"Elliott Gould" (season one, episode nine; originally aired 1/10/1976)
Elliott Gould was the first movie star to host Saturday Night Live. Candice Bergen had a movie career, but wasn’t a star; Richard Pryor didn’t become a big box-office presence until years after he’d hosted. But in 1970, Gould made the cover of Time magazine as the face of the New Hollywood. (Time called him a “Star For An Uptight Age” and “The Urban Don Quixote.”) A couple of months later, Newsweek, in its cover story about the changing shape of Hollywood, went with Jack Nicholson, and I guess we know who won that round. Gould and Nicholson were both journeyman actors who had starred in surprise blockbuster hits and become culture heroes after spending the 1960s knocking on doors and being told they were too weird-looking (and, in Gould’s case, “too ethnic”) for lead roles. This is the kind of heaven-sent opportunity that’s also a real test of how well equipped the recipient is to deal with success. Gould’s reaction to it was to implode.
First, he devalued his brand by starring in five movies that opened within 18 months of his big hit, M*A*S*H. Then he had some kind of meltdown, presumably fueled by a combination of stress, overwork, drugs, and the breakup of his marriage to Barbra Streisand, on the set of a picture he was producing and starring in, A Glimpse Of Tiger. The studio shut down the production, and Gould couldn’t get a job for two years. (Reporting on the schadenfreude that Gould’s career problems set off in the industry, Molly Haskell quoted some unnamed “observer of the Los Angeles film scene who has never met” Gould as saying, “Unlike Nicholson, he can be bought. He’s—well—frankly, he’s a shit.”) When Robert Altman, who had directed M*A*S*H, finally put Gould back to work playing Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, Pauline Kael—not kindly, but not inaccurately, either—wrote that “it actually adds poignancy to the film that Gould himself is already an anachronism.”
Gould hosted Saturday Night at an interesting point in his career, and at an interesting point in the show’s evolution. He was working steadily again, and he’d given the best performances of his life in The Long Goodbye and Altman’s California Split, ‘70s classics that, at the time, nobody saw. He was slipping down from “movie star” to “leading man,” and within five years or so he’d be a character actor, and a good one, but with a faint whiff of has-been clinging to him. But he still had more heat attached to his name, and heat of a more recent vintage, than was customary for SNL hosts. (Just a couple of years later, John Travolta would back out of a scheduled hosting gig because he was nominated for an Oscar for Saturday Night Fever, and his agent feared that any association with SNL might cost him some votes.) It would still be another 10 or 12 years before people like Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson began not just hosting the show, but timing their appearances to coincide with the release of a new movie they wanted to promote.
So Gould was in an uncertain phase of his career when he hosted the show, and as the decade wore on, SNL must have seemed like an increasingly pleasant place for him to visit while waiting for the dust to settle, compared to the sets of movies like Matilda and Escape To Athena. (The buffalo-hunter mustache he wears is part of his look for the movie he had been working on, Harry And Walter Go To New York. A year later, that movie would end up as a punch line in a sketch on an SNL episode hosted by Eric Idle.) The show surrounding him seems energized and happy, and Gould deserves a lot of the credit for that. He still has his Time-cover-boy superstar aura, albeit in battered form, yet he doesn’t put on any superstar airs: With his untamed hair and Indian jacket, he’s the scruffy side of the seventies incarnate. (If someone like George Clooney showed up for an appearance on the David Letterman show looking like this today, he’d be lucky if they let him in the building.)
He does a lot of sketches, throwing himself into the surreal slapstick of “Interior Demolitionists” (in which he politely accepts a cup of coffee from housewife Jane Curtin, drinks from it, then daintily smashes the cup with a little hammer) and playing straight man as the therapist in the “Godfather Group Therapy” sketch, which gives John Belushi the longed-for chance to do his Brando impression. (“The Tattaglia family is giving me deep personal grief. And things are not going so well at my olive oil company.”) He’s a professional who came to play, happy to do whatever is asked of him. But he also has some of the disarming, hang-loose casualness he has in the Altman movies, and when he goofs around, singing a medley of “Let Yourself Go” and “Crazy Rhythm” with Paul Schaffer at the piano, he could just be somebody in a corner of the room in the birthday-party scene in Tootsie.
In general, though, the first episode of the new year shows a new overall confidence in the show itself, and some of that must have been self-generated. It was a by-product of the cast and the writers realizing that they there were a hit. (The confidence can be seen in its effect on the live audience: I swear they laugh louder now, sometimes at things that might have barely inspired an outbreak of tittering in earlier episodes.) The willingness of someone like Elliott Gould to play with them in their sandbox was part of that, but so was the good press the show was beginning to generate, and things like the actors being recognized on the street. Gould would go on to host the show a total of five times with Lorne Michaels at the helm; he also hosted the first episode of the post-Michaels era, in what was an obvious attempt by producer Jeanne Doumanian to preserve an appearance of continuity, though there are highly plausible rumors that Gould didn’t know there was a new regime in place until he showed up for work and was greeted by so many bright, shiny, unpromising new faces. (Both IMBD and Wikipedia also seem to be convinced that Gould made an uncredited cameo appearance sitting in a jury box in the courtroom sketch in the first episode, but I sure as hell don’t see him, unless he was wearing a Richard Belzer mask.) But the most important debut SNL performer on this episode is probably Lorne Michaels.
Michaels makes the first of his many extensive, fourth-wall-shattering on-camera appearances in the “Killer Bees” sketch, which begins with Gould and company invading Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner’s apartment, dressed as bees and behaving, in the words of Don Pardo, “much the way Eli Wallach did in The Magnificent Seven.” Once the Bees realize that Chase and Radner simply have no pollen for them to steal, Gould launches into a tender dramatic monologue about the sorry condition of his people, but the camera begins getting distracted and drifting away from him. Finally, Michaels barges onstage, apologizes, and, with the camera at his heels, marches to the control room and has a heated confrontation with the show’s director, Dave Wilson. While this is happening, we can hear Belushi delivering the sketch’s real dramatic monologue, filling in the back story of how “22 years ago, Dace Wilson was the best young director in television,” how he started hitting the bottle and “didn’t pull out of it until Lorne found him six months and gave him this job,” and then, the kicker: “I wouldn’t be in Lorne Michael’s shoes for all the money in the world, because right now, he’s probably in there, firing his own father!”
This was all pretty startling at the time, not least because it was obviously the show’s real producer, the real director, and the real control room. (They follow the joke all the way to the end, too: During the closing credits, Dave Wilson’s name is unceremoniously scratched out.) The show had done this sort of breaking-character routine before, as in the final moments of the Rob Reiner episode, which also ended with Belushi taking the spotlight away from the rich and famous guest star. But by getting the whole show, onstage and backstage, into the act, SNL raised the stakes in a way that made viewers feel that they were in on the joke at a subatomic level. It made the audience feel that they were part of a secret cult at the very moment that the show was poised to transcend late-night cult status. It also served as an official notice that the show had cleared the launching pad and that, while the individual contribution of each guest host was an important part of each episode, the real star of Saturday Night Live was Saturday Night Live.
- The trick of having the cast’s backstage life spill over in front of the camera is also present in the recurring joke of Gilda Radner confronting Gould about their one-night stand; it culminates in their getting married during the closing credits. As inside jokes go, this one may have been a bit edgier at the time than it looks now. In that old piece about reasons those in the industry had for being sick and tired of Gould, Molly Haskell wrote that, while in the grip of newly acquired stardom, “He has left a wake of wrecked woman and homes from Manhattan to Malibu, and sired offspring as casually as a prize bull.”
- Fun fact: Madeline Kahn's mother, Paula, plays Gilda Radner's mother.
- So long as we’re gossiping about the events of more than 35 years ago: I’m terrible at picking up on the symptoms of substance abuse, but based on nothing but his performance here, I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that it was around this time that Chevy Chase decided that the one thing that he and Richard Pryor would ever have in common was the feeling that a paycheck’s worth of cocaine represented money well spent. He has a hilarious manic energy in bits like the Shimmer commercial parody (“New Shimmer is a floor wax and a dessert topping!”) that’s kind of new in someone who had often seemed to be underplaying rather than risk giving viewers any reason to be distracted from appreciating how good-looking he was. The downside is that he’s also developed a pronounced habit of tripping over his own lines.
- On “Weekend Update,” Chase announces that U. S. Senator Robert Byrd “has been quoted as saying, ‘I don’t judge a man by the color of his skin, I judge him according to the size of his nostrils.” Let it be noted that the writers were not yet tired of “out of the mouths of racists” jokes, but that they had grown weary of always directing them at George Wallace.
- Good as Belushi’s Don Corleone is, my favorite thing about “Godfather Group Therapy” may be Laraine Newman’s long monologue after Belushi recreates Don Vito’s death scene. It goes on much longer than it would need to if it were only there to make the point that the group members are oblivious to him lying there dead on the floor; it’s as if somebody just fell in love with the contrasting effect of Newman’s blonde bubblehead act and said, screw it, let’s make it a two-act.
- Tonight’s episode marks the first short film directed by Gary Weis—a wry montage of lounge crooners singing “Misty”—and the final one by Albert Brooks. Albert’s film, a documentary about the scientific testing he’s had done to fine-tune his comedy, features an appearance by James L. Brooks, who would later cast Albert in Broadcast News. (They also worked together on I’ll Do Anything, the $40 million musical that, after test screenings, was re-edited to remove all the songs. It is a movie that would have justified officially retiring the word “ill-fated.”)
- The last few minutes of the show are devoted to Al Franken and Tom Davis’ first on-air attempt to perform as a comedy team. The two of them would do this again and again throughout the original-cast period, and if poorly focused smugness were funny, millions would have died laughing. Legend has always had it that Lorne Michaels was slow to warm to these two and was on the verge of firing them until they got high as kites and wrote the show’s first “Dan Aykroyd as Nixon” sketch, but the fact that they were allowed to go in front of the camera and do this, and were still warming office chairs a full four months later when that sketch aired, has to make you wonder. It would make all the sense in the world if Michaels put them on the air so he could justify firing them, but why would he have waited so long to pull the trigger?
- This is the episode that was submitted to the Emmy voters to represent the show the first year it was nominated for an Emmy. It won.