History of Saturday Night Live (1980–1985)

History of Saturday Night Live (1980–1985)

The early eighties

Doumanian's season

For much of the decade SNL was in turmoil and many critics wrote the show off as a pale imitation of its former glory. Jean Doumanian took over the show for the 1980 season, hiring a completely new cast and new writers, but it was plagued by problems from the start, and was deemed "disastrously unfunny" by both critics and much of the viewing audience.

Lorne Michaels had originally wanted to make Al Franken his successor as executive producer after he left, and all was in place to do such until the May 10, 1980 broadcast. During a "Weekend Update" segment, Franken delivered a harsh criticism of then-NBC President Fred Silverman. The commentary angered Silverman so much that any chance of Franken becoming an executive under Silverman's watch were all but gone.

Jean Doumanian was a talent scout for SNL in the early days and was one of the few members of the staff who remained after the 1979 season. In the summer of 1980, Doumanian accepted the job as the new executive producer, against the advice of close friends. Many were convinced that the show could no longer succeed without the original cast and writers. They warned Doumanian to be prepared for harsh treatment from the network. It wasn't long before their cynical predictions became a reality. NBC started by cutting Doumanian's budget from $1,000,000 per episode (Lorne's budget during his last season) to about $350,000 per episode. Further, Doumanian had only two months to discover and prepare a new cast and crew; she claims she received virtually none of the support that was promised to her by either the network or her staff.

Writers from that season recall that petitions were already being passed around by other writers and crew members to get Doumanian off the show. Doumanian herself would later discover that many members of the NBC staff, people she assumed devoted to her, were not on her side. Doumanian would not let writers work together if they had not been hired as a team, which resulted in the shoddy and unfinished sketches that permeated that year. From the start, the inner politics of the network were heated, so the season was off to a rocky start before it had ever really begun. Doumanian focused on keeping the NBC brass out of the creative process instead of worrying about the writers and performers who were in it.

Eddie Murphy

On an autumn morning in 1980, talent coordinator Neil Levy received a telephone call from 19-year old Eddie Murphy, who had begged the producer to "give him a shot" on the show, but was rejected since the show had a full cast. Murphy pleaded with Levy that he had several siblings banking on him getting a spot on the show. Levy finally auditioned him, and recommended him to Doumanian. She refused, citing that actor Robert Townsend had been selected as the cast's "token black guy," and that the budget would not support more actors. Doumanian changed her mind after seeing Murphy's audition, and advocated for Murphy with the network. NBC agreed only because Townsend had not yet signed a contract, and Murphy was cast as a featured player. Other talent that Doumanian overlooked while forming the new cast were Richard Karn, Dana Carvey, Dom Irrera, Cassandra Peterson and future hosts Jim Carrey, John Goodman and Paul Reubens.

A new cast for 1980

The first episode, renamed Saturday Night Live '80 in the opening credits, appeared on November 15, 1980, featuring an all-new cast: Charles Rocket (who was groomed to be the new break-out star), Denny Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius, Joe Piscopo, and Ann Risley rounded out the new "Not Ready For Prime Time Players." Woody Allen (who reportedly hated SNL) suggested to Jean Doumanian that she hire one of his friends, Ann Risley. Some observers believed that while Ann Risley was a fine serious actress, she was not inherently funny (perhaps as a demonstration of Woody Allen's hatred for the show). Elliott Gould had agreed to host the first episode, assuming he would be working with the old cast. He was astonished when he reported to the studio and discovered that it was a different group of performers.

The Elliot Gould hosted episode

Contributing to the (later) sense that the season was doomed, in the first sketch, the cast shared a bed with Gould and introduced themselves: Charles Rocket proclaimed himself to be cross between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, and Gilbert Gottfried (pre-signature high pitched "squeaky" voice) referred to himself as a cross between John Belushi, "...and that guy from last year who did Rod Serling, and no one can remember his name..." (referring to Harry Shearer). This self-serving comparison to the original cast alienated much of the audience. The rest of the show remained very inconsistent in terms of acting and writing. At the end of the show, Gould stood on stage and quickly introduced himself to the cast one more time by first name and declared "We're gonna be around forever, so we might as well..." However, Elliott Gould has not hosted the show since.

The Malcolm McDowell hosted episode

The next episode, hosted by Malcolm McDowell, is considered by some to be the worst in the show's history. Skits during Doumanian's tenure seemed half-finished and improvised on-air. Examples from the McDowell episode included "Leather Weather," featuring Rocket in S&M gear sprawled across a weather map, and "Jack the Stripper," an overlong and disorganized sketch about Prince Charles supposedly being a flasher. Before this episode aired Jean Doumanian had nearly lost her job by insisting on the inclusion of a sketch portraying a nun who was not a virgin. Before Doumanian backed down, NBC head Fred Silverman told the standards department to repeat one of Lorne Michaels' shows, if necessary.

The McDowell episode was also notable in that Eddie Murphy made his non-speaking network television debut in a sketch called "In Search of the Negro Republican". An outside actor was hired to play the black lead, and Murphy was supposedly so embarrassed by this that he vowed to take a more active role on the show. Murphy had his first speaking role two weeks later as Raheem Abdul Muhummad on "Weekend Update". He made such a positive impression that he would be called on for more in later episodes, and was made a full cast member by the season's seventh episode.

The Karen Black hosted episode

The critical high point of the 1980─1981 season probably came with the Karen Black episode on January 17. It displayed the most consistent writing and performing of the season. Murphy was soon raised to the status of full cast member, and Piscopo had established himself as a reliable performer with such bits as the eccentric New Jersey-an "Paulie Herman," and his well-regarded Frank Sinatra impression.

"Who Shot C.R.?"

On February 21, 1981, the show featured a parody of the "Who Shot J.R. Ewing" craze from the hit TV show Dallas. In a cliffhanger titled "Who Shot C.R.?" cast member Charles Rocket was "shot" in the last sketch of the episode, after a running gag in which other members of the cast shared their grievances about Rocket with one another. Onstage for the goodnights, Dallas star and that week's host, Charlene Tilton, asked Rocket (who was still in character and sitting in a wheelchair) his thoughts on being shot. "Oh man, it's the first time I've been shot in my life," he replied. "I'd like to know who the fuck did it." The cast, along with some of the audience, reacted with laughter and applause. This was not the first nor the last time the expletive would be uttered live on SNL, but given the circumstances of the season as a whole, it was the last straw. Rocket's epithet, unbeknownst to him, would cost him his job. Almost the entire cast and crew lost their jobs on the show. At the time, Rocket reportedly justified his action, pointing out that musical guest Prince had performed "Partyup" earlier on that very same broadcast; the song featured the line "Fightin' war is such a fuckin' bore." Despite his release, Rocket appeared in the next episode anyway, his performance clearly affected. Bill Murray hosted the next week (it is thought Doumanian and Rocket were retained for the week to ensure Murray wouldn't bolt). Murray's show marked the very first time a former cast member hosted alongside new cast members. Although an uneven show at best, it was one the closest it ever came to resembling the energy of the original show. As a consequence of the season so far, and Rocket's behavior the week before, NBC fired Jean Doumanian after this episode, closing the book on what is now widely regarded as the worst period in the show's history.

Ebersol steps in

Many nights NBC aired the sketch comedy show SCTV in place of SNL, and it had been overtaken in the ratings by ABC's derivative Fridays, which at the time was garnering more critical acclaim as well. These factors gave the impression that NBC might cancel the show. SNL was given one more chance when Dick Ebersol was hired to replace Doumanian. He was the young apprentice the network hired away from ABC to develop SNL in late 1974; he was responsible for hiring Lorne Michaels that year, and now was given the task of saving the once-acclaimed show from cancellation.

In his first week, Ebersol fired Gottfried, Risley, and Rocket, replacing them with Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, and Tony Rosato. He would eventually eliminate the rest of the 1980 cast (except for Murphy and Piscopo) at the end of the season (he had wanted to fire Dillon as soon as he took over, but could not afford a replacement for her). Ebersol originally wanted to bring in John Candy and Catherine O'Hara from SCTV; Candy turned down the offer and Rosato joined instead. O'Hara initially accepted, but she changed her mind after Michael O'Donoghue—SNL's original head writer, who had been brought in to rejuvenate the show—screamed at the cast about the season's poor writing and performances. Robin Duke was added to the cast when O'Hara suggested her instead. Emily Prager and Laurie Metcalf joined as featured players, but they were not retained after their first appearance.

Al Franken and Tom Davis

His first show aired April 11, with host Chevy Chase and an appearance by Al Franken asking viewers to "put SNL to sleep." Ebersol, wanting to establish a connection to the original cast, allowed Franken's mock-serious routine on the air.

Ebersol had promised Franken and Tom Davis that in addition to appearing on the April 11 show, they could host the next week, with musical guest The Grateful Dead. During the following week, with a writer's strike looming, Franken and Davis wrote material and mailed it to themselves so that their postmark could be used to prove they did not violate the strike. After seeing copies of the material, Ebersol (never a fan of Franken & Davis') caved to the writer's strike and called off the rest of the season, promising the duo they could host the season premiere that fall. As the summer ended, Ebersol, confident in his new cast, decided he no longer needed a link to the original cast. Franken claims Ebersol never returned his calls, and Franken and Davis never hosted SNL.

1981-1982 season set-up

By Fall 1981, Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy were the only performers from Doumanian's cast to appear on SNL for the 1981-1982 season. Murphy was rarely featured previously, but became a break-out star under Ebersol, and his soaring popularity helped restore the show's ratings. He created memorable characters, including the empty-headed former child movie star Buckwheat and an irascible, life-size version of the Gumby toy character, complete with life-size star ego. Murphy also performed an uncanny impression of Stevie Wonder (Wonder sportingly hosted in 1983 and appeared in a fake ad for the "Kannon AE-1" camera, which is "so simple, even Stevie Wonder can use it".) Piscopo was also popular, renowned for his Frank Sinatra impersonation, as well as his characters Paulie Herman and (with Robin Duke) Doug & Wendy Whiner. Other new cast members for the 1981 season included Christine Ebersole, Mary Gross, and 1979 featured player Brian Doyle-Murray, who ran the Weekend Update desk for one season. Also returning were Second City veterans Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky and Tony Rosato, who had debuted April 11. In the spring of 1982, Ebersol traveled to The Second City in Chicago to scout for more talent. Tired of recently losing key players to NBC (such as Cheers George Wendt and Hill Street Blues' Betty Thomas), the Second City top brass directed Ebersol around the corner to the Practical Theatre Company, where he hired Gary Kroeger, Brad Hall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who later married Hall) to join in the fall. Second City alum Jim Belushi arrived three shows into the 1983-84 season due to stage commitments in Chicago.

Dick's show

Ebersol ran a very different show than Michaels had in the 1970s. Many of the sketches were built less on "smart" and "revolutionary" comedy that was abundant in the early days and followed a much more "straightforward" approach. This shift alienated some fans and even some writers and cast members. Ebersol was eager to attract the younger viewers that advertisers craved. He dictated that no sketch should run longer than five minutes, so as not to lose the attention of teenagers. Many writers felt that Ebersol was simplifying the humor of the show by demanding more appearances of recurring characters for cheap laughs, among other things, leading to somewhat inconsistent writing. Unlike Michaels, Ebersol never had been a writer, and unlike Doumanian, he never claimed to be. He determined which sketches made it to air, and often made his decisions based not on creative content but budget or ease of production. Cast and writers often wondered if "Dick" (as nearly all of them called him) actually knew which sketches were funny and which were not.

Despite these oppositions, there was little argument that Ebersol possessed a keen sense of business politics, which eventually helped revive a show that would have otherwise died at the hands of an inexperienced producer. Having come from the ranks of the "the suits" himself, Ebersol was adept at dealing with the network. Later in his tenure, Ebersol was generally handling much of the business aspects and day-to-day production affairs, leaving producer Bob Tischler in charge of most of the creative facets of the show.

Unlike Lorne Michaels, Dick Ebersol had no difficulty firing people. Among the first casualties after the 1981 season were Rosato (who later said that the firing was the best thing to ever happen to him, because the SNL environment helped encourage his drug addiction) and Ebersole, who got the axe because of her frequent complaints that the women on the show had little airtime and what they did receive cast them in sexist and humiliating light. Michael O'Donoghue was fired in the middle of the 1981-1982 season after repeated arguments with Ebersol over the creative direction of the show, and because of his abusive treatment of the cast.

Live From New York, It's The Eddie Murphy Show

On air, SNL was mostly a two-man show from 1981-1984, with Murphy and Piscopo playing a bulk of the lead characters. This was not unprecedented--Chevy Chase had become the breakout star of the first season, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi became the dominant forces upon Chase's departure, and Bill Murray would play nearly every male lead during the 1979-1980 season. But Ebersol made it clear from the beginning that his strategy was to showcase Murphy and Piscopo as much as possible. All other cast members played mainly supporting roles and were treated with very little patience by the producers. Writers often noticed that Ebersol would criticize their scripts for not featuring enough of Murphy and Piscopo, even though they were already the leads in most of the sketches.

With the release of the film 48 Hours, Murphy's star began to eclipse that of Piscopo. Murphy's co-star in the film, Nick Nolte, was scheduled to host the show, but canceled at the last minute due to a hangover after a night of partying at Studio 54. Ebersol offered Murphy the chance to host, a move that Piscopo would perceive as a major slight (by now the rest of the cast were so used to playing Murphy's supporting company they hardly complained). Piscopo would later claim Ebersol used Murphy's success to divide the two erstwhile friends and play them against one another. Others countered that Piscopo was simply being a prima donna; said one writer, "Eddie Murphy's fame went to Joe Piscopo's head."

Another new cast

In February 1984, Eddie Murphy left the show. His appearances for the remainder of the season consisted of sketches he had pre-taped in September 1983. Duke, Piscopo, Hall and Kazurinsky were not invited to return after the 1983-1984 season. Piscopo was offered a chance to guest host during 1984-1985, but declined.

Upon the departures of Murphy and Piscopo, Ebersol, having lost his key players, began rebuilding the cast for the 1984 season, enlisting what is in retrospect known as the "All-Star" cast. Along with veteran players Jim Belushi, Gross, Kroeger, and Louis-Dreyfus, Ebersol added somewhat, for the first time in the show's history, well-known names to the repertory. This new cast included Soap star Billy Crystal; Martin Short, who had made a name for himself as Ed Grimley (a character he would bring to SNL that year) on Canada's SCTV; Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer (who was also a cast member in 1979) from The Credibility Gap and This Is Spinal Tap; Not the Nine O'Clock News and Superman III's Pamela Stephenson; and Rich Hall from HBO's Not Necessarily The News.

The newcomers helped put together a memorable year of hit sketches and widely accepted recurring characters. As Louis-Dreyfus noted in a November 2005 retrospective, the newcomers, particularly Crystal, Short, and Guest, all but took over the show, relegating her and most of the rest of the cast to supporting roles. Short has noted that his one year at SNL brought him more fame than his entire stint on SCTV, but it was Crystal who became the show's break-out star. Crystal had been scheduled to appear in the first SNL in 1975, but walked when his airtime was whittled away during rehearsal. Already known to some for his stand-up comedy and his role as Jodie Dallas in Soap, Crystal became the show's latest sensation, bringing the catch-phrases "It is better to look good than to feel good" and "You look mahvelous!" (both uttered by his "Fernando" character) into popular culture.

Harry Shearer would depart after the January 12, 1985 broadcast, citing "creative differences." Shearer would later remark, "I was creative...and they were different..." Shearer would go on to greater fame as a cast member of The Simpsons in which he voiced several characters including Mr. Burns and Principal Skinner.

The end of the Ebersol era

At the end of the season, Ebersol requested to completely revamp the show to include mostly prerecorded segments. Short, Guest and Hall had tired of the show's demanding production schedule and showed little interest in returning for another season, leaving Crystal the only "A-cast" member available for 1985-86. Like Michaels at the end of the 1980 season, Ebersol made taking the show off the air for several months to re-cast and rebuild a condition of his return. Another idea was to institute a permanent rotation of hosts (Billy Crystal, Joe Piscopo and David Letterman) for "a hip Ed Sullivan Show." After briefly canceling the show, NBC decided to continue production only if they could get Lorne Michaels to produce again. Ebersol and Tischler, along with their writing staff and most of the cast, left the show after this season (those who wished to stay-such as Billy Crystal—were eventually not re-hired for 1985), which closed the book on an inconsistent, yet memorable era in SNL history.

Season breakdown

1980-1981 season

Opening montage
Two opening montages were used for this season. During Jean Doumanian's tenure, it opened with a shot of the Statue of Liberty whose torch suddenly lights after a few seconds. Using "paint-over" type transitions, it then cuts to various images of New York with neon lights embellishing each picture. Some of the subjects included were a taxi cab, a pair of drag queens, Chinatown, Studio 54, a punk rocker, and Times Square. Dick Ebersol, however, apparently wanted a more simple opening. For the one episode, he produced this season (4/11/81), the original SNL theme music returns to accompany a different shot of the Statue of Liberty, followed by various still images taken from around New York displayed one after another. The cast is introduced using all new pictures, and plain-white block lettering reveals their name at the bottom of the picture. This opener was only used on this one episode. The original montage is from the March 7, 1981 Bill Murray/Delbert McClinton episode. The one-episode montage, from April 11, 1981, Chevy Chase hosted; the musical guest was Jr. Walker & the All Stars.
Cast

Featuring

Notes

  • Murphy goes from recurring to contract in February 1981.
  • Weathers and Laurance officially debut on December 20, 1980 (although they had previously appeared in an uncredited capacity). Rocket, Risley, Laurance, Hudson, Weathers and Gottfried last appear in the March 7, 1981 episode. Rosato, Metcalf, Kazurinsky, Prager, and Duke first appear on the April 11, 1981. Prager and Metcalf last for a sole episode, the shortest stint for any featured player (Nearly a decade later, Metcalf returned for a cameo in a short film piece). Dillon and Matthius are fired at the end of the season.
  • Weekend Update received a name and set change for a single episode (1981's show hosted by Bill Murray) in which it became SNL NewsLine. For this final episode, it was hosted by Rocket alone, without Matthius.
  • Jean Doumanian and her writing staff are dismissed after the March 7, 1981 show. Dick Ebersol replaces her, and following one more episode, a writers' strike shuts down the season early for refurbishing purposes.
  • Denny Dillon, Gail Matthius, and Joe Piscopo are the only actors to appear in all thirteen episodes in this season.
  • This one of the three shortest SNL seasons, the others being 1987-1988 (thirteen episodes total produced in both) and 2007-2008 (12 episodes produced.)

1981-1982 season

Opening montage
Another "simple" opening from the Ebersol era, and the only montage with Mel Brandt, an NBC staff announcer, doing the voice-over in place of Don Pardo. This opener was used more-or-less for three seasons; it began with shot of a lady lighting a cigarette, then consisted of various grainy, black-and-white video footage of New York City nightlife (dance clubs, police dogs, etc.). Despite being bland, it did, however, have what is considered one of the better opening music themes of the show, which would be used (albeit in various incarnations) for virtually every episode under Dick Ebersol's tenure. Because 'Live from New York' is not yelled, announcer Brandt says, "And now, from New York, the most dangerous city in America, it's Saturday Night Live."
Cast

With

Notes

  • Brian Doyle-Murray leaves at the end of the season and Christine Ebersole and Tony Rosato are fired.
  • This is the only season which does not feature the traditional "Live from New York..." opening. Instead, the cast appears with the host in a group shot, then runs off to prepare for their various sketches while the host delivers the monologue (much like a Second City stage show). This was the only season not to feature Don Pardo as announcer. Those duties were largely handled by Mel Brandt, with veteran NBC News announcer Bill Hanrahan filling in on the December 5, 1981 and December 12, 1981 editions. In addition, Weekend Update is renamed SNL NewsBreak. The first two changes were made at the behest of Michael O'Donoghue, as part of his attempt to radically re-vamp the show (among other suggestions rejected by Ebersol was taping the show entirely with hand-held cameras). The effort didn't impress viewers and both the traditional opening and Pardo returned a year later. The "Weekend Update" name, however, would return only with Lorne Michaels in 1985.

1982-1983 season

Opening montage
Virtually the same montage from 1981, with a few minor changes: Don Pardo returned to do the voiceover; the opening shot changes from a woman lighting a cigarette, to a construction worker lighting a cigarette with an acetylene torch; further, the cast photos are different from the previous year, with a chalkboard NYC skyline background. Also this season the classic "Live From New York..." intro was re-introduced into the opening skits.
Cast

Notes

  • Weekend Update undergoes another name change...Saturday Night News. Anchored by Brad Hall.

Recurring characters and sketches
Brad Hall hosted Saturday Night News throughout the season. Recurring characters featured during this season include The Whiners, Mister Robinson (host of a parody of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood), and Buckwheat.

1983-1984 season

Opening montage
Same credits as the 1982 season. The addition of Jim Belushi is the only notable change, and the background of his photo is noticeably different.
Cast

Notes

  • Jim Belushi, a young improvisational actor and the brother of recently-deceased former SNL star John Belushi, joins the cast with the third broadcast of the season, presumably to ease the departure of Eddie Murphy.
  • Murphy leaves after the February 25, 1984 show; Piscopo, Duke, and Kazurinsky depart, and Hall is fired at the end of the season.

1984-1985 season

Opening montage
A highly unusual, but fan-favorite opening montage. In addition to flying hot dogs, we scroll right to reveal each "giant" cast member towering over the New York skyline, and interacting with various objects along the way in a complete one-camera shot. From 1984 through 1986, the Statue of Liberty was being renovated in preparation for its 100th anniversary; SNL acknowledged these renovations by showing the statue surrounded in scaffolding during the opening credits for this season and the next.
Cast

Notes

  • Belushi is fired in December 1984 and rehired in January 1985, forcing him to miss two shows.
  • This season has more pre-taped segments than any other SNL era, before or since.
  • Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, is hired as a writer during this season. Only one sketch that he had written was ever aired, and it was in the last five minutes of the show, where the "weaker" sketches are usually scheduled. David quit his writing job at SNL mid-season, only to show up to work a few days later to act as though nothing had happened and stay through the rest of the season. This event was later used by David as inspiration for an episode of Seinfeld.
  • Shearer departed in January 1985, though he remains credited for the entire season (the continuous nature of the opening montage prevented his image from being removed).
  • The rest of the cast and writing staff, along with Ebersol and Bob Tischler, leave at the end of the season.

Sources

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