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Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Lily Tomlin”

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“Lily Tomlin” (season one, episode six; originally aired 11/22/1975)

The most striking moment in the Lily Tomlin episode comes late in the evening, in a classroom sketch with Tomlin playing a female hardhat who is teaching a bunch of rookie female hardhats how to objectify members of the opposite sex. Swinging her lanky body around, she shows them how to wave their tongues and shout at people on the street, and instructs them in the use of “witticisms and bon mots.” Then she brings out Dan Aykroyd, as an “exchange student” in a sleeveless T-shirt and cutoff shorts. The women rag on Aykroyd and tease him, and when he gets huffy, Tomlin assures her pupils that it’s all an act and brays, “They are so cute when they’re angry!” The gender-roles switcheroo is facile stuff, but that doesn’t matter, because the performers seem gleefully fired up—especially Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner, whose hardhat turns out to be an archetypal Gilda Radner character, an overgrown little girl who takes things too far for the sake of getting a laugh, but who’s really sweetness incarnate. (She hurts Aykroyd’s feelings, then, after they’re alone and he’s close to tears, tries to cheer him up by saying, “It’s just school.”)


Tellingly, Aykroyd, the most technically accomplished actor of the regulars, doesn’t seem to be acting: His sulky misery looks like the real thing. Aykroyd loved to ugly himself up in the makeup mirror, and he was known for searching the nether regions of the wardrobe department, looking for the most hideous fabrics and patterns imaginable. He once defied Standards and Practices by going live on the air with plumber’s crack. But thanks to this sketch, we know exactly what he considered beneath his dignity—being picked up by girls with his knees showing. It’s also telling that John Belushi, the most physical and bluntly macho of the cast members, and so the one who it would have been funniest to see emasculated, did not end up playing this role. Belushi was notorious for telling anyone within earshot, including the women who were acting with him and writing for him, that he didn’t believe woman could be funny.

It’s not clear just how widespread that kind of stupidity was in the early years of SNL, but Belushi must have had a reason for feeling he could say it, again and again, without being pelted with rotten fruit. However commonly shared Belushi’s attitude was among the other men on the show, it wasn’t regarded as beyond the pale, and it’s that kind of attitude that explains how the show developed its reputation as a boys’ club. What’s really crazy is that this attitude could exist in the same space as the attitude that the show was doing something new and radical and hip. In the cold opening, Chevy Chase does Gerald Ford again, trying to make it through a televised address without killing himself. After he’s been talking for a minute or two, the words “THIS IS NOT A GOOD IMPRESSION OF GERALD FORD. BUT RICH LITTLE WON’T WORK FOR SCALE” flash on the screen. The message is clear: If you’re so square that you don’t get what we’re doing, we’d all be better off if you stick to watching Rich Little. And the show had a number—okay, three—of  gifted young women writers who could come up with material, like Marilyn Suzanne Miller’s slumber party sketch in the Madeline Kahn episode, that nobody had seen the likes of on TV before. But that kind of material was far more likely to make it to air if a woman happened to be hosting the show that week.

Tomlin and Lorne Michaels were practically war buddies by this point; he had produced her TV specials, lost classics of early-‘70s TV comedy that Shout! Factory needs to get cracking on, and this episode feels a lot like an extension of them. Tomlin delivers a monologue, reading aloud from a notebook filled with absurdist thought that, at their wooziest (“Why isn’t there a name for the tops of your feet?”), could be a parody of the observational wordplay George Carlin did when he hosted the premiere; she does her usual characters, playing Edith Ann in a filmed bit at a roller rink, and singing a song to Patty Hearst, while in character as Susie Sorority. She actually does a lot of singing, on a show that has no officially listed musical guest. Tomlin sings “I Got You Babe” with Scred the Muppet, and does a take-off on scat singing with some of the cast members, dressed as Bees—they’re “bee-bopping,” get it? In the biggest musical number, Tomlin, with a white flower in her hair, sings “St. James Infirmary” accompanied by “Howard Shore and His All-Nurse Band”—i.e., the show’s musical director and the house band, including Paul Shaffer at the piano, dressed in nurses’ uniforms.

It’s so weird it’s entertaining, but what, exactly, is it? The thought may cross your mind that Tomlin, who had recently made her movie debut playing a gospel singer in Robert Altman’s Nashville—she’d get an Academy Award nomination and win a New York Critics’ Circle Award for best supporting actress—may have been wondering if she could pull this singing thing off for real, and was testing the waters. In the end, the live audience, which seems unsure what reaction is expected of it while Tomlin is torching it up, loses its collective shit during the chorus, when the camera pans down a row of beefy guys dressed like Nurse Ratched chanting “Hi, hi, hi, got your baby, hi hi hi, gonna get you!” Perhaps as a consequence, Tomlin never cut an album of standards that used-record dealers could put in the window alongside Burt Reynolds’ Ask Me What I Am and Cybill Shepherd’s Cybill Does It… To Cole Porter. (While the Bees and Lily are hanging out, Gilda Radner does pull out a copy of Tomlin’s new comedy album, Modern Scream, and asks her to sign it. It’s a measure of how uncertain the show was at this point about whether it wanted to be vulgar about plugging its hosts’ work that neither Radner nor Tomlin says the title aloud, nor holds the album up so the audience can see the cover.)


Tomlin also does a one-woman show, playing a lovelorn ‘50s teenager at the big dance; it’s the kind of thing that guest comics like Valri Bromfield and Denny Dillon had tried on the show before, and Tomlin demonstrates how to knock it out of the park. She could have carried this whole show by herself, but she clearly enjoyed working with the other performers, and, especially in the hardhat sketch, she was able to show her appreciation of the other women on the show and spread the wealth around a little. (Garrett Morris wouldn’t benefit nearly as much when Richard Pryor hosted the next episode; Pryor more or less brought his own supporting cast with him.) From the moment she hits the stage, Tomlin looks radiantly happy. Her career was going very well at the time, but maybe there was more to her good mood than that. Tomlin starred in her own specials in 1973, 1974, and 1975; the most recent one, which Michaels produced, aired a few months earlier and featured Laraine Newman. Because of the mainstream credibility she had from her years on Laugh-In, she was able to get away with murder, and with a crusader’s zeal, she made network TV safe for hip comedy, for one hour every year. But in 1976, she didn’t make a new special. She didn’t need to, because she could just come back and host Saturday Night Live again.

Stray observations:

  • Both the cold open and Tomlin’s monologue make reference to the financial troubles then plaguing New York City. At the time, New Yorkers felt a special bond based on the idea that the rest of the country hated them, and especially in its scrappy early days, the show was very canny about playing to that. At the risk of being sacrilegious, it made for a better show than when, after 9/11, it played to the feeling that the whole country was weeping for New York.
  • Tomlin's monologue has the distinction of having been the token host monologue included in the Saturday Night Live record album that was put out by NBC in 1976. Yes, Virginia, in the days before VCRs and DVDs and streaming sites, people actually bought record albums consisting of audio selections from their favorite TV shows.
  • In a running series of skits, Belushi plays Beethoven, whose wife and servant don’t realize he’s gone deaf. (He then proceeds to compose “Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Old Oak Tree,” “My Girl,” and “What’d I Say?”) The best thing about it is that being deaf and futzing around at the piano give Belushi an excuse to ignore the other performers and just silently react to the sounds he’s making. (No, he can’t hear them, but he reacts to them anyway. Just relax.) Playing with others was never his strong suit; making like a mime on steroids was.
  • Very 1975 fashion choice: The Rhoda Morgenstern headband that Tomlin wears over her widow’s black veil in the “Jaws III” sketch.
  • Generalissimo Francisco Franco has finally died and gone to Hell, laying the groundwork for the most memorable running gag in Chase-era “Weekend Update” history, though the punch line won’t arrive until next week. For now, the event itself provides the opportunity for one of the more pointed political jokes Chase ever got off from his anchorman post: He reads the touching words uttered by Richard Nixon praising Franco, while the screen behind him shows a photo of the dictator standing next to Hitler and making a fascist salute.
  • This week’s George Wallace joke: The FCC has decided that, since Ronald Reagan is running for president, any TV station that runs one of his old movies has to provide equal time to other candidates. Wallace has said that, if a TV station runs an ad for one of his rivals, they should also show an episode of Ironside. The live audience has the self-respect to groan at that, though I got a chuckle out of it myself.
  • Two especially recognizable staff writers appear in commercial parodies. Alan Zweibel plays an electroshock therapy patient in the ad for Spud, the potato-flavored beer “that made Boise famous,” and does a stellar job of looking zonked. And Anne Beatts is terrific as she motor-mouths her way through the commercial for Speed, “the tiny blue diet pill you don’t have to be overweight to use.”