Monday, May 26, 2008

Not Quite Live from New York

Well, another weekend has passed and that means it's time to review this week's "Saturday Night Live" scene by scene.

As I'm watching the show, I can't help but get the strangest feeling of deja vu. Wasn't Ashton Kutcher already on this season? And ... Wait a minute. Daiquiri Girl? Death by chocolate? This is the same show as a few weeks ago. It's as if they simply rebroadcast a previous episode. A "rerun" if you (and Fred Berry) will.

Doggone it. That really monkeywrenches my blog plans.

Time for Plan B.

It might be pointless to review a show I reviewed just a short time ago, but what if we dip back a little further in the lengthy history of "SNL?" What then?

I'll tell you what. Thanks to Universal's recently released complete third season of the show, I can review ...

"Saturday Night Live" Host: Steve Martin, Musical Guest: Jackson Browne and the Section

The third season of "SNL" kicked off on September 24, 1977 with all-time hosting king Steve Martin back for the third time (he'd hosted twice in the second season). Now, I know that not everyone has access to the DVD box set, so if you'd like to get a flavor of what I'm talking about without plunking down $60.00 or so, check out this link to SNL Transcripts. Most of the scenes are listed there.

Cold Open -- President Jimmy Carter (Dan Aykroyd) is forced to accept the resignation of his Director of the Office of Management and Budgets, Bert Lance (John Belushi) due to corruption. Lance takes the opportunity to turn his misfortune into a commercial for the National Express card. The Bert Lance scandal reached a head three days before this episode aired with Lance stepping down. Belushi is extra sweaty and trips over a couple of lines. Aykroyd's Carter isn't the greatest impression, but he does get the man's folksy ineffectual manner. The joke isn't great, but it's quick. 2 stars.

Credits -- I don't normally review credit sequences, but this is interesting. The classic credits with the New York still photos and pastel pictures of the cast were replaced in this third season by a montage run on the then-new Times Square Jumbotron. On this first try, the cast are depicted in caricature on the screen while ghost images of their faces are superimposed. It looks awful. Bill Murray's caricature is especially bad. These credits would be tweaked and improved throughout the first few shows of the third season. The worst credits the show would ever have. No stars.

Monologue -- Steve Martin, resplendent in his trademark white suit, performs a little of his stand-up act. Starting with a goofy performance of "Mack the Knife" (well, one line of it over and over), moving on to some bits like "cat handcuffs" and "ramblin guy," and finishing up with the warning that "comedy is not pretty," most of this stuff still holds up well all these years later. Probably because Martin never bothered with anything topical (like Bert Lance references). It's not the revolutionary undermining of the very idea of "acting funny" that it was at the time, but it's silly good fun. 3 stars.

The Royal Deluxe II -- A car commercial about a luxury auto with a ride so smooth, a rabbi can perform a circumcision in the back seat. This one has shown up in "Best Ofs" over the years and it's still a riot today, even if you don't remember the ad it parodies. At the time, a commercial was running where a Jewish gem merchant cut a diamond while riding in the back of a car. Here, the Rabbi Mayer Taplets assays an even more delicate operation on 8-day-old Benjamin Cantor. Hilarious. 4 stars.

The Festrunk Brothers -- Czechoslovakians Jorge and Yortuk Festrunk attempt to pick up two swinging American foxes in the laundry room. The first ever appearance of the wild and crazy guys! It's interesting to contrast the audience reaction to this scene with what would come later. On this premier appearance, the crowd doesn't seem to know what to make of these characters. Later of course, it would be all whoops and roars. Not yet recurring characters, the Festrunks get to do some things in this scene that they never would again, like go in-depth into their back story (they were brain surgeons in Czechoslovakia) and have an actual scene, not just a string of catch phrases. As one of the girls, Jane Curtin is especially good at conveying a combination of bemusement and revulsion at the guys' clumsy advances. When Aykroyd wraps his arm around Gilda Radner and delivers the line about "big American breasts," she loses it. Essential. 3 1/2 stars.

Jackson Browne performs "Runnin' on Empty": This is Jackson Browne at his performing height. His band, The Section, is made up of some legendary L.A. session players like David Lindley and Rosemary Butler and in this performance, they are nothing short of fantastic. Add in one of Browne's best and most famous compositions and you have magic. One of the back-up singers sports a pink T-shirt and coveralls, a look that sadly never caught on. 4 stars.

Weekend Update -- More tweaking. After two years of doing Update with a single anchor (first Chevy Chase, then Jane), "SNL" introduces a News-Team concept with Dan as a co-anchor and a rotating group of correspondents. It succeeds a little. Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris each contribute forgettable bits. John fares a little better with a one-joke routine about using scholarship money to buy pot. But it's Bill Murray who shines with the first appearance of his glad-handing entertainment reporter. He reviews Jacqueline Bisset's new film The Deep despite having only seen the clip the studio provided. His advice to Bisset sounds eerily like a Paula Abdul comment from "American Idol" ("You're you" and so on). Jane and Dan are awkward in this first pairing. 2 stars.

Mike McMack, Defense Lawyer -- Attorney McMack (Martin) turns the tables by making a rape victim (Gilda) feel like she's the one on trial. Then he hits on her. A great chance for Steve to overact; his little derisive chuckles when the judge rules against opposing counsel are priceless. The second scene of the night to feature Gilda's breasts. The ending, including the final "Nah!" would be retooled for Martin's later Theodoric of York sketches. A very funny scene and one that they probably would never attempt today. I had an acting coach who once told one of my fellow players after he had touched on similar subject matter, "Keep making rape jokes; that'll get you laid." I think he was being sarcastic. 4 stars.

Keypunch Confession -- A man (Garrett) enters the confessional, only to discover that modern technology is everywhere. Computers invade the sanctity of the church as a priest (Dan) dials up penance with his Trinity 3000 processor. Despite being wildly dated -- at one point, Dan boasts that his computer can process "7000 bits of information" -- this is still a pretty funny sketch. Aykroyd's ability to rattle off technical specs is put to good use. 3 stars.

Second Beatles Offer -- Earlier, "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels had offered the Beatles the staggering sum of $3000 to reunite on the show. This time, he sweetens the deal with an extra $200 and a ride in a radio-dispatched taxicab. Lorne is as stiff as ever, but Don Pardo delivers the game show-esque prize package with gusto. Love the picture of Nixon on Lorne's desk. 2 1/2 stars.

Great Moments in Rock & Roll -- Popular music enthusiast Alice Sloan (Laraine) relates the story of how she managed to obtain Roy Orbison's trademark dark glasses. Laraine does a variation on her hippie-chick character and John gets to sing most of "(Oh) Pretty Woman." The jokes aren't there, however, and the scene overstays its welcome. Love the reference to plaster casts. 2 stars.

Franken and Davis -- "SNL's" two junior writers get to pretend to be a comedy team in the old showbiz tradition. In this segment they sing badly, boast that neither of them are "the funny one," then present a sketch about a beauty pageant for men. A dumb Comedy 101 premise (gender switch!) gets some life breathed into it by the exuberant performers. Jane claims to be Anita Bryant's ex-lover. Steve's appearance as last year's pageant winner is a highlight. Spoiler Alert: Al wins. He should have such luck in his Senatorial bid. 2 1/2 stars.

Jackson Browne performs "The Pretender" -- Another magnificent take on an all-time great song. Jackson looks just like the third Hager twin. He's one of the not-dead ones. Worth the price of admission all by itself. 4 stars.

Kromega III -- A commercial for a digital watch so complex, it requires three hands to operate it. Digital wristwatches were a peculiar 1970s mania. They were ridiculed in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Rightly so. Great last line. 3 stars.

Then Steve says a quick good night and the credits roll. Don Pardo tells us to tune in next Saturday for "Weekend" with Lloyd Dobbins. Wish I could. Where's THAT box set?

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