“Rob Reiner” (season one, episode three; originally aired 10/25/1975)
For many years now, the host of any given episode of Saturday Night Live has been someone who has a new movie or album to promote, who, with any luck, either can do comedy or is at least a good sport. But in the show’s early years, the week’s host tended to function the way the monthly issue themes did in the old National Lampoon. People like Desi Arnaz and Broderick Crawford and Julian Bond and Ralph Nader compensated for whatever shortcomings they may have had as sketch comedians by automatically giving the writers a personality and a set of themes and subjects to work with. The choice of hosts was also the simplest and most direct way the show had of announcing to prospective viewers that this was not your grandfather’s comedy-variety series.
In their 1986 show history Saturday Night, Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad write that Lorne Michaels “had his own criteria” for picking hosts, and that “he didn’t want people who usually did TV.” When he was the show’s assistant talent coordinator, Neil Levy “once made a verbal offer to the agent who handled Carroll O’Connor, TV’s Archie Bunker, without first clearing it with Lorne. Realizing as soon as he hung up the phone that he’d made a mistake, Levy walked into Lorne’s office during a meeting and said, as casually as he could, ‘Hey Lorne, sorry to bother you, but what about Carroll O’Connor.’ ‘No. TV,” was the immediate response, and Levy had to extricate himself from the deal.” O’Connor eventually made his SNL debut in a filmed bit included in the episode hosted by All In The Family producer Norman Lear. There’s nothing inconsistent about Michaels rejecting O’Connor but being happy with Lear; seeing a famous TV producer hosting a late-night comedy show was quite a novelty. (In 1976, the whole idea of a famous TV producer was something of a novelty.) Besides, as one TV producer with on-camera aspirations, Michaels may have thought that doing a favor for another one could only do him some karmic good.
But I’m not sure why, this early in the show’s history, when every second of air time was a chance for it to define itself, the man who wanted nothing to do with the star of the top-rated show on TV was fine with handing the keys to the car to the guy who played his son-in-law. All I can figure is that it was generational solidarity talking: After all, as Michael Stivic, Rob Reiner was probably the first person to play a regular character on a prime time series who was, at least as originally presented, some kind of hippie, unless The Mod Squad counts. All I know is that Reiner wasn’t forced on Michaels by the network. In Live From New York, Penny Marshall, who was married to Reiner at the time, talks about accompanying him to Michaels’ apartment and watching him do his magic, cajoling and seducing Reiner into agreeing to do the show.
Neil Levy says that Reiner proceeded to have a meltdown in his dressing room just before he was to go on and tried to back out, and Michaels “just talked him through it.” Levy adds that “of course Rob did a good show.” Well, at this point, we’re still grading on a curve. Reiner has the special distinction of being the first host to interact onscreen with the regular cast members, beyond saying, “Sorry, the Bees were cut.” And he was around for a number of firsts, including the first fully shaped edition of “Weekend Update”, without “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not,” but with the first appearance of Garrett Morris doing “News For The Hard Of Hearing”—one of the funnier bits that Morris ever got to do on the show, and the closest thing he had to a recurring character with his very own catch phrase until “Baseball been berry, berry good to me” came along late in his SNL career.
But if I had an hour to kill, I think I’d rather watch the premiere again, and Reiner is definitely part of the problem. I’ve never heard his name lumped in with those hosts, such as Louise Lasser and Milton Berle and Steven Seagal and Adrian Brody, who practically have their pictures plastered in the SNL offices above the words “Shoot To Kill.” But he never appeared on the show again, not even when two-thirds of the core cast of This Is Spinal Tap, which he directed, were in the regular cast. And watching him here with the benefit of more than 35 years of hindsight, I’d say that he just didn’t get it. Or if he got it, he didn’t know how to put it into practice. In a review of one of the post-Jim Morrison Doors albums in the early ‘70s, Robert Christgau lumped Peter Fonda and Barbra Streisand in with Richard Nixon among those people who, because of the “one salient quality” of “uptightness” in their voices, would be better off not trying to sing rock. So generational solidarity has its limitations.
You can smell the flop sweat coming off Reiner during the opening monologue, which he performs in character as a cheesy, Vegas-style singer-comedian in a ruffled shirt from the Tony Clifton Collection and a thick-chocolate-icing toupee. (In what would be one of the best jokes of the evening if it were intended as a joke, he rips off at the end to reveal that, underneath it, he’s wearing his Mike Stivic toupee.) He talks about his good friend Bob Dylan and performs a deliberately schlocky version of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and, well, the sad truth that Bryan Ferry’s version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” came out a year earlier, and it was a lot funnier and more imaginative,and you could dance to it. All through this episode, Reiner keeps trying to parody show-business fake sincerity, and he doesn't have the knack. He'd later get better at it, but everyone did, after Bill Murray provided the world with the ideal template. (It's easy to imagine Murray and Andy Kaufman watching Reiner do his lounge-singer act and thinking, “You know, I could do something with that, and since he's not...”)
Reiner’s other singular contribution to the episode was to demand that Michaels run the latest film made for the show by Reiner's “best friend,” Albert Brooks, in which Brooks, as a vanity project, performs a bypass operation; luckily, he says of the patient, “He was a fan.” Brooks’ films were supposed to eat up three minutes of air time; this one came in at 13 minutes, and had to be interrupted by a commercial break. I have mixed feelings about it myself; it’s funny, but it’s a long time for the show to not be live, and it now feels like one last hurdle the show had to get over before it could settle into being itself. Michaels has said that he would have happily junked it if Reiner hadn't pulled rank, and Michaels' and Brooks' relationship never seems to have recovered. Considering how much time the film is taking away from the regulars, Reiner introducing the film by calling it “my favorite part of the show” amounts to adding insult to injury.
Two sketches stand out. “Dangerous But Inept,” a talk show featuring Jane Curtin as host and Laraine Newman as Squeaky Fromme, the Manson family member who had just tried to assassinate President Ford, getting scarily close to him with a loaded gun that didn’t have a bullet in the firing chamber. It’s a one-joke skit—Fromme keeps pointing her gun at Curtin and squeezing the trigger, and the gun keeps going “click!”—but it’s a choice early example of the kind of thing that no other show on TV would have done at the time, and Newman’s performance is the first chance she gets to demonstrate the propensity for going all the way with borderline-scary weirdos that will always keep her at the top of my list of criminally under-appreciated SNL cast members. (“Die, lackey pig!” she says to Curtin. “Bourgeois hog-face, meet your maker.” Did Michael O’Donoghue write this, or did someone just follow him around for the afternoon and jot down everything he said to cab drivers and newsstand vendors?)
And the closing sketch really defines what would make the show, and John Belushi, cultural juggernauts. Reiner, playing a “dramatic” scene with Penny Marshall, loses his cool and breaks character when the goddamn Bees wander onscreen and spoil the mood. Belushi, speaking calmly and with the face of a hurt puppy, stands his ground and tells him, “You’ve got Norman Lear and a first-rate writing staff. This is all they came up with for us.” Turning behind-the-scenes conflicts into a joke shared with the audience that made everyone feel more “inside” was a trick learned from the National Lampoon, and Belushi didn't have to dig deep to find feelings of resentment, either about the Bees or a more general sense that he had been disrespected and underutilized as a performer. After Belushi the nobody has properly shamed the big TV star, the Bees walk off, and after Reiner gets to delivery a punchline—“Don’t say ‘honey,’” he tells Marshall, that’s it. No goodbyes, not even any closing credits in the original broadcast. It just ends. Which may have been an accident, but is still kind of perfect.
- For the second and last time, Michael O’Donoghue’s name is listed as one of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. George Coe isn’t credited, though he turns up in a commercial parody.
- This episode marks the introduction of the comically awkward phrase “filmed message,” as in, “We’ll be back after this filmed message.” I assume this was code intended to alert people that what was about to follow was a parody, not a real commercial. Reportedly, there were some instances during the first episodes of people at local stations mistaking the ad parodies for the real thing and running their own commercials over them.
- In one commercial parody, a man in a supermarket invites people to taste two casseroles that are sitting side-by-side in identical white bowls decorated with flowery blue designs. He wants to show that they’ll prefer the casserole that was made with the sponsor’s brand of cat food. I swear that my grandmother had a casserole bowl that looked just like the ones here. I wonder if Good Housekeeping was giving them away with every subscription or something.
- Andy Kaufman is back, and this time he lip-syncs to a record in which a guy with a stiff, fatherly voice sings “Pop Goes The Weasel.” The big difference is that, instead of mouthing along to the line “Here I come to save the day!” he mouths along to the man’s voice for the length of the entire damn record, only taking a break to react to the voice of the singer’s “daughter” when she interrupts. It’s not bad, but it’s not as funny as the “Mighty Mouse” routine he does in the premiere, and for those who’d seen the premiere, it’s a lot less startling. I really don’t know what to make of the fact that someone who expended so much energy and brain power trying to be unpredictable and avoid falling into a rut did two acts that are so similar on the same show over the course of just three weeks. All I can come up with is that some part of him wanted to show casting directors that, yes, he could come in on his cue with more than seven words memorized.
- There’s also a performance by the dance troupe the Lockers, which included Soul Train veteran Don Campbell, Toni Basil, Fred “Rerun” Berry, and Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones. Even dressed as if they’d stepped off some kid’s music box, they’re fun to watch. Also fun to watch: The one lady sitting in the front row who appears to be under the mistaken impression that she’s clapping on the beat.
- The comedy team of Denny Dillon and Mar Hampton also make a guest appearance, doing a routine dressed as nuns. I have a soft spot for Denny Dillon, who I think gave the notorious Jeanne Doumanian season some of its better moments, but she and the show never had good luck together. Watching this stuff, you imagine the audience sitting there like the opening night crowd at “Springtime For Hitler,” before they decided it must be a joke. This part is mainly of interest as a reminder that the early’70s were the high-water mark for the notion that it’s always intrinsically hilarious to see someone wearing a habit. I have no idea why.
- Routine that plays very differently now than it did at the time, and in fact one of the most insanely uncomfortable things to watch since white people pretty much stopped performing unironically in blackface: “What Gilda Ate,” a monologue in which Gilda Radner smilingly relates her neurotic, compulsive eating behavior throughout the day, because—it’s funny! Here’s SNL writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller: “We were aware of Gilda’s eating problems, but we didn’t know it was called bulimia… It didn’t have any name like bulimia, and nobody thought it was a disease. We just thought it was a great idea. And then when it went on for a while we thought it was a great weird idea.”
- “What Gilda Ate” is an example of the show just taking a second to pound in the name of one of the cast members, to better help the audience tell them apart. A fashion walkway sketch, emceed by Reiner and Marshall, seems meant to serve the same person. Chevy Chase was already the best-known cast member of the show, and he was the one who got to look straight into the camera and say “I’m Chevy Chase” every week, and this was not going unnoticed by his colleagues.
- Belushi also gets his own (second-hand) star turn, doing the demented Joe Cocker impression he’d introduced in the off-Broadway National Lampoon revue Lemmings. It’s nice to have it recorded for posterity, but you can really see here why O’Donoghue, for one, never had a good word for Dave Wilson, who was the show’s director for its first 20 years. Considering that Belushi didn’t just lose his mind and charge onstage without warning, you’d think he’d have given some thought to the best place to put the camera, but when he doesn’t either have the camera too close when Belushi is doing something close or too far away when he isn’t, he’s cutting away for bewildering close-ups of the drummer or one of the backup singers.
- The “Dregs And Vestiges” titles is still being hung on the Muppets sketch, and it still isn’t helping. The sketch involves King Ploobis’ displeasure at finding that his son, who wears granny glasses and talks in a Jeff Spicoli drawl, has been “smoking craters.” As with Reiner’s pretending to be a dopey entertainer who thinks he’s demonstrating his hipness by massacring a Bob Dylan song that even Dylan was sick of by 1975, it’s hard to watch this Muppet version of head comics humor without thinking that the lady doth protest too much.
- “Weekend Update” includes Laraine Newman’s second live report from the Blaine Hotel, a shabby midtown dive where something awful always seems to be happening. She reports on a kidnapping, and Don Pardo reads the kidnappers’ demands on the air, as if he were describing the prizes someone just won on The Price Is Right. The Blaine Hotel was an attempted running joke that never quite worked and never really sank in. The use of Pardo’s “beautiful downtown Burbank” delivery as its own in-joke, of which this is the first full flowering, would become a staple of the show.
- In one sketch, a mock PSA, John Belushi consults Dr. Dan Aykroyd about his pancreas. The same sketch would be repeated, with different performers but just about word-for-word, with “uvula” in place of “pancreas,” on the second episode hosted by Elliott Gould. All I can figure is that, seconds after this sketch went on the air. Lorne Michaels realized that “uvula” is a funnier word than “pancreas,” and this nagged at him for seven months.
- My sincere apologies to anyone whose relationships and work situation have been suffering because of the time they've been taking to read these things. I like to think they'll get shorter as we get further in and I have fewer opportunities to write, “And here's another thing that happens for the first time...”