Saturday Night Live (Classic): "Sissy Spacek/Richard Baskin"
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Saturday Night Live (Classic): "Sissy Spacek/Richard Baskin"

The Good: A commenter a few weeks back called today's episode the single greatest episode ever. That struck me as just a tad bit hyperbolic (Can any SNL episode be deemed truly great without an appearance by the "Makin' copies!" guy?) But I will most assuredly co-sign on this episode being singularly spectacular. C'mon, it's got a home movie by Robert Altman for Chrissakes! And the latest in Gary Weis' ongoing series on how awesome cute girls look in slow motion. Forget Emmys. Somebody should have given that man a Nobel prize or something.

The episode got off to a spectacularly dark start with the fake death of Saturday Night Live director Dave Wilson. A clearly flummoxed Dan Aykroyd led the awkwardness brigade as one by one the cast strived desperately to say something eloquent and moving about the deceased but the best they can come up with is that he liked the Beatles ("A white man who liked the Beatles. Now that's interesting" marvels Garrett Morris) and warned Bill Murray that the milk in the coffee machine was bad. It's a clammily funny skit that also adroitly satirizes the way death elevates even the least remarkable among us into Saints and geniuses in the honeyed/dishonest words of our eulogizers.

One of the neat aspects of SNL transcripts is that it sometimes lists the writers of individual skits. It didn't list a writer for the cold open but it felt unmistakably like the work of Michael O'Donoghue, the dark Prince of early SNL. Like a lot of comedy buffs of my generation I know O'Donoghue more through his legend than his actual body of work so it's been fascinating seeing whether the facts live up to the legend. What do you guys think? I'm also thinking I need to re-read the O'Donoghue bio I reviewed in these here pages about a decade back.

The cold open established an agreeably nasty tone for the rest of the show. In an especially dark "Weekend Update" Curtin even tells a bracingly mean-spirited joke about NBC's The Tonight Show being put out of its misery that seems a little too nasty even for the swinging hipsters in the SNL audience. Then there was a brilliantly written and performed skit with Bill Murray as a man who managed to become an author and learning disability expert despite boasting a vocabulary of exactly five words ("That's true. You're absolutely right.") It's a testament to Murray's skill that he says nothing but those five words in the entire skit without it ever seeming awkward or stilted. According to SNL transcripts he actually fucked up and said two more words at one point but I didn't notice. Perhaps because, like many members of my generation, I am gay for Bill Murray. Comedy-wise.

Murray took center stage with a surprisingly dead-on Walter Cronkite impersonation in a skit where Jimmy Carter took questions from callers, including a man in the midst of a hellacious acid trip. I love Aykryod's take on Carter as a man so refreshingly honest, candid and knowledgeable that he's borderline insane. Ah Jimmy Carter, you were a terrible disappointment as a President and a shining example for ex-Presidents everywhere.

I've always liked Jane Curtin but this year she seems to be moving steadily from mere uber-WASP iciness to something bordering on evil. In a "Weekend Update" bit she channels just about Saturday Night Live viewer by telling Gilda Radner's Emily Littela that her shtick has gone from cute to tired to actively annoying and later narrates a skit about "Gidget Disease", a horrible affliction that causes full-grown women to be forever childish and annoying. According to Curtin's glowering spokeswoman these women "can be cured by being forced to undergo pointless root canal work in what we like to call the Dental Theater of Cruelty. I know, because I was one of them." Again, this one has O'Donoghue's evil fingerprints all over it, especially the phrase "Dental Theater of Cruelty". I similarly dug another installment of "Bad Playhouse". Good stuff.

The Bad: There wasn't anything egregiously awful about today's episode though I could have done without Richard Baskin's second number, a mopey ballad about retreating to the land of the one-night stands following romantic heartbreak (ah, the seventies). A character-based, Second City style skit with John Belushi and Spacek as a white-trash newlywed couple dragged on way too long but it was nice to see Belushi stretch from an acting standpoint. Final Verdict: After a rough patch SNL seems to have gotten into a good groove and it's great to see Bill Murray develop as a Not Ready For Primetime Player. Grade: A- Stray Observations– –That Sissy Spacek has some mad baton-twirling skills. It's too bad she didn't get more of a chance to use them in today's episode. She's also a dead ringer for my colleague Kyle Ryan's delightful wife. –Up next: Jack Burns and Carlos Santana, followed by Julian "Barak Obama of my day" Bond. I'm cautiously optimistic/curious about both, especially Burns, George Carlin's old comedy partner and certainly one of the show's more obscure and least-remembered hosts –It's good to be back, good to be back –Spacek sings! –Did I mention the cut scene from Carrie? That was pretty awesome as well. I always felt that the film was fatally lacking in baton-twirling. –What did, you the reader, think of the Altman short film?

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