Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

How Bad Can It Be? Case File #23: Saturday Night Live’s aborted 1980-81 season

The infamous Jean Doumanian-produced 1980-81 season of Saturday Night Live occupies a crucial place in the show’s mythology as the worst of the worst.

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The infamous Jean Doumanian-produced 1980-81 season of Saturday Night Live occupies a crucial place in the show’s mythology as the worst of the worst, a 13-episode trainwreck that nearly destroyed a comic institution in its relative infancy. The season has such a dreadful reputation that even in a YouTube age where seemingly everything is available, I never expected to be able to watch the season legally. I imagined that NBC would hide its shame by burying the show so deep that not even the most dogged comedy geeks would be able to find it. So I was surprised and a little delighted to discover that while full-season DVD sets of Saturday Night Live conveniently end with the 1979-1980 fifth season, the notorious sixth season is available in strangely edited 40- to 45-minute versions on Netflix Instant and Hulu. These are not the full episodes—the musical performances are entirely absent, as are selected sketches and even some of the monologues—but they do provide a good sense of what the season was like.

I approached this fabled lost season with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. Could it possibly be as terrible as its reputation suggests? Could anything? In that respect, the Doumanian episodes have an unexpected advantage: It would be difficult for them to live down to their reputation as a shameful affront to the gods of comedy, just as it’s difficult for the early, Lorne Michaels-produced seasons of Saturday Night Live to live up to their reputation for satire, subversion, fearlessness, and innovation.

The finely wrought mythology of Saturday Night Live needs the Doumanian season to be not just substandard or disappointing, but egregiously awful, a complete abomination. Season six needs to be a betrayal of everything the show stands for, perpetrated by comedy Iagos in blatant defiance of God’s will. In a People magazine article about Charles Rocket’s rocky ride to notoriety, Michaels, the paterfamilias of the SNL universe, captures this desperate need when he saysof the ill-fated 1980-81 season, “My feeling is that Saturday Night came to mean something and the new version apparently doesn’t mean anything.”


Think about that. Saturday Night Live came to mean something. Michaels was acknowledging that the show took on an importance and symbolism far beyond its actual creative or comedic value. It wasn’t just an often funny, sometimes subversive, almost always inconsistent comedy show for college kids to watch while high. It had to mean something more than that. It had to symbolize youth, vitality, satire, and subversion. It had to represent the television flowering of the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll counterculture of the ’60s. It had to mean rebellion and non-conformity and sticking it to the man. It had to mean something, man, or it was just another empty vessel for selling laundry detergent and soft drinks.

The original incarnation of Saturday Night Live simply would not have meant as much if critics and audiences alike embraced the new show with the passion and fervor it did the old, if viewers took one look at new hires like Denny Dillon or Gail Matthius and decided they were more-than-acceptable substitutes for Gilda Radner or Jane Curtin. The Doumanian era—which began after NBC slashed the show’s budget by two-thirds following Michaels’ departure at the end of the fifth season, losing pretty much the entire cast and writing staff in the process—had to be absolutely terrible so the series’ first years could shine even brighter by comparison. The Doumanian season had to mean nothing, absolutely nothing, so the original seasons could mean something profound and important in contrast.


Don’t get me wrong. The Doumanian season is bad, but its badness is of a piece with the rest of the show’s wildly uneven 37-year run. You do not need to seek out the Doumanian season to finally see what unfunny sketches, dead air, mindless monologue patter, or grating recurring characters look like: Those qualities have been abundant on the show for more than three and a half decades. I have a sneaking suspicion they will be abundant on the show for at least three and a half decades to come.

That’s because the faults and strengths of Saturday Night Live are essentially written into the system. No matter how talented the cast and crew might be—and the original cast really was an unusually gifted assemblage of comic geniuses blessed with unique, remarkable chemistry—90 minutes will always be a vast amount of time to fill with topical, live sketch comedy. There will invariably be sketches that don’t work, hosts with no comic chops, and gags delivered to deafening silence. No matter the season, Saturday Night Live will always have highs and lows. The big difference is that in 1980-81, the lows were lower and more public than ever before, and the highs were pretty much nonexistent.

The season’s miscalculation began with Doumanian’s doomed attempt to establish Charles Rocket as the show’s breakout star and new leading man. Doumanian nakedly tried to posit Rocket as the Chevy Chase of the new cast. Both men were tall and handsome, with matinee-idol good looks and a distinctly patrician air. They were both talented musicians. Rocket played accordion on a B-52s album produced by David Byrne, while Chase, early in his career, played in bands with members of Steely Dan. They both slid easily into the “Weekend Update” anchor chair and impersonated the sitting president, though Chase played Gerald Ford so indelibly, his version of the president has largely usurped the actual chief executive in the public imagination, while Rocket could never quite get a handle on Ronald Reagan, even though he was one of the easiest and most popular impersonations this side of Jack Nicholson.

Saturday Night Live foolishly encouraged unflattering comparisons between Chase and Rocket in the first sketch of its sixth season. The season opens with host Elliott Gould—who hosted during the show’s already legendary golden years—in bed with new cast member Gail Matthius. Matthius protests that they better get ready for that night’s show. Then the camera pulls back to reveal that Rocket is also in bed with them, a tardy homage to Gould’s hit 1969 comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Where Gould pegs Matthius as a cross between “Gilda and Jane” (last names were not necessarily), Rocket introduces himself as “kind of a cross between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.” In a move equal parts bold and misguided, much of the cast is introduced as combinations of previous, better-known cast members. The lovely Ann Risley, for example, introduces herself as a cross between “Gilda” and “Laraine” while Gilbert Gottfried introduces himself as a cross between “Belushi and that guy from last year… He did the Rod Serling, nobody could remember his name?”, a mean but not necessarily untrue reference to Harry Shearer.


Of course, Gottfried was not, and is not, a cross between John Belushi and Harry Shearer. That description is both reductive and patently untrue, and the notion seems more than a little ridiculous now. Gottfried wasn’t a pale imitation of previous greats; he was Gilbert Gottfried, a loud, grating, nasal, proudly abrasive, and often very funny stand-up comic with a huge personality. But on Saturday Night Live, he was never really afforded an opportunity to be the Gottfried we’ve all come to know and either love, hate, or grudgingly tolerate.

That first sketch gave critics and audiences all the excuse they needed to write off the new Saturday Night Live—redubbed Saturday Night Live 80 at first—and its fresh-faced, overmatched cast as nothing more than pale imitations of their predecessors. It was a joke, of the winking, self-referential variety the show has always specialized in, but there was a disconcerting element of truth to it as well, a tacit acknowledgment of the cynical calculation behind the show’s new cast. It all but broadcast that Doumanian’s only real vision for the show entailed trying to replicate the previous cast at a fraction of the price. That mission was doomed to fail, and did.


Tellingly, the first sketch to feature the new cast was all about the old cast. In the cold open, the new cast members are wide-eyed children looking to Gould as an invaluable connection to the magic and mystery of the original cast. His voice full of innocent wonder, new cast member Joe Piscopo, one of only two new hires to survive the season of the damned, asks Gould if it’s true that the original cast really used drugs. Gould assures him that they certainly did use drugs, and not just the cast: The crew, the cameramen, everyone was on drugs, and John Belushi was the worst of the lot, a bully who used to wander the halls of 30 Rock with a giant bag of cocaine. And, with partner Dan Aykroyd, he literally forced it into the noses of unsuspecting souls. The sketch is a cheeky spoof of Saturday Night Live’s well-deserved reputation for debauchery and reckless hedonism, as well as an acknowledgment that a cast that had only been off the show for a year or two at most (with the exception of Chevy Chase, the first to leave) had already graduated to mythic status in the minds of the cast and the audience.

This opening sketch represents a strange combination of calculation and miscalculation. It seems to be saying, “You want sex? Here’s much of the cast in bed with the host, in a seeming post-coital haze. You want drugs? Here’s Gould dropping the dime not just on the cast of Saturday Night Live, but also on a TV world where everyone is flying on cocaine or zonked on downers.” It’s a funny sketch, one of most inspired of the season, but the laughs come at a cost.


Doumanian couldn’t hope to top the original cast in terms of talent or chemistry, so she seemed intent on topping the show’s previous incarnation in the cheapest, most vulgar way: by upping the shock factor. Later in the episode, Piscopo’s Jimmy Carter prepares to leave the White House following his loss to Ronald Reagan, and is consoled by Risley’s sultry Rosalynn Carter, who reveals that she deliberately sabotaged the campaign in an attempt to revive their sex life. “These past four years have robbed me of any lustful thoughts,” Piscopo’s Carter pleads helplessly.

“See, honey, we had to lose! It was either the election or the erection!” Risley replies. That quip is memorable for all the wrong reasons. The 1980-81 season’s attempts at satire were often puerile in nature, more schoolyard naughtiness than Strangelovian darkness. A sketch about a religious singing telegram called the “Billy-Gram” (puns are truly the last refuge of scoundrels) finds Rocket cheerfully serenading an unmarried couple living together: “Sin, sin, sin / Is what you’re living in / You don’t have a ring, but you’re having a fling,” etc.


Saturday Night Live 80’s attempts at edginess tended to land with a dull thud. In a sketch devoted to a group of redneck Commie hunters, Piscopo asks Rocket how to spot a Communist if they aren’t demonstrating. Rocket replies, “Hell, Jim Bob, all you’ve got to do is shoot yourself a Jew or a nigger. Chances are better than even you’ll be shooting a Commie anywho.” That line is greeted by a good 10 seconds of toxic silence. Silence is deadly to live television comedy, but it’s absolutely excruciating when wedded to such an appalling lapse in comic judgment.

Piscopo has long since devolved into a musclebound walking punchline, but he quickly established himself as a valuable asset to Saturday Night Live. He was a whiz at impressions, especially Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Carter, and he instantly developed a recognizable persona as a fast-talking Jersey jock whose signature bit involved him shouting monosyllabically about sports in an amped-up frenzy. Piscopo acted like he belonged, whereas Rocket, for all his good looks and hype, looked like a substitute teacher who was barely tolerating his pupils until the real teacher came back. The end of the season only heightened that impression: After Doumanian and Rocket were fired in humiliating, high-profile ways (the show was even thoughtful enough to give the producer a few swift kicks to the skull while she was down), the real Chevy Chase came back to temporarily replace Rocket in the “Weekend Update” chair and try to convince everyone that Saturday Night Live was not beyond redemption. Chase’s signature catchphrase, “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not,” applied more pointedly to Rocket than it ever had to anyone else.


Piscopo was not the only Not Ready For Prime Time Player to survive the Doumanian era. One of the darkest moments in the show’s history also contained the debut of one of its brightest stars: Eddie Murphy, who was introduced as a 19-year-old featured player with little screen time before steadily establishing himself as the show’s breakout star, a sly comic alchemist who could transform the hackiest bits into explosively funny comedy. Saturday Night Live seemed to go from black and white to color, Wizard Of Oz-style, whenever Murphy was onscreen. Even as a teenager, Murphy understood that the key to being cool was not caring; where the rest of the cast worked up a sweat straining for laughs, Murphy was effortlessly funny, with a delivery that only seemed tossed-off.

Doumanian famously did not want Murphy on the show. (She wanted Robert Townsend in the Murphy slot.) She had the misfortune and questionable judgment to see a man with no future (Charles Rocket) as the future of the show, and the future of the show (Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo) as men with no future. But even Doumanian was forced to concede that Murphy’s riotous “Weekend Update” appearances were catching on in a way fellow featured players Yvonne Hudson, Patrick Weathers, and Matthew Laurance simply were not, and promoted Murphy from featured player to cast member.


The first “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” sketch was a watershed moment for Murphy and Saturday Night Live. Murphy conclusively announced his arrival as a major talent with a parody of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in which Murphy plays a small-time street hustler who addresses the camera directly and talks in the soothing, familiar cadences of a children’s television host about decidedly kid-unfriendly topics. That intimacy proved crucial to Murphy’s ascent: Where his castmates struggled to connect, Murphy seemed to be talking directly to the audience, establishing a natural rapport with an audience desperate for a reason to laugh at a largely laugh-free season.

Reduced to its broad outlines, “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” is nothing more than Mr. Rogers in the hood, but Murphy adds a pleasing specificity and depth to the character. Though the sketch veered uncomfortably close to crude racial caricature, Murphy ensured that viewers were laughing with Mr. Robinson, not at him. Mr. Robinson wasn’t just a hustler on the make; he was funny, smart, and sly, radiating confidence bordering on cockiness. He was, in other words, an early incarnation of the quintessential Eddie Murphy character.


On a season powered by flop sweat and desperation, Murphy was calm and collected. In a standout “Weekend Update” appearance, Murphy posits that Abraham Lincoln never actually signed the Emancipation Proclamation, so slavery is still technically legal, but only people who are currently watching Saturday Night Live know that. So to determine whether a black person has seen the show, Murphy suggests approaching him or her and saying, “Hey, you black Alabama porch monkey, come with me. I’m your master.” Murphy’s deadpan delivery of the line absolutely destroys, giving the show a transgressive kick it often strained for, but almost never achieved.


Mostly, though, Saturday Night Live 80 flailed. In her previous role as associate producer, Doumanian was primarily in charge of booking hosts and musical guests, so it should be safe to assume that those elements would be among the season’s strengths. Nope. The season gets off to a strong start with the dependable Elliott Gould and Malcolm McDowell, but after that, it’s largely an assortment of B-listers less notable for their comic chops or memorable characters than the illicit substances they appeared to be on.


While watching 13 episodes of Saturday Night Live 80 in a two-day marathon, I often played a game called “What Drug Is The Host On?” I have no way of knowing, of course, but the high-wattage likes of Charlene Tilton, Sally Kellerman, and Ray Sharkey clearly seem to be flying high on some premium-grade Columbian marching powder. The tiny, irrepressible Tilton in particular looks like she’s about to start bouncing around the walls of 30 Rock like some sort of sentient Superball. It’s less apparent what a zonked, out-of-it David Carradine is on: I would imagine some combination of pot, pills, and don’t-give-a-fuck juice.

Dallas star Tilton plays a central role in one of Saturday Night Live’s most infamous moments. At the end of her episode, she sits in the lap of Rocket, who is in a wheelchair after being “shot” in a Dallas parody, and asks him how it feels. Rocket infamously replies, “Aw man. It’s the first time I’ve ever been shot in my life. I’d like to know who the fuck did it.” The curious thing about Rocket’s profanity is that it does not seem at all accidental, an instance of a cast member mistakenly blurting out a curse word in a moment of panic. Rocket seems calm and deliberate. He even punches up the “fuck” for emphasis, to the shock and seeming delight of the cast, especially Tilton.


Rocket had sealed his doom, and Doumanian’s as well. The Tilton-hosted 11th episode of the season would be Rocket’s second-to-last. Two episodes later, on the season-ending 13th episode, Rocket and Doumanian would simply be traumatic memories the show would spend the next few decades trying to purge.

In a desperate attempt to resurrect some of the old magic and save the show, the season’s 12th episode brought back one of the show’s most beloved old-timers: Bill Murray. The Bill Murray-hosted episode opens with an unintentionally poignant referendum on the show’s progress via a cold open where first Gottfried and then the rest of the cast file uncertainly into Murray’s dressing room in desperate need of a pep talk that will allow them to go on in the face of overwhelming public scorn and ridicule. They are seeking benediction from a revered comic elder.


Murray does his best to assuage their fears, albeit in a manner that betrays just how far they’ll have to go to attain competency, let alone perform spectacularly enough to escape the ever-present shadow of the original cast’s legacy. Murray doles out praise selectively and in a way that highlights and underlines the show’s glaring problems. He praises Rocket for his man-on-the-street “Rocket Reports” segments, yet chastises him for imitating him—at least Rocket found one impersonation he could actually pull off—and condescendingly tells Risley and Matthius, “You girls are terrific-looking… I still mix you up, I can’t tell you apart, but it’s great, you know. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s that other girl who’s very attractive.’” Matthius and Risley were lucky: In the sketch, Murray can’t even remember Gilbert Gottfried’s name. In the funniest moment in Murray’s parade of passive-aggressive quasi-compliments, Murray tells Murphy, “You’re black,” then awkwardly pauses before adding, “and that’s beautiful, man.”

Murphy made such a profound impact on the show and pop culture that it’s still being felt, but the rest made such little impact that when Murray dutifully praises “Matt and Pat, Yvonne” I had to scramble a little to even remember that he was talking about Laurance, Weathers, and Hudson. The 1980-81 season of Saturday Night Live is filled with tragic figures, from the reviled Doumanian to Rocket, who committed suicide by slashing his own throat in 2005. But perhaps no figure is sadder than Hudson: The Bill Murray episode was Hudson’s swan song as a featured performer, but she continued to appear on the show as an uncredited extra until 1984.


The cold open builds to Murray telling the cast that everything they’re worried about just doesn’t matter. Ratings? They just don’t matter. Bad press? It just doesn’t matter. The possibility/probability that the show will be cancelled and there will be no movies in their future? It just doesn’t matter. By the end of the bit, the entire cast is chanting, “It just doesn’t matter” while huddled together in a weird group hug until they’ve seemingly convinced themselves.

But it did matter. It all mattered. The bad press, the awful reviews, the toxic buzz: It was deadly to many of the cast members. Rocket, Gottfried, Weathers, Risley, and Laurance never appeared on SNL again, though Gottfried’s voice did pop up once. Doumanian would never produce another episode.


In a bitter irony, the cast started to gel just before most of them were fired. A sketch where Murray plays a writer whose constantly shifting prose is acted out by the cast behind him features some bravura physical comedy and crack timing from the ensemble, while a two-hander of a sketch that takes place at a Laundromat has some nice character moments between Murray and Denny Dillon. But as with much of the misbegotten season, the Murray episode’s queasy, voyeuristic glimpses behind the scenes prove most fascinating. As the closing credits roll, Murray, his voice quivering with emotion, looks directly into the camera, mentions all of the original Saturday Night Live cast members by first name and, with seeming sincerity, says, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done.”

Is it a joke, or does Murray feel shame for having betrayed his old castmates? It’s hard to tell. In the cold open, Murray tells the cast that it’s not easy starting over with an all-new cast and all-new writers, but that’s not entirely true. There was one writer who stayed on after all the other writers departed: Brian Doyle-Murray, a fine character actor who also happened to be Murray’s brother. I suspect that’s part of the reason Murray returned to host Saturday Night Live. It’s a testament to how much the original cast overshadowed the pale pretenders assembled by Doumanian that the most memorable moment of the show, indeed the only moment anyone talked about, consisted of a mumbled apology from one original cast member to all the others.


The Bill Murray episode was the second-to-last episode of the sixth season, but it was the end of a nasty, brutish, and short period. It marked the close of the Doumanian era and the beginning of the Dick Ebersol era. When Saturday Night Live returned to the air a little over a month later, the show looked and felt radically different, though it opened with a soothing reminder of the show’s glory years in a cold open featuring the return of Chevy Chase, who is seen reconnecting with Mr. Bill while rummaging through the show’s dusty old prop room.

Ebersol, a big believer in the proven and reliable, tried to poach John Candy and Catherine O’Hara from SCTV. He nearly succeeded in snagging O’Hara, but she ultimately chose not to join the cast after a traumatic encounter with famously intimidating, sinister Saturday Night Live writer Michael O’Donoghue. Candy said no to joining Saturday Night Live, so the show instead settled for another, less distinguished, but still solid SCTV veteran in Tony Rosato, who joined the cast along with fellow SCTV exile Robin Duke and the dependable Tim Kazurinsky.


With his first show at the helm, Ebersol wasn’t taking any chances. He brought back Chase for the cold open and the longest “Weekend Update” segment in the show’s history, and had Piscopo solidify his place on the show by impersonating Frank Sinatra in a funny sequence where Ol’ Blue Eyes waxed jingoistic about our nation’s economic war with the Japanese, which occupied the slot where a host’s opening monologue would be. If that weren’t enough, Ebersol upped the star power by throwing cameos from Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve into the mix.

The final episode of Saturday Night Live’s sixth season belongs equally to the past, present, and future. It begins with its first breakout star literally rummaging through his past and the show’s already fabled glory years, and closes with that star—who ironically might just be the only person in the Saturday Night Live universe as widely despised as Doumanian—promising a brighter future. The episode doesn’t just tell audiences to buck up because the mean old lady is gone and responsible adults are back in charge; it provides a revealing glimpse into what the newfangled Ebersol-produced Saturday Night Live entailed. Under Ebersol’s tutelage, the show would become a solid laugh, character, catchphrase, and star-making machine, but lose much of the wildness and subversion of the show’s early years.


The “Junior Walker & The All Stars” episode, named after its musical guest because it does not have a proper host, is the funniest episode of the season, but it’s even more fascinating as an exercise in self-mythology. Saturday Night Live, that most self-reflective of American comedy institutions, wasn’t going to wait for history to render its verdict on the season that had just passed, or the traumatic transition of power from Michaels’ cold, distant, but beloved daddy to Doumanian’s evil stepmother. Instead, the show wrote its own story while it was happening. It made that contemporaneous revisionist history a dark joke that wasn’t just self-deprecating, it was self-lacerating. It went for laughs and it went for blood. It didn’t matter if that blood was its own.

After a season of doing just about everything wrong, Saturday Night Live finally did something right. It had Al Franken return to the “Weekend Update” desk alongside Chase to deliver a scathing monologue about how Saturday Night Live flew so spectacularly off the rails.


In a bit of brutal honesty that thankfully happens to be corrosively funny, Franken promises viewers that the show will be a “little better” in the future, if only because “no English-speaking person could do a worse job than Jean,” a line that’s mean and hilarious in perfect proportion.

Like everyone, Franken puts much of the blame for Saturday Night Live’s decline on Doumanian, the perfect, eminently hateworthy scapegoat. But he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he implicates just about everyone, including the clueless NBC executives who handed over the reins of Saturday Night Live to a widely despised associate producer instead of him, the obvious, ideal choice. Franken even goes after Ebersol, the new boss, whom he mockingly nicknames “Mr. Humor” in honor of such Ebersol-masterminded gems as “The Waverly Wonders,” an ill-fated vehicle for Joe Namath, Rollergirls, and a Saturday Night Fever knock-off named Joe & Valerie. In his meanest, most inspired jab at Ebersol, Franken points out that Ebersol’s role as the network president in charge of late-night programming at the time of Saturday Night Live’s creation allowed him to be “the first person to steal credit for the success of Saturday Night,” credit Franken is quick to point out, “should rightfully go to Lorne Michaels and me, Al Franken.”


Franken’s criticism was pointed and prescient. The prickly, cantankerous future senator points out that Ebersol wasn’t being put in charge of Saturday Night Live because he was smart, funny, a comic innovator, or even someone with a reasonably good sense of humor. NBC wasn’t putting a renegade or a revolutionary at the helm of Saturday Night Live; it was installing a company man with solid commercial instincts who could be counted on to steer the wayward ship back in an unmistakably mainstream direction by emphasizing stars, catchphrases, recurring characters, and the dazzling charisma of Eddie Murphy (and, to a much lesser extent, Joe Piscopo). Depending on your perspective, Ebersol either saved the show at its low point or was merely a placeholder executive producer who kept it alive and profitable until Michaels could return and, after a similarly disastrous 1985-86 season, return it to its former glory.

But Franken doesn’t stop there. He wasn’t quite done salting the ground. Building momentum, Franken utters a sentiment that has been uttered countless times since the Doumanian days: “It’s clearly time to yank this tired old format off the air.” To that end, Franken urges audiences to send cards and letters to

Put SNL To Sleep

30 Rockefeller Plaza

New York, New York 10020

As a final flourish, Franken demands, “Let’s put this show out of its misery!” before Chase reminds him that he and partner Tom Davis are scheduled to be the next week’s hosts, along with special musical guest Grateful Dead. That episode was never to be, thanks to a writers’ strike. NBC yanked the “tired old format” off the air, but only for a little while. By that point, the seeds of the show’s creative and commercial renewal had been planted. Nobody knew it at the time, but the skinny teenager who survived Doumanian’s reign of terror would become an even bigger star than Chase, so big that he’d leave the show and, unique among the show’s retinue of superstars, never look back. Murphy has been a conspicuous absence in Saturday Night Live reunions, retrospectives, and oral histories.


The Franken monologue serves as a brilliant bit of satirical jujitsu. In a deft move, Franken attacked NBC and Saturday Night Live bosses past, present, and future and called for—no, pleaded—for a show that once meant so much to so many people to be put out of its misery for its own good, while simultaneously illustrating what made it so intermittently transcendent. He showed that in the right hands—i.e. the hands of people like himself, Al Franken, who returned as a writer and featured performer during the show’s second golden age in the late ’80s—the “tired old format” could, and would, sing again.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco