Author Archive: jb

Finding the Look

(Pictured: Lorne Michaels and Paul Simon on a 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live. Partially hidden behind Michaels: George Harrison.)

In advance of the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Saturday Night Live this Sunday, I’m rebooting some of the posts I’ve written about the show over the years. Here’s one from 2012.

It often takes television programs a while to figure out what they’re going to be—for the producers to find the feel, the writers to find their rhythm, the actors to find their characters, the technicians to find the look. As a result, the early episodes of many long-running shows look fairly strange in retrospect. None are stranger than Saturday Night Live. Most everybody knows that George Carlin hosted the first episode, on October 11, 1975. Although its pace and timing is odd, it’s at least recognizable as Saturday Night Live. But the second episode is much different, and unlike anything the show would present in any of its succeeding seasons.

The episode, which aired on October 18, 1975, was hosted by Paul Simon, who was a close friend of SNL producer Lorne Michaels. His appearance cut two ways: he would attract viewers to the new show, and the new show would help him plug his new album, Still Crazy After All These Years. Simon brought along several of the performers who guested on the album: Phoebe Snow, the Jessy Dixon Singers, and most important, Art Garfunkel, with whom Simon hadn’t appeared in six years.

Simon and Garfunkel sang “The Boxer” and “Scarborough Fair,” accompanied only by Simon on guitar. They also performed their new single, “My Little Town,” singing live to the record’s backing track. Simon sang “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Marie,” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” and “American Tune,” and sang “Gone at Last” with Snow. Snow and Randy Newman each got solo numbers.

With so much musical talent, the show featured only a handful of sketches. The Not Ready for Prime Time Players, who had been heavily utilized in the premiere because Carlin didn’t appear in any sketches, got almost no work in the second episode. Chevy Chase opened the show and did Weekend Update, but the rest of the company appeared only in a single, 30-second bit (and were not happy about being largely excluded). Simon appeared with sportscaster Marv Albert and NBA star Connie Hawkins in a too-long-and-not-very-funny film, 60s radical Jerry Rubin turned up in a parody commercial, and the show featured its regular spots for the Muppets and Albert Brooks.

The lack of comedy elements was partly by design: to give the writers a break after the first show, and to counteract the tendency of many shows to fall flat on episode 2 after a strong premiere. But Lorne Michaels had also told NBC executives before the show premiered that he knew what the ingredients would be but not the proportions, so the second show was a necessary step in deciding what SNL should ultimately become.

Coming in the next installment: the lost episode of Saturday Night Live.

Aurora Rising

madame maries

(Pictured: Madam Marie was not at her Temple of Knowledge the day I visited the boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Finally busted by the cops, probably, for telling fortunes better than they do.)

In October of 1975, Bruce Springsteen became a household word thanks to his simultaneous appearances on the covers of both Time and Newsweek. I remember hearing “Born to Run” a few times back then and thinking that I’d never heard anything that sounded quite so big. Darkness on the Edge of Town came out just before I went off to college in 1978, and one of the songs I played my first morning on the air in December was “Candy’s Room.” But neither one of those made me a fan.

At college, I met several fellow students who were Springsteen acolytes, but it wasn’t until The River came out in 1980 that I became a full-fledged devotee myself. It couldn’t have been out very long before I bought it—at the big grocery store near campus that had a couple of racks of records in the pharmacy department, if I’m recalling correctly. I can see me lying on the floor in our college apartment that first afternoon, listening closely while reading the liner notes and lyrics while my roomie wrote a paper at the dining room table. It remains my favorite Springsteen album today: “Hungry Heart,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “Point Blank,” “The River,” “Wreck on the Highway”—they’d all be on my Springsteen top 10.

Springsteen was an instant buy after that: Nebraska, Born in the USA, Live: 1975-1985, and Tunnel of Love, before other artists moved ahead of Bruce on the list of artists I would run to buy. In the mp3 era, I have added several other Springsteen albums and tons of bootlegs. He’s #14 on my most-played artist list at LastFM, so I’m listening to him more today than I ever did in the 80s and 90s. I saw him perform a couple of songs at a John Kerry rally in Madison in 2004, but a full concert remains the top item on my bucket list.

Forty years after “Born to Run,” instead of sitting in a New Jersey hotel room on a beautiful afternoon doing work I could get paid for, I struck out in search of some of Springsteen’s places. I was pleased to find an AM oldies station for the ride, one playing mostly 50s and 60s—the music that would have inspired him while he was living here.

The highway exit right outside the hotel has a sign for Freehold, the town where Springsteen grew up (although fanatics will quickly remind you he was born at a hospital in Long Branch, New Jersey). I did not go to Freehold looking for the Springsteen manse, or the high school where he skipped his graduation ceremony. It was enough to pass through and to have lunch at the Burger King.

From Freehold, I followed the signs (and the GPS) to Asbury Park, stopping for a while at the boardwalk and the beach, where city crews were cleaning up after the season and the surf was coming in hard. It’s easy to picture the Springsteen of legend there, the guy who painted a beautiful picture of what it’s like on the Fourth of July, and who blew the doors off the Stone Pony across the street.

From Asbury Park, I let the GPS guide me again. A highway exit for Colts Neck reminded me of the oft-told story that Nebraska was a set of demos released as is, back there in 1982. Not true, however; the demos were a home recording, just Bruce and his guitar, made while he was living in Colts Neck. The songs were recorded by the whole E Street Band, but everyone preferred the stark treatments of the demos (on a cassette that Springsteen carried in his shirt pocket for months), so he recut them, and that became Nebraska. (You can hear the original Alone at Colts Neck here.)

The afternoon waned, and it was time for me to be somewhere. As I left Springsteen’s traces behind, the oldies played on. As they do.

A Show Trying to Figure Out What It Would Be

Although Saturday Night Live celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special show last winter, the actual 40th anniversary of the show’s premiere is on Sunday, October 11. This is the first installment in a series of reboots of stuff I’ve written about the early SNL over the years.

Most people watching old SNLs today see the sketches on best-of discs devoted to various performers, from Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to Will Ferrell and Alec Baldwin, where most of the material is reasonably strong. Before that, the show was syndicated for several years in edited half-hours, which made it seem like a continuous parade of genius moments. The 2006 DVD release of Season 1 permitted viewers to see the series as it really was in its infancy. As such, it provided a valuable reminder for students of TV history. Yes, SNL was always innovative, and it was always a showcase for the sorts of acts that didn’t usually find a home on network TV. But it was also hit-and-miss, veering from comedic brilliance on one side of a commercial break to stultifying stupidity on the other, prone to repeating itself, and frequently failing to be entertaining for long stretches of time.

The early episodes depict a show trying to figure out what it would be and how it would work, and they look strange and primitive now. George Carlin hosts the premiere (October 11, 1975), but he appears only in a couple of monologues, allegedly because he was too coked-up to appear in sketches. The second episode, hosted by Paul Simon, features 11 musical performances and only a couple of sketches. Not until the third episode, hosted by Rob Reiner, does it looking like the SNL we know. Candice Bergen hosts the fourth one. She was known primarily as a movie star and photojournalist at that point, not a TV personality—and she looks like she’s frightened out of her mind. (She’s better in the Christmas show just a few weeks later.) It’s not until the sixth episode, hosted by Lily Tomlin, that a truly classic sketch appears—the one in which Belushi as Beethoven writes “My Girl” and “What’d I Say.” At that point, there’s generally at least one fondly remembered sketch per episode, and at least one other one that works fairly well. The episode hosted by Madeline Kahn, which aired in March 1976, is strong from start to finish, and is not just the best show of the season but one of the best of all time.

(The Season 1 DVD set also includes the infamous July 1976 episode hosted by Louise Lasser. Her monologues at the beginning and end of the show, and the interminable film she directs in the middle, weren’t the first time SNL broadcast something pointless or painful. But Lasser brought an extra degree of incoherence and self-indulgence that doesn’t look like an act. She became the first guest host banned from future appearances, although by the time she appeared, her 15 minutes were nearly up anyhow.)

The Not Ready for Prime Time Players were billed as a group until January 1976, when they were finally introduced individually. Chevy Chase was the breakout star, and the writers—one of which was Chase himself—didn’t take very long to realize it. Chase gets more face time in some episodes than all the other cast members combined, even in appearing in sketches where another cast member might have served just as well. His traditional “fall” to open the show is incorporated in various clever ways, but most of the time, he plays variations on a single character—a non-sequitur-spouting doofus—whether he’s anchoring Weekend Update or doing Gerald Ford. Aykroyd and Belushi are more versatile actors and clearly superior talents, as is Gilda Radner.

It’s been well-documented that SNL was a boys’ club, and that the women of the cast had a hard time getting on the air, or being treated with much respect. The best evidence is the under-utilization of Gilda, who’s clearly game for anything and almost always funny doing it. More damning evidence of the writers’ attitude toward women is found in sketches where the laughs are intended to come from the physical abuse of Gilda’s characters by male characters, which seemed funny in 1975, but not so much now. Toward the end of the first season, the female cast members are better served, especially in sketches by female writers, such as “Slumber Party” in the Madeline Kahn episode.

Coming in the next installment: the Saturday Night smorgasbord.

The Beach, the River, and Other Places

beach near Fire Island

(Pictured: the beach near Fire Island. The sky was spectacular, the water was wild, and since I was wearing dress shoes like Richard Nixon, this was as close as I got.)

Since last Tuesday, I have traveled from Long Island to northern Massachusetts to the Hudson Valley of New York to where I am now, in New Jersey, a bit closer to Trenton than I am to New York City. This part of the trip was iffy while we waited for Hurricane Joaquin to decide where he was going, but here I am.

A Wisconsin boy should see the ocean, so one afternoon I went down to Fire Island Beach, New York’s hippie paradise during the 1960s, and then drove Ocean Parkway on the southern edge of Long Island. You take the Robert Moses Causeway to get down to the ocean, named for the fabled New York city planner, crossing two high bridges to reach the spit of land where Ocean Parkway runs. At the end of the causeway is a stone obelisk, a monument to Moses, in the middle of a roundabout. It’s easy to imagine, centuries hence, travelers from elsewhere drawing up on the coast of the ruined North American continent and confronting that obelisk, an enigma on the shore.

On a day off, I visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt home, presidential library, and museum in Hyde Park, New York. Roosevelt is a political hero of mine, the man who saved the country during the Great Depression, and whose political vision, of an activist federal government taking strong and concrete steps to ensure the public good, is the only thing that can save us now. (“The test of our progress,” he said, “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little,” which is pretty much the exact opposite of what our current political system is designed to do.) That said, his home was less impressive than Teddy Roosevelt’s—it was easy to magine TR stomping around Sagamore Hill; the FDR of Springwood, as his home is known, was more elusive.

I did plenty of dial surfing in the car. I especially enjoyed a Boston station called the River, an adult alternative station whose playlist ranged from Otis Redding and Johnny Cash to Dire Straits and Billy Idol to Florence and the Machine and Jason Isbell. They turned me on to Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, whose “S.O.B.” is going to end up the theme song of this trip, and to George Ezra, who despite his remarkably old-soul voice, is all of 22 years old. (Humorous video for Ezra’s “Listen to the Man,” co-starring a famous guest, is here.)

In New York, I listened to Hudson Valley Public Radio, actually a network that spans as far afield as northeastern Pennsylvania, which was gently swingin’ and pretty laid back. If it hadn’t been raining most of the time, I would have wanted something a bit more lively, but in the rain, it was awesome. The network’s weekend host is Bill Hillgrove, a longtime Pittsburgh broadcaster who is far better known as the play-by-play voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers and University of Pittsburgh football. But he’s a lifelong jazz fan, too.

On this trip, I have also learned what tricky tray is. There are yard signs for tricky tray fundraisers all over rural New Jersey.

The best part of the trip (at least until I get off the last airplane in Madison this Friday) was meeting my longtime Internet friends Kurt Blumenau (yesterday) and Larry Grogan (today) in the real world. I’ve been doing this blog thing long enough to remember when people worried that the Internet would make us strangers to one another, sitting solitary at our computers, never developing personal connections with others. But in fact, it’s created connections that wouldn’t have existed otherwise, and I’m grateful for all of mine.

Passing Through With the Radio On

I have been listening to the radio while I’m on Long Island, bouncing back and forth between two radio stations in the car—a classic rocker licensed to Bay Shore that calls itself 103.1 MAX FM, and the legendary WCBS-FM. And here are some things I have observed.

MAX FM’s music mix doesn’t have very many surprises—their tagline is “Hits of the 70s, 80s, and more,” which means the occasional late 60s or early 90s hit mixed in. It’s a very adult version of classic rock—they may play AC/DC’s “TNT,” but it’s not going to be at 2:00 in the afternoon, because a suburban station needs to stay in the middle of the road to attract office listeners and small-town advertisers.

The only one of their jocks I’ve heard for any length of time is the afternoon guy, who talked over the introduction of “Stairway to Heaven” the other day. That’s just not done. The only other jock I’ve ever heard talk over it was Casey Kasem. (Topic for further investigation: how and when the “Stairway” intro became sacrosanct.)

What I heard mostly was tons and tons of commercials, and good for them if the station is selling well. But when you’re a stranger in town, commercial breaks tend to zoom by—you aren’t in need of whatever they’re selling, and you don’t know where the advertisers are located anyhow. If you don’t tune out entirely, you find yourself listening to the scripts and the production. The majority of ads were of a type we have discussed before at this blog: like billboards, as opposed to messages identifying specific problems and offering to solve them. Some were well-produced, and others sounded churned out in a single take.

WCBS-FM was the first oldies station, throwing the switch in 1972, although today it describes itself as an adult hits station, playing music from 1964 through 1995. Scott Shannon, one of the most successful personalities in New York radio history, does mornings. Dan Taylor, who did mornings from 2007 until Shannon arrived in 2014, is on middays. Broadway Bill Lee has been on the air in New York since 1986, and has done afternoons on CBS-FM since 2007. He’s also heard on Sirius/XM. I heard only a bit of the night guy and a couple of breaks on the weekend.

I do not know how the CBS-FM jocks are being coached. I have frequently been told, and I agree, that less can be more. Sometimes all you need is time and temperature or title and artist. A couple of sentences about an upcoming station event or contest is fine; so is a sentence or two about the song you’re playing. Use 15 seconds of a 23-second intro and let the music breathe. But on CBS-FM, if a jock has 23 seconds available, he’s going to fill all of it. Not only that, practically everything’s a bit—something that sounds like it came straight from the pages of one of those show-prep services that so many jocks depended on in the days before the Internet.

Such bits are usually scripted with a mild joke—often a very mild one—at the end. My rule is that it’s OK to laugh at something another person says to you on the air (like a partner or a caller), but you do not laugh at your own jokes. Deliver your punchline and shut up. It’s up to the listener to find it funny. It’s not your job to tell him it is. So when I hear a jock on one of the most famous stations in the country’s biggest market chuckling at the barely humorous jape he just delivered while rushing to get done before Madonna started singing, it drives me straight up the wall. And I heard it several times this week.

But that may be what they’re going for, the feel of an old-fashioned wisecrack-a-minute radio station. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. In the August 2015 ratings, they were ranked second in persons 6-plus with a 6.8 share, just behind market leader 106.7 Lite FM.

And I’m a Wisconsin dumb-ass just passing through.

What the Road Puts in Front of You


(Pictured: a plaque at Theodore Roosevelt’s gravesite. Insert your own Casey Kasem joke here cuz I got nothin’.)

From time to time over the years I have mentioned my seasonal teaching job, which requires me to travel a few times a year. This is one of those times, and how. I left home this past Friday and will be gone for two weeks. It’s the longest trip I’ve had in as long as I’ve been doing this. Right now, I’m on Long Island. Later this week I will drive up into Massachusetts before swinging back south (to New Jersey) on the coming weekend, then back north into New Hampshire next week to conclude the trip.

Yeah, whoever mapped it out wasn’t having their best day. I am hoping that New England’s fall colors, which should be coming out this week and next, will compensate for the inconvenience of my schedule.

What follows on the flip are some observations from the trip so far.

Continue reading →


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