The many lives of ‘Saturday Night’

Here’s hoping that the late-night show lasts for at least another 39 years.
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“Saturday Night Live” never would have made it to a 10th season – much less its 39th campaign, which premieres this week – if I had had my way.

I must have been a junior in high school when I wrote a short speech for English class about why it was time to pull the plug on NBC’s late-night comedy show. The early 1980s were pretty lean years, when the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” (John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, et al.) still cast a long shadow on their early successors.

Joe Piscopo

Joe Piscopo

Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo had some inspired moments, but “SNL” generally struggled to find its footing. Original producer Lorne Michaels returned in 1985-86 with a dreadful cast that included the likes of Randy Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall (he was 17 years old) and Robert Downey Jr.

If “SNL” could survive that, there’s no telling how long it will reign. And here’s hoping that it’s for at least another 39 years (but, please, please, with less emphasis on hosts and musical guests who have a new project to plug).

I’m at once a big fan of the “SNL” franchise and one of its fiercest critics. I still feel compelled to render a judgment as to how funny each episode is, as though someone back at 30 Rockefeller Center is really concerned with my comedic sensibilities. Yet the older I get, the more I appreciate “SNL” as the institution that it is.

I guess I started watching the show even before we had a Sony Betamax recorder, because I remember struggling to stay awake for its 11:30 p.m. start.

The killer was trying to get through the ramblings of Ellis O’Brien, the sometime weatherman on the NBC affiliate in Portland, Maine. Ellis was pretty old and spoke his monotone right into the state map, slowly … lulling … me … to … zzzzzz. On more than one occasion I succumbed, waking up mid-show, so tired that I just went to bed without seeing any of “SNL.” Confound you, Ellis O’Brien!

Hulu-plus carries most of the old episodes, and it’s wonderful to look back at classic characters and skits. But what becomes abundantly clear is that the golden age was never as golden as some people made it out to be. Belushi and Aykroyd weren’t funny in everything they did. And in the 1970s, let’s face it, there wasn’t much cutting-edge competition.

This sketch from last season’s premiere is as good as anything ever seen on the show. [UPDATE: When I originally posted this, I embedded the video. However, that video had been removed by Feb. 13, 2015, so here is a link to the skit on NBC’s website.]

But there just weren’t many such moments in 2012-13. And this summer was one of transition, with veteran cast members leaving and six new performers being added.

Michaels talked with the New York Times about the challenge of remaking “SNL” yet again.

“The level of talent departing was so high, he said, that he knew the inevitable process of unfair comparison — people declaring the show to be in decline, not up to its usual standards, nothing like the great casts they remember from their youth — might be especially acute this season.

“ ‘People attach to the cast they see in high school,’ Mr. Michaels said. ’In those years they generally can’t drive. They don’t have any money. Staying up late is exciting. Being with friends up late is really exciting. So they’re very connected to the cast they see then.’ ”

But there’s nothing more depressing than clinging to the past. Music fans can behave similarly, hence classic rock. Maybe you favor a cast or cast member from a certain period, but funny is funny. So I root for each new season of “SNL,” and now I get to share it with my son. Maybe Saturday’s premiere will be the start of the show’s next great era.

I was enough of a fan of “SNL” growing up that I occasionally wrote to cast members. I still have a letter and autographed photos from Piscopo, whose impression of Frank Sinatra still cracks me up.

Tim Kazurinsky

Tim Kazurinsky

Tim Kazurinsky was a Piscopo contemporary. I’m a little hazy on the details, but he had ordered shoes from L.L. Bean when my mother worked there. I exchanged letters with him about whatever foot joke he made to her; he sent me two autographed photos: one for me, and one for my mother on which he outlined his foot.

I had commended him on his “Weekend Update” bits that skewered the sensational headlines of the New York Post.

“I’m Australian, as is Rupert Murdoch, Publisher of the Post,” Kazurinsky wrote. “And I get mad at any S.O.B. that gives Aussies a bad name. Besides, I used to be a reporter and I despise his brand of yellow journalism.”

It wasn’t until I began researching this blog post that I discovered that Kazurinsky was born in Johnstown and moved back there after spending most of his early years Down Under. He was a reporter for the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat newspaper before getting into advertising in St. Louis and later comedy in Chicago.

Gary Kroeger was on “SNL” from 1982-85, joining the cast with fellow Northwestern University classmates Brad Hall and Hall’s future wife, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

At some point, Kroeger was in limbo as far as being asked back for another season. Kroeger’s mother got ahold of his mailing list and sent a letter asking me to write to NBC to help save his job.

I can’t recall whether I acted upon the request, but he got the axe when Michaels returned as producer.

I’m sorry, Gary, if my high school speech had anything to do with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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