My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
Here at My World Of Flops, we have been particularly fascinated by the crushing failures of Saturday Night Live. A good rule of thumb for Lorne Michaels’ deathless cultural institution is that the good years are never as good as their reputations suggest, while the bad years are never as dire as they are rumored to be.
Yet there are some seasons of Saturday Night Live that are widely, if not universally, regarded as worse than all the others. These are seasons when the show’s innate flaws are even more glaringly apparent while its historic strengths are absent. There are many weaknesses essentially written into the show’s structure, like a predilection toward lazy, racist stereotypes and glib hackwork that stands out in even sharper relief when the laughs don’t come.
It’s easy to see why the previous two seasons that have been chronicled in this column—the 1980-81 and 1985-86 seasons—failed so spectacularly. In both instances, Saturday Night Live took a big creative gamble, something it is historically terrified of doing, and came up empty. In 1980-81 it attempted to replace the Not Ready For Primetime Players (who were all gone by that point) with what were essentially knockoffs of the late-night originals. “Like Chevy Chase?”, a desperate Saturday Night Live asked a skeptical public. “Then you’ll love Charles Rocket, who is even taller, and even more WASPy!”
In an even less successful gambit, it tried to convince its audience members that if they liked John Belushi and Bill Murray, then they’ll love a new cast member who is an exact cross between these comedy legends: a funny-talking youngster named Gilbert Gottfried. Gottfried would go on to have a fine career, but not as John Belushi and Bill Murray’s weird-looking creative progeny.
In 1985, Michaels returned from exile with a bold new vision for his crusty old late-night warhorse. The show would be turned over to sexy, show-business children, as well as grumpy giant Randy Quaid. NBC would ride this crazy youth wave back to relevancy and hipness. Michaels assembled an extraordinary array of talent both in front of, and behind the camera, with a cast that included Robert Downey Jr., Quaid, Damon Wayans, Joan Cusack, Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz, and Nora Dunn and a writing staff filled with such notable names as A. Whitney Brown, Tom Davis, James Downey, Carol Leifer, George Meyer, Lorne Michaels, Robert Smigel, John Swartzwelder, Herb Sargent, Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney. One of the greatest assemblages of comic minds in television history still didn’t keep the season from being a raging disaster. It ended with Billy Martin pretending to burn the whole set down so the show could begin again from scratch the next season. The show didn’t just promise big changes the following year: It promised a complete do-over.
In Saturday Night Live seasons six and 11, the show tried to do something different, and was punished for its impudence. In season 20, whose 20 episodes stretched across 1994 and 1995, Saturday Night Live wasn’t starting over again. In those perilous years, Saturday Night Live was just trying to hold on after Phil Hartman, Rob Schneider, and Julia Sweeney left the show. To put it in sports terms, season 20 was going to be a tough transition year, and the show picked up some flashy free agents in the form of The Ben Stiller Show alum Janeane Garofalo, Get A Life cult star Chris Elliott, and This Is Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean, who was put in the impossible position of replacing Phil Hartman.
These promising additions joined holdovers like the frat-boy trinity of Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and David Spade, as well as Mike Myers and Kevin Nealon. These five all seemed afflicted with the professional senioritis, as if they were only in the cast because they forgot to fill out the paperwork to get released and were just biding their time.
The season found dependable Kevin Nealon being replaced in the “Weekend Update” anchor by yet another tall, overly confident smartass in the Chevy Chase mold: Norm MacDonald. He would become one of Saturday Night Live’s most beloved cult stars, but in his first season terrible material defeated his glib delivery. Like Dennis Miller before him, MacDonald seems to get off on bombing, which was the perfect attitude for surviving the brutal death march of Saturday Night Live’s 20th season.
In its first few minutes at least, however, the season opener operates from a position of strength. The premise of the cold open is that with Phil Hartman gone (something that is, thankfully, not mentioned in the show, lest the audience, cast, and crew alike begin sobbing), auditions are underway for a replacement Bill Clinton.
Chris Farley is first up. Lorne Michaels is canny enough to know that Chris Farley in a Bill Clinton wig doing a somersault and falling down is surefire comic gold. Farley’s tumbling, fumbling attempt is followed by Adam Sandler and David Spade re-imagining Clinton as an Adam Sandler possibly mentally ill man-child and a David Spade preppie prick, respectively, to audience delight.
There’s a fascinating moment where new cast member Chris Elliott comes on screen for the first time and is greeted by a short but distinct burst of laughter and applause. At least some audience members clearly recognized this weird-looking goofball from Get A Life and David Letterman’s late-night show. Yet the moment Chris Elliott recreates Clinton in his own image—as a W.C Fields-style surly misanthrope or a Lou Costello slapstick stooge—that laughter and applause gives way to the silence of confusion and non-comprehension. It’s as if the crowd likes the idea of an eccentric, hip goofball like Elliott in theory, but once he starts doing weird stuff, they start pining for the fat guy to fall down again.
Even Tim Meadows gets a shot at Clinton, though he quickly realizes the futility of his audition. Meadows bluntly asks Lorne Michaels if there’s any chance whatsoever of him getting the gig and Michaels replies, with equal bluntness, that it’s never going to happen. It’s funny because Meadows is so understated and resigned, but it’s also biting, because there are clearly genuine opportunities that a talented guy like Meadows was never going to get because of his race. But the man who won the dubious “prize” of getting to impersonate the president didn’t leave much of an impression: Michael McKean is a comedy great, but if he has a vision for his Bill Clinton beyond “light-haired gentleman with a Southern accent,” it doesn’t come across.
In this cold open, Michaels is smartly exploiting the sharply defined personas of his cast in addition to mining the eternally safe and audience-friendly terrain of making fun of the president. It’s safe, familiar comic ground and Michaels makes it even safer by having a dependable ringer like Steve Martin kick off the season as the host of its premiere.
Having just watched the riveting documentary miniseries O.J: Made In America, it felt weird gallivanting two decades back in time to when our society was fascinated by the Clintons and O.J Simpson’s murder trial. The season’s many O.J sketches won’t win prizes for originality, but they were as solid as the season got, so it’s easy to see why the show keeps lazily returning to this fruitful territory. Laughs are in such short supply here that the modest chuckles of the O.J sketches must have felt like a glass of water to a man dying of thirst to the cast and crew. It feels like the audience just isn’t there for the performers, just as the performers aren’t there for the audience. Long stretches play out to deathly silence, particularly the weirder, more conceptual sketches from Chris Elliott and Janeane Garofalo, cult stars who banded together in a doomed attempt to survive this comedy wasteland. When a talented actor is under- or mis-utilized by Saturday Night Live, it’s usually because the show can’t find enough opportunities to showcase their gifts. The opposite seems to be true of Elliott and Garofalo, who both got lots of screen time, albeit in sketches that probably made being a writer rather than a performer seem awfully appealing.
This being Saturday Night Live, several of Elliott’s sketches double as meta commentary on his role in the show. In one sketch, Elliott plays a guy who signs on to be part of a woman’s defense class only to find his genitals being brutalized for minutes on end. That’s essentially Elliott’s experience on Saturday Night Live in microcosm. He signed on for a show that was hugely important in the art and business of comedy, and that had launched huge superstars, and essentially found himself getting kicked in the nuts without end, creatively speaking. In another sadly meta sketch, Elliott plays the proprietor of a store that specializes in the “funny-strange” and is perpetually flummoxed when customers come in wanting “funny-ha-ha” items instead. It’s as if the show is trying to convince itself that it’s quirky and weird and conceptual and isn’t supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny.
That’s not honest, however. In its 20th season, Saturday Night Live desperately chased laughs through the scuzziest of gutters. Sketches involved almost the entire cast vomiting profusely in rapid succession as well as a hospital sketch that takes place at “Los Angeles Breast And Penis.”
Garofalo called the show out for being homophobic, but it seems odd to single out the show’s weird, backward discomfort with homosexuality (which is pronounced, consistent, and troubling) when it has so many problems with anyone who isn’t white, straight, and male. In season 20, Lorne Michaels once again decided not to add an Asian-American to the cast in favor of having Mike Myers playing every Asian character (other than Judge Ito) as some manner of retro stereotype. A scene where Myers plays a Japanese game show host is just a pair of fake buck teeth away from being the famously offensive Asian caricature Mickey Rooney played in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. But there’s also the depiction of Japanese culture as crazy and extreme and exotic:
Yet despite the sketch’s appalling racism, it is nearly redeemed by Chris Farley’s simultaneously hilarious and oddly poignant turn as an American exemplar of midwest propriety who has no idea what is going on, even before he loses the Kafkaesque nightmare he finds himself inside and is being physically abused by the evil minions of the game show. The sketch is a testament not just to Farley’s talents as a funnyman but as an actor. It’s a reminder that Farley was Belushi’s creative heir in part because they shared an outsize, Falstaffian ribaldry but also because underneath that brash bigness lay an underlying warmth. Farley’s bearish charisma is one of the season’s few redeeming features, as is Sandler’s man-child likability.
Proud Republicans Farley and Sandler may have helped turn the show into a crude comedy frat house, but they also provided many of its highlights, like when Sandler took to the “Weekend Update” desk to sing “The Chanukah Song.” Within millennial mythology, this is a seminal moment in comedy history, as important as The Great Dictator and Dr. Strangelove combined, if not quite up there with Space Jam. Yet within the context of the episode itself, it’s a gratifying bit of charmingly boyish tomfoolery and not much more.
The 20th season of Saturday Night Live isn’t dispiriting merely because it’s brutally unfunny. What makes it such a train wreck is the way it’s unfunny, in its toxic, juvenile ugliness. If this season of Saturday Night Live were a person, it’d probably be voting for Trump and sneeringly antagonizing “social justice warriors” online and making lots of transphobic jokes on social media. The season is mean and smug and low-key hateful throughout in ways that don’t just reflect badly on the cast and crew: They say terrible things about Saturday Night Live overall.
Saturday Night Live is itself a television institution designed to gently poke fun at powerful figures while reinforcing the status quo. No moment in its 20th season better epitomizes the show’s almost brazen deference to authority than a segment in the Dana Carvey hosted episode. George H.W. Bush, looking handsomer and more dignified than he ever did as president, acts as his buddy Dana Carvey’s hype man while insisting that he never said the manic catchphrases Carvey and SNL’s writers put in his mouth.
Bush is being honest. Carvey’s impression was a goofy, over-the-top burlesque that bore very little resemblance to the president’s actual behavior. Then a way-too-excited Carvey-as-Bush Senior performs a “rap” in character as the real president looks on in understandable horror and soberly critiques Carvey’s performance.
It’s understandable why a show fighting cancellation would bend over backwards to accommodate something as ratings-friendly as an appearance by the former leader of the free world. But this blatant ratings ploy comes at a steep cost. In this bit, Saturday Night Live somehow made itself seem even more toothless than it actually is. It assured the former president and its audience alike that oh sure, it may make some silly little goof-em-ups about Bush, but really, Bush is an important and dignified man, and they are honored to be graced with his presence.
Kissing George H.W Bush’s ass actually ranks pretty low on the 20th season’s crimes. Its casual racism and misogyny, more than casual homophobia, mean-spiritedness, vulgarity, and desperate unfunniness register as much more serious offenses. Yet even at its worst, and this certainly qualifies, Saturday Night Live was still capable of intermittent greatness. So while the show’s reactionary and creepy 20th season says an awful lot about SNL’s innate weaknesses, its continuing survival speaks just as powerfully to the show’s incredible resilience. Saturday Night Live may be a machine of the establishment, but it’s a machine that works well enough to survive regular nadirs: its desperately unfunny, loathsome twentieth season being one of the worst.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco