Long about the early to mid 80s, there was a sea change in the output of some of my favorite contemporary comedians. It confused me. The original phase of Saturday Night Live (1975-1979) had been highly satirical and subversive – – deeply critical in a way, of the culture that spawned it, of the the very audience that watched it. (Especially true of its most notorious writer Michael O’Donoghue. But also true of its most popular cast members, and some of the adjunct ones like Andy Kaufman and Steve Martin). It was also just as true as another great comedy show formed by Second City alum, SCTV, which came to American televisions just as SNL was imploding (1981-1984). The comedy on these shows seemed to take Americans, with their superficiality, consumerism and hypocrisy out to the woodshed on a weekly basis. Yet, in retrospect it seems that, to a certain extent, I was apparently seeing just what I wanted to see. Were these comedians as rabble-rousing as I thought in the first place? Or had they had that attitude originally, but then gotten corrupted by Hollywood values perhaps?
It seemed to come gradually. Animal House (1978), Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980), and Stripes (1981) all seemed on the side of anarchy (even if they were sophomoric). Ghostbusters (1984), was not so subversive, but plenty sophomoric. Steve Martin’s first movie The Jerk (1979), directed by the middle-aged Carl Reiner, and co-starring Martin’s girlfriend Bernadette Peters, seemed a subtle shift away from Martin’s record albums and personal appearances. Nothing counter-cultural about Peters, just straight show biz, which is fine if not exactly revolutionary. And then there was the Reagan era Saturday Night Live, dominated by Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Tim Kazarunsky, etc. , which seemed to be seeking the niche of being the new Jackie Gleason show...which again is fine. If not exactly revolutionary. This was comedy for a conservative era. (In retrospect, and I’m sure I’ll return to this subject, it seems clear to me that a crucial piece of this cultural shift was the death of John Belushi, who seemed to be lightning rod and a leader for the old energy. His death by O.D., like that of several 60s rock heroes, seemed to take the wind out of a lot of sails. Things began to tack in another direction).
Nevertheless, when Lorne Michaels premiered his prime time comedy variety show The New Show in January, 1984. I had high hopes. The kitschy graphic, a sunburst from detergent advertising, led me to expect a return to cutting edge satire. And with a core cast of Dave Thomas, Buck Henry and Valri Bromfield, and frequent guests like Steve Martin, Laraine Newman, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara and Gilda Radner, I had a right to expect much. But…well, it was prime time, wasn’t it? And the mood had apparently shifted, hadn’t it? And so the show delivered what seemed to me very tepid, cautious comedy…the sort of stuff I associated with Carol Burnett, and most prime time variety of the era PRIOR to the advent of SNL. It was like a setting back of the clock. The only comedy bit I can remember after all these years is a commercial for a product called “Okra Cola”, set to the tune of Oklahoma.
I guess the public was as disappointed as I was. The show was off the air in three months.
At any rate, there are a couple of clips on Youtube to refresh our memories. If this was one of the best ones, uh….
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.