Inside ‘The New Show,’ Lorne Michaels’ Early-80s Sketch Show Flop

In the Broadway Video offices, I asked a couple of staffers if they had tapes of The New Show.

“Of course,” replied the taller one. “We have everything Lorne’s done.”

“Why do you bring that up?” added the wider one.

“I watched it every Friday night — well, the Friday nights it was on. It got yanked pretty early.”

They stared at me.

“You think a complete set of the show will ever be released?” I asked.

“Don’t let Lorne hear that,” said Mr. Tall. “It’s not something he wants remembered.”

They were assembling a Michael O’Donoghue reel for me. I hinted that if they threw in some select New Show sketches, I wouldn’t be offended.

They stared at me some more.

In late 1983, NBC announced its commitment to 13 episodes of The New Show, heralding Lorne Michaels’ return to TV. Several media outlets celebrated this, none more so than New York magazine, which ran a puff piece about Lorne’s vision for the 80’s. That The New Show would succeed was considered a given. Original SNL writers. SCTV cast members. New young comics. Popular musical guests. How could it miss?

The New Show lasted nine episodes. It dwelled near the bottom of the ratings. Few people I knew watched it, and I hung out mostly with comedians. At SNL’s Friday night camera blocking, I heard Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Brad Hall make fun of the show. No one took it seriously. It was Lorne’s first real failure.

Part of the problem was placement. Friday nights at 10 wasn’t the best slot for a sketch comedy show. And who was its audience? That was never made clear. But overall, there was a certain arrogance to The New Show. In the New York article, Lorne was portrayed as a returning comedy king. He would show how sketch comedy was done. He even made a crack about Fridays, which was already off the air. Lorne envisioned at least three seasons, and while he played it as a joke, it didn’t completely seem that way.

The writers spent a lot of time trying to explain what The New Show was. Steve Martin did it twice: first reciting the show’s “principles,” then defining the kind of guy who watched it. It seemed an odd, even desperate thing to do. Before long, it didn’t matter who or why anyone watched it, because not many did.

The sketches were, for the most part, highly conceptual. Perhaps too much so for prime time. With writers like Jim Downey, George Meyer, Jack Handey, Tom Gammill and Max Pross, this was inescapable. SNL vets Al Franken, Tom Davis, and Alan Zweibel were also on board, but the type of humor they pioneered in the 70’s was surpassed by a drier, subtler, meta form of comedy. Indeed, The New Show provided a glimpse at the style that would dominate SNL when Lorne returned in 1985.

This piece, featuring Candice Bergen, Buck Henry, Valri Bromfield, and written by Jack Handey, wouldn’t be out of place on the late-80’s SNL.

“Roy’s Food Repair,” written by George Meyer, was right in line with other odd store/profession sketches that later cropped up on SNL. (Although Matt Neuman wrote a similar piece in the fifth season called “Dave’s Variety Store.”)

The concept of writing a bad sketch as a comment on bad sketches was another New Show feature. At least, I think so. A friend who worked with Jim Downey on Letterman told me that Downey would say, “You know what would be really stupid?”, then come up with something really stupid. I suspect that was the thinking behind this piece, but I’m open to other explanations.

As you can see, John Candy often appeared on The New Show, which was good since he could pull laughs out of nearly any premise. This is one of my favorite pieces featuring Candy, his body language precise.

One-joke concepts were a New Show staple. Here, Henry, Bromfield, Kevin Kline, Gilda Radner, and again John Candy share their disgust. Dave Thomas sets the scene.

Fear is a great motivator — for comedy! Laraine Newman flips alongside Henry, Bromfield, Thomas, and wouldn’t you know it, John Candy!

If some of the audience laughter sounds canned, it was. Tom Davis told me that tapings were a nightmare. Numerous obstacles delayed shooting. Oftentimes they taped without an audience, forcing them to use fake laughs. Another sign that The New Show was doomed. Had this been a bunch of unknowns, their failure would be understood. But The New Show boasted first-rate talent, so its demise is a bit more surprising. Not that it lasted. Many New Show alums secured steady work and some notoriety. And Lorne returned to SNL, now in its 82nd year. Hey, not everything can be New.

Dennis Perrin is the author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.

Inside ‘The New Show,’ Lorne Michaels’ Early-80s […]