“Paul Simon” (season one, episode two; originally aired 10/18/1975)
The second episode of Saturday Night inspired a long-running, one-sided feud between Lorne Michaels and John J. O’Connor, the sometimes clueless TV critic for the New York Times. When the episode first aired, O’Connor wrote a review that, according to Dick Ebsersol (as quoted in the oral history Live From New York), said “that the show was not very good, but he couldn’t be entirely fair in saying that because he missed connections on his way home from dinner on the subway, and so he missed forty minutes of the show.” The funny thing is that, in the same book, Michaels cites a different reason for being angry about the review: “It was humiliating,” he says, “that the critic thought it was a music show and reviewed it that way.”
But this episode is a music show. Interviewed a quarter of a century later, Michaels may not have remembered that, but the idea behind this episode seems to have been, at least partly, to give the writers and regular cast members a breather after the premiere. The cast, at least, may have gotten more of a break than they really would have wanted. Except for Chevy Chase, none of them appear at all, except for a brief, jokey walk-on as the Bees, which serves to announce that the Bees routine is so lame as to be beneath contempt. (Michaels claims now that he did this precisely because he has been told by the network brass not to ever bring the Bees back. If he was trying to reinforce the notion that he and his team were petulant little kids whose idea of a negotiation tactic was to threaten to hold their breath until they turned blue, this must have done the trick.) And Chase is the only cast member Simon mentions by name, in the same breath as the other musical guests and such vestigial but name-recognizable participants as Albert Brooks and the Muppets, during his final good-nights. It’s easy to guess just how much of a kick John Belushi must have gotten out of that.
The episode opens with Simon, in his porn-mustache and the haircut of a man who doesn’t yet understand that letting his hair grow wild in those areas where it will still grow at all doesn’t make him look any less balding, alone onstage, singing the title song from his then-brand new album, Still Crazy After All These Years. He finishes the song, and Chase stumbles out carrying a guitar, as if he’s going to join Simon in a duet, and crashes over a stool. It’s the first of the trademark pratfalls that Chase would be using to open the show for the rest of his tenure as a regular cast member, but it’s not momentous, and it doesn’t feel like the start of anything; it just seems like an awkward attempt, in a way never to be repeated, to remind the audience that they’re witnessing the birth pangs of what, when the kinks are worked out, is intended to be a comedy show.
Later in the show, Chase will anchor “Weekend Update”; his smug plastic anchorman character is more firmly in place than it was the previous week, complete with the opening number where the camera catches him making a personal phone call and starting to pick his nose, and he leads with the first fully fleshed out “Gerald Ford is a klutz!” jokes. (“Secret Service agents seized the Buick and wrestled it to the ground…”) But then, just as the sketch is starting to build, it disintegrates into the set-up for a filmed vanity piece in which Simon kicks NBA player Connie Hawkins’ ass at one-on-one basketball, with “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” on the soundtrack and Marv Albert conducting the pre- and post-game interviews.
Simon also sings his own “Loves Me Like A Rock” with the Jessy Dixon Singers, and “American Tune,” solo; performs Randy Newman’s “Marie,” before introducing Newman, who, at the piano, sings his greatest song, “Sail Away”; introduces Phoebe Snow, who sings the jazzy “No Regrets,” before Simon and the Jessy Dixon Singers join her for a rendition of Simon’s “Gone At Last”; and, in the intended big news of the night, reunites with Art Garfunkel on “The Boxer,” “Scarborough Fair,” and the song they sang together on Simon’s current album, “My Little Town.” So how much you treasure this episode will largely come down to how much you treasure Paul Simon. The whole episode seems premised on the notion that the audience for it when it was first broadcast will see him as a great artist and nice guy and, perhaps most importantly, as a priceless generational totem. (I love his first solo album and his most recent memento mori album, and can take or leave the bulk of what came before and in between—including the one that I think people of my generation are supposed to be most crazy about, Graceland, whose combination of classically fey-ruminative Paul Simon lyrics and vocals and bouncy-transcendent world music has always sounded like oil and water to me.)
It was, from the show’s point of view’s, and Simon’s, the start of a long and beautiful friendship: Simon became, along with Candice Bergen, Buck Henry, and Elliott Gould, one of the first return hosts, and he’s put in a dozen return appearances since, as host or musical guest, including a famously reverential performance of “The Boxer” on the show’s first post-9/11 episode. Simon is friends with Michaels and Chevy Chase; he’s part of the family. The funny thing is, you might have thought that if there’d been a singer-songwriter working then who’d seem like a natural fit as mascot for the show, it would have been Randy Newman. Maybe the more camera-shy Newman wasn’t that interested (though he’d do his best to anchor the show’s malfunctioning 1977 prime time special in New Orleans, and wrote the songs and got a screenplay credit for the unofficial SNL movie Three Amigos!) Legend has it that Jann Wenner used to say that he started Rolling Stone so he might meet John Lennon. I don’t know if Lorne Michaels co-created Saturday Night Live with the thought that it might have been his best chance to meet Paul Simon, but that’s what happened. It seems to have worked out, and maybe, underneath the arrogant, super-successful rich-Boomer veneer, some part of Michaels remained too Canadian to imagine doing something that might have given him a shot at meeting Bob Dylan.
As a time-capsule find, this episode is most interesting for the snapshot it provides of the mindset of the post-counterculture Boomers at the moment when they were starting to feel old (at a ridiculously young age, granted) and to feel sentimental and nostalgic about their shared past—and, in the case of people like Michaels, using those emotions to market that past to them. “Still Crazy After All These Years” is the perfect theme song for the episode, and would be no matter what the actual lyrics were. That comes through most clearly when we get to sit through an unconscionably long montage of old photos of Paul ‘n Artie way back when before the two of them reunite in the flesh; it ends with a newspaper clipping reporting that they won big on Grammy night. (Someone must have decided that this sort of thing made for wonderful visual variety on a night so heavy with shots of people singing, because halfway through “My Little Town,” the camera cuts from Simon and Garfunkel singing onstage to a baffling black and white photograph of the two of them standing side by side, stock still, in somebody’s driveway.)
There’s also a commercial parody that satirizes the very kind of instant nostalgia that the rest of the episode traffics in, with Jerry Rubin—“Join me in a protest march down memory lane.”—pitching wallpaper decorated, graffiti-style, with all the unforgettable ‘60s slogans from the days of love and rage. What makes it part of what it’s parodying is that it’s the real Jerry Rubin; he is not, by a long shot, a natural comedian, but clearly he was gettable, and it must have been assumed that the audience for this show would get a thrill out of seeing him that they wouldn’t get from seeing one of the cast members do an impression of him that might make people laugh. (Was there also some uncertainty about whether the audience was comfortable seeing the ‘60s made fun, and a feeling that it would help to show that the real Rubin was in on the joke?) It’s not something that SNL would likely do today. But then, when singers host the show today, they do it because they want the chance to show how they can handle themselves in comedy sketches; they have to, because they’re on the show’s turf. When Simon hosted this early in the game, the show ceded control of the turf to him.
- Simon, possibly with benefit of hindsight, now says he offered to host the first show, thinking it would be “more historical,” an odd piece of phrasing coming from a guy who used to get points for literacy from pop music journalists. If that is true, and if the show would have bent over backwards to adapt itself to him no matter when he hosted, it’s a good thing that Michaels had the presence of mind to tell him to wait until the second week. If the premiere had been anything like this, there’s a good chance the show never would have defined itself the way it did.
- Welcoming Garfunkel to the stage, Simon says, “So, Artie, you’ve come crawling back.” It’s a joke, spoiled only by the fact that in order for this to actually be a joke, it would have to be spoken to whichever member of the duo still had a career.
- Simon then mutters, “Movies are over now?” It may not be very well remembered that one stated reason for the duos’ breakup in 1970 was Garfunkel’s interest in a movie career, and one reason it’s not very well remembered is that the career basically sputtered out after he had acted in two films directed by Mike Nichols, Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge, which came out, respectively, five and four years before this magical reunion. But no hostility!
- First use of the “zoom in on an audience member and stick some words under his or her face” routine: “A GOOD FRIEND OF DAVID EISENHOWER”
- Cutting-edge ethnic humor, circa 1975: Connie Hawkins congratulating Simon on his “chutzpah.”
- In the filmed basketball routine, Simon slips up and addresses Marv Albert as "Howard," before correcting himself. This was probably unintentional. But the fact that Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell was still (barely) on the air probably accounts for why nobody suggested doing a second take.
- The Muppets sketch makes a strange, half-baked lurch at shaping the material by assigning it a title, assuming that’s what’s meant when the words “DREGS AND VESTIGES” flash on the screen as Don Pardo is reading the introduction. It doesn’t help. (The sketch involves the Land of Gorch’s inability to pay its debts, a topical reference to the then-current problems of New York City that pulls a recognition laugh from the audience.
- Albert Brooks’ film consists of Brooks explaining that he’s going to be presenting short films over the course of the next several weeks. Presumably, this was originally intended to be the first of the films presented. Also presumably, it was bumped from the premiere in favor of “The Impossible Truth” because “The Impossible Truth” is funnier.
- The best comedy bit of the evening is the parody of an old commercial in which several cars were shown parked outside in the dark; the next morning, it’s shown that the sponsor’s product is the one that starts most easily. Here, it’s five “geriatrics” who are seen standing out all night, and the one whose pacemaker is powered by the sponsor’s battery…
- At the very end, Bill Bradley, the basketball player who would later become a United States Senator, comes out to present Simon with a trophy for his one-on-one skills, and to say a few words. For more years than seems likely, many people who were paid good money to offer their opinions on the vital issues of the day thought there was a very good chance that Bradley would be a viable presidential candidate. Watching him here, looking wretchedly uncomfortable while trying to get three words out, this seems insane.