“Desi Arnaz” (season one, episode 14; originally aired 2/21/1975)
Lorne Michaels pitched the first season of Saturday Night Live at people who didn’t think of themselves as TV viewers, and he staffed it with people who professed indifference or outright hostility to television. Chevy Chase, who’d already appeared in the The Groove Tube, the movie composed of parodies originally produced on videotape by the “underground television” collective Channel One, later said that the show should be a vehicle to take apart television. “Satirize it and rip it to pieces, show it for what it is,” and that he left after a year because he thought the mission had been accomplished. (Then he went into movies, which, to judge by the projects he agreed to do, he didn’t think needing taking apart or ripping to pieces.) One of the most interesting things about the show in its early days is how this attitude existed alongside a passionate nostalgia for early and unappreciated TV, the stuff that the actors and writers had grown up on, or had once appreciated because it seemed “different,” a cause for hope.
Any apparent inconsistencies in anything Chevy Chase says can probably be chalked up to his being full of shit, but other prominent players in early SNL history seem to have had profoundly mixed feelings about TV. In his initial interview with Lorne Michaels, John Belushi reportedly told his future employer that he had a TV set, but it was hard to watch, because the screen had spittle all over it. But Belushi was the one person on the show who took Milton Berle’s side when Berle—“a great man,” in Belushi’s estimation—hosted the show in 1979 and helped deliver what, between the racist jokes in the monologue, and the maudlin rendition of “Setpember Song,” Michaels himself judged to be “our worst show ever.”
And nobody on the writing staff affected loftier airs, or expressed his contempt for mediocrity and the common rabble more virulently, than Michael O’Donoghue. But O’Donoghue also wrote “The Last Voyage Of The Starship Enterprise,” an affectionate, lovingly detailed Star Trek parody (featuring an affectionate, hard-won William Shatner impression by Belushi) that’s a plausible candidate for the best-loved sketch in the show’s entire first season. A few years later, after SCTV had decisively taken the “hip late-night TV comedy” crown away from SNL, O’Donoghue stopped bad-mouthing the deteriorating, beside-the-point SNL of the early ’80s just long enough to sneer at the new kids in town. They weren’t revolutionaries, the way he and his posse had been; they just made fun of TV. That’s probably the funniest unintentionally funny thing that O’Donoghue ever said. SNL did a lot of things besides make fun of TV, but whether the fun took the form of ripping the medium apart or reveling in the unlikely fact that the actors and writers were on TV themselves, there isn’t anything it did better.
The Desi Arnaz episode is SNL’s purest sustained expression of the its sheepish but heartfelt love of old TV. After the cold opening, Arnaz comes out and acknowledges the adulation of cheering studio audience. (“Oh, aren’t you nice. God bless you.”) He claims, improbably, that SNL is “one of my favorite shows,” talks about how much fun the past week has been, and then he says how much he likes the special cigars the cast gave him as a present: “I had never heard of the brand before: Acapulco Gold!” (“And as soon as I pass it around, we’ll be right back.”) Desi does dope humor! When Milton Berle hosted three years later, he seemed like a has-been comedian whose inability to bend with the times was embarrassing. Arnaz, with his leathery skin and white hair, looks both magisterial and ravaged: A survivor, to invoke the 1970s’ most overused term of praise. He mugs more than he did when he was younger, or maybe, with his older features, it’s just more noticeable: Grinning and glowering and popping his eyes, he can be a bit of a gargoyle. And, like Berle, there’s something of a show business dinosaur about him. But there’s something undeniably impressive about seeing a living, breathing dinosaur, especially one who’s making an honest effort to adapt to your strange new ways.
The differences between the Arnaz and Berle shows say a lot about the differences between Arnaz and Berle. But they also say something about how much better SNL was, in the early years, at setting a frame around its hosts that helped define the audience’s reaction to them; Berle had the great misfortune to stink up the stage with his Puerto Rican jokes at a time when a dud host offered those of us in the peanut gallery an opportunity to chatter about how the show itself had grown stale and out-of-touch. Arnaz isn’t just a rich old ham who’s agreed to spend a week in New York hanging out with his son—Desi, Jr. appears in several sketches, sometimes playing his dad when he was younger, which given the distance between them in terms of charisma, is a stretch—and making fun of his old TV shows because he has a book to promote. He’s the first great TV performer-businessman, the man who turned his marriage into a hit show and his wife into a star, who invented the multiple-camera sitcom and the rerun. He’s been alive forever, and he held up the very first cue card. (At one point, when my wife, who’s a registered nurse, walked through the room, I asked her to look at what I was watching and guesstimate Desi’s age. She reckoned he was about 70, then asked to take it back—75, 76 maybe. Desi, who died of lung cancer at 69, was a month shy of his fifty-ninth birthday. Nicotine, too, is a hell of a drug.)
Pop culture success can be simultaneously liberating and deranging. Think about it: Through the fifties, into the sixties, and then, thanks to syndicated reruns, continuing on and on, at the same time that the country was tearing itself apart over issues of race and those least comfortable with desegregation were defining themselves by their hostility to big cities, a Latin bandleader based in a New York nightclub and his wife, a nice Irish-American girl with a taste for show biz nightlife, were, by general acclamation, accepted as America’s Couple. SNL doesn’t do anything to subvert or undercut Arnaz, but it celebrates him in a way that heightens your awareness of just how weird everything about him and his career was. And he really does seem to be having a great time, whether he’s chomping on a cigar in the parody of The Untouchables or reciting “Jabberwocky” (in a bit introduced by Aykroyd, who appears to be working on an early draft of Leonard Pinth-Garnell).
This episode may be best-remembered for the musical numbers, and when Desi performs “Cuban Peter” (with Desi, Jr. pitching in on percussion and Laraine Newman in a Cuban Miranda get-up) and “Babalu,” two songs you might think he’d have been sick of doing, he throws himself into his work with a manic intensity that’s inspiring, contagious, and a little bit terrifying. At the close of the show, he belts out his signature number while banging on a drum strapped to his chest and leading the cast and assorted others on a conga line through the audience. One of the dancers is that professional TV-hating saturnine bastard, Michael O’Donoghue, who can be seen in one shot grinning ear to ear. Then he gyrates so excitedly that he almost trips and falls off the stage.
- I’m not sure how crowded the field ever was for Lucille Ball imitators, but after this episode, Gilda Radner clinched the title for all time.
- George Coe, who the show still had on a long leash that it pulled in when it needed an extra man to play an older male character, is all over the Untouchables sketch, playing the show’s narrator, Walter Winchell. Probably Chevy Chase could have done it, but the whippersnappers of SNL probably assumed that having the 56-year-old Coe around would be reassuring for the 58-year-old Desi. They could reminisce about the Spanish-American War or something.
- Back when TV cameras weren’t allowed in courtrooms, news reports on high-profile trials were often accompanied by drawings of the proceedings. “Weekend Update” satirized this practice for several weeks running during the Patty Hearst trial, but the Betty Boop routine in this episode takes the cake.
- Gary Weis has been contributing short films to the show for a few weeks now, but tonight marks the first time he introduces one of them himself; presumably, Michaels thought the audience would respond to them more if they could put a face to them. Tonight’s film features Taylor Mead, a onetime fixture of “underground” New York movies like The Flower Thief and Queen Of Sheba Meets The Atom Man, sitting in his apartment, babbling about his cat and laughing at everything he says. (Everything he himself says, that is; the cat does not speak.)