Ain't It Cool News (
DVD News


In a year that has seen some remarkable TV-on-DVD collections, this one makes me happy in a way I am surprised by. This feels like a genuine discovery, something restored to former glory after many years in tatters, and I want to thank Universal for releasing this the right way. When I opened the package this morning and saw this one inside, I practically jumped off the couch to run back to my office so I could start watching them.

The book of Edie Baskin photos that comes with the set is lovely, and for those of us who are fans of that era, it’s a nice touch. Universal seems to know what they’re doing, treating these like the cultural event that they should be. When NBC originally aired the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE episodes, it was a ninety-minute format, as it still is today. But in syndication, those shows are edited to either an hour or a half-hour, depending on where you saw them and what package they were part of. I’ve had a particular interest in the history of SNL and its cast members, and I’ve seen everything available on the show. Those original 90-minute episodes remained elusive, though, and there were episodes that just never made their way into syndication at all for various reasons. It’s been frustrating. In this eight-disc box set, there are three episodes per disc, and the video quality is about as good as you can hope for considering the source material. Today, I watched the first disc straight through, the first three episodes that aired in the fall of 1975, and it’s been an incredible treat. With all the commercial time removed, what you end up with is about an hour and ten minutes per episode, and on the first disc, it’s obvious that Lorne Michaels, his cast, his writing staff, and everyone else involved were all trying to figure out what the show was. It’s very underground at times, almost experimental, and there’s a hipness to the early bookings that must have been breathtaking at the time. The comedy is uneven, and the cast that we all associate with the show is given very little to do on each of these episodes. Here are my quick impressions as I watched the first disc. EPISODE ONE: The first list of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players includes George Coe and Michael O’Donoghue, given the same billing as Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Belushi, Aykroyd, and the others. Fair enough. I’ve always been a particular fan of O’Donoghue as a writer and as a performer. He’s one of the two stars of the very first sketch in the show’s history, “The Wolverines,” which opens this first show. It’s a simple joke, but Belushi and O’Donoghue are hilarious, and Chevy Chase comes out as the first person to deliver the “Live! From New York!” line, mugging from the very start. Billy Preston looks exactly like Tracy Morgan in a Lando Calrissian wig. It’s painfully funny once my writing partner points it out. He rocks really hard, but it’s crazy how strong the resemblance is. Andy Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse routine. It’s been analyzed and analyzed, but the reason it’s still funny to me is the pure innocence it embodies. He’s a child, pulling some adult into his bedroom where he keeps his record player so he can put on a show, and in the five seconds he gets to lip-sync to the actual “HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY!”, he is so incredibly pleased and proud and in-character that it makes his nervous energy between those moments even funnier. It’s pure and simple and human, and there’s no “gag” to it. It’s just performance, and it still makes me laugh out loud every time I see it. Billy Preston does two songs, and so does Janice Ian. There’s a long Muppet sketch and an Albert Brooks film as well. All told, the Not Ready For Prime Time Players probably get about fifteen minutes of screen time, and even that’s not entirely successful. EPISODE TWO: More music than comedy. Paul Simon performs about nine times during the show. Including three or four songs with Art Garfunkel. It’s an uneasy reunion, but their version of “The Boxer” is flawless and lovely. There’s very little else to recommend about this one, though. You watch it if you’re a Simon and Garfunkel fan, or if you like Phoebe Snow and want to see her do a song, or if you want to hear some early Simon solo material, or if you like Randy Newman, and want to hear him do “Sail Away” with Simon. There’s an awful sketch where Jerry Rubin shows up to sell wallpaper adorned with slogans from the hippie era. Really dated and unfunny, and I would imagine that was true even when it aired originally. EPISODE THREE: By this point, George Coe is off the list of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. I was actually shocked to see Denny Dillon listed in the opening credits for the third episode. She was a cast member later, during the Charles Rocket year of the show, but I had no idea she had been associated with the program a full five years earlier. That’s what I love about this box set... even for an SNL nerd like me, there’s still a lot to learn by finally seeing all of them in sequence and uncut like this. Rob Reiner hosting. Penny Marshall and The Lockers are additional guests. This is when Reiner and Marshall were still married. They appear in a fashion show sketch that is just juvenile and cheap and silly. When people talk about how great the writing on SNL was in the early days, that was true just as often as it was false. Because there was no model for the writers to follow, they were willing to try anything, and they bombed. Frequently. The second Andy Kaufman appearance. This one is his “Pop Goes The Weasel” lip-sync. It’s a much more elaborate bit than the “Mighty Mouse” appearance, but equally absurd. The Lockers are a dance group, early break-dancers or pop-and-lockers. Fred “Rerun” Berry is one of them, and busts out a lot of the moves that he used on WHAT’S HAPPENING. WEEKEND UPDATE pretty much was what it still is from the very start. It was just much quicker and more simple back then. Belushi’s Joe Cocker is the musical guest, and it’s one of the first times in the three shows that anyone from the cast steps forward and really shines. Belushi looks like he’s all about the silly faces until he opens his mouth and begins to sing, and suddenly it’s the greatest impression in the history of impressions, deadly accurate and funny. The truth about the Muppet sketches, called “Dregs and Vestiges,” is that they’re really, really, really not funny. They’re edgy, as far as Muppet material goes, but they don’t fit into the rest of the show at all. I’ll say this, though… it’s amazing that they did these sketches live in front of an audience. It’s elaborate stuff, and really well-shot and well-performed. This third Muppet sketch is all about pot-smoking, filled with ridiculous slapstick. I’m glad to see these sketches again, though. As a Henson fan, it’s pretty amazing to see how elaborate this was, and what an obvious precursor it is stylistically to what he ended up doing with THE MUPPET SHOW a few years later. The meta-humor of everyone hating the Bees in every show is funny, and it shows how right away, SNL was self-reflexive in a way that seemed to be a natural extension of a tradition including Ernie Kovacs and MAD magazine and the NATIONAL LAMPOON and, of course, the Second City. SNL was about television, and it was about all the stuff that was second-nature to a generation raised on TV. And when it connects in the first few episodes, it suggests something that must have felt like a revolution. Can’t wait to watch the rest of the box this week. Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

Readers Talkback
comments powered by Disqus