O.J Simpson’s late-period infamy long ago usurped his early fame. It can be hard to remember that Simpson was once a widely beloved Hall of Famer, commercial pitchman, Heisman Trophy winner, movie star, 1st & 10 cut-up and all-around American hero. These days Simpson is best known as an outlaw: a comic outlaw!
Who can look at the Juice in his twilight years and see anything other than the hilarious prankster who slays home audiences worldwide with the outrageous pranks of his Juice’d DVD? Audiences that once idolized Simpson today run away in terror at the mere sight of him, worried that they’ll end up on the receiving end of one of his hilarious pranks. Yes, we have all grown to fear Simpson’s slashing wit and razor-sharp comic mind, not to mention his unfortunate predilection for stabbing people.
Simpson is so firmly ingrained in the public imagination as the black Ashton Kutcher that it’s jarring and to be honest, a little creepy, to see him participate in comedy that’s not prank-based in origin. So it is my distinct pleasure to report that Simpson absolutely killed in his first and last time hosting Saturday Night Live. Well, maybe killed is too strong of a word: it’s ultimately up to the comedy courts to decide whether Simpson killed or not but he at least didn’t embarrass himself.
The show got off to an utterly charming start with a cold open where the preternaturally adorable Gilda Radner answered questions from audience about what happens when the writers can’t think up a clever opening for the show. The answer, not surprisingly, is that they send Radner out to “answer” questions they wrote under the pen name Kevin.
We’re then treated to the surreal sight gag of O.J Simpson swaggering onstage wearing a Coneheads cone before delivering an earnest monologue about the importance of following your dreams and believing in yourself. O.J Simpson explains that he dreamed of being a college football hero, then diligently pursued that goal until it became a reality. Then Simpson wanted to become a star in the NFL so he willed himself to greatness. Next he saw Richard Pryor host Saturday Night Live and decided, at least for the purposes of the monologue, that he’d go after that dream as well. He finishes up by musing that in the future he’d like to get away with murder, provide Jay Leno and countless other hack comedians with monologue fodder for several years, write a book about what he’d do if he were to brutally murder two people, release a hilarious prank DVD and ultimately go to prison for robbing a memorabilia dealer’s hotel room. He was a veritable Negrodamus, that Simpson. Dream it and you can achieve it, friend, dream it and you can achieve it.
Simpson’s monologue is followed by a Madlibs-style sketch (but not a Madlib-style sketch) that plugs John Belushi’s Samurai into Saturday Night Fever then kicks back as hilarity ensues. The conceit for this sketch couldn’t be hackier: let’s crossbreed one popular show-biz institution audiences will recognize instantly with another popular show-biz institution audiences will recognize instantly! But it works all the same, in part because John Travolta’s voice and inflections are so distinctive and strangely infectious that it doesn’t really matter what he’s saying. He could be mumbling gibberish, as Belushi’s Samurai Tony Manero does here, and he’d be just as instantly recognizable. The sketch lasts a loooonnnng time but it gets the details right, like having Dan Aykroy’d background goombah guilelessly enthuse about how great it is to be young and dumb and hopeless.
I experienced a distinct sense of déjà vu watching a sketch about Babe Ruth promising a dying boy he’d hit a home run for him, since that wonderfully apocryphal moment in sports mythology was the basis for a classic SCTV sketch where a sadistic little boy kept forcing John Candy’s big-hearted Bambino to do increasingly stupid stunts until he finally turned on his pint-sized tormentor.
Saturday Night Live’s take on the same incident was less inspired and efficient. In it, Belushi’s Babe promises a spastic little African-American boy that he’ll hit a home run for him, then fails him by ending the game home-runless. The little boy gets the last laugh however as he grows up to be (cue drumroll) Hank Aaron! And also Roy Cohn. Apparently Aaron was a dead ringer for a Cerebral Palsy-stricken middle-aged man as a youth.
The great songwriting team and pretty good soul duo Ashford & Simpson were the show’s musical guests today. They were solid—as a rock! That last zinger comes courtesy of my young ghostwriter Gags Beasley! Good one, Gags! I don’t know where you come up with these zingeroonies but don’t stop doing what you’re doing, you knucklehead. Get out of here! No seriously, you’re great.
The rest of the sketches made the most of Simpson’s limited comedic skill set. Simpson took center stage in a Mandingo parody that peaks with Bill Murray professing his mad passionate love for a horse, spoofed his competitive streak in a bit where he uses a Walter Payton voodoo doll to keep his biggest rival from breaking his single-season rushing record and participated in the “Celebrity Battle of The Sexes and Races” against Sandy Duncan and Marie Osmond. You can probably imagine who won that one. The audience, on account of it exploded with raucous laughter!
I’ve disparaged Franken & Davis in the past but they are thoroughly winning me over. In today’s funniest sketch Davis announces that Franken is dying of a brain tumor but is going to come on and perform a dementia and pain-addled routine all the same. Just as few could have predicted Simpson’s strange path from football superstar to beloved pranketeer it’d be hard to predict from these early sketches where Franken’s career path would eventually lead: to a starring role on the short-lived Nightline spoof Lateline! It is a strange and beautiful world indeed.
Not unlike Ashford & Simpson, today’s episode was solid. I just hope that the next time Simpson hosts he gets to do some of his hilarious pranks. That’s what he’s deservedly famous for. That’s what people long to see.