Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Candice Bergen/Esther Phillips”
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Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Candice Bergen/Esther Phillips”

“Candice Bergen” (season one, episode four; originally aired 11/8/1975)

The first episode hosted by Candice Bergen is really the first one that, from beginning to end, feels like a perfectly shaped episode of Saturday Night, and not a lab experiment. This is in spite of the fact that, of the first 10 or so people who hosted the show, Bergen probably had the least obvious reason for being there. She has never really played comedy, not even in the few movies then on her resume—the ant-nuke fiasco The Day The Fish Came Out and Mike Nichols and Jules Feiffer's battle-of-the-sexes picture Carnal Knowledge—that, by some exotic definition of the word, might have been called comedies. She had no improv experience, and she had no particular hip credentials or even an especially well-defined public image. At 27, she was best known for looking beautiful and acting stiffly in a string of terrible movies, and for being the daughter of Edgar Bergen.

The show doesn’t refer to any of that. There are no skits based on her better-known movie roles, and the only time her magazine-cover gorgeousness is directly addressed comes when she and Gilda Radner have an onstage chat. It’s not the kind of “show biz people pretending to be best buddies” banter than entertainers of an earlier generation have used to kill time on variety shows. In keeping with the relaxed, up-to-the-minute vibe the show hoped to create, it really does feel like an informal rap session. She and Radner just sit onstage and compare notes on their insecurities, talking about how they affect everything from their dating lives to their politics.

It gets really interesting when the conversation turns to the Equal Rights Amendment, which New York had failed to ratify. Bergen mentions that she voted for it, and was disappointed. Radner—who’s probably trying to be funny, doesn’t mean to seem ridiculous—says that she didn’t vote for it, or against it, either, but mutters something about how she isn’t comfortable with the idea of unisex bathrooms. Bergen gently informs her that there’s a lot of bullshit propaganda surrounding the issue, and that constitutionally protected equality doesn’t mean the same thing as pretending that there aren’t important differences between men and woman. The woman who looks like a model talks sensibly about feminism as a means to social justice, and the funny-face comedian seems confused a little afraid of it, which is probably not the direction most comedy writers would have taken if this had been a scripted scene. It’s a moment that would be unthinkable on the show now; in fact, it would have been hard to imagine it on the show just a couple of years later. But at this point, Lorne Michaels and company must have figured that the audience would welcome a chance to get to know the people onscreen, even it meant allowing them to briefly talk about the things they cared about without even pretending to be kidding.

The Bergen-Radner rap is also consistent in tone and scale with the rest of the episode, which settles into for a casual-revue format with a D.I.Y. aesthetic, stressing the importance of talent and attitude over production values. Chevy Chase establishes a precedent with the cold opening, which serves to introduce his “impersonation” of President Ford. Again, it’s something that would have never have passed muster later in the history of the show. Chase makes no attempt to look or sound like Ford; he just marches out, introduces himself, then proceeds to use Ford’s reputation as a stumblebum to say idiotic things and show off his flair for physical comedy. But at the time, this actually made the bit seem more irreverent.

Then there's the show’s first movie parody, “Jaws II,” which introduced the terms “land shark” and “Candygram” to many a class clown’s lexicon. It manages to get the job done just by cutting back and forth between two sets, one of which isn’t so much a set as Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi sitting at a table in front of a brick wall. There’s also a couple of talk-show skits, including a very funny, and fairly edgy, “Black Perspective” in which Garrett Morris interviews “soul sister” Jane Curtin, the suspiciously light-skinned author of such incendiary novels about the African-American experience as Sharecropper ’75 and Charcoal City. The most meticulously produced in-house comedy but is the filmed commercial for the Ambassador Training Institute, while the most ambitious set is probably the messy office required for a sketch—reasonably political, but not especially funny—in which Morris demands to see his CIA file.

When Bergen isn’t chatting up Gilda Radner or sitting on a couch waiting for her turn with the land shark, she does a parody of a perfume commercial starring Catherine Deneuve, which is also done low-tech, with the host reclining at center stage, reciting her lines in a French accent with a perfume bottle stuck to the side of her head; participates in an opening monologue that turns into an excuse to get John Belushi into his Bee costume again; gives a warm, hands-on welcome to the musical guest, Esther Phillips; and does an actual commercial for the Polaroid camera, abetted by Chevy Chase. She also does plays a reporter whom, for the sake of juicing up a dull story, drives an unoffending Middle Eastern ruler (Belushi) to murderous fury (“I can’t pronounce this name, so why don’t I just call you Raghead?”), and hosts a talk show sketch, interviewing a couple of kiwi hunters—Belushi and Aykroyd, of course—that builds to the guys demonstrating their technique by circling her, grabbing her, and roughly stuffing her in a sack.

Which really pinpoints what Bergen brought to the show, and how she helped to liberate the cast and crew. She might not have been one of the giants of hip ‘70s comedy, but she was a good sport, and ready for anything. Michaels was ready to let his regular cast loose to really show what they could do, and that was a necessary step in the show finding itself. But the special charm of this episode comes from the feeling it gives you that a big part of what they wanted to do was induct Candy into their world and show her a good time. At the very end of the episode, one more thing happens that had never happened before: As the host says goodnight to the audience, the cast gathers around her, as if they’d finally been invited to sit at the grown-ups’ table. Then they each hand her roses. It’s a very sweet closer, because the emotion from both sides looks genuine. From this moment on, hardcore fans would look forward to watching how everyone behaved during the closing credits, to get a sense of just how the past week had gone backstage.

Stray observations:

  • Did I write last week that the previous episode marked the last time that Michael O’Donoghue (who makes one brief, characteristically nasty appearance here, making an evil eight-year-old’s idea of an obscene phone call to a woman who works for an airline) was listed onscreen as one of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players? If so, I lied. In fact, there’s actually a glitch in the opening credits: only one title card—the one listing O’Donoghue, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner—appears onscreen, while the people whose names come before their in the alphabet have to settle for their paychecks, the crowd’s applause, and the thanks of a grateful nation. Thank God that includes Chevy Chase; if he’d been credited and John Belushi hadn’t been, Belushi would have probably burned the building to the ground.
  • It’s easy to lose sight of this now, but at the time, the title “Jaws II” was itself a joke. It had been less than a year since The Godfather, Part II initiated the now-standard practice of tacking Roman numerals onto the titles of sequels. If anyone had done it before, it didn't start a trend, and by the time this episode was broadcast, the only movie I know about that had the chutzpah to follow Francis Ford Coppola’s lead was French Connection II. The real punch line may be that, by the time the actual sequel to Jaws came out two and half years later, there was zero possibility that it would be called anything except Jaws II.
  • Four “Weekend Updates” in, Chevy Chase has finally found his catch phrase: “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.” At this point in the history of the Chase ego, it sounded more like an absurdist one-liner than a smug boast.
  • “Weekend Update” also features the first of its “Editorial Reply” duets, with Jane Curtin delivering a rebuttal while Chase makes funny faces behind her back. Like the return appearance by Garrett Morris doing News For The Hard Of Hearing, it represents an extension of “Weekend Update” into a parody of TV newcasts as a genre, not just a pile-up of topical one-liners.
  • Andy Kaufman does his Foreign Man, messing with the audience’s head by doing one of those stand-up routines so bad it’s surreal, then having a breakdown  (“I don’t know if you are laughing at me or with me!”) that might also be taken for the real thing by the unhip. Let it be noted that this was Kaufman’s third appearance on the four-week-old show, and that this was the first time he spoke, and it wasn’t in his real voice.
  • Kaufman, plaintively, to the audience: “There is nothing I can do but promise I will not be here again.” Prophetic words, thinks Larry the lobster.
  • The Muppets sketch this week is an environmental lecture revolving around a near-extinct but reputedly delicious bird. The title, “Dregs And Vestiges” is gone, but I think I heard a scream during Don Pardo’s spoken introduction that I never noticed before.
  • In the first installment of a least-remembered recurring routine from the early days, a couple of college kids are heard having a conversation while the game of Pong they’re playing takes over the TV screen. These sketches—which, I suspect, were probably inspired by a scene in the 1975 movie Rancho Deluxe where Jeff Bridges and Harry Dean Stanton have an exchange while playing Pong, while we see their faces reflected in the screen—were never especially memorable in the writing or the performing, but at the time, I’ll bet they made the show’s creators feel very modern. Seen now, they get over on the strength of the primitive-video-game nostalgia.
  • Albert Brooks’ short film is a promo for NBC’s midseason replacement shows—“Even a super season has super failures!”—including a hospital drama  (featuring Rene Auberjonois and some guy who, my wife assures me, used to play Dr. Neil Curtis on Days Of Our Lives); a leering, proto-Three’s Company sitcom in which Brooks plays a married man who’s constantly trying to lure his wife and her best friend into a ménage a trois; and "Black Vet", the story of “a young black veteran from the Vietnam war” who “returns home and establishes a practice as a veterinarian in a small Southern town.” (Watch for Dabbs Greer, the preacher on Little House On The Prairie, as the guy who explains that, while he himself is fine with a black doctor looking after his animals, the animals themselves have a problem with it.) Of all the films Brooks made for the show, this is easily the one that fits in most perfectly without breaking the flow of the show itself; it’s basically a long, filmed commercial parody. As it happens, it’s also one of funniest things Brooks has ever done with a camera.

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