Friday, February 14, 2014

Saturday Night Live Season 20 Reviews: Episode 1 - Steve Martin/Eric Clapton

(Editor's note: The following is the first of many guest blogs from my brother George, all about his passion for the television series Saturday Night Live. If you want more on this subject or just want more George, check out our weekly podcast on the subject: Saturday Night Jive, available on this blog via the previous link and searchable on Itunes as well (if you end up liking it, please do us the quick favor of subscribing). Thanks, Ben out.)

“I’m really sorry I’ve never been up this late in my life.”

I have been a life long fan of Saturday Night Live and the thing that I love most about it is the history. Season 20 is one of the most critically reviled seasons in SNL’s 39 years. Along with the 12 Charles Rocket episodes and the Anthony Michael Hall season this is one of 3 seasons that pushed the show to the brink of cancellation. Unlike those seasons though, I was allowed to stay up late and watch these episodes so I have a passing remembrance of watching them live. I recently came into possession of every uncut episode and decided to re-visit them. Needing an outlet for my viewpoints I decided to steal my brother’s blog and post my feelings here.

To give a historical context to this season, the year was 1994 and it was the 20th year of SNL. 9 years earlier Lorne Michaels took back control of the show and decided to fill it with known talent like Randy Quaid and Robert Downey Jr. That didn’t work out too well so the next year the show was re-tooled into what can arguably be called the best era of the show. Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks and Kevin Nealon were added to the show and that cast eventually grew to a huge size picking up stand-ups like Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and David Spade. Season 19 wasn’t exceptionally well received either and at it’s conclusion, the show lost stand-outs Julia Sweeney, Schneider and the “glue that held the cast together” Phil Hartman.

Season 20 didn’t have a major cast overhaul. Filling the gaps in the cast were Michael McKean, who was added at the end of the previous season, Janeane Garofalo, who had previous sketch experience on “The Ben Stiller Show”, stand-up Laura Kightlinger, who would later make some appearances on “Mr. Show”, and one of my favorite people on the planet, Chris Elliott. The only other shake up was that Norm MacDonald replaced Kevin Nealon as Weekend Update anchor.

So let’s get into the possible crap pile. Just to let you know how I’m grading these, I’m using a 5 star scale, and an inclusion of Chris Elliott will probably raise a sketch by 1 star,  and then I'll give the entire episode an average rating based on individual sketch ratings. I’ll also be naming episode MVPs, giving my analysis of the host, and then re-imaging the show with thoughts about how I could make it better.

Clinton Auditions

4 Stars
The current cast auditions for who will play the president this season

In an odd Meta move to open the season, SNL decided to address the fact that Phil Hartman left up front. Sometimes these self-referential jokes don’t work, but this one did, mainly because it wasn’t really a way to find a Hartman replacement but to introduce the shtick that the current cast is going to bring to the show. Farley’s a big fat loud guy, Spade is the acerbic jackass, Sandler sings goofy songs, Elliott is going to do his thing no matter what, and Meadows is…the black guy.

One of my biggest complaints, and probably everyone’s complaints with SNL sketches, is when they go on too long repeating a joke, but I could have sat through a couple more of these. I would have loved to seen Norm MacDonald’s take on Clinton and I was surprised Mike Myers wasn’t in this. Now that I say that, this is really what’s wrong with this cast, they don’t have enough sketch performers and it’s mainly a cast made up of stand ups and personalities.

Steve Martin Monologue

3 Stars
Martin has written a comedy monologue about soup, and then his inner monologue yells at him because it's so bad

This is another weird way to start a show and a season. Martin is one of the best SNL hosts in history but they made him seem inept. So, Martin comes up with this unfunny “soup bit” while shopping, then pitches it to the writers and Lorne and everyone humors him into thinking it is good. Martin sells this concept well but for the season premiere, with the quintessential host, you’d expect something bigger. Maybe it’s hindsight, because I know what’s coming, but it almost feels like the show is already apologizing for itself.

Home Headache Test

3 Stars
How do you know if you have a headache? Take the home headache test.

This is a better idea than a concept; the joke is not on the screen but in your mind about how absurd the product is. Garofalo and Nealon could have been a little more dramatic in their delivery, but they almost seem sarcastic, which kind of throws off the reality the sketch is living in.

Simpson Trial

2 Stars
Court TV shows some highlights from the OJ Simpson trial

I forgot that this was the OJ year. The Bronco chase happened in July and by this time the trial was just beginning. This was a 7 minute sketch that had no premise and very slow pacing. I get the fact that they’ve had about 3 months of OJ coverage and feel like they need to comment on it but this had no idea, it’s more of a highlight reel of things that happened in the OJ case since they’ve been on break.

This may have worked with a solid hook to the sketch, the jury selection bit in the middle made me smile, Robert Shapiro asking Ellen Cleghorne if she thinks a black man can be fairly judged in this society. It just seems like there was a collection of OJ sketches and they decided to dump them all together. I’ve heard of the comedy rule of threes but the comedy rule of 8?

Also, Tim Meadows appears as OJ at the beginning of the sketch and then to give you an idea of how long this sketch was, he’s able to appear as Al Cowlings at the end, this also gives you an idea of how many black guys they have in the cast. Steve Martin is absent in this sketch, and while I don’t think the host needs to appear in every sketch, it’s odd to have him non existent in the first sketch after the monologue.

Steve Martin’s Penis Cream

3 Stars
Steve Martin endorses a new beauty cream specifically for the penis

Well, the audience laughed really hard when Steve says penis. I watched this episode twice, once to get my gut reaction and then once to take notes. I think the first time through I was so bored by the previous 7 minutes of OJ that I wrote this off as infantile. The second time through, while yes it was infantile, I actually got a lot of laughs out of it. It’s not a fully realized sketch and it probably would have fit better later in the night, the basic joke is that he says penis a lot and it’s a vague masturbation reference.

However, towards the end when you get lines like, “You know it’s safe because it’s tested on animals” and “it’s shipped in a plain brown wrapper with the words ‘Not Penis Cream’ stamped all over it in big red letters”, the sketch got to me.

Total Bastard Airlines

2 Stars
Rude flight attendants dismiss passengers with the instantly quotable catchphrase, "Buh-Bye"

Believe it or not, there was a time when “Buh-Bye” was a thing. Watching this with some distance, it blows my mind that the show only did this sketch twice. This would be our last Total Bastard Airlines sketch and the world was a little emptier for it. This really didn’t have a lot of laughs and the audience was dead for it. The whole sketch had an aura of “we’re just doing this to do it”, the only part that had any energy was the end when they dance and break the fourth wall. I always do like sketches that utilize the entire cast though.

Eric Clapton: "I’m Tore Down”

How can you argue with a rocker in a beefy T?

I’m not rating the musical guests but I am watching them because they are part of the episode. A good musical guest can really make or break an episode, by being so low key or giving a dose of energy to a show.

Weekend Update

4 Stars
I'm Norm MacDonald and now the fake News.
"The king enjoying a hoagie"

Here it is, the inaugural installment of Norm’s Weekend Update, which would become the standout of the show for the next three years. Weekend Update is the one piece on the show that has lasted throughout its 40 years and is only as good as its anchor. Off all the people who have held the position, Chevy Chase, Dennis Miller, Kevin Nealon, Charles Rocket, none have made it their own as much as Norm MacDonald. In his first outing, he’s a little quick on the set-ups to punch lines but his delivery will come into its own later. The thing I loved most about Norm is that he took his time with the jokes. If something bombed he would make a comment on it or just stare down the camera until you laughed. He would make you laugh, no matter what the joke was.

Best jokes: 

The next project for Ken Burns is a 12 hour documentary about the dorky hair cut.

Having your head torn from your body amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. I’ll admit it’s cruel but is it really that unusual?

Norm’s biggest weakness behind the Update desk, or what possibly could have been his strength depending on how you look at it, was his interaction with the correspondents. He could care less about the desk pieces, something Nealon and Seth Meyers excelled at, being the straight man to silly characters. Norm however seems un phased at seeding his time to someone else, going so far as to call Adam Sandler’s Gil Graham character Adam Sandler, “I’m sorry Gil Graham, looks a bit like Adam Sandler, take off that wig and the funny shirt, dead ringer for Sandler”, which could have been a jab at how Sandler’s characters all sounded the same, or that Norm just wanted to tell jokes and used this time to take a smoke break.

This is also the first appearance of Norm’s running joke of “Germans love David Hasselhoff”. This is just one example of the fact that Norm is hipper than the room.

As for the desk pieces:

Laura Kightlinger uses this as an excuse to do a stand-up routine. This is billed as a “commentary” but didn’t really have a clear cut premise.

Gil Graham shows up, which is Sandler not playing a “noun-man”. Here he gives concert reviews but the twist is that he either didn’t attend the concerts or was beaten up and trapped in a port-a-potty. Sandler finds himself way more amusing than I do.

The Ron Wood Show

2 Stars
Ron Wood interviews celebrities

Mike Myers plays Ron Wood as he interviews Whoopi Goldberg, Leon Redbone and Gerard Depardieu. Here’s the joke: Ron Wood is very hard to understand, show of hands, who remembers Ron Wood? Who knew who Ron Wood was in 1994?

What this sketch did have going for it was the sight gag of Farley as Depardieu and it obeyed the comedy rule of threes, unfortunately, it was just the same joke repeated three times.

Buck Daniels

3 Stars
Michael McKean sings the story of Buck Daniels, a country singer who rose to fame and then had a horrific downfall

In retrospect, this seems out of place here, with A Mighty Wind and an Oscar nomination for McKean’s song writing, this could have been great. The song itself is good but not particularly funny and I’m also not a fan of singing funny songs on the show because it doesn’t give you enough time to laugh, you can’t perform a song the same way you can a monologue, where you can pause for laughs and let things sink in. SNL is definitely not the correct outlet for this, Steve Martin doesn’t know how to sell this so he resorts to mugging a lot, which is unusual for Martin to look uncomfortable.


2 Stars
An advertising group presents their song for a candy bar "Nut-Riffic"

Hey, have you ever noticed that the word “nut” sounds a lot like “not”? That’s the joke of this sketch, which goes down as the first terrible sketch of season 20. The jingle is “Nut-riffic: Its nut very good”, which sounds like the candy bar is bad. Elliott is the bright spot here with his performance but it can’t save this horrible premise, although there was one laugh with the insane asylum jingle “It’s just got more nuts”, but it took 5 minutes to get there.

Super Sports Cruise

Commercial parody for a cruise line that includes an exurbanite amount of baseball stars.

I didn’t understand this sketch at all and neither did the audience. It seemed to me like the joke was to say a lot of baseball player names but then I realized that the baseball strike was going on at the time. So, you have a bunch of millionaires on a cruise because they want to be billionaires, it’s an OK idea but bad execution. It’s also buried at the back end of the show when it’s chock full of baseball star cameos.

Ugly Baby

2 Stars
Two couples get together and one is upset because their baby is uglier

Not a big joke here but a short, pretty well executed sketch. A fairly unmemorable sketch to end a fairly unmemorable episode. I feel like the writers thought Farley saying “I blame myself” would go a lot farther than it did.


The goodnights have Steve Martin saying “We’re going to be around for a long time”, which is oddly reminiscent of what Elliott Gould said in the first episode of the infamous 6th season. Also, I think Ellen Cleghorne is going to have sex with Bobby Bonilla tonight.

Sketch Average – 2.6 Stars
MVP – Chris Elliott (Clinton Auditions, Steve Martin Penis Cream, Nut-Riffic)
Best Sketch – Clinton Auditions
Worst Sketch – Nut-Riffic (mainly for its length but mostly everything was “meh” in this episode)

How I would have Lorne Michaeled it – This episode started off well but after Weekend Update it really dropped off. As a full episode it’s pretty bad. I would have led with Total Bastard Airlines and Ugly Baby, ended with Steve Martin Penis Cream and Buck Daniels, and thrown the OJ sketch and Nut-Riffic somewhere in the middle.

Host Analysis – This was not Steve Martin’s episode at all. He really only headlined one sketch, but that could possibly be a good thing, he did fit in well with the ensemble. This was almost a show with Steve Martin as a featured player, and again, that’s a good thing, if the writing of the sketches was there.

Final Thoughts – Season 20 was a rebuilding year for SNL. The thing that sets this season apart from others is the lack of quality sketch performers. If you compare this year’s crop of talent to future years and the year that follows, which introduced Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, and Cheri Oteri. This season has the left overs of the stand up performers. Adam Sandler and David Spade were the holdovers from previous seasons and, as funny as they were, they did not fit in well with the sketch comedy club. But here lies the problem with this current cast; you have a group of stand ups doing sketch comedy. Sandler and Spade have very good stage presence but don’t fit in well with an ensemble. Spade has his Hollywood Minute routine, Sandler has his 3rd grade goofy songs and Farley is a juggernaut who needs a better premise for a sketch than fat guy fall down, even though he gave his all 100% of the time.

Bill Clinton wouldn’t really have many sketch premises for another two years when the Lewinsky scandal hit. McKean will later do his self said “subpar” impression. The writing wasn’t here at all which is bad for two reasons, this is your first episode after a solid cast member left cementing the fact that the show is on a downward spiral and you have a solid powerhouse host in Steve Martin and you let him down. The whole show had an air of phoning it in, maybe I’m just seeing it as a sign of things to come, or this cast isn’t jelling at all but the energy was not there.

Next Up: Marisa Tomei hosts, straight off her Academy Award for My Cousin Vinny and the start of her first, and short-lived, career as a romantic comedy star. I don’t remember much about this episode when it first aired. I recall a Chris Elliott sketch and I remember Marisa coming off as a bit novice but that’s about it. Stay tuned for that, if you want.

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