“Raquel Welch” (season one, episode 18; originally aired 4/24/1976)
This episode must have been one of John Belushi’s all-time favorites. He gets to dust off his Joe Cocker impersonation, doing it alongside the host, Raquel Welch, as she sings “Superstar” and, later, using it to crash John Sebastian’s performance of “Welcome Back.” He also gets to do an impression of one of his rebel-actor heroes, Jack Nicholson, in a One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest sketch played with Bee headgear. Like “Dueling Brandos” from the Peter Boyle episode, it’s an impression that’s also a naked assertion of fannish devotion: At one point, Belushi just reels off all his favorite Nicholson credits, declaring that he should have won an Oscar for Easy Rider adding that he sounds a lot like Bruce Dern, who acted in Nicholson’s directing debut, Drive, He Said. (If Nicholson was aware of the sketch, it worked: He later hired Belushi for a part in the second movie he directed, Goin’ South.)
He also may have felt comfortable working with Welch because he felt that she vindicated his oft-repeated opinion that women aren’t funny. Welch actually does as convincing an acting job as I’ve ever seen from her when she’s playing the starched, humorless Nurse Ratched character, but the funniest thing she does in this show is her exaggerated, open-mouthed smile of phony show business gratitude, and it looks just like the one she flashed on real talk shows and awards presentations. The second funniest thing she does is call for a vote on whether, against her wishes, the Bees can watch the Oscars show on TV, then panic when she realizes that she’s screwed up on live TV by absent-mindedly raising her own hand.
What is Raquel Welch doing here? She’s a different order of unhip movie actress than Candice Bergen, less a good sport who was in generational solidarity with the show than a plastic celebrity, one of the very last movie-star creations of the decaying old studio system, whose film career was starting to seem like a vestigial appendage to her Vegas act. The show doesn’t even try to de-Vegas her second song—you can only send “Joe Cocker” in so many times—or the Gary Weis film in which she shakes her hair and body around, in a hyperactive display that the generous at heart or tacky of eye would call “dancing.” The weirdest thing about the film is that it’s introduced by Gilda Radner, right after she’s made a little speech about feeling sympathy for the host, for what she has to endure as a sex symbol. “Raquel Welch and I have exactly the same body,” she says. “We’re both alike, we’re both women, we have exactly the same parts. Mine just need a little regrouping.”
It’s hard to gauge how much genuine feeling is tucked in there with the “joke” of Radner putting herself down. The specter of SNL’s woman problem hangs over this episode, to the extent that, if (like me) you think there’s some detectable hostility between Belushi and Jane Curtin when they’re doing a (real) Polaroid commercial together, you may find yourself distracted by trying to imagine what it’s like to be stuck working with a colleague who believes that you can’t be good at your job, because of your gender. When Welch comes out to do her song, she tells the audience that “I saw last week’s show, and I thought it was very funny, but a little lacking in taste, until I found out what they had planned for me. Honey, honey, honey…”
Part of what they had planned for her was a science fiction spoof called “Planet Of The Enormous Hooters,” in which Welch would have played an alien refugee from a distant world where she doesn’t fit in. (“Look! Her breasts are so small, they look like melons!”) The sketch later appeared in a 1978 paperback collection of SNL scripts, and was dusted off and used a dozen years later, when Dolly Parton hosted. Welch refused to have anything to do with it, though she apparently was able to make her peace with Chevy Chase repeatedly trying to coax her into removing her shirt. The fact that she was okay with that should have been a warning sign; Chase may have been able to con himself into thinking he was performing some brilliantly subversive satire of the whole “sex symbol” thing, but it plays just like the kind of dumb, leering routine that Welch was used to putting up with on Bob Hope specials.
When Michael Sarne cast Welch as the title character in the disastrous 1970 movie of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge—where she was supposed to be Rex Reed after a sex change operation—he did his part to ensure cordial relations between himself and his star by telling an interviewer that Welch was “useful only as a joke.” I have an awful suspicion that SNL felt the same way, and that Lorne Michaels and his crew thought that, after playing a practical joke on poor Ron Nessen, they thought they could do something similar with Raquel Welch. They found out that self-made divas, whether they can play comedy or not, are made of sterner stuff than White House press secretaries. (As partial compensation, Chevy Chase leads "Weekend Update" with an item reminding everyone about last week's show, and rubbing Nessen and Ford's faces in it. On the one hand, this seems pretty graceless, but maybe we should cut them some slack, given the times they lived in. Today, Chase and company would have had a whole week between shows to brag about their triumph on Twitter and get it out of their systems.)
They couldn’t really use Welch to their ends; parts of this episode look an awful lot like The Dean Martin Show, and the most breast-centric sketch, about Howard Hughes designing a bra for Jane Russell on the set of The Outlaw, is mostly humiliating for Dan Aykroyd. But Welch was able to use SNL, though. In her happiest moment, she appears dressed as she did in the poster for Myra Breckinridge and breathlessly announces, “Hi! I’m Gore Vidal!” She then proceeds to describe the lineage of the novelist, who did the rounds of TV talk shows in 1970 to warn people not to see the Myra movie as if he were bringing word of a plague, before summing him up as “the only literary figure of the twentieth century who whines.” Far from accurate, but as unexpected salvos in long-running feuds about unwatchable movies go: Touche’!
- For the umpteenth time, Chevy Chase devotes the cold opening to a lot of hemming and hawing, aimed to satirizing the notion that he resorts to hemming and hawing to really pad these things out.
- Aykroyd appears in the first of a series of sketches satirizing efforts to encourage Americans to adopt the metric system. I remember getting pamphlets at school and seeing animated PSAs on late-night TV about how the whole country would be on the metric system by 2000, and you didn’t want to be left behind. Looking back, it seems funny that anyone ever thought we might have trouble making the switch, doesn’t it?
- Three days before this episode aired, Claudine Longet, a French pop singer and actress best known for having been married to Andy Williams and her role as the female lead in the Peter Sellers-Blake Edwards movie The Party, shot and killed her lover, pro skier Spider Sabich. The show addressed this with a sketch called “The Caludine Longet Invitational,” which consists mostly of file footage of skiers taking tumbles, with the added sound of gunfire, and Chevy Chase, as a TV announcer, saying, “Uh-oh, he seems to have been accidentally shot by Claudine Longet.” After the lawyers got involved, SNL offered an on-air apology, which sort of makes this sketch the SNL equivalent of the 1973 National Lampoon parody ad about how Ted Kennedy would have been President if he’d only driven a Volkswagen: “It floats.” (If you couldn’t tell this sketch was written by Michael O’Donoghue, he left his signature by naming Jane Curtin’s character “Jessica Antlerdance.” See the 1977 Mardi Gras episode for more details.)
- Curtin also provides the narration on the Jane Russell sketch. I swear you can hear her trying not to throw up in her mouth as she speaks the phrase “the girl with the golden gazongas.”
- Gilda Radner debuts her Barbara Walters impression, which is used to get in another shot aimed at Tom Snyder. Walters explains that she’s leaving NBC to get away from Snyder, who she ridicules for having his hair cut as if he were from Howwand. (“Howwand. It’s just nowth of Fwance.”)
- Speaking as a big Lovin’ Spoonful fan whose knowledge of John Sebastian’s solo career kind of tapers off after his first solo album and his 1992 guest appearance on Married… With Children, I’m tempted to call Sebastian’s performance here the most embarrassing one by a musical guest on the first season of SNL, including ABBA, who deserve credit for not walking off when they realized that the show had it in for them. Sebastian doesn’t seem to understand that he’s live and on the air; first, he restarts the song after getting a smidgen of feedback from the microphone, then he tries, and fails, to get the audience to sing along with him on the chorus. All this, and he’s performing a goddamn TV theme song!
- Lorne Michaels performs the most successful of his on-air put-ons, inviting the Beatles to come on the show as musical guests and enticingly waving a cashier’s check, made out to “THE BEATLES,” for $3000. (Always the dreamer, Michaels had someone stationed in the NBC lobby, just in case any Beatles showed up, to spare them taking any shit from security.) This joke had a long fuse: It would be eight months before an actual Beatle, George Harrison, was signed as musical guest, on an episode that, naturally, began with Harrison, backstage, dickering with Michaels over whether he’s to get his full quarter of the $3000.
- King Ploobis and Scred hit on Raquel Welch, who, disturbingly, points out to them that “you guys are just puppets. You don’t even exist below the waist.” (“Well,” Scred insists, “I’m pretty good with my hands.”) It’s the start of a downward spiral and existential crisis that leads to Ploobis and Scred discovering the Mighty Favog in storage, wreathed with cobwebs. He advises them to “Pack it in. Quit.” Reluctantly but bravely, they crawl into a trunk that already contains all the other inhabitants of the Land of Gorch. If Scred and Favog hadn’t returned for a final bow in the next episode, this would have counted as a dignified farewell.