The first five years of Saturday Night Live are lionized, though by the fifth season, an impending sense of finality. Legendary cast members John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase all jumped ship for lucrative careers. Left behind are Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Larraine Newman, Bill Murray and the iconic Gilda Radner (whose presence on the show was rather muted due to her hit Broadway one-woman show). Harry Shearer (The Simpsons) joined the cast, and featured players like Al Franken, Paul Schaffer, Peter Aykroyd, Tom Davis, Jim Downey, Brian Doyle-Murray, Don Novello, Tom Schiller, and Alan Zweibel. The losses of the key players of the first four years hurt the show considerably, and Murray is stretched rather thinly. And despite Radner’s reduced presence, Curtin and Newman are still often relegated to straight man roles, that use little of the talented comediennes’ gifts.
And even though the fifth season suffers from a noticeable drop, there are still moments of inspired comedy. For example, Franken has some fantastic moments on Weekend Update. One in particular has the comic-writer (and future senator), show up at the desk with roaches to prove their indestructibility. But all the does is start to kill roaches in various ways: he rips one apart, cooks one in a Bunsen burner, skewers one on a pin, and drowns a bunch with dish soap. The cruelty is shocking and heart-stopping, but there’s a commitment to his performance and Curtin’s genuine revulsion and fear is hilarious. Also great is a multi-episode arc that deals with Paul McCartney’s arrest in Japan for marijuana possession (yeah, some of the jokes do date), that features Novello’s great character, Father Guido Sarducci. Also, there are some great political stuff, too – and viewers now will still smile with recognition at the pot shots at Ted Kennedy and George Bush (though some may feel alienated by the Carter vs. Reagan gags).
Also great are the musical guests. During the first five years of SNL were marked by some great, fascinating acts – unlike the current seasons that feature top 40 artists who have new albums to hock. There’s a wonderful, loose, punky feel to a lot of the acts – Blondie, Marianne Faithfull, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, the Roches, David Bowie, Randy Newman, the B-52’s, the J. Geils Band, the Grateful Dead, Paul and Linda McCartney, and Andre Crouch all appear, giving some raw unvarnished performances.
Along with the great musical acts, the show has gotten some big stars – Chase returned (stoned), Steve Martin appears twice, Buck Henry also makes a welcome return. Some highlights include a surprisingly game and comfortable Ted Knight and a funny Teri Garr. Unfortunately some of the guests do disappoint – mostly Burt Reynolds who feels out of place and the writers should go to jail for wasting the comedic talents of Bea Arthur.
The reason to watch this DVD set is to see Murray and Radner, though – both often play at their best. Radner especially is hilarious with her recurring characters. It’s a bit depressing to see talented comics like Morris, Curtin, and Newman toil in some thankless roles, and the three often will have to take a backseat to the more outlandish performances of Murray and Radner. Once the fifth season ended, the show imploded with the departures of the brilliant cast and executive producer Lorne Michaels. And while this season is the weakest of “the Golden Age” it’s still a fitfully genius season.
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