Though he isn't held in the same high regard as some of his contemporaries, especially those with the great fortune to die young and lead wildly self-destructive lives, Robert Klein was a hugely popular figure in the seventies, a comedian's comedian with a professorial air and an appealingly avuncular presence.
Klein had more in common with the intellectual likes of Mort Sahl, Woody Allen and Nichols & May than the raucous, high-energy stoners of Saturday Night Live, which helps explain why he only hosted twice. In Richard Zoglin's Comedy At The Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America the author suggests that Klein and Richard Belzer never reached superstar levels in part because Saturday Night Live didn't embrace them the way it did Steve Martin and Richard Pryor.
Incidentally how many fucking books have comically hyperbolic titles conveying that their subject (Jews, Stand-up Comics, Renegade Notary Publics) changed or invented America? Perhaps my upcoming memoir should have been subtitled The Big Rewind: How The Wholly Inconsequential Life of One Fucked-Up Depressive Changed The World and Invented America.
There was more than just a generation gap separating the middle-aged Klein and the hungry kids in the Not Ready For Prime Time Players but the popular comedian kills here without altering his persona or talking down to the audience. Klein takes the stage during his opening monologue looking like an amiable TA in a tie and conservative suit. Smart without being pretentious, Klein then launches into a routine that explores such SNL friendly topics as anti-Semitism at small Liberal Arts colleges, The Merchant Of Venice and the narcotized smiles and suspicious pep exhibited by the undergraduate pod people in college brochures. It was most atypical monologue fare yet it went over like gangbusters.
Klein's smart set combined wry verbal humor with loose-limbed physical comedy that took great advantage of his tall, lanky frame. But before Klein elevated the level of discourse over at 30 Rock we were treated to one of the most exhilaratingly bizarre cold opens in Saturday Night Live history, a stunningly odd duet between Mr. Mike and the Tina Turner review. In a bit more funny-strange than funny-ha-ha, Mr. Mike recited a least loved bedtime story and pulled rabbits from his guitar while Garrett Morris' Tina Turner performed a blistering, go-for-broke, incendiary take on "Proud Mary".
Morris, who always seemed more comfortable singing than stumbling his way through dialogue, threw himself into the sweaty physicality of Tina Turner with delirious abandon. He seemed borderline possessed. Morris might have been the weak link among the cast but he was in ridiculously good shape and made a disconcertingly attractive woman. As established elsewhere, he's also got a hell of a voice. He's definitely the best singer in the cast.
Klein's terrific monologue is followed by the very first Olympia Café sketch, perhaps the greatest one-note bit in SNL history. Inspired by Chicago's own Billy Goat Tavern, the sketch takes place in a Greek-run greasy spoon where the only things on the menu are cheeseborgas and Pepsi. The sketch has a musical, almost jazz-like rhythm built on repetition and the virtuoso playing of the cast. There's also a pleasing cultural specificity to it. Having grown up in Chicago and been to my share of Greek diners, it certainly captures that cultural milieu with affection and wit.
Speaking of Chicago eateries and SNL there is a Hub's in my neighborhood that has a mural commemorating Saturday Night Live's semi-well-liked "You likea da juice?" sketch, a sequel of sorts to the Olympia Diner pieces. Like almost all sequels short of The Godfather Part II and Gremlins: The New Batch it's not as good as the original yet there it is, bigger than life on the wall of Hub's. Weird.
Today's episode offered an embarrassment of iconic comic riches. Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray played "X-Cops" deranged vigilantes who take the law into their own hands in the most perverse, arbitrary manner possible. In this case they punish Robert Klein and Laraine Newman for living in sin by killing Newman, then framing Klein for the murder. I love the X-Cops. They're among the most underrated recurring characters in the show's history.
Following a Weekend Update highlighted by a rather epic technical snafu, a shocking amount of dead air and a stomach-turning editorial by Roseanne Roseanneadanna (I had the misfortune to be eating my lunch while watching it) Bill Murray's Nick The Lounge Singer, resplendent in tight pants, no shirt, a gold chain and a bandanna tied around his neck returned to croon the little-known yet legendary lyrics to the Star Wars theme song: Ah.. Star Wars! Nothing but Star Wars! Gimme those Star Wars.. don't let them end! Ah.. Star Wars! If they should bar wars.. please let these Star Wars stay-ay! And, hey! How about that nutty Star Wars bar? Can you forget all those creatures in there? And, hey! Darth Vader in that black and evil mask - did he scare you as much as he scared me-e-e-e?".
Bill Murray fucking killed in tonight's episode, following up the Nick The Lounge Singer Sketch with a Nerds sketch where the socially backwards bunch promote their rock album on Dan Aykroyd's radio show. Man, how awesome of a couple were Bill Murray and Gilda Radner?
Hunching up his frame and nasalling up his voice, Robert Klein then did a devastatingly accurate Jerry Lewis impersonation in The Nutty Air Traffic Controller, a loving but incisive parody of Jerry Lewis movies with Aykroyd as Lewis' snooty but ultimately supportive boss. Christ, I haven't even mentioned the Atomic Lobsters yet, have I? In one of the show's most beloved conceptual bits the idea of over-sized, monster-like mutated lobsters is introduced during "Weekend Update", is revisited just before Bonnie Raitt's second song and reaches a glorious climax when the Atomic Lobsters attack the studio to end the show, leaving carnage and mayhem in their midst.
Saturday Night Live was firing on all cylinders tonight. It beautifully embodied the danger, brilliance and conceptual daring of early Saturday Night Live at its best.
Grade: A Stray Observations-
-The train wreck fascination potential for the next two episodes is phenomenal, as the hosts are O.J Simpson and Chevy Chase. One is a widely reviled monster with a history of deplorable behavior and utter jackassery. The other is O.J Simpson.
-Hey, I just watched Mr. Mike's Mondo Video. Look for a review next week
-Neil Patrick Harris is hosting Saturday Night Live this week. Neat