Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Peter Boyle/Al Jarreau”

Illustration for article titled Saturday Night Live (Classic): “Peter Boyle/Al Jarreau”

“Peter Boyle” (season one, episode 14; originally aired 2/14/1976)

When Peter Boyle died in 2006, most of the obituaries focused on his role in Everybody Loves Raymond, often with a sidelong glance at his work in Young Frankenstein and the great X-Files episode “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” Many people seemed to have forgotten—and many other, younger people never knew—that for a brief time in the early 1970s, Boyle had been a movie star and a culture hero. He was something of an accidental star and an ironic hero, but that just made him perfect for the times. The movie was Joe (1970), a low-budget exploitation movie directed by John G. Avildsen (who was making oddball, “gritty”-sleazy pictures like Cry Uncle and Guess What We Learned In School Today, for companies like Troma and Cannon, before he turned into a leading exemplar of inspirational, “go for it!” movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid) and written by Norman Wexler.

Joe starred Dennis Patrick, who looked like the creation of a mad scientist who’d poured all the blandness in the world into a mold used to stamp out the guys who play the older leading men on soap operas. He played a square, well-heeled dude who snaps and murders the hippie boyfriend of his runaway hippie daughter (Susan Sarandon). Boyle played Joe, a hardhat who’s sitting in a neighborhood bar, holding forth on Commies and queers and hippies and such, when Patrick staggers in, desperately needing some post-homicide libation. As originally written, the movie was called The Gap, and Joe was a supporting character. But between the two main actors, there was a clear imbalance of charisma, and it shifted decisively when Boyle, who had honed his chops with the Second City and knew a thing or two about improvisation, got deep in character and began expanding on, and improving, Wexler’s dialogue.

Joe is one of those rare movies that was a major zeitgeist hit and the time and was barely remembered a couple of decades later. That’s not because it’s so bad—it isn’t good, but there are a lot of movies that are worse that are fondly remembered as classics by people who saw them too many times on cable or video when they were kids, and someone at Slate has written a misty-eyed tribute to every one of them. Joe is at least half-forgotten because it was a button-pushing movie that pushed buttons that don’t work anymore, not in that exact way. To even understand the movie’s frame of reference, you have to know that blue-collar conservatives were proudly wearing construction helmets at Nixon rallies, to show both their support for the President and their contempt for long-haired hippies and soft-muscled college professor-types. And it helps to know that there were stories in the news about middle-aged people killing their teenage kids, because they felt so alienated from them, and receiving outpourings of sympathy.

Joe, who finally leads his new friend on a hippie-killing rampage that ends with Patrick unknowingly shooting his own daughter in the back, was meant to be a figure of horror and revulsion, but thanks in no small part to the charm and energy of Boyle’s performance, a lot of like-minded viewers were on his side, just as many people tuned in to All In The Family to listen to Archie Bunker testify on their behalf. Writing in 2000, J. Hoberman pointed out that “The regime of the summer blockbuster dictates that entertainment build the largest possible consensus. The notion that a movie might succeed by polarizing audiences seems absurd.” You hear a lot about how polarized the country is today, but that must have felt very different in 1970, when people complaining about “liberal bias” in the media meant that, if the president they voted for was under investigation and might have to resign, they didn’t have their own cable news channel and websites they could retreat to so they could hear that there wasn’t really any investigation and everything would turn out fine, or where they could count on hearing that any poll whose results displeased them was plainly “skewed.” There were newspaper reports of people in theaters cheering when Joe shot hippies, and of other people shouting at the screen that they were going to get their own guns and be ready when Joe showed up at their door. Boyle, a political lefty who must have had a few interesting conversations on the Everybody Loves Raymond set with his co-star Patricia Heaton—she of the Sandra Fluke-shaming Twitter account—was reportedly a witness to one of these frank exchanges of views, and he turned down at least one big role, Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, because he was wary of being too identified with ambiguously heroic bully-boy roles.

I dredge all this up in the hope of getting at what Peter Boyle must have meant to SNL and its audience in 1976.  Big and bald and hulking in a gentle-giant way, he’s Mr. Square Middle America, the guy who, as he did in Joe, pronounces “orgy” with a hard “g.” Part of the special fascination of this episode is seeing how the writers felt compelled to come up with ever freakier situations and characters—very freaky, by ’70s network-TV standards—with which to confront him, so he could demonstrate his peerless ability to not get it. In the opening monologue, he croons “My Funny Valentine” to a woman in the audience—his actual fiancée, Loraine, as it happens—who takes the opportunity to make out with someone else and then slip away as Boyle is singing the line, “Stay little valentine, stay.”


There’s one of the show’s most elaborate drug-reference sketches to date, which starts out like a parody of Joe, with Dan Aykroyd sitting in his apartment, waiting for his shipment from the “Mountain Snow Baby Powder Company in Bolivia,” while “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” drones in the background and Laraine Newman, sitting cross-legged in a hanging wicker chair, appears to be trying to roll her eyes back far enough to get a look at her brain. Then Boyle enters, and instead of the violent, hippie-hating Joe, he’s a neighbor who doesn’t pick up on lines like, “Blizzard in Bolivia! Light flurries with a nasal mist.” Another skit, in which Boyle’s wife, Jane Curtin, is making time with all the TV-commercial-characters who populate their suburban home (“new Doorman-In-The-Closet,” “new Mailman And The Maid, two products rolled up into one”), is like a PG-13 version of a recurring sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, and is sure to bewilder any viewer to young to have even heard second-hand accounts of the days when housewives on TV regularly lifted their toilet lids to find a tiny man in a rowboat waving hello.

Boyle’s greatest resource here isn’t his image, though: It’s his Second City training, which left him game for anything and eager to meet the challenge the show presented to someone who wasn’t used to doing long scenes straight through with no retakes. The big surprise is how well he fits together with John Belushi; you might expect they’d be too much alike to work well as a team, but their combined energy almost makes something of the most disposable sketch of the evening, a spoof of TV wrestling with Boyle and Belushi in Bee costumes. (The way the routine ends, with a stuffed cow suddenly dropping from the rafters and Aykroyd, as ring announcer, formally declaring that “the sketch” has come to an end, makes me wonder if someone wanted to see how close the show could come to Monty Python territory without embarrassing itself.) Their shared moment of glory is “Dueling Brandos,” a silly idea based on a sillier near-pun, but given the fact that both actors were so prone to Brando impressions, also kind of inevitable. I wish that Boyle had hosted the show again; besides some genuine high points, this episode has the right spirit, and at this point in the show’s history, the right spirit came largely from the host. It may not signify anything in particular that this is the first episode since the one with Buck Henry three weeks earlier in which the cast members cluster around the host at the end, but it feels right.


Stray observations:

  • Fun fact: The gum-chewing gentleman in the hat and glasses who’s sitting next to Peter Boyle’s girlfriend in the audience is Steven Spielberg. He looks like the real-life version of the Midwestern pimp Dick Cavett impersonated in last week’s episode (where the stuffed cow also made its premiere.)
  • This is the Valentine’s Day show, and Boyle, without a trace of sarcasm, introduces musical guest Al Jarreau as “a valentine for your ear.” Jarreau’s blandness must have even gotten to director Dave Wilson; as he sings, there are moments when the director indulges in some goofy graphic noodling, as if to assure viewers they’re not watching PBS.
  • There’s also a routine in which three little girls, “the Shapiro Sisters,” dance and lip-sync to the Natalie Cole record “This Will Be.” Over the closing credits, Don Pardo insists that they were signed to Capitol Records, but they don’t appear to have ever released an album, and the most plausible explanation for their presence here is that Helena, Emily, and Jenny Shapiro were the daughters of Ken Shapiro, who directed The Groove Tube, which featured Chevy Chase and SNL warmup comic Richard Belzer.
  • Did I once write that, aside from the “Samurai Hotel” sketch with Richard Pryor, Belushi never did his Toshiro Mifune impression with any host other than Buck Henry? I’m actually afraid to check, but if I did, I had my head up my ass. “Samurai Divorce Court” co-stars Boyle as the judge and Jane Curtin as the future ex-Mrs. Futaba. It’s a funny sketch, but seeing Belushi don the kimono with someone besides Henry, and do it alongside someone else speaking in mock-Japanese gibberish, is a little like seeing that movie where Sean Connery played James Bond one last time, but with the wrong M and Moneypenny.
  • An especially inauspicious first: Dan Aykroyd does his first-ever Nixon impression in a talk-show skit with Jane Curtin. But for “legal reasons,” he appears wearing an ape-man mask, so you can’t see him, and in fact, you can barely hear him. Considering that the sole joke is the idea that Nixon has wigged out and become a hippie mystic who talks about Herman Hesse and his “karmic debt,” you’re not missing much.
  • The slideshow portion of the dopers’ sketch includes a lingering cameo of Aykroyd’s bare foot, with its famous webbed toes.
  • For those who enjoy such things, somebody screws up the blue screen effect behind Garrett Morris during his “Weekend Update” segment.