Category Archives: TV

Take Me to the Mardi Gras

(Pictured: Mardi Gras revelers in New Orleans in the 70s. Saturday Night Live entered this maelstrom in 1977 and the result became a lost episode.) 

In the flush of success during the show’s second season, NBC and Lorne Michaels decided to take SNL on the road to New Orleans for Mardi Gras—and the result was a near-disaster. The show aired in prime time on Sunday, February 20, 1977. Sketches were to be broadcast from various locations around the city, but security was minimal, and crazed crowds put the actors at risk; a parade that was intended to make up a major part of the the broadcast never arrived at the designated location. The show ran hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget and was never repeated. (It’s an extra on the Season 2 DVD set, however.)

The seams of Saturday Night Live, which were often visible during the early years, never stuck out more than they do in this episode. You can hear performers talking to people off-camera, and at one point, guest Penny Marshall gets put on the air before she’s ready, panicked, without a clear idea of what she’s supposed to do. In the show’s opening, the Meters are billed as a musical guest, but they never appear. The centerpiece of the show was supposed to be Buck Henry and Jane Curtin covering the annual Bacchus parade, but they find themselves having to fill time as the parade fails to arrive; at one point late in the broadcast, they’re seen reading “Weekend Update” stories off 3-by-5 cards, which were apparently being handwritten by a couple of writers just out of camera range. They’re also frequently startled by flying Mardi Gras beads, although they do a masterful job of keeping their composure.

I must have watched this episode when it was originally broadcast; by the spring of 1977, Saturday Night Live was something nobody my age dared to miss. It was never part of the post-NBC syndication package. In the intervening years, reporters seeking tapes of it have been rebuffed, and few cast members would even comment on it. It had gone as far down the memory hole as anything in SNL‘s history—but that’s as much for the generally poor quality as for the visible chaos. Apart from a few Buck-and-Jane wisecracks, nothing is very funny.

The show does contain one interesting bit of comedic history, however. In one sketch, Dan Aykroyd as Tom Snyder interviews a guy outside a topless bar who is played by Murray, and who is clearly Carl Spackler, the groundskeeper in Caddyshack. It’s widely believed this character’s first appearance on SNL came in 1978 (in “Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber”), but there’s no mistaking him a year earlier.

An excellent recent retrospective on SNL‘s New Orleans episode is here.

(This post concludes our series of Saturday Night Live reboots for the 40th anniversary of the first show, which was yesterday.)

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.

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 Concert

We’re watching WKRP in Cincinnati from start to finish, and recently we got to “In Concert,” one of the show’s most memorable episodes, about the December 1979 stampede at Riverfront Coliseum before a concert by the Who, in which 11 fans were killed.

Although we can’t watch “In Concert” now without knowing from the start what happened (and it’s doubtful that anybody could have, even in February 1980 when it originally aired), it doesn’t let on too soon. At first, Steven Kampmann’s script makes reference only to “the concert.” There’s a subtle reference to the tragedy, thanks to a prominently placed December 1979 calendar that shows up in one scene. It’s not until the last line before the act break that the characters say they’re going to see the Who.

After the act break, we’re back in the WKRP office on the morning after, as the staff discusses the tragedy. They repeatedly refer to 11 people who “lost their lives,” and the phrasing seems so awkward that I found myself wondering if the producers (or CBS) were squeamish about saying “died” or “were killed.” Staffers deal with their emotions in different ways—Venus, Johnny, and Andy go to a bar; Les consoles Bailey and throws himself into covering the tragedy as a news event; Mr. Carlson is consumed by guilt, partly for enjoying the show with his son the night before, unaware of the disaster, but also because of WKRP’s role in promoting the show. The episode ends with Carlson and Venus in the studio talking about the vigil to be held for the victims, and ends with a graphic explaining exactly what happened at Riverfront Coliseum on December 3, 1979.

Sources conflict on what creator Hugh Wilson thought of the idea at first. Some say he resisted when Kampmann pitched the script, while others say it was Wilson who came up with idea in the first place. Once the script was greenlighted, CBS said no, but Wilson, with the support of the cast, refused to back down. The CBS affiliate in Cincinnati threatened to preempt the episode, fearing it would be exploitative and in poor taste, but relented after seeing a preview. The episode’s criticism of festival seating gives it a purpose that goes beyond merely telling a story about the tragedy. The producers originally wanted the closing graphic, which notes that Cincinnati banned festival seating within weeks, to criticize other cities that had yet to do the same, but CBS wouldn’t permit it.

The staffers’ shock at the deaths and their anger over festival seating is realistic, as is Les’ desire to do a good job covering it as a news event. However: were I in their shoes, I’m not sure that I’d feel personal guilt. It’s made clear in the script that WKRP merely gave tickets away. It’s not as if WKRP booked the show or hired the security force that made the decision to keep the doors of the arena closed for too long. They’re not in any way responsible for what happened. Shock and sadness are natural in such a situation, and more than enough.

Today, nearly every sitcom, no matter how silly, does at least one Very Special Episode about a serious subject, but very few argue for a specific solution to a specific problem taking place more-or-less in real time. “In Concert” was a rare episode that did. Watch it here with all the original music intact, before it gets taken down.

Up and Down the Dial

(Pictured: Tim Reid, Loni Anderson, Jan Smithers, and Howard Hesseman, 2014.)

Even if Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap never wear headphones on the air, WKRP in Cincinnati gets radio station dynamics right: the relationships among people and departments, and the types of people who inhabit such an unusual workplace.

Although he loosens up as the series goes on, Andy Travis is a bit of a mystery man at the start. Some PDs’ personalities are utterly submerged in the job; they’re cordial but impenetrable. Try as you might, you’re never going to break though to a truly personal connection. Their self-imposed distance is a function of their “town to town, up and down the dial” careers. A well-traveled PD can have hundreds of acquaintances, but few real friends.

There are lots of Johnny Fevers in real stations: they’ve been in big markets and small, been married and divorced, seen and done things that make for good stories. Now they’re a little older, a little tired, and would just like to find a place to fit in, and be as happy as possible in an industry structured to make happiness elusive. (I suspect Johnny would agree that you can love radio, but you shouldn’t expect it to love you back.)

I knew a guy who had a little Venus Flytrap in him, in that he affected a self-consciously hip look—in his case, dark colors, sharp creases, every hair in place, and an impressive porn-star mustache. (You could say he was as much Jennifer as Venus: not to be caught dead looking anything less than perfect.) He knew he was very attractive to women, but he was also married to a very jealous one. He called me on the hotline one day: “Would you please tell my wife what time you saw me this afternoon?” “Two o’clock?” I stammered. I couldn’t make out what I heard next, only her voice in an accusatory tone. He came back on. “I was there at 4:30, don’t you remember?” Well, yeah, he had been in the studio at 4:30, but I hadn’t paid close enough attention to be anyone’s alibi.

Watching WKRP gives a viewer an interesting window into workplace sexism, not just in radio stations and not just 35 years ago, but in workplaces everywhere right now. Herb hits on Jennifer, and Johnny makes occasional crude come-ons (“I want to father your children”). Even visitors to the office are mesmerized by her. In 1980, it was straight-up funny. What makes it funny now is the way Jennifer continually brushes it off. What makes it uncomfortable now is that such remarks are tame compared to some I have heard directed at women in radio stations and other offices—and not just in the 1980s.

Every good radio sales rep has a little Herb in him/her. Few are as all-out obsequious, although what makes Herb funny to radio people is that we’ve all known reps who tried too hard, promised too much, or whose main talent was a gift for bullshit. An iron unwillingness to take no for an answer is helpful too—more than one client has signed on the dotted line just to get the sales rep out of his office.

Station managers often ascend from the sales department, which can make them allies of sales and adversaries of programming. I have worked for managers who made little secret of their allegiance, but I’ve also worked for the other kind. Mr. Carlson does a fairly good job of balancing the two sides, although honestly compels me to report that for an ex-program director such as I, few moments are as satisfying as when he chooses Andy over Herb.

Les Nessman’s greatest moment in journalism was not when he won all those awards—it was his dispassionate description of the bombing in “Turkeys Away.” He remained unrattled in the midst of chaos, which is a vital reporter’s trait. What Les lacks is a sense of proportion. I worked with a newsman who had a similar problem. He came into my studio one Sunday morning and breathlessly said, “Fire on the west side. I’ll send back a report when I get there.” A half-hour later, I put him on the air. It took a while to figure it out, but the conflagration he was describing live turned out to be a burning doghouse in somebody’s back yard.

Radio has always been a business where people do more than one thing. Jocks are only on the air part of the day, and most have other responsibilities off the air. Sportscasters sometimes double as sales reps, and office staffers may have responsibilities in a number of different areas. The consolidation and streamlining of station operations in the last decade or so has made everybody into a utility player, so people like Bailey Quarters are everywhere. At WKRP, she’s willing to do everything—sales assistant, promotions assistant, newscaster, singer on the funeral home jingle, whatever.

Holy smokes, I just realized that in 2015, at the company I work for, I’m a Bailey.

Livin’ on the Air

(Pictured: Cincinnati. Let’s pretend that WKRP was located in one of these buildings.)

We have been watching the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati, from the box set that restored most of the music and replaced some of the ridiculous cuts that were made on the Season 1 release a few years ago.

The show was originally scheduled opposite Welcome Back Kotter and Little House on the Prairie in the fall of 1978, and the ratings were awful—so poor, in fact, that the show was pulled in November, after only eight episodes. One of those episodes, “Turkeys Away,” is the WKRP episode everybody remembers—but despite its Thanksgiving theme, it actually aired on October 30, three weeks before the holiday. When the show returned to the air in January, it had the single best time slot on CBS, immediately following M*A*S*H. The first episode after its hiatus was a clip show intended to bring new viewers up to speed on the story.

WKRP was a different show after its first-season hiatus. Most of the first eight stories focused on radio—a punk band comes to town, Bailey gets her own show, Johnny does a remote broadcast that goes wrong, and so on. The switch to the post-M*A*S*H time slot ostensibly freed creator Hugh Wilson and his writing staff to tell more character-based stories, and to focus less on wacky radio hijinx. The remainder of the first season is a little uneven, with storylines that had become stale years before:  Johnny tries to adopt a foundling left on the station’s doorstep, Mr. Carlson has trouble relating to his preteen son, Herb breaks up with his wife and his friends try to get them back together. Much better: Johnny leaves the station for a job in Los Angeles, the mysterious Venus Flytrap gets his backstory, and a funeral home makes an enormous ad buy and the WKRP staff sings the jingle.

Next to “Turkeys Away,” the best-remembered episode of the first season is probably “Fish Story.” It’s the one where Johnny and Venus get drunk on the air as part of a public-service promotion, and Herb, dressed as the new station mascot (a carp), gets into a fight with the mascot from crosstown station WPIG. Wilson wrote the episode under pressure from CBS to do more physical comedy, and he hated it so much that he took his name off of it—only to see it become the highest-rated episode of the entire series.

WKRP went on the air during my first semester at college, and I started watching it at the same time I started working at the campus radio station. Honesty compels me to report that the further we get into the series, the less familiar the episodes become, so I don’t think I watched it regularly after the first few episodes. This might be due to the fact that CBS moved the show all over its schedule during its four years on the air and it was hard to find. It’s arguable that the show didn’t gain true popularity until after its network run, when it started airing in after-school, prime-time access, or late-night slots five days a week, where viewers could actually find it.

We’ve just started the second season, by which time Loni Anderson has become the show’s breakout star, so Jennifer and her Jessica Rabbit style are prominently featured in most episodes. The best thing about the second season, however, is that Bailey starts wearing those glasses. The perfect WKRP episode would be 24 minutes of Bailey and her glasses. No doubt about it.


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