Recently cloistered in a sick bed, I found myself binging the first couple of seasons of Saturday Night Live and was delighted to discover that I didn’t know them nearly as well as I thought I did. I’m pretty sure I began watching the show regularly around mid-season 2 (1977), and had certainly seen many of the clips and segments from the earlier two seasons, but not the whole seasons in their entirety. There is much more to be said on that topic, which I’ll likely save for my next book, but I wanted to take the earliest possible occasion to give attention to one revelation in particular, having to with film-maker Gary Weis, the guy who contributed short films to the show over the first three seasons, falling roughly between the tenures of Albert Brooks and Tom Schiller in that capacity, with some overlap. And the big lightning bolt was less about those early shorts, than about Weis’s entire career, the fact that I knew almost his entire body of work, and really loved a lot of it…without quite realizing that it was all the work of one man
I don’t know exactly how this happens, how someone doesn’t emerge as a widely known auteur despite having been responsible for numerous classics and for working with the hottest stars of the day, but it’s the case with Weis. Just you wait and see!
Weis got his start in subordinate capacities on famous rock docs. He was co-cinematographer (with the Mayles Brothers themselves) on the Rolling Stones/Altamont documentary Gimme Shelter (1970). He was also a camera op on the shoot, along with a young George Lucas. The following year, he also served as cinematographer on a lesser known concert film, Celebration at Big Sur (1971), co-produced by Carl Gottlieb. He then co-produced and co-directed the documentary Jimi Hendrix, released in late 1973.
Then came SNL, to which Weis contributed several dozen short films between 1976 and 1977. In contrast with the Albert Brooks shorts which had earlier aired on the program and were in the broadly comic yet deadpan satirical spirit which characterized the show overall, Weis’s SNL films were intriguingly ambiguous. They were rough looking, and for the most part documentarian, shot out in the real world, capturing real people. But because they largely concentrated on loveable oddballs, in the context of a comedy program, it wasn’t an easy call what the audience was expected to take away. It seemed to be in the spirit of Diane Arbus: part freak show, but part love poem. There was an add sentimentality to it, but also a kind of merciless Candid Camera matter-of-factness. Do we laugh at them, or with them, or do we laugh at all? His most celebrated short accompanied images of people hugging at airports, with Simon and Garfunkle’s “Homeward Bound”. The song not a perfect fit lyrically, but it worked at a gut level. There were a couple of other of his films that really got me excited, though. There were several, for example, starring downtown poet, performance artist, and Obie-winning actor Taylor Mead, whom I met a couple of times about a dozen years later and eulogized here. Oddly, the show seems to evince no awareness of the fact that Mead actually WAS somebody, not just some kook who lived with cats. He was an underground cinema star, in films of Andy Warhol, Ron Rice, Robert Downey Sr, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono! He was actually a noteworthy person! Still, any opportunity to watch Mead extemporize is its own reward. The guy was wise and funny. Another segment I really enjoyed featured Elliott Gould visiting his childhood singing, dancing and diction teacher Charlie Lowe’s show biz academy, where he was still teaching kids to perform old Jolson songs at the age of 80. The kids, I rapidly calculated, were all around my age (or to be clearer, I was the age of those kids, about 11 or 12, in 1976). So watching this recently was VERY magical to me. It is rare footage of someone of the actual vaudeville generation transmitting knowledge to MY generation. Kind of blew my mind. Yet another one that I enjoyed took viewers to a New York joke shop called the Paramount Novelty Store, which took me back to my recent piece on vintage Times Square area magic shops, published here.
Over the next several years, Weis turned out some amazingly high profile projects without managing to become high profile himself. In 1976 he directed the strange TV special The Beach Boys — It’s OK, which aired when the band was having a major comeback (even as Brian Wilson was somehow still confined to his bed all day, a dozen years before his solo comeback at the instigation of Dr. Eugene Landy.) My buddies and I discovered this film on VHS at the mid point of those two tent poles, in the early ’80s. At the time we were a bit bewildered as to why John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd played such a large and seemingly intrusive role in this quirky show. Lorne Michaels exec produced it, and SNL‘s Gary Weis directed it, and Brian appeared on SNL around the same time. Mystery solved.
1978 may have been Weis’s peak. He co-directed the Rutles mockumentary All You Need is Cash with then recent SNL guest Eric Idle. We are accustomed to thinking of Idle and Neil Innes as being the primary movers and shakers on the film, but Weis actually shot it. And, once again, the otherwise inexplicable inclusion of SNL talent in the film: Belushi and Aykroyd, as well as Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. (The film had originated as a bit on an SNL episode in 1976). I seem to be alone in this assessment, but I’ve always assessed the Rutles movie to be 10,000 better than the much better known and more widely beloved This is Spinal Tap. I think it has way more laughs, better writing, sharper satire, much superior song parodies, on and on and on. I have watched the Rutles two dozen times, and played the soundtrack about 100 times. I enjoy Spinal Tap, but was never tempted to engage with it more than a couple of time. Be that as it may…there is more: That same year, Weis directed Steve Martin’s first ever TV special A Wild and Crazy Guy, which mixed recent concert footage with several original sketches, and appearances by show biz giants like George Burns, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and others. And that’s STILL not all! That same year, he directed a special that served as an SNL substitute one week, which featured the various cast members in their own short films. The Aykroyd and Belushi segment starred the pair in concert as the Blues Brothers — two years before their classic feature film as those characters directed by John Landis. Weis was to direct something else in 1980, something not quite so classic as The Blues Brothers, and that seems to be a turning point of sorts.
But first there were a couple of other lesser known projects. In 1979 he directed a special called Diary of a Young Comic starring an early career Richard Lewis, and featuring Georgie Jessel, Dom Deluise, and others. It aired during SNL‘s usual time slot, and was again produced by Michaels. After this, he made a documentary with troubled youth in the South Bronx called 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s. NBC didn’t air it at the time, and its only mass distribution has been on home video, but it sounds intriguing because it chronicles the Bronx just before the time of hip hop (rap was just sort of starting then). Music wasn’t the focus of the film, but it does connect to the rest of his career. One very interesting bit of trivia you may not know: Weis has a cameo in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) as the tv director of a very SNL style show!
This very brief time away from his SNL cronies seems to have made all the difference, so fast did they all skyrocket in fame. As Weis was still having professional success he probably didn’t really notice the shifting dynamics. In 1980 his first Hollywood feature length comedy Wholly Moses was released. I wrote about that film here. Despite its major all-star cast and plenty of charms to commend it, the film did not do well. Weis’s old partners in crime had now done Animal House and The Blues Brothers, both blockbusters, both with John Landis as director. The only SNL star in Wholly Moses was Laraine Newman. Anyway, a certain momentum seems to have left, for a time anyway.
In 1984 he directed his second comedy feature, Young Lust starring a pre-Nanny Fran Drescher. Drescher had been in Aykroyd’s Dr. Detroit the previous year though and that may have been the connection. Young Lust also featured Dana Carvey, two years before joining the SNL cast. For the rest of the ’80s, Weis reinvented himself as a director of rock videos for MTV. He was responsible for some of the most popular excursions into that short-lived format, a nice high-profile platform for a time. Among the classics he directed were The Bangles “Walk Like an Egyptian” (1986), George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You” (1987; he had worked with Harrison a decade earlier on the Rutles movie); and Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” (1987, featuring Chevy Chase), and many others,
Here’s a tasty tidbit! In 1992, Weis was reunited with Dan Aykroyd for a highly tantalizing sounding but unaired pilot for Fox called C.C.P.D., which also featured his wife Donna Dixon from Dr. Detroit, and his brother, the late Peter Aykroyd. This was right after the Aykroyd brothers similarly ill-fated collaboration Nothing But Trouble (1991), which we wrote about here. In 1993 Weis experimented with directing an episode of L.A. Law. He clearly didn’t like this sort of TV directing, for he never did it again.
Since that time (nearly 30 years) he has primarily directed TV commercials and — according to his web site — worked (or played) as a deep sea fisherman. Quite an evolution!
For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.