Today is the birthday of comedy babe Melanie Chartoff (b. 1950) — and while she has had rather a successful career as a sit-com and voice-over television actress (notably for close to two decades on Rugrats), rather than try to eke out a post on Chartoff alone, this seemed a fitting time to finally trot out a post on the show where she first made a name for herself, ABC’s Fridays.
Fridays was ABC’s hilariously craven attempt to duplicate the success of NBC’S Saturday Night Live. The attempt was so brazen that the show was considered a joke at first. The producers copied the name (naming it after the day on which it aired), they booked rock acts and guest hosts, they did a regular news parody segment with an anchorperson, they had an announcer (Jack Burns instead of Don Pardo) and above all the program was a late-night edgy and satirical comedy show, created by and for young adults and teenagers.
But then something bizarre happened. At the very same time Fridays debuted, the original cast and staff of Saturday Night Live left, and that show began to tank in terms of both quality and ratings. By contrast, Fridays now seemed quite excellent. (Then when Fridays went off the air in 1982, SNL started to gradually improve. But none of the same people were responsible. It was as though someone had handed a bag of mojo off to another show for two years, and then that show had passed it back.)
What were the differences between the two shows? Well, SNL was and is very “New York”. Fridays was very “L.A.” SNL was “edgy”, but Fridays strove to be “edgier” with regard to the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll formula. And whereas most of the SNL cast seemed to become movie and tv stars almost immediately (with only Garrett Morris and Laraine Newman seeming to fade away), the entirety of the Fridays cast pretty much evaporated overnight, with only two of them (Larry David and Michael Richards) becoming big stars, and much later. (We won’t count Rich Hall, who was on EVERY comedy show in the 1980s). David of course, went on to co-create Seinfeld and to cast his friend Richards on that show; then he later created and starred in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.
But the other cast members are worth talking about too. Chartoff, as we mentioned, was the Comedy Babe. By that I mean, I can’t remember a single funny thing she did, but I do remember on one occasion she yanked her blouse open when she was hosting the news parody Friday Edition. I’m not saying that I didn’t like it, just that it wasn’t funny.
There was Bruce Mahler, a sort of vacant-faced nerdy dude, who went on to be part of the ensemble in the Police Academy movies.
Sadly, one of the biggest stars of the show and one of its funniest cast members Mark Blankfield, after a period of appearing in goofy movies, has had to retire from show business entirely. He’s a schoolteacher now. For a year or two 30 years ago all the kids were imitating him at school! Believe it or not Blankfield was a much wilder and crazier physical comedian than Michael Richards was.
Also of note was John Roarke, whom at the time set the bar to a new level (I felt) on impressions. He did Johnny Carson, Phil Donahue, Ronald Reagan and others — but he nailed them in a serious way, much more serious than anyone has ever done on SNL before or since. (Most on SNL, like Dan Aykroyd sort of do half-impressions, meeting their target halfway). Roark sort of did terrifyingly accurate takes on people. Part of his trouble since then may be that he didn’t have much a persona of his own. Anyway, he had the added virtue of having been from Providence, Rhode Island. I opened for him once at a comedy club in Warwick!
The cast was balanced out by Darrow Igus (the show’s answer to Garret Morris), Brandis Kemp (Blankfield’s wife for a time, later to be a regular on AfterMASH) and Maryedith Burrell (who continued to write and act for television).
Here is the most notorious sketch from the show, because it was famously interrupted by a prank by Andy Kaufman and Michael Richards. I was watching at the time, live, and I can tell you I was never fooled that it was a real event for an instant. John Roark introduces the sketch. It’s also a fairly good illustration of what passed for the show’s amped up “edginess”. A sketch about “pot” and “joints” on this show was all too plausible:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including television variety), 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 my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc