Looking Back at Saturday Night Live, 1980-1985

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The sixth season for Saturday Night Live was a very uncertain time. After five very popular years, the entire cast and writing staff of the show left along with Lorne Michaels. NBC was tasked with basically recreating the show from scratch. Accomplishing this would have been tough under any circumstances, but considering how unique and innovative the show had initially been, repeating its success with all new people seems like it would be close to impossible. Unfortunately, Jean Doumanian and, later, Dick Ebersol, the producers who were given this nearly inhuman assignment, failed to make the new show work very well and after five disastrous seasons Lorne Michaels was called back to return the show to its former glory.

As I mentioned in my last piece on Saturday Night Live, in the early years the show was afforded a tremendous amount of time and space to play with the format and style of the show until they found a formula that worked for everyone. This was not a luxury Doumanian had when she took over as producer of the show for the sixth season. To avoid comparisons with the old cast, a number of changes were made in the format of the show. Weekend Update was renamed SNL NewsLine. Filmed segments were used much more frequently, such as the Rocket Reports, by Charles Rocket. These usually featured Rocket, whom Doumanian was grooming to be the next breakout star, interviewing random people on the streets of New York about “funny topics,” like sex.

As you can see, there’s really not a lot to these bits, and it’s not hard to see why they didn’t catch on. The cast featured some talented performers, including a very young Gilbert Gottfried, but neither they nor the writers were given time to find their own voice. The final straw came in February of 1981 when Charles Rocket blatantly uttered the word “fuck” during the goodnight. Jean Doumanian and almost the entire cast (save Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo) would be fired soon after. Dick Ebersol took over and was tasked with once again starting mostly from scratch for the seventh season.

Under Ebersol, further steps were taken to distance the show from the early years. The cold opening and line “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” were largely abandoned. The name of Weekend Update was once again changed to SNL Newsbreak, and later Saturday Night News. Filmed segments were increasingly used and Ebersol eventually planned to transition the show to a mostly taped format.

There’s a good chance the show could have been cancelled during these tumultuous years if it had not been for the been for Eddie Murphy, who quickly moved from extra and featured player in season six to break out star in season seven. Piscopo also proved to be popular, but he was never able to rise to the level that Murphy did. Looking back at the material of this period it’s easy to see why audiences gravitated to Murphy. While he was creating numerous classic bits like Buckwheat, Gumby and Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, the rest of the cast was doing simple, one-joke sketches that stretched on forever. Take a look at this clip of Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, a parody of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood set in the ghetto.

Now compare that to the following sketch featuring the Whiners, a married couple who, you guessed it, whine a lot.

Every period of SNL has its share of dud sketches, but these years were full of them. In addition to the Whiners, who were inexplicably featured numerous times, there was also frequent episodes of the soap opera spoof “I Married a Monkey,” which consists solely of cast member Tim Kazurinsky dramatically chastising his wife, who’s played by a live chimpanzee. Murphy’s popularity rose to such heights that he actually hosted an episode of season 8 while he was still a cast member, opening the show with the line “Live from New York, it’s the Eddie Murphy Show!” something that didn’t sit well with much of the cast.

Following Murphy’s departure at end of the 9th season, Ebersol once again shook things up. He fired much of the cast and brought in comedy veterans like Christopher Guest, Martin Short, Billy Crystal and Harry Shearer for the 10th season. He was set to do it again at the end of that season and retool the show even further but NBC had finally had enough. Five years after he left Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels was brought back as producer for season 11, a position he’s remained in ever since.

I have no idea if SNL would have survived if Michaels hadn’t returned, but I’m pretty sure all of changes Ebersol imposed from one season to the next didn’t help things. If there’s a lesson to take from these years it’s that a good comedy show takes time to develop. Although there have been some shows that are hilarious right out of the gate (Arrested Development, Party Down) many of the best comedies took years to find their groove. A cast and crew need time to find their strengths and their weaknesses, make mistakes and learn what works. Unfortunately, most shows aren’t given that time and so we’re left to wonder what if.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.