Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Robert Klein/ABBA, Loudon Wainwright III”
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Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Robert Klein/ABBA, Loudon Wainwright III”

“Robert Klein” (season one, episode five; originally aired 11/15/1975)

Robert Klein is the first stand-up comic to host the show since George Carlin handled the premiere, five weeks ago. Maybe Lorne Michaels didn’t want people to get the idea that the show was going to be some kind of oasis for standups, because, having made his point with a fairly diverse array of hosts, he not only booked Klein but saw to it that he was followed, in quick succession, by Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor. In that company, at that point in comedy history, Klein was sort of like the Warren Zevon of Emotional Boy in relation to the gang at CBGB’s: He wasn’t seen as an especially revolutionary figure, with an experimental or personal approach, but he was younger and sharper than the line-up at the average Dean Martin roast.

Coming after last week’s triumphant installment with Candice Bergen, this one mainly serves to demonstrate that, just because the show had found its voice, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t have to work to hang onto it. It’s at least as ragged as the Rob Reiner episode, despite sustaining the new focus on the regular cast members and Don Pardo’s (proud? passive-aggressive?) boast during the opening credits, that there will be “no film by Albert Brooks!” It’s not Klein’s fault; he’s game, he gives it his all in sketches, and when he stinks up the room, it’s because he’s been steered in the wrong direction.

In one sketch, Klein plays an actor who, along with Gilda Radner, is being directed by Sam Peckinpah (John Belushi) in Peckinpah’s first romantic comedy. The one joke is that Peckinpah, that notorious blood poet of the cinema, keeps slapping Radner around. In the annals of Saturday Night lore, this may have been the inspiration for Radner’s famous line that Belushi knew how to hit her without hurting her, and how to hurt her without hitting her. But in the annals of cheap jokes at the great director’s expense, it’s a pimple on the ass of Monty Python’s “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days.” In another skit, which goes on so long that it becomes hard to tell if it’s desperately conceived time filler or a failed attempt at something more ambitious, he and Belushi play a pair of exterminators. (At one point, Klein seems to be about to launch into his stand-up routine about how those old Raid commercials showing a bunch of entertaining cartoon cockroaches being wiped out by “this big fascist bottle” of insecticide made him want to root for the bugs.) The most notable thing about it is Belushi’s accent, a monument to the kind of thing a sketch actor might come up with if he’s lost without a map and is trying to find something, anything, that will turn his dialogue and stage directions into a character. He sounds like Marlon Brando doing Bob Marley.

The most striking thing about this episode is the treatment of its musical guests, ABBA. (I should say one of its musical guests; Loudon Wainwright III is also on board, and, like ABBA, he performs two songs, one of which I first heard him do on M*A*S*H, in one of the episodes in which he appeared as the guitar-strumming Captain Spaulding. Was he brought in at the last minute as the “real,” certified-hip musical guest?) I don’t know anyone who has ever looked to SNL specifically for the integrity of the selection of its musical guests, but apparently Michaels got a huge bug up his ass about having the biggest-selling act in the world forced down his throat by the network. The official story is that lip-syncing was the issue: ABBA sang  “S.O.S.” along to a pre-recorded backing track, and later in the show lip-synced to “Waterloo,” and this is said to have enraged Michaels, because nobody ever got to lip-sync when they were a musical guest on Saturday Night Live. (It goes without saying that the earliest versions of this story predate Ashlee Simpson’s appearance on the show in 2004.)

The show’s way of dealing with this was to turn ABBA’s appearance into a joke: The band is cast as the entertainment on the Titanic, and during the songs, the camera keeps cutting away to Klein, who mugs ferociously as the ship’s captain, reacting to the water that’s leaking on board. Furthermore, during the second number, the words “RIGHT NOW, ABBA IS LIP-SYNCING. IT’S NOT THEIR FAULT. THE TRACKS DIDN’T ARRIVE FROM SWEDEN” appear on the screen. The whole thing backfires: You don’t have to like the music to find the show’s clumsy attempt to undercut its own guests infantile and ungracious, especially since Klein’s antics make you want to strangle him. By contrast, Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha, and Anni-Frid come across as hard-working, eager to please, and just hoping to make it through the evening.

My favorite part of the show, and the one that could have best fit in with the relaxed cabaret vibe of the Candice Bergen episode, comes when Gilda Radner appears alone onstage, dressed like a kid going trick-or-treating as a fireman. “I’m a fireman,” she announces, and then she proceeds to deliver a little monologue about what that means, filled with fire-safety tips (“Be very careful with old people’s birthday cakes. Maybe you should just send them a card.”) and inside information about the job. (“All the guys call me Gil. Firemen have to have short names, like Gil or Greg or Skip or Zeke. You can’t have long names. Montgomery’s a bad name for a fireman.”) The longer Radner stayed on the show, the more her neediness came through, and she sometimes didn’t know when to stop milking a one-joke character that had run its course. Saying this won’t make me any friends, but I sometimes forget why everybody loved her so much. This bit brings it all back.

Stray observations:

  • Klein is the first host since Carlin who really references the fact that the show is live. Carlin brandished the word “live” as if it were a strange and powerful talisman, in a way that actually reminded me of a 1989 SNL sketch that made fun of the Diane Sawyer/Sam Donaldson newsmagazine show that was originally called Primetime Live. Klein merely points out that “This is like the old TV,” making a retro connection that the show would later exploit to the hilt when it was hosted by Desi Arnaz,
  • I’ve never really lumped Robert Klein and Loudon Wainwright III together in my mind before, but it turns out they both have tendency to flick their tongues far outside their mouths while performing. Klein introduces Wainwright as “my new friend”; maybe they’d just met at the same support group meeting.
  • After Wainwright sings his song “Bicentennial,” Garrett Morris slips into a Bee costume for a parody of CBS’ Bicentennial Minutes. Anybody in the world besides me remember those things? I’d have thought that Shout! Factory would have brought out a box of them by now, but you can barely even find any of them at YouTube.
  • During “Weekend Update,” Chevy Chase refers to the show he’s on as “The NBC Night Show,” and predicts that it will soon be replaced by “Hilarious Test Patterns Of The 1960s.”
  • “Weekend Update” drops its second joke making fun of George Wallace for being in a wheelchair. Clearly, the good liberals writing for this show had no problem using a physical handicap as a punch line so long as the handicapped person in question was a notorious bigot. I have no problem with this, I just thought it was worth pointing out.
  • Ultra Brite toothpaste used to run commercials built around the question, “How’s your love life?” Gregg Allman’s tempestuous, tabloid marriage to Cher had recently ended. There, now those of you watching the episode for the first time who are just reaching the 23-minute mark know what that was all about.
  • Radner also introduces Emily Litella, though not in her usual role as the Editorial Reply lady on “Weekend Update”; she’s a children’s-book author who is interviewed by Jane Curtin on “Looks At Books,” where her tendency to string together synonyms for “small” sets up false expectations that she’s going to say something naughty. 
  • The cast doesn’t come out to join Klein for the goodbyes. Maybe they all snuck out early to go to the party at ABBA’s hotel suite.

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