The Weirdest Episode of the Weirdest Season of ‘Saturday Night Live’

Every few years or so, between its now clearly delineated epochs or eras, Saturday Night Live has a “growth year” or “building period” or “godawful season.” For example, the 1980-81 season was the first without the original cast, and the bloated, 1994-95 “Saturday Night Dead” year.

The 1985-86 season is one of those off years. Creator and masterlord Lorne Michaels had left the show, as had his poor replacement Jean Doumanian, leaving NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol in charge. Ebersol had very little understanding of comedy, nor did he care to understand. (Case in point: He publicly sided with Jay Leno during the 2010 Lenon/Conan/Tonight Show fiasco). Anyway, his tenure came to an end when NBC refused his request to shut down the show entirely for six months and build it up from scratch, and he quit.

And so Michaels returned in 1985, and he dismissed many of Ebersol’s writers and players. Michaels, who has something of an eye for talent, brought in new people (Jon Lovitz, Anthony Michael Hall, Dennis Miller, Joan Cusack) and new old people (former SNL writers Tom Davis, Jim Downey, and Don Novello). Despite having seen his somewhat experimental Friday night sketch show The New Show fail on NBC primetime, Michaels didn’t shy from experimentation. Part of that meant hiring the show’s first black female cast member, Danitra Vance, and its first openly gay cast member, Terry Sweeney.

Trying new things is never a bad thing, but it’s also a very, very hard thing, especially when you try a bunch of new things all at the same time. And Michaels decided to go ahead and try a bunch of new things all throughout his first year back at SNL. But almost everything about the March 22, 1986 episode seemed to be a new, half-baked, bewildering idea. It makes for a very strange departure from a comfortable, familiar, iconic broadcast.

A throughline, and a host who didn’t host. Francis Ford Coppola seems like a pretty stand-up guy. He’s got a lot of charisma and enthusiasm for film, the arts, and wine, and he’s one of the few recognizable-on-sight directors out there. Other popular directors have hosted SNL before, such as Quentin Tarantino or Dennis Hopper, but they were also actors. Not Coppola. Nor was he here, really, as he didn’t act in any sketches. Instead, the episode took on the conceit that NBC was forcing Michaels to let Coppola “direct” SNL with complete creative control. This is slightly less amusing than the “Buckwheat has been shot” device from a few years earlier.

The credits were different. The opening credits were also styled like the credits from an artsy, deadly serious Coppola movie. The only other time the credits were severely altered was when the whole cast dressed up as apes in the similarly thematic Charlton Heston-hosted episode in 1993; they dropped the bit a third of the way into the show. Not on the Coppola episode. Oh, and the music was different, too. Apparently wanting to attract the apparently sizable avant garde composition crowd channel surfing after the late local news, as avant garde music fans are wont to do, Michaels allowed the night’s musical guest, Philip Glass, to provide a new music for the credits of SNL. This was the only time the Coppola/Glass credits were ever used on SNL (and they were replaced with the regular saxy credits in reruns).

Coppola interrupts sketches. Coppola didn’t act in sketches. Ostensibly, because he appeared in sketches, and delivered the monologue, the host of the episode was Cheers star George Wendt. Except the monologue was shot at a weird camera angle until it’s interrupted by Coppola, who in a very meta moment, gives Wendt advice, on live TV, about how to better deliver the jokes and to “remember something from his childhood” as inspiration because that is something a director would say hahahahahahaha.

This theme continued throughout the show, taking the piss and energy out of nearly every sketch, as Coppola routinely interrupted them to give advice and direction.

He interrupted Weekend Update too, to tell Dennis Miller that he’s in charge and won’t run a scheduled interview with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. It’s awkward, but it’s always fun to see someone put Dennis Miller in his place. Coppola also appeared in vignettes between sketches with Michaels and Sweeney, discussing ways to save the flailing, failing institution that is SNL, as if letting the audience know that they know the elaborate gambit isn’t quite working.

And there’s this thing, in which cast members Nora Dunn and Robert Downey Jr. play pretentious actorly types who, after a routine sketch about a fish market, comment on the innate symbolism Coppola imbued into a sketch.

The episode is loaded with this kind of mock-but-not-really-mock praise of Coppola and light-teasing of Coppola (Miller makes a joke about Coppola’s teen drama Rumble Fish) that it made me head on over to IMDB and realize that in March 1986, Coppola’s big film project was Captain Eo, and that he hadn’t made a great film since Apocalypse Now in 1979, during which he basically went insane.

Musical guest Philip Glass. SNL is technically a variety show, and has one, sometimes two musical guests, almost always from the genres of pop, rock, or R&B and on a major record label. This defies the notion that SNL is edgy, but Michaels righted that wrong by opening the show’s music stage up to seemingly anyone interesting this season. A zydeco band played in November. The Replacements showed up in January and wrecked the place. A pre-Nelson Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, performing as the Nelsons, and without a record deal, showed up. Roseanne Cash played on March 15. But on the episode, in question the musical guest was, as stated, avant garde, modern day composer Philip Glass, and his Philip Glass Ensemble. They played “Rubric,” which, as we all know, is the fourth movement from his 1981 piece Glassworks. Like Rihanna’s screensaver-inspired greenscreen during her 2012 performance of “Diamonds,” Glass also utilized clips, this time from Koyaanisqatsi, the 1982 meditative documentary he scored. Come on now, everybody, you know the words!

No video clip of that performance is available, as is the case for most of this episode. If you’ve got a Hulu Plus subscription, you can watch a heavily truncated 31-minute cut of the episode, which retains the bizarre opening sequence, the monologue, Weekend Update, and some of the meta-ness.

Amusingly, the antics and silliness and Coppola stuff go over extremely well with the studio audience. They absolutely eat it up. As they should; for while it was a tribute and satire of filmmaking, probably, it was highly theatrical, silly, weird, and campy, all very ephemeral things that are hard to translate to TV. The whole thing is as self-aware and playful as one of those comic one-act plays you did in high school. Was this episode secretly written by Christopher Durang? Or possibly David Ives, who, ironically, is best known for his one-act play Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread?

Five more episodes aired in the 1985-86. The hosts were a broad, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks assemblage, including Oprah Winfrey, Tony Danza, Catherine Oxenberg, and, as if the presence of Glass wasn’t enough to cement the vague but frequent feeling that SNL’s writers and cast are unaware of a world outside of New York, New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, and the musical guest on Danza’s episode, performance artist Laurie Anderson.

The season — of which the March 22 episode is emblematic — was so bad that NBC entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff actually told Michaels that he would be canceling Saturday Night Live at the end of the season. Michaels convinced him not to — and that he would gut the creative staff. Downey, Hall, Sweeney, Novello, Vance, and Randy Quaid were out, and Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and Kevin Nealon were in, ushering in the show’s second true Golden Age.

Phillip Glass and Francis Ford Coppola have never been back.

Brian Boone writes Internet stuff, tweets, and edits Splitsider’s Humor Section.

The Weirdest Episode of the Weirdest Season of […]