Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 7, 2006

Saturday Night Live

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

After reading Dennis Perrin on the two new NBC shows based on Saturday Night Live, I decided to review them myself. Not that I am in the same league with Dennis, who wrote a 429 page biography of the late Michael O’Donoghue, a SNL writer and performer. It is a major chore for me to read a book of that length, let alone write one.

As is the case with many Americans, SNL was very important to me when I was young (I no longer watch it and I am no longer young.) I was also very good friends with Chevy Chase, who had a big influence on the show when it, like Woody Allen movies, was really good.

So let me start with a few words about Chevy.

Chevy arrived at Bard College one or two years behind me (I can’t be more exact since we are talking about more than 40 years ago.) He had either flunked out of Dartmouth or was forced to transfer because of bad grades. Since Bardians tended to affect a low-rent bohemian style incorporating Gaulois cigarettes and ratty turtle-neck sweaters, Chevy’s preppy appearance put people off. Although many students remained resistant to his charms, I took an instant liking to him because of his sense of humor, especially his ability to laugh at himself.

He arrived at the same time as Kenny Shapiro, a short, overweight and extremely obnoxious show business professional of some standing who tooled a brand-new Porsche around campus. In the early 1950’s, Sid Stone–a pitchman for Texaco on Milton Berle’s show– was often interrupted by an attention-craving 7-year-old in a clown’s suit. Stone’s tagline was “Go ‘way, kid, you’re bodderin’ me.” That kid was Kenny Shapiro. Not only had he made a fortune from his Berle appearances, his parents had become fabulously wealthy in the garment business after they came out with the official Davy Crockett coonskin hat.

Kenny and Chevy lived on the same floor of Ward Manor (a mansion overlooking the Catskill Mountains) as me, where I had agreed to serve as dorm president. The two of them and Lane Sarasohn, who was a year ahead of me, would play home-made tapes of their own comic skits at extremely high volume all through the night. The rest of the dorm got so fed up that they prevailed on me to get them to tone it down. I knocked on Shapiro’s door and told him to have a little respect for his neighbors or I would report him. This was about as close as I came to being a cop in my entire life.

I had a totally different connection to Chevy than his future show business partners. We played ping-pong a lot–he was great at it–and listened to music together. We both ended up in Jacob Druckman’s harmony class. He never did his homework and got a D, but his classroom exercises in polyphony sounded beautiful.

Although clownishness is generally associated with funny looking people like Groucho Marx or Woody Allen, Chevy loved being laughed at. The pratfalls that he perfected on SNL had premiered on the Bard campus. He was the master of goofy walks and cross-eyed grins. I thought it was great that he defied expectations about how a tall, handsome man should behave. The only other comic actor who had this knack was Cary Grant, who Chevy labeled as a homosexual on the Tonight show in a lame attempt at humor. Grant sued him, but they settled out of court.

Lane, Kenny and Chevy were all in love with Blythe Danner, another friend of mine. (I should add that I have had no contact with these people in over 40 years.) She ended up with Shapiro, who was a good 6 inches shorter than her and the classic frog to her princess. Always the show business hopeful, she was obviously attracted to his resume more than anything else.

Years later I discovered that the Ward Manor tapes formed the basis for a 1967 off-off-Broadway show called “Channel One” that was a satire on television performed on closed-circuit TV’s throughout the theater. Shapiro, Sarasohn and Chase worked on it, as did Bard dropout Richard Allen who was the funniest of them all in my opinion. You can watch a clip of the show (a sophomoric swipe at the foppish Bard literature professor Paris Leary, now deceased) on Sarasohn’s website.

In 1974 “Channel One” was turned into the movie “Groove Tube.” You can watch one of the funnier skits on YouTube. Dressed as a businessman in a pink suit with a briefcase, Shapiro dances manically through the Manhattan financial district to the tune of “Just You, Just Me”. There are other very funny skits and the film is well worth ordering from Netflix or at your well-stocked video store.

Shapiro and Chase collaborated one more time on the 1981 film “Modern Problems” that I have never seen. Reviews on IMDB indicate that it was even worse than some of Chevy’s other disasters. Shapiro seems to have found his true métier in television where he has served as technical director (a non-creative job that involves camera coordination, etc.) for a number of situation comedies, including “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

In 1975 Chevy landed a job as writer and performer on SNL. To give credit where credit is due, I am quite sure that Shapiro’s comedy worked its way into SNL through the medium of Chevy Chase. Although I am by no means an expert on the history of the show, I would assume that the initial inspiration came from the Harvard Lampoon and Shapiro’s movie. I would be very surprised if the idea for the “Weekend Update” news segment that featured Chevy and Jane Curtin did not owe a lot to “Groove Tube,” which arguably was the very first satire directed against television. Shapiro did not have a political bone in his body, but he certainly had a keen sense of the absurdity of the medium he grew up in. Chase took that insight and married it to the larger radical culture of the period, one in which the spirit of the 1960s still loomed large.

This is a flavor of the sort of thing that Chevy was doing in the Weekend Update:

Chevy Chase: Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not. The top story tonight: The Senate Intelligence Committee has revealed that the CIA has been involved in no less than nine assassination plots against various foreign leaders. Commented President Ford upon reading the report, quote, “Boy, I’m sure glad I’m not foreign.”

Later, Mr. Ford pierced his left hand with a salad fork at a luncheon celebrating Tuna Salad Day at the White House. Alert Secret Service agents seized the fork and wrestled it to the ground.

Former Governor of California Ronald Reagan formally announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday. Reagan stated, quote, “I haven’t lost my looks yet, and I’m still as knowledgeable on foreign affairs as I was when I was narrating Death Valley Days.”

Meanwhile in Miami, a man tried to attack Reagan with a fake pistol a few short hours after the announcement. Reagan said he was not shaken, but later, he about-faced on an issue that he strongly opposed for years, calling for strenuous toy gun control legislation.

Well, after a long illness, Generalissimo Francisco Franco died Wednesday. Reactions from world leaders were varied. Held in contempt as the last of the fascist dictators in the West by some, he was also eulogized by others, among them Richard Nixon, who said, quote “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States. He earned worldwide respect for Spain through firmness and fairness.” Despite Franco’s death and an expected burial tomorrow, doctors say the dictator’s health has taken a turn for the worse.

Although SNL has continued with the Weekend Update segment to this date, I cannot believe that they have the sharpness of the excerpt above. I also imagine that this kind of material must have had a strong influence on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Speaking of Colbert, you can see him at the podium for a Chevy Chase roast that took place in 2002. As most of you know, the honoree of a celebrity roast is treated to an evening’s worth of insults. Colbert is nearly as lacerating as he was to George W. Bush. He describes Chevy as a cautionary tale of what happens to a comedian when they repeat themselves over and over. They become a shadow of themselves. Although Chevy has a broad smile on his face during Colbert’s riff, I have a feeling that is only to keep from crying.

Chevy made a ton of money in Hollywood but the experience has left him impoverished artistically and psychologically, as has been the case with most SNL performers who have gone that route. Some have fared better than others. Eddie Murphy has made some rather good comedies, while others have simply taken their SNL skits and padded them into a full-length feature. I know them only by their not very good reputation.

Perhaps endowed with the broader perspective that only is afforded by geographical distance, Montreal Gazette critic Stephen Whitty summed up the changes this way on October 30, 1994:

Producer Michaels had never been as scruffy as his stars; he preferred white sweaters, society parties and $ 12-a-bottle Chablis (billed to “Props,” of course). But when Michaels left in 1980, producers for hire and NBC execs arrived, looking for bigger profits. The drug humor went cold turkey. The political humor was thrown out. Goodbye “Jane, you ignorant slut.” Hello “You look mahvelous.”

If the ’80s were about money, so was the show, and it went from a $ 750-a-week showcase for underground talent to an audition spot for I-am-outta-here-baby stars. Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy, Jim Belushi, Billy Crystal, Martin Short – all went on to movie careers and most never looked back. Of course, Chase and Aykroyd and Belushi and Murray had all gone to Hollywood, too – who wouldn’t? But they had built the show while they were on it and they left something behind.

In a November 3rd article on television satire, NY Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley found SNL lacking especially in comparison with a competition that includes Jon Stewart:

“S.N.L.” is now in its 32nd season, and, not so surprisingly, it is no longer the lodestar of political comedy. The series long ago ceded cutting-edge lampoonery to smaller, nimbler cable shows on Comedy Central like “South Park” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which spent the week before the election in Ohio for the Midwest midterm “midtacular.”

And unlike “The Simpsons,” which has stayed consistently acerbic and funny for more than 16 years, “S.N.L.” has slumped and soared since its heyday in the era of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. The show can idle for several seasons, then suddenly a new talent — Eddie Murphy in 1981, Will Ferrell in 1995 — snaps the comedy back into the limelight. Ratings falter, as do the jokes, but except for occasional sports events, “S.N.L.” remains the most-watched series on Saturday nights. It can still be funny, even though it seems tamer, more wedded to television parodies and celebrity impersonations than inspired lunacy.

Given its 30 year domination of network television, it was perhaps inevitable that it become the subject of two new weekly shows: the situation comedy “30 Rock” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, a more competent, serious and politically informed drama.

Perrin nails “30 Rock” perfectly:

Fey’s show is so lightly written that it merely drifts from scene to scene, unconnected to anything intellectually solid. In fact, for a project that’s supposedly Fey’s personal showcase, Fey herself is pretty beside the point. Baldwin and Tracy Morgan own “30 Rock” and bring to life whatever life is to be wrung from those weak scripts. I suspect that wasn’t the idea going in, but who knows. And apart from me, Lance, and assorted comedy geeks here and there, I don’t see what audience “30 Rock” is trying to reach.

The best thing about this show is Alec Baldwin who gets better as an actor the older he gets. His performances stood out in Scorsese’s flawed “The Aviator” and “The Departed”. The second best thing is the omission of a laugh track, something that has the same effect on me as Kenny Shapiro’s tapes had on the denizens of Ward Manor. It makes me want to climb the walls.

The one episode I watched incorporated the same kind of contempt for an ordinary working stiff that has marked SNL for the past 20 years at least. (Since the show was conceived by Lorne Michaels, the long-time producer of SNL, and veteran SNL peformer Tina Feay, it is not surprising that it shares the show’s peculiar idea of what’s funny. As the cutting edge was no longer directed at the rich and powerful, it was redirected toward waiters and clerks.) The episode tried to make comedy out of the hazing carried out by the show’s Black star against a lowly white assistant who worships him. He sends the assistant to Yankee Stadium to pick up some nachos knowing full well that it is closed for the winter. I suppose it does mark some degree of social progress that a Black can degrade a white in this fashion, but the humor was lost on me.

Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey

“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is directed by Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the “West Wing,” a popular show that featured Martin Sheen as a liberal American president. Despite the critical acclaim, I never watched it–mostly because the premise did not interest me. It struck me as a celebration of Hollywood liberalism, something I have absolutely no use for.

I am happy to report that “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is extremely well-written and acted. The underlying premise about the making of a weekly comedy show like SNL is almost incidental to its real concern, which is about the intersection of big business and entertainment–to the detriment of the latter.

Last night’s episode revolved around the difficulties the show’s writers and directors were having with network “standards” that prohibited the use of the word “Jesus” as an oath–as in “Jesus Christ, it is hot today.” A top executive explains to the show’s creators that they have to be careful on matters such as this since the entertainment industry is run by people who are not liberal. The corporate boards of the top television networks are interested in nothing but profits. If anything threatens that bottom line, they will eliminate it. As it turns out, this has certainly been a factor in the taming of SNL, as evidenced by the uproar over Sinead O’Connor’s tearing up of a photo of the Pope.

Back when Chevy Chase was reading the news on “Weekend Update,” he had a gag that “Generalísimo Francisco Franco is still dead!” I am not sure if the show still begins with the tagline “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” but considering all the changes that have taken place over the years one is tempted to replace them with “Saturday Night Live is still dead!”

4 Comments »

  1. Great blog. I linked to you.

    Comment by C.S.C. — November 9, 2006 @ 6:30 am

  2. > As is the case with many Americans, SNL was very important
    > to me when I was young (I no longer watch it and I am no
    > longer young.)

    I’m not American but I feel very much the same about SNL. I was a young teen in the late 1970s. Staying up late and watching SNL after my parents were asleep was an unforgettable experience for me. And the writers had a healthy irreverance for political figures like Nixon and Jimmy Carter. This had a definite impact on my political sensibilities as an adult.

    And, oh yeah, the skits were very funny! Who could forget Gilda’s “Jewish Jeans”.

    Comment by Brian — November 10, 2006 @ 5:52 am

  3. Correction. The correct name was “Jewess Jeans”, a spoof on a Jordache Jeans TV ad.

    Youtube’s got it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9F0es24rrVU

    Comment by Brian — November 10, 2006 @ 6:14 am

  4. Are you still in contact with Chevy?
    I’m from England & Chevy was the first Americam comedian I can remember watching.
    His stints on SNL were hilarious it’s a shame he only signed up for one season;
    he was the funniest person on the show especially his ‘falls’. The guy has so many talents
    it’s a shame he is made a mockery of on American TV right now (there seems to be a long running
    joke on Family Guy about Chevy?)

    Long live Cornelius Crane Chase!

    Comment by Ed — February 8, 2008 @ 1:55 pm


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