Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Madeline Kahn”
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Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Madeline Kahn”

“Madeline Kahn” (season one, episode 19; originally aired 5/8/1976)

A year ago, I wrote a TV Club 10 piece about Saturday Night Live, which entailed selecting 10 episodes that summed up the show’s achievement, along with another 10 also-rans. I didn’t just knock it off during lunch, but I did find it easier to do than it probably should have been, except for one thing: I kept trying to squeeze the Madeline Kahn episode in, then taking it out, and then trying to squeeze it in again. It wasn’t that I had any doubts that it deserved to be singled out: In my doomed attempt to boil more than 35 years’ worth of episodes down to 20 titles, I was concerned about leaning too heavily on the show’s early years. Finally, in my last act before I finalized my copy and hit “SEND,” I left Madeline Kahn on the shelf and went with Anthony Perkins.

I figure that being obviously wrong every so often humanizes my image and makes me more loveable, but of all the memorable mistakes I’ve made in my life, this is the one that sometimes pops into my brain again just when I’m about to drift off to sleep. The Perkins episode has some real high spots, but the Kahn episode is just a great episode, and a terrific example of the kind of showcase that SNL, in its early, TV-cabaret period, could provide for a star who could do it all. Kahn plays Pat Nixon, a pre-teen girl filling her friends in on the birds and the bees, and takes the Faye Dunway part in a throwaway Chinatown spoof that gives John Belushi the chance to do his Nicholson impression and a little Jake Blues-style dancing in the same skit. She adapts her Marlene Dietrich impression from Blazing Saddles to a talk-show skit with Gilda Radner’s Baba Wawa, and later just goofs around with Radner, imitating a baby getting her first taste of ice cream. She sings “I Feel Pretty” in full Bride of Frankenstein costume and makeup in an elaborately staged musical number (and Young Frankenstein salute), and then, toward the close, she sits on the stage by herself and sings “Lost In The Stars” as the lights dim down to frame her face in the darkness. Besides having chops that the show seems delighted to put to full use, she’s perfectly charming, and when the regulars crowd around her and embrace her, they really seem loathe to let her go.

Two famous, full-length sketches that stand out go a long way toward defining the range of what SNL was doing that was new and different in this period. The “Slumber Party” sketch, written by Marilyn Suzanne Miller, is a beautiful little playlet based on actual human experience, and an area of experience that had gone largely untapped on TV. It feels unlike the kind of comedy about sex then seen, not because it’s unusually frank, but because it’s not smirking or smutty: The comedy is based on the fact that kids learning about sex for the first time are forced to process it using a kid’s frame of reference, which can only be of so much help. (Jane Curtin: “I just know it can’t be true because nothing that sickening is true.” Madeline, dryly: “Boogers are true.”)

Then there’s “Final Days,” the “political” sketch that, according to legend, caused Lorne Michaels to stay his hand when he was on the verge of firing Al Franken and Tom Davis. The sketch was reportedly written under the influence of marijuana, and with its cameos by Henry Kissinger, Julie and David Eisenhower, and Sammy Davis, Jr., it looks like what you’d get if a couple of guys who’d spent many years hating on Richard Nixon spent a couple more days gorging on the choicest gossip in Woodward and Bernstein’s book, worked themselves up into a good giggle fit about it, then erupted with as many fantasies and low blows as they could squeeze into 10 or 15 minutes of television. That’s not a putdown; the great thing about the sketch is that it treats what was then recent political history in the same sophomoric, Mad-comics style that the show was applying to movies and TV.

This is a world away from the kind of canned one-liners about politics that Bob Hope and Johnny Carson used to deliver, and unlike those, the sketch has some honest claim to being satire. But because some of the people who worked on the show have sometimes been known to pat themselves on the back for having been daring in the show’s political content, let’s clarify one thing: There’s a big difference between applying the scalpel to recent political history and making jokes about what’s going on right now. The sketch draws upon many details that were newly reported in the book, but it had still been a year and a half since Nixon left office. By contrast, Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad, which had far less obligation to impress its audience with its edgy daring, parodied the Army-McCarthy hearings while they were going on. The sketch is still funny as shit, and in the final analysis, that’s the most important thing. But let’s be clear about who in pop culture history was doing something that took some guts, and who was receiving a standing ovation for kicking Dracula when he’d already been down for some time.

Stray observations:

  • The Muppets, represented by Scred and the Mighty Favog, make their final, desperate vow, doing double duty to keep last week’s Beatles-offer joke going. (Favog claims to have an in with the Fab Four. Incidentally, this is the episode that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were reportedly watching when, according to Lennon in a later interview, they discussed whether they should amble down to 30 Rock and give the live audience a treat. Because they were just spending a leisurely Saturday evening kicking back together in front of the TV, they decided not to, rendering this a non-anecdote.)
  • Of the skits that could have been dropped into just about any episode around this time, I have a special fondness for the ad for a movie called Wilderness Comedian, with a buckskinned, ruffle-shirted John Belushi doing standup for a bunch of stuffed animals. This sketch is probably lost on people too young to remember the saturation ad campaigns for movies with titles like The Wilderness Family Start Couponing.
  • Gary Weis’ short film shows New Yorkers enjoying their favorite spectator sports while Ray Charles sings “New York’s My Home” on the soundtrack. It’s nice.
  • In an appearance that was heavily plugged last week, Carly Simon is the pre-taped musical guest; the live audience had the thrill of seeing footage of her banging on the piano, singing something from her latest album and “You’re So Vain,” while Chevy Chase, in a prophetic move, loiters nearby, making sure that the proceedings do not lack for cowbell. Madeline Kahn seems a little confused by all this, and she ain’t the only one. Seriously, were people so hard up in 1976 for the chance to see Carly Simon sing her big hit of four years earlier (and, granted, the best song she ever pulled out of her trick bag) that SNL didn’t feel it could give her the number of the booking office for The Midnight Special, and bring in a musical guest willing to perform live? 

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