Looking Back at Saturday Night Live, 1985-1990

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When we last left Saturday Night Live, the show was in dire straights. Having repeatedly tried and failed to find a formula that worked following the departure of the original cast and crew of the show in 1980, by 1985 SNL was on the verge of cancellation. In response, NBC re-hired Lorne Michaels, hoping that he would be able to fix the clearly broken show. Unfortunately, Michaels’ return was not all the show needed to get its groove back. The 11th season, his first one back, has become one of the most poorly regarded and least popular seasons in the show’s entire history.

Some of the trouble Michaels encountered might have stemmed from how he put together the cast for the 11th season. Instead of his usual approach of hiring young promising comedians from improv backgrounds, Michaels copied what had been done for the tenth season by hiring a number of already established names like Randy Quaid and Anthony Michael Hall along with other unusual choices like Robert Downey, Jr. and Joan Cusack. The new cast struggled to find its own voice, producing bland bits like this one starring host Tony Danza in which boxing rules are changed so that the 10-second count is extended to a 30-secont count.

By the end of the season SNL was once again facing the threat of cancellation, but somehow Michaels was able to convince executives to give him one more chance. It’s pretty remarkable they gave it to him considering the show had at this point been pretty much unfunny and unpopular for six years, more than half of its run. Once again the majority of the cast was fired (save Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller and Nora Dunn) and the show attempted to reinvent itself yet again.

If there was one bright spot during season 11 it might be the number of excellent writers who were hired that year, many of whom have become comedy legends in their own right, such as Jack Handey, Robert Smigel and George Meyer. Soon after, Conan O’Brien, Bob Odenkirk and Bonnie & Terry Turner would also join the writing staff. Not all of these writers remained with the show very long, and the ones who did often took several seasons to develop their signature voice, but good things were on the horizon. Beginning with the 12th season, a number of great actors would be hired that would provide the backbone for what became some of Saturday Night Live’s best and brightest years. Season 12 saw the addition of such stalwarts as Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson and of course Phil Hartman; later, Mike Myers would join the show during season 13.

The show took advantage of the 1988 presidential election to great affect during the 12th and 13th seasons. Politics had always been a target of satire for the show, but beginning with this election the humor began to become much more sophisticated. Take, for example, this sketch of the debates between presidential candidates George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. Here rather than simply having one of candidates constantly falling down, as Chevy Chase had done in his portrayal of Gerald Ford, there are jokes about the substance and policies of the candidates.

At the same time the show was becoming more sophisticated it was also becoming sillier and more surreal. During this period we would start to see strange but hilarious bits like Toonces, the Car Driving Cat.

As well as holiday greetings from Tarzan, Tonto and Frankenstein.

That’s not to say season 12 was a run away hit, but beginning with that season the show slowly began to find its way once again and really build momentum. A number of now classic sketches and characters had their debut during these years, such as Church Lady, Wayne’s World and Hans and Franz. Like every period of the show there were of course ups and downs. Not every sketch and bit worked, but slowly and surely SNL began to reestablish itself as a reliable source of comedy, something it hadn’t been in many, many years. In the ‘90’s the cast of the show would continue to grow, introducing more great comedians to America, and for a time SNL would be really funny once again.

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