comedy, tv

Farewell to a great SNL group

Once upon a time, Saturday Night Live went through waves of wholesale changes, allowing us to divide the show into several eras.

Original

1975-80: The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players dwindled from their 1975 debut to the end of their fifth season in 1980. Chevy Chase left after one season and change, later replaced by Bill Murray. Next out were John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, leaving the core of Murray, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner to be supplemented by the quirky duo of Al Franken and Tom Davis, later joined by Harry Shearer and some cast appearances by band member Paul Shaffer and an array of bit players.

(Coincidentally, as chronicled last week in a marvelous WaPo oral history, Radner, Shaffer, future SNL cast member Martin Short and Short’s SCTV castmates Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin had all appeared together in a 1972 production of Godspell.)

Lorne-less

1980-84: Lorne Michaels, the man now synonymous with his show, departed after that 1979-80 season along with the entire cast. Enter a new group that couldn’t carry the torch aside from a young featured player named Eddie Murphy, though Gilbert Gottfried went on to an entertaining career. Only Murphy and Joe Piscopo survived the 1981 clearout. The cast overhauls were a little less drastic the next couple of years, and four 1982 and 1983 arrivals — including Jim Belushi and a very young Julia Louis-Dreyfuss — carried over to the next season …

1984-85: Producer Dick Ebersol, best known for his distinguished career in sports, swung for the fences in this unique season packed with established talents such as Short, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Rich Hall, Pamela Stephenson and the prodigal Harry Shearer.

Carvey/Hartman to Sandler/Farley (via Myers)

1985-86: Michaels returned in 1985 and started from scratch, building around the hot-at-the-time Anthony Michael Hall and some people who would eventually be huge — Robert Downey Jr., Randy Quaid, Damon Wayans and Dennis Miller. It sucked.

1986-95: So on top of the complete overhauls in 1980, 1981 and 1985, SNL had a near-total clean slate, keeping only Miller, Jon Lovitz and Nora Dunn. Then, just as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski saw the benefits of his job-saving class in 1986, Michaels brought in a show-saving class — Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Kevin Nealon and Victoria Jackson. Add Mike Myers (and briefly Ben Stiller) in 1989, and you have a strong case for the show’s all-time best cast.

That group evolved slowly over the next few years. Departing (in order, more or less, though some cast members returned for occasional appearances): Dunn, Lovitz, Miller, Hooks, Jackson, Carvey, Hartman. But the cast kept swelling with the additions of (among others) Chris Rock, Chris Farley, Julia Sweeney, Tim Meadows, David Spade and Adam Sandler. (Most of the others were women, and unfortunately, this was not a time in which women were developed into stars on the show.)

The loss of Hartman in 1994 nearly destroyed the show. Myers stuck around for increasingly infrequent appearances, and Michaels once again reached out to get some veterans who were, to some extent or another, already recognizable — Michael McKean, Mark McKinney, Chris Elliott, Norm Macdonald and Janeane Garofalo. Unfortunately, no one told Sandler, Spade and Farley that they weren’t in charge of the show, and they ran it into the ground. Garofalo fled after a few months of being underused, citing a sexist atmosphere.

Time for another clearout. McKinney and Macdonald stuck around along with lower-profile castmates Tim Meadows and the recently added Molly Shannon.

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comedy

Top 10 overrated and underrated Saturday Night Live stars on Rolling Stone’s list

With the 40th anniversary celebration of Saturday Night Live coming up, we’re seeing a lot of listicles. Rolling Stone went to extremes, ranking nearly everyone who was ever in the cast.

The best part of the list is that it’s relatively snark-free. Some talented people just don’t get to show their best qualities on SNL. Robert Downey Jr., now a proven commodity in comedy, drama and action films, ranks dead last at No. 141. Randy Quaid (134) was caught in a disastrous season, as were Anthony Michael Hall (112), Janeane Garofalo (102) and Chris Elliott (103). They call Mark McKinney (104) a comedy star in his own right, though they forget to mention why. (Kids in the Hall, in case you were wondering.) It’s curious that they don’t mention the eventual success of Nancy Walls, David Koechner and Laura Kightlinger, all lumped together at 105-110. And Aidy Bryant surely deserves better than being tossed in with “the New Kids” at 81-92. (So does Pete Davidson, but at least it’s his first season.)

They also came up with some underrated people. Tim Kazurinsky (32) was a highlight of some otherwise dubious years. Ana Gasteyer (33) is nicely appreciated.

The choices get tough in the top 20. Every time I try to think of my ultimate SNL cast, I’m left with tough choices. I’m glad they gave Maya Rudolph (18) and Rachel Dratch (16) some respect, and it’s hard to argue against Chris Farley (15), Bill Hader (13), Will Ferrell (12), Dana Carvey (11), Gilda Radner (9), Amy Poehler (8), Phil Hartman (7), Bill Murray (6), Dan Aykroyd (5), Mike Myers (4), Eddie Murphy (2) or John Belushi (1). I might re-order them a little — Carvey and Hartman up, Belushi and Myers slightly down — but that’s nit-picking.

But all lists get a few things wrong. So here we go …

10 OVERRATED

3. Tina Fey: If you combine writing and on-stage work, sure. No question she’s one of the most important people in SNL history. She was also very good on Weekend Update and as Sarah Palin. But strictly as a cast member, can she be ranked ahead of Carvey, Radner, Hartman, etc.? Probably not.

She was good as a host, though:

(Incidentally, that bit alone should’ve saved Noel Wells’ job. But I digress.)

10. Chevy Chase: Almost as good as he thought he was.

14. Kristen Wiig: Really talented, but my goodness, her recurring characters were grating.

17. Adam Sandler: No. Sure, he had some good characters, some of them more subtle than you might think (remember the old married couple of him and Chris Farley). But he deserves a lot of blame for the awful 1994-95 season, where he, Farley and David Spade tried and failed to fill the Phil Hartman void while Chris Elliott, Janeane Garofalo and Mark McKinney were criminally underused.

20. Al Franken: Another one whose writing contributions would put him high on a list of important people. But the original Franken-and-Davis sketches weren’t that great. Good for him for doing some fine Weekend Update appearances and Stuart Smalley, but that’s not enough for the Top 20.

24. Laraine Newman: Just didn’t leave that much of an impression.

27. David Spade: No. Just … no.

42. Don Novello: One Weekend Update character vaults you into the top 50?

45. Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Certainly went on to better things.

51. Pamela Stephenson: Seemed talented. What did she do on the show?

(Also: Paul Shaffer (56)??, Tom Davis (63))

10 UNDERRATED

26. Jan Hooks: At the very least, switch her with Newman. I will occasionally say “I am a barfly” for the rest of my life.

28. Seth Meyers: I’d have to say he was the best Weekend Update host. And he had some terrific sketch work.

49. Darrell Hammond: Another of those great utility players like Hartman and Hader.

76. Julia Sweeney: No, she didn’t spend “most of her time playing Pat,” and no, Pat wasn’t an awful character. Better than most of Wiig’s characters.

94. Cheri Oteri: Hell no.

95: Chris Kattan: Such as Mango. And Mr. Peepers, one of the great physical characters on the show.

98. Bobby Moynihan: Not big on recurring characters outside Update, but not the one-note guy they’re implying.

135. Norm Macdonald: Pretty good in sketches and perhaps too fearless on Weekend Update.

138. Victoria Jackson: In real life, she’s practically a socio-religious cult member. On SNL, she was a versatile cast member who didn’t mind making fun of herself.

139. Jim Breuer: Really? Don Novello’s way up there for doing Guido Sarducci, and Breuer gets no respect for the Joe Pesci Show and “Goat Boy”?

OTHER STUFF I’VE NOTICED TODAY

– SNL is also getting an app.

– Loved Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. “I’ve been perusing the Internet and … um … did I die?”

– Franklin Graham … doesn’t … get it.

Good Onion piece today on swimming with the Miami Dolphins.

 

comedy

The brilliant Jan Hooks

Before Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon smashed the “boys’ club” image on Saturday Night Live, Jan Hooks lit up the stage in the fondly remembered Carvey-Hartman years.

As a fellow Georgian, I always appreciated her country/Southern characters — Tammy Wynette singing Stand By Your Man over various classical pieces, or this classic …

Or this one …

https://twitter.com/stu951/status/520329827694682112

And if you’re Southern, you can often pull off a good Irish character as well.

She also excelled at playing celebrities with outsized personalities, from Nancy Reagan to Diana Ross. And more abstract characters, like the obsessive-compulsive glamorous party host in this ad for Calvin Kleen.

Outside SNL, she was the long-suffering wife on Primetime Glick and the star of a memorable scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure:

She had a wonderful chemistry with Phil Hartman, another versatile “glue” cast member, no matter which sketch they were in. Even playing Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Or Frank Sinatra and Sinead O’Connor.

https://twitter.com/honeystaysuper/status/520564414312116224

Hartman left us far too soon. He was just beginning to enjoy his post-SNL career on NewsRadio. And now Hooks has gone as well.

You and me both.

music, tv

All-time great performances: Fishbone on SNL

March 23, 1991. I was sitting in the commons room at Brown House, my happy home for the past three years. I was terrified of the world outside Duke. We had watched most of the Gulf War on the same TV. The recession limited our job prospects. I had concluded I wasn’t going to find the woman of my dreams in college (in retrospect, a good thing — I still had some growing up to do).

Saturday Night Live was a nice respite for us. The musical act that night was Fishbone, which existed on our plane as one of those bands whose name we had heard but little else.

By the time Angelo Moore got three-quarters of the way through a front flip to kick off Kendall Jones’ blazing guitar solo, my jaw was hanging open. I couldn’t believe guys could run around and create such chaos on stage while playing such a powerful rock song called Sunless Saturday.

I was vaguely aware that my dormmates were less impressed. Angelo’s antics aren’t for everyone. “Dirty Walt,” the dude with the Mohawk doing backup vocals and not playing trumpet even though he was supposedly the band’s trumpet player, freaked out a few people.

But after it ended, all I could do was say, “That … was awesome!”

Not sure my dormmates ever looked at me the same way again. I didn’t mind — I went out and bought The Reality of My Surroundings and listened to it nonstop that summer. It’s still in my top 10 or 20 albums of all time.

It’s No. 57 here: StompBeast: THE 100 BEST SNL PERFORMANCES (3 of 5).

(Unfortunately, my quest to find video of The Time’s marvelously choreographed performance of Jerk Out is still unfulfilled.)