Host: Nader, Nader, Nader. It's a name that once inspired rapt admiration but now is more likely to angry up the blood. Few figures are more divisive. Depending on who you ask Ralph Nader–whose Presidential campaigns are now taken less seriously than those of Pat Paulsen and the guy who played Billy Jack–is either history's greatest monster or mankind's greatest hero. He's an icon, a scapegoat, a spoiler, a force for good and a man seemingly hell-bent on destroying his formidable legacy. On January 19th, 1977, however, Nader became something else entirely: a television funnyman. Sort of. In a bid to win over the masses and spread yucks throughout this great land Nader suspended his life-long campaign for consumer rights just long enough to host Saturday Night Live, a weird little pop-culture anomaly documented indelibly in the terrific Nader documentary An Unreasonable Man (I'm not just saying that because a quote of mine adorns the DVD's front cover).
Today's episode is among the season's finest but it's funny less because of Nader than despite him. As with most non-performer hosts the Not Ready For Prime Time Players work around their painfully green guest as much as they work with him. On one level hosting Saturday Night Live is a formidable challenge: You're performing on live television for ninety minutes after mere days of rehearsal. Any mistake you make will be captured for posterity and become water cooler fodder come Monday morning. At the same time all you're really doing is reading from cue cards while surrounded by professionals uniquely qualified to deal with your inexperience and stage fright.
"Call me Ralphie" Nader makes an indelible impression in the cold open, sporting a baby blue cowboy suit seemingly purloined from the Midnight Cowboy yard sale and a jaunty neckerchief. He nervously, awkwardly but gamely spoofs his uber-serious image while the cast flutters around him before Laraine Newman gives him a big hug to express her admiration. It's the big punchline to the whole cold open: Nader's personal airbag is supposed to roar to life but doesn't. Having clearly learned to deal with such mishaps from his decades as a juvenile performer in vaudeville Nader smiles sheepishly and yells "Live From New York!" And away we go!
The Good: Did I mention that this is the very first episode of Bill Murray? Cause it totally is. Murray makes his presence felt immediately playing a Wilford Brimley-style grandpa who sits at his phone waiting for his grandson Timmy to call to continue their long-distance chess match. The longer he waits the darker his monologue becomes until he's grousing "I hate Timmy! I hope he dies! Wouldn't that be great? He'd probably go to hell! I'm sure he hocked the watch I gave him. He hocked it. Hocked it, then raped the woman who owns the pawn shop!"?It's a funny skit and it's neat to see Murray very convincingly play a character that deviates so strongly from his passive-aggressive smartass slacker persona. Murray's next skit finds him treading more familiar ground, playing a fatuous, air-kissing director schmoozing his way through the dress rehearsal for a condemned prisoner's televised execution. It's a character Murray would play a lot of in the ensuing years: the shameless show-biz phony all too comfortable with his own smarmy emptiness.
Today's episode was historic for multiple reasons. It's Murray's first show and a surreal pairing of seventies icons in Nader and The Not Ready For Prime Time Players. It also introduced America to a rather odd French family named The Coneheads and marked the triumphant return of special guest Andy Kaufman. I got a weird kick from seeing Nader bark, in that nasal monotone of his, "Ladies and Gentleman Andy Kaufman!" Kaufman performs some of his most legendary bits. In foreign man guise he slaughters a nonsensical joke, then performs hilariously off impressions, then tops it off with his scarily convincing Elvis impersonation before reverting back to his man-child foreign man persona. After reading Bill Zehme's fine, if overly whimsical Andy Kaufman biography Lost In The Funhouse (a book that at times feels like it was written by Andy Kaufman's inner child) and watching Man In The Moon I felt like I've seen that routine a dozen times before but I was happy to see it again. By this point Saturday Night Live was settling into formula. So it's nice to see them experiment with cutting-edge comedy again.
In these TV Club entries I always make a special point of ignorantly leaving out readers' favorite skits/lines/characters purely out of malice and spite. This entry will be no different. I will not mention any of the following terrific skits n' bits: Ralph Nader is interviewed by reporter Garrett Morris while attending to a pair of blow-up sex dolls he keeps around for purely professional reasons (irreverent spoof of Nader's monk-life persona or creepy, voyeuristic look into Nader's secret life? You be the judge) The first Coneheads skit. It's funny, if a little one-note and the audience response is a little muted. There definitely isn't the Pavlovian "Hey, there's some shit I done saw before! Woo hoo! I hope those characters say that phrase I just can't get enough of!" Nader answers staggeringly idiotic questions from the youth of today (who are actually the fake-youth of yesteryear) like "Mr. Nader if Jesus Christ fought Superman who would win?" In a dream sequence Nader imagines Jimmy Carter revealing his sinister plan to avenge the Confederacy's defeat by using his inauguration to instigate a second Civil War. "Finally the flagrant rape of the Confederacy by the Yankee war dogs is going to be avenged" vows Aykroyd's Carter. The smooth, soulful sounds of George Benson. MIA John Belushi's tragi-comic phone call to Jane Curtin on "Weekend Update" explaining his absence. I loved the casual way he said his knee injury was so bad "They're thinking about cutting it off with a chain saw."
The Bad: As a reader predicted last week Emily Litella's shtick is getting old fast but this episode was pretty great from top to bottom. I was even mildly amused by Gary Weis' trash-centric short film. Whoda thunk it? Final Verdict: Who cares if Ralph Nader here betrayed an almost Ralph Nader-like stiffness in his handful of skits? This episode reminded me of what I love about old Saturday Night Live and why I enjoy writing these blog entries. Today's episode wasn't just an hour and a half of late night television: it was a be-in, a happening. Though Saturday Night Live seemed to be getting safer by the episode there was still a tantalizing sense of spontaneity and possibility. You might see a flat-out train wreck or you might witness the debut of one of the greatest, most beloved funnymen of the twentieth century and the return of one of comedy's true icons. Grade: A Stray Observations– –When I interviewed Kimberly Pierce yesterday, apropos of absolutely nothing she said "Hey, did you see Saturday Night Live last week? It was really funny. I nodded and smiled. She's an intimidating woman, that Kimberly Pierce. –I was surprised to see what a strong response my TV Club post on the first post-strike Saturday Night Live episode got. I guess people really do still care about Saturday Night Live. –I recently watched the Coneheads movie for the first time. If you've ever wanted to see all your favorite laughsmiths at their least amusing check it out. I used to wonder why Dan Aykroyd's career as a screenwriter and leading man flat-lined in the mid to late nineties. After Ghostbusters II, Coneheads and Blues Brothers 2000 I no longer wonder how come they don't make no more new Dan Aykroyd movies. Homeboy went out in the worst, hackiest way imaginable: by reprising all his old characters to widespread public indifference. He was selling out hardcore but, with the exception of Ghostbusters II, no one was buying. –If you're an SNL buff (and you probably wouldn't be reading this if you weren't) I highly recommend the SNL transcript site http://snltranscripts.jt.org/ . It's been a great resource when writing these TV Club entries. –When I heard of Nader's latest Presidential run I actually said out loud "Fucking Nader. When will he ever learn?" And I say this as someone who has voted for him twice, and only regretted it once (let's just say I'm grateful the 2000 elections didn't turn on a single vote) –"Not today, I have a yeast infection"–best or worst closing line ever?