After appearing to wrap up its first season with two episodes long on returning guests and happy vibes, Saturday Night did something it has never done again: Following almost two months of reruns, the show returned for two back-to-back new episodes in the middle of summer, before departing again until autumn. In theory, it was an idea that made a lot of sense. Topical satire was a big part of the show’s identity, so why let the set go totally black for a whole summer, when there was an Olympics, a Bicentennial celebration, and two whole presidential nominating conventions going on, including one being held in New York? Nothing that resulted from this brainstorm could have struck Lorne Michaels or the network as a reason for making it a tradition, but nothing that’s wrong with these episodes can be blamed on the idea itself, or on an insufficiently rested cast and writing staff.
“Louise Lasser” (season one, episode 23; originally aired 7/24/1976)
In 1976, Louise Lasser was a star and a culture hero, thanks to her starring on the cult hit Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. By the summer of 1976, she was also coming apart at the seams. (Michael O’Donoghue described her “a nice woman going through a few problems,” adding that “I wanted to force her to eat her goddamn pigtails at gunpoint.”) Before being cast as Mary Hartman, Lasser was best known for her appearances in TV commercials and her supporting roles in a number of movies, including a few directed by her ex-husband, Woody Allen. In her opening monologue, Lasser makes a point of saying that Lorne Michaels told her that he’d wanted her to host the show even before Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman debuted, which she seems to have found more bewildering than flattering.
I don’t think it’s so bewildering. It’s no secret that it was always one of Lorne Michaels’ impossible dreams to have Woody Allen host the show, and I suspect that he reached out to Lasser because he imagined that he might be able to use her to get to the Woodman. That probably also helps to account for the fact that the musical guest is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who performed on the soundtrack to Sleeper. By the time they hit the stage, Michaels must have given up on any daydream he had that the phone was going to ring one minute after one in the morning and a familiar, reedy voice was going to say, “I was just watching my ex-wife on your show, and boy, that’s something I want to be part of!” So he showed just how thrilled he was at having assigned precious air time to a bunch of middle-aged Dixieland musicians from out of town by only letting them do one number, which came on during the last 20 minutes of the show.
Lasser, who was unused to either extensive media scrutiny or the grueling work pace of a five-nights-weekly series like Mary Hartman, had recently presence in the gossip columns by getting busted in Beverly Hills with cocaine in her purse, after she had been stopped and accused of shoplifting. So she reported to work feeling exhausted, publicly humiliated, and camera-shy. To top that off, she was accused of extreme “solipsism” by Chevy Chase, which must be kind of like having Fiona Apple tell you that your album titles are kind of wordy. Over the course of the week leading up to the show, Lasser gradually backed as far out of her obligations as she could without bolting for Canada, finally announcing that she preferred not to appear onstage in sketches with most of the cast members. In the end, she appeared with two other performers: Chevy Chase, and a dog. There’s a few different ways a fella could take that.
The end results are actually rather fascinating, not least for how the episode, out of necessity, plays with the kind of “Is this real or not?” flirting with the fourth wall that the show had used in more than one sketch, and that Andy Kaufman had smuggled in from the underground-club scene. To start with, the cold opening—again!—is built around a cast member, John Belushi this time, expressing violent resentment at Chevy Chase cashing in on the perception that he’s the star of the show. Ha ha, wouldn’t it be funny if any of us really felt this way!? Then Lasser comes out and rambles about how her life has been cracking up on the shoals of fame, then becomes overwhelmed and runs offstage to hide in her dressing room. It’s very similar to what the show had other hosts do, but this time it’s based on what the writers must have really been afraid the host might do, whether it was in the script or not.
After that, she does an Ingmar Bergman parody—God!, Lorne Michaels must have thought early in the week, won’t this show Woody that we’re his kind of people!—that involves having her sit in front of the audience, silently tugging on Chase’s face, and then the long sketch in which she sits at a table, talking to a happy-looking dog about their relationship. Bizarre as the second skit, in particular, is, the worst thing about these sketches is that they’re done so close to each other. Presumably, Michaels wanted the host to get her actual duties out of the way as fast as possible, so everyone who knew how close to the edge she was could exhale and relax a little. But it adds up to a long stretch of air time admiring the immobile host’s profile.
There’s also a short film in which Lasser sits in a diner and rambles at, or in the general direction of, Alan Zweibel, until she starts complaining that she can’t remember her lines. Michaels appears and asks if she can do another take, and she says, no, she can’t. So the film simply peters out with her going to sit at the bar next to Michael Sarrazin, a remarkably untalented and mostly forgotten pretty-boy actor who was in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sarrazin himself hosted SNL in 1978, which was a good two or three years after his last movie credit that anyone’s heard of. Michaels must have felt really bad about his having had to get out of bed and journey to a diner just to be there when Louise Lasser forgot his lines before he got to do whatever he was there to do.) When the words “A Film By Louise Lasser” flash onscreen at the end, it borders on cruel and unusual punishment. (Another film, which Lasser and Chase shot at the Democratic National Convention, wasn’t used. But did Michaels sit on it because it was even worse, or because Lasser came off a little bit better in it?)
This episode is legendary in SNL-geek circles as one of the handful of episodes that Michaels didn’t want rerun, ever. The funny thing is, even after Lasser had insulted most of the cast with her refusal to actually work with them, they all still crowd around her during the closing goodbyes; they look like a support group. In the last stretch of time between the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the closing credits, Lasser sits onstage, babbling, again, about what she’s been going through, and the amazing thing is that, embarrassing and semi-coherent as the spectacle is, I get the feeling, watching it all these years later, that the studio audience is on her side, wishing her well. That might have only made Michaels hate her that much more. But making people find something sympathetic and almost magical in self-paralyzing neurosis was what her performance on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was all about. Culture heroes, even those whose vogues are short-lived, aren’t made of nothing.
“Kris Kristofferson” (season one, episode 24; originally aired 7/31/1976)
In that Saturday Night book, there’s an anonymous quote from someone who sums up the perceived difference between the drug problems of two cast members by saying that Belushi was seen as raging against the elements, while Garrett Morris just seemed to slip away quietly in his sleep. However accurate that line is, or isn’t—might Belushi have lived longer if he hadn’t been surrounded by people who saw loud, obnoxious behavior as evidence of rebellious creativity?—it’s a pretty fair description of the different tones of these two episodes. Kris Kristofferson wasn’t having a nervous breakdown when he hosted, but he was a guy who liked to party, spending a week in what had become New York’s party central, and was roaring drunk when show time arrived. (What do Louise Lasser and Kris Kristofferson have in common? Inside of a week, they both had the cast members of a live TV show deciding which parts they would take, at the last minute, if the host proved to be unable to go on.)
All things considered, Kristofferson acquits himself okay; even when he’s too obviously staring at the cue cards while sweat congeals on his forehead, he’s more likable and embarrassing. But he slurs and lurches just enough to make you think that Michaels couldn’t have been too concerned about his safety when he gave him a pat on the shoulder and sent him in to mix it up with John Belushi’s sword-swinging samurai. This isn’t an especially good episode, but it’s an oddly likable one. With its jokes about “talking country” (a growing national concern as Jimmy Carter continued to cakewalk toward the White House) and Waiting For Godot, it retains the charm of an off-the-wall, lightweight little summer diversion, a charm that flows from Kristofferson’s easygoing, blotto presence. A little something to tide you kids over until the fall, with an especially tasteless Generalissimo Francisco Franco joke, just for good measure. It is also a time capsule of a time when the idea that Bobby McGee might have grown up to be a settled, middle-class, middle-aged-before-her-time suburban housewife.
- At one point, on the night of the Louise Lasser show, the cast appears to have decided that Lasser wasn’t going to make it onstage, and Chevy Chase was lobbying to take her place, wearing a red-pig-tailed wig. (Michaels wasn’t about to let Lasser walk, though, because NBC had hyped the hell out of her appearance.) According to Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s Saturday Night, Bill Murray happened to be in the house that night, and if Lasser had backed out, Murray would have made his SNL debut that night, taking Chevy’s place in his skits with Lasser.
- The Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s latest CD—That’s It!, which, I’m guessing, includes no contributions from any of the folks seen in the 37-year-old Louise Lasser episode—is excellent. I just thought I’d thrown that it, since it is unlikely they’ll be given the opportunity to plug it on Saturday Night Live.
- Musical guest Rita Coolidge sings a song called “Hula Hoop,” then steps away from the band to join Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman, who are both grinning ear to ear while hula-ing the hell out of their own hoops. This is the kind of thing that will never be as impressive again since the advent of CGI.
- And so the first season of Saturday Night Live closes on the image of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players gathered at center stage, linking arms and visibly holding up a fast-fading Kris Kristofferson, while Dan Aykroyd reads a plug for a Lorne Michaels-produced Beach Boys special. Which is kind of perfect.