Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Dick Cavett/Jimmy Cliff”
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Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Dick Cavett/Jimmy Cliff”

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Saturday Night Live (Classic)

“Dick Cavett/Jimmy Cliff”

Season 1, Episode 12

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“Dick Cavett” (season one, episode 12; originally aired 1/31/1976)

Of all the people who were tapped to host Saturday Night in its first season, Dick Cavett is the one that I’ve never been able to figure out. Some hosts were there to confer their hipness on the show and its humor; some, like Desi Arnaz, provided a link to early television and a shot of nostalgia for the Boomers in the audience; at least one or two, such as Ron Nesson, and probably Raquel Welch, were invited aboard with malice aforethought. The most obvious thing about Cavett as a choice for host is that it blew up Lorne Michaels’ dictum that he didn’t want people who usually did television; Cavett had been earning his living as a talk show host since 1968. It wasn’t the steadiest living anyone ever made from the crystal teat. ABC first put him on in the morning, then decided that his show was too sophisticated for a morning audience and put him on in prime time for one summer, before moving him to late night. He hung in there in one capacity or another for five years, but the approach that had proven too sophisticated for morning viewers wasn’t any more successful at knocking Johnny Carson off his perch.

Back when commercial TV was mired in its identity as what Newton Minnow called a “vast wasteland,” Cavett had a self-defeating reputation as someone who was “too good”—meaning too literate, too thoughtful, not vulgar enough—for the medium.  I suspect that Cavett always wished that vulgarity, at least, came a little easier to him. Cavett had actually tried his hand at standup comedy before breaking into TV as a joke writer for Jack Paar. (Paar, who was Cavett’s immediate predecessor in the role of “thinking person’s talk show host,” was also accused of being too sophisticated for television, though a lack of vulgarity was never his problem.) But Cavett wasn’t so much a comedian as a comedy geek, someone whose most endearing trait was his palpable hero-worship of such luminaries as Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, and Harry Ritz.

The other side of that hero worship is that Cavett sometimes seems painfully aware, with the emphasis on pain, that he isn’t in the same league as his idols when it comes to being funny. Writing about Cavett’s second SNL hosting gig, Nathan Rabin suggested that Cavett’s “problem” may be that he “seems far too convinced of his own cleverness.” That’s a popular opinion, but I think it may be the opposite: That Cavett isn’t comfortable in his own skin when he’s alone onstage trying to be funny, and has heard the crickets chirping when he delivers a punchline, and is unconvinced that he has any business trying to be funny but longs for it so badly that he can’t pass up an opportunity to try. The worst parts of his ABC talk shows tended to be those introductory segments when he would try to function as a Carson-style comedian-host, reeling off jokes and trying to weave them into a monologue. His opening monologue on this show is like one of those dud segments, but in IMAX. It goes on and on, and it may be most uncomfortable to watch when the jokes sound as if they might have worked on paper, because it points up how awkward and wilted Cavett’s delivery is. Here and later in the show, he keeps dropping bombs and then trying to turn the fact that he’s bombing into a source of hilarity, the way Carson was able to. If it were easy to do, Carson wouldn’t have become such a legend at it.

This is an episode that’s hampered by the writers’ inability to figure out how to use the host. If they had been feeling ruthless, they might have tried to satirize him in a way that undercut his TV image, and tore into the very qualities that make him read as kind of superior and smug. (That was the approach Rick Moranis would take in his absolutely classic, and absolutely cold-blooded, impression of Cavett on SCTV.) The fact that they didn’t makes me that much more certain that Cavett must be a very nice, visibly insecure guy in real life. (The alternative explanation is that the writers were awed by his “too good for TV” reputation. That doesn’t sound like the Gashouse Gang to me.) Basically, the only thing they can think of for him to do is talk, and the only way they can make fun of him is to tease him about his Midwestern background.

He does a send-up as the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, talking, in a whimsically folksy tone, about the bloody horrors of New York City in the ’70s. (“Over there is the new methadone clinic, we’re very proud of that…”) It’s like a Mad magazine piece from the period, and having recently sat through his opening monologue, it feels too soon to be stranded alone onstage with Dick Cavett, feeling bad for him when he doesn’t get his laughs. There’s also a talk-show sketch with Cavett playing a Midwestern pimp; he only allows his girl, Mary Lou, to “mess around” a little with her clients, and threatens to bust Chevy Chase in the mouth at the vile suggestion that anyone might ever get to “home plate” with Mary Lou. Aside from the chance to see Dick Cavett in a fuzzy hat, this sketch peaks when Cavett ad-libs in order to point out that, yes, the audience isn’t laughing.

It’s a very talky episode, as if, having committed to building a show around Cavett, the writers were at least going to remain consistent. John Belushi does a series of parodies of H. & R. Block’s commercials, sitting in an office set, phlegmatically assuring prospective clients that he will break any law to get them the best possible deal. Jane Curtin plays Betty Ford in a weird piece called “Dance To The Nation”; she does interpretive dance while responding to letters from viewers who’ve written in seeking advice. It’s not a bad concept, and it gets some movement into the show, but the thrust of the bit—Betty’s advice reveals that she’s in denial about her children’s behavior and her own husband’s clumsy stupidity—seems both off-base and rather cruel, especially considering that the target is someone who only happened to become famous by being married to someone who tripped into becoming President of the United States.

The biggest disappointment of the evening is the guest appearance by one of the great, perennially underutilized comic spirits of the age, Marshall Efron. He plays the winner of a Dick Cavett lookalike contest, and the whole joke is that the heavyset, black-haired Efron looks nothing like Cavett. Actually, the joke, unfortunately, is that Cavett can’t get over the fact that this guy won the contest; he keeps miming dismay and asking for further details about Efron’s claim that he’s often mistaken for Cavett on the street, thus belaboring a joke that’s thin to begin with. This bit, too, goes on forever, which gives you plenty of time to wish that Michaels had been hip enough to ask Marshall Efron to host.

Stray observations:

  • One sketch, in which man-hungry widow Jane Curtin forgives gun-nut beau Chevy Chase for shooting her dog, family heirlooms, children, and, finally, herself, is included on that 1977 SNL record album. It's seems odd in theory that such a sketch would make the cut for an audio-only project, but it actually plays a bit better on the record, where you can't notice that the effects technicians keep mistiming the sound of the gunshots and the accompanying visual effects.
  • I actually think that Cavett did a much better job, and was given more interesting things to do, when he returned to host 11 months later, as a last-minute replacement when Elliott Gould dropped out. Practice makes perfect, maybe. Or maybe I just have a thing for very long, detailed, trivia-obsessed Nixon sketches.
  • Jimmy Cliff is the musical guest. He’s introduced as the star of The Harder They Come, and out of three numbers, he does two songs from that movie, which came out three years earlier. Pop culture sure did move slower then.
  • Somebody called Al Alen Peterson appears dressed as a hardhat and does an transvestite number, changing into a dress and long blonde wig while singing, “I Gotta Be Me.” I’m not sure if this is meant to be a parody of something I don’t recognize or if it’s just supposed to shock and discombobulate all who see it. Whatever it’s meant to do, it was apparently Al Alen Peterson’s special thing; A year later, he did the same act on The Richard Pryor Show.
  • Now that Albert Brooks isn’t around to take any bows for his short films, the show has gotten a tad short-film happy. Besides the film by Gary Weis, there’s one of the shorts sent in by viewers, a stop-motion animation movie featuring apples. The best-remembered of these films that I can remember, not counting Mr. Bill, was a stop-motion animation involving peanuts. I guess that homemade stop-motion animation always seemed impressive in 1976.

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