” (Then Henry, still dazed and bleeding but sticking to the script, had to jump out a hole in the wall of the set, which partially collapsed under him. In an interview he gave for the Archive of American Television, Henry recalled, “There was a lot of blood on the set. It was very interesting. I don’t know what the audience thought was going on.”) When the show resumed, Henry had a bandage on his forehead, and then, other members of the cast started turning up wearing bandages on their foreheads. When the show did a parody of The Omen, with Belushi playing the child antichrist, even the teddy bear Belushi was clutching was sporting a bandage. When it was time for “Weekend Update,” the lead story was a report that “a far gone and downed and drugged-out John Belushi” had attacked Buck Henry with a sword.

In the oral history Live From New York, Henry discusses this improvisational masterstroke—it was “As if the whole show caught a virus”—in terms of how it reflected on the show’s sensibility and the possibilities of the loose, live format. The history of Saturday Night Live is not a story overflowing with people who have a problem taking credit for things. It says a lot about Henry that, given the chance to pin a medal on himself for being the trouper of all time, he’d rather talk about the genius of people around him in turning his little workplace accident into an inside joke that the whole viewing audience could feel that it was in on. (Every time Henry tells this story, he’s always careful to take the blame for the accident---“I leaned in at the wrong moment.” But he’s also said that, as he was being patched up—by Belushi’s doctor, as it happened—he could overhear Belushi telling Lorne Michaels that he could play Buck’s parts in the remaining sketches if the host wasn’t up to continuing.)

Henry’s opening monologue makes fun of the very idea that he has any business hosting the show. As he refers to his own credentials—mentioning that he’s “acted in a few films, a few television shows, I’ve written a few,” but never actually dropping any titles, like The Graduate or Get Smart, as if he didn’t want to be too helpful if anyone in the audience half-recognized him and was trying to place him—a list of names of “PEOPLE WE CALLED BEFORE BUCK” scrolls up the screen. It’s mostly a handy tip sheet of the kind of people who were likely to be on The Mike Douglas Show in 1976, and who were therefore deemed worthy of Saturday Night’s contempt. (I’m not sure how many names on it are even semi-recognizable today; I’m more fluent in this kind of trivia than can possibly be good for me, and I had to Google “Kyle Rote” and “Perez Prado” myself.  I was also surprised to learn that “Yusef Latif” is not the Muslim name of Cat Stevens.)

The opening also aims to neutralize a question that might be nagging the audience by treating it as a joke: Why did the show want Buck Henry to host? The most obvious qualification Henry met for hosting the show in its first season was that he didn’t often do TV, but what exactly did he do? Although he was funny and had appeared in movies, Henry wasn’t a performing comedian, and he wasn’t really a working actor, either. (A few months after this show aired, he would have probably the best, and certainly the most touching, role he would ever have in a movie, as David Bowie’s patent attorney in The Man Who Fell To Earth—the guy who apologizes for inconveniencing his murderers as they’re about to toss him out a window.)

He was, more or less, a professional smartass, a professorial, straitlaced, East Coast version of Terry Southern, who, when he wasn’t co-creating TV series with Mel Brooks and adapting screenplays for Mike Nichols, busied himself with such chores as working on the script for the movie version of Candy and guest-hosting The Dick Cavett Show and making drop-in appearances in underground comedy movies like Is There Sex After Death? He was in the entertainment industry but didn’t seem quite of it, and that must have appealed to Lorne Michaels and his self-styled comedy guerrilla warriors, some of whom might have killed themselves if they’d realized, back then, what kind of conventional show business careers they’d go on to have once they became famous and sought-after. (Yes, Dan “In my new sitcom, I play a wacky Episcopal priest” Aykroyd, I am looking at you.) Henry was also 14 years older than Lorne Michaels, at a time when 14 years’ age difference could seem like the difference between Queen Victoria and Elvis Presley. (In the biggest movie role he would ever have, in Milos Forman’s 1971 Taking Off, Henry had played a middle-aged, upper-middle-class New Yorker who couldn’t figure out how to connect to his teenage daughter.) I don’t know if Saturday Night was consciously looking for a father figure, but it must have realized that, in Henry, it had found one.

When you’re trying to give the appearance of mounting a revolution, a father figure can be of more help than you might think.  The teamwork of Henry (as White House Press Secretary Ron Nesson, who hosted the show himself three months later) and Chevy Chase—a couple of Ivy League-looking white guys who know how to underplay even when they’re being silly, both of whom cultivated reputations for being intelligent and engaged with the world, and whenever Henry was around, one of them actually was—is essential to the show’s first full-scale, after-the-cold-open Gerald Ford sketch, which is like a Mad comic updated and brought to life. His bland exterior works well in the reporter role in the parody of Citizen Kane, a funny sketch that—as Michaels and the others must have realized at the time—is still most notable just for the fact that the show is doing a parody of Citizen Kane, a parody that is plainly the work of people who, in the pre-VCR/DVD/streaming era, have actually seen Citizen Kane. Henry’s dry delivery and mildly authoritative, “I am an emissary from a different branch of hip show business” air also make him great at setting up gags that have to seem genuinely shocking to work at all. To see him devote his full deadpan enthusiasm to bringing on Michael O’Donoghue, for the purpose of doing his “absolutely uncanny” impression of, yep, Mike Douglas having “very long steel needles” driven into his eyes is to see an ironic late-night variation on the old Vulcan proverb that only Nixon can go to China.

Like a good father figure, Henry was that rare thing in the early years of SNL, a calming backstage presence. People who worked on the show back then have spoken about reassuring it was to see him sitting around, reading the New York Times while waiting to be told what was wanted of him this time. There's a reason that he was given the most potentially repulsive recurring role ever lavished on a guest host, the perky babysitter Uncle Roy, that he co-anchored the show's semi-disastrous fling at a prime-time special (anchored to the 1977 Mardi Gras in New Orleans), and that the show got into the habit of having him host the season finale every year. Henry once named Alec Baldwin, John Goodman, Tom Hanks, and Steve Martin as the four “great hosts” who, because of how well they understood the show and what they brought to the table, might conceivably have been regular cast members, which is clearly the ultimate accolade in his book. (He was basically saying that they were friends of his kids who he wouldn't have minding having as kids of his own.) I like to think that fellow Five-Timer's Club alumnus Elliott Gould might almost have qualified, though he would have had one serious deficiency as a regular: Like Henry, he doesn't do impressions. But no one would ever think of talking about Henry that way, because he wasn't that kind of host; as much as some people love their dads, nobody wants Dad around all the time. It was the same with him and the show as it seemed to be with him and “the industry,” that he was in it but not of it. And after hosting the finale episode of the Lorne Michaels/original cast era in 1980, Henry never set foot on the show again, not even in one of those cameo-heavy sketches that established the idea of the Five-Timers' Club. His work here was done.

Stray observations:

  • Although Henry has never returned to SNL, he did work on The New Show, the spangly, highly touted prime-time series that Michaels produced for three months at the start of 1984. I wish somebody would repackage those shows for DVD or something, so I could look at them again. I watched some of the episodes at the time, and remember thinking that parts of them were not nearly as horrible as legend has it, but even people who can't believe how stupid I am now don't think I was any smarter 29 years ago.
  • Toni Basil, who appeared on the show several episodes back with the street-dance troupe the Lockers, returns, dancing by her damn self. 
  • This episode is also notable for the first appearance of the Blues Brothers, sort of. In what feels like a compromise between Michaels' desire to keep pissing the network off by continuing to feature the Bees and his need to humor John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, Belushi and Aykroyd, in Bee costume, perform “King Bee” backed by the similarly costumed “Howard Shore And His All-Bee Band.” This is probably either a landmark moment in television or a travesty, though to find out which, you'd probably need to consult someone who can stand the Blues Brothers.
  • Henry's goodnight remarks, which seem to catch the cast off-guard, are as follows: “I want to thank everyone here for a terrific week. And there's something I'd like to say: The cast, the crew, the the cameras, the booms, the people in the booth, everything, they're incredible people, and the amazing thing about it is, every one of them, they're all gay.” This was reproduced a few months later in a TV Guide article to help illustrate how crazy irreverent this late-night weekend show was.

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