Saturday Night Live is an institution ruled by ritual and repetition. Though the host and musical guest might change every week audiences can expect to see plenty that's familiar week in and week out, whether it's recurring characters spouting their catchphrases or hosts gushing about what a fabulous thrill it is to be working with such phenomenal young people in such an exciting, high-stakes environment.
This predictability and dependability is part of the show's charm: there's something reassuring about the fact that Saturday Night Live was entertaining/disappointing people before I was born (though we're pretty much the same age) and will continue to do so long after I'm gone, which should be anywhere from three to four months from now. Yet every once in a little while something genuinely unexpected and surprising happens and suddenly Saturday Night Live really does appear to be the gutsy, high-wire act it always professes to be.
Accordingly, today's episode of Saturday Night Live was a glorious anomaly, an utterly singular bit of brainy meta-television the likes of which the show hasn't attempted since, though I seem to recall a vaguely simpatico Garry Shandling-hosted episode from the eighties in the same post-modern vein.
The show's overarching comic conceit is that Charles Grodin, a middle-aged square so L7 he doesn't even smoke pot or watch Saturday Night Live, has skipped dress rehearsals and consequently has only a vague conception of what it is he's expected to do.
In a genius cold opener John Belushi grouses to Gilda Radner about Grodin's glaring lack of professionalism and feeble commitment to the show. An abashed Grodin then pops in to explain that he skipped dress rehearsals to go sight-seeing in Manhattan and pick up little gifts for the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Furthermore, Grodin doesn't really think the show is live and consequently treats every sketch like a take in a film that can be repeated over and over again until he gets it right.
I should probably confess now that Grodin is one of my comic heroes and an unsung architect of contemporary humor. Back when Ricky Gervais and Larry David were still sucking on their momma's titties Grodin was getting more comic mileage out of awkward silences and social gaffes than most comic performers could manage from pages upon pages of dialogue one-liners.
Grodin similarly developed "Charles Grodin" as a distinct comic persona on talk shows and, yes, Saturday Night Live decades before The Colbert Report. So Grodin was the perfect guinea pig to take Saturday Night Live in a daring new meta-comic direction. In sharp contrast to his famously prickly talk show appearances, "Charles Grodin" here is a boyish, daft bungler who never seems to catch on that he's acting in sketches on live television in front of a studio audience no matter how often The Not Ready For Prime Time Players remind him that there are no second takes or do-overs.
Today's episode operated on a higher evolutionary plane than most Saturday Night Live episodes. It fearlessly broke down the fourth wall and played up the artifice of the whole Saturday Night Live experience. Ah, but onto the show itself. Following a solid Coneheads sketch Grodin nervously spends so much time introducing a film clip from a movie he shot in Italy that he no longer has time to show the clip itself. Then Paul Simon shows up to sing "Slip Sliding Away", followed by another killer "Consumer Probe" sketch where one of the all-time great Dan Aykroyd characters–sleazy, unethical toy pimp Irwin Mainway–attempts to justify such hilariously fatal playthings as a "Johnny Space Commander mask" that's simply a plastic bag with a rubber band for children to wear over their face and a "Johnny Combat Action Costume" with a working rifle. Nobody does self-righteous scumbags quite like Aykroyd in his prime.
I also loved the way Michael O'Donaghue and Bill Murray tossed out entries for the "Anyone Can Host" contest for reasons as arbitrary as "ugly stamp". Aykroyd had a bumpy first few weeks as a "Weekend Update" anchor but he absolutely killed in today's episode, particularly in a bit called "News for Silent Movie fans" where he dramatically acted out the news, silent movie style and we were treated to another terrific installment of Bill Murray, critic. Resplendent in a ruffled tuxedo shirt with a butterfly collar, checkered blazer and vest ensemble, Murray attacked one-man shows with a gaudy abundance of smarm.
More delicious meta-comedy ensues when Grodin dons an Art Garfunkle afro wig to sing with Paul Simon and can't quite remember the words to the song they're singing. Grodin tries to pacify a pissed-off Simon by telling him "I'm learning them as we're going" but Simon eventually storms off angrily, prompting the real Garfunkle to rip off Grodin's wig in anger. Is this the first time a real-life pop culture figure has shown up alongside the person spoofing them on Saturday Night Live?
Grodin's guileless persona and fourth-wall-breakage enliven a Samurai sketch and an uncharacteristically genius Bees sketch that turns into a strange meditation on what exactly the bees are supposed to represent. Are they real bees or people dressed as bees? Are they supposed to be children trick or treating or adult bees? Belushi gets powerfully irritated at Grodin's bungling and delivers a solemn speech about the importance of professionalism and craft made all the more hilarious by the fact that his silly little antennae bounce up and down when he talks.
Incidentally, Dan Aykroyd is probably the only comic actor in history who can gracefully rattle off a phrase like "entomological masquerade", as he does in the bee sketch. Though I am the furthest thing from a science guy (me not know bout science) I did pick up on a brilliant biology gag where one of the castmates complains that Grodin isn't a host; he's a parasite.
The Charles Grodin episode could have marked a smart, edgy new direction for Saturday Night Live. Instead it was a dead end. Grodin was never asked to host again. That's Saturday Night Live and its audience's loss. Now get outta here, you knuckleheads! Eat some candy! Bob some apples! Eat around the razorblades and generally enjoy yourself, you crazy kids!
Grade: A Stray Observations– –I'm the only person at the A.V Club office right now. It's kind of weird. –There seems to be a fair amount of debate as to what part of Grodin's incompetence was intentional and what part was real. I seem to recall in the various SNL books that Grodin really did fuck up, miss rehearsals and ad-lib extensively, though I've also read that his whole shtick was planned in advance. What do you guys think? Can someone dip into the Shales and give us the real scoop? –This is probably one of my all-time favorite Saturday Night Live episodes.