All About SNL: Live from LA

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The pop culture event of the moment is NBC’s Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special. It’s hard to believe more than three generations have grown up watching what is essentially a sketch comedy/variety show that has not deviated much in its format since it began in 1975. But that is part of what makes SNL unique. It is the longest running comedy show on television and the three and a half hour live tribute live celebration (Note: Though, as usual, it is tape delayed for the west coast – poor us) will be (Ed. note – And was!)  a marathon featuring many of its rotating cast of regulars through the years as well as many of its most famous – and infamous – sketches, hosts and musical acts.

I have actually managed to wrangle an interview with Dr. Stephen Tropiano, author of Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About America’s Longest Running Comedy. Don’t ask me how. But it seemed there was no better way to write about pop culture this week than to speak with a person who would be so willing to correct and comment on my every comment, mistake and opinion when writing about this show. The following are some of the uncensored excerpts of our conversation:

The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor

Chair: The first time we met, on a Saturday night 27 years ago, we wound up watching SNL hosted by Sean Penn. This was when he was still married to Madonna and they were making jokes about him punching out paparazzi. Do you think a lot of people tie the show to specific personal memories or is it just a handful of crazies like us?

Stephen Tropiano: I think people think about the show in two ways. First in terms of where they were in their life – in college, out of college, their first job in their twenties and so on, and secondly in terms of the cast. For me, I was in eighth grade at the very beginning and…

C: Eigth grade? Okay, stop right there. And your parents let you watch it?

ST: My parents let us watch anything we wanted. And at that time, I’m not sure they knew much about it anyway. I watched it with my two older brothers and I remember laughing at John Belushi and Gilda Radner – and I remember Chevy Chase falling down. That was funny. And imitating Gerald Ford even though he didn’t look like him.

Not Ready for Primetime Superstars

Not Ready for Primetime Superstars

C: I was in college when it first started and I remember at that time we all thought of it as a younger person’s show – our show. Even though the people in it were a little older than me it felt like a place where you could see your contemporaries. It’s changed a little over the years but do you think there’s something to that, especially for young people, and maybe that’s why they get hooked on it and stay with it because they relate to a lot of the cast members?

ST: I think it depends on the era because sometimes there were younger cast members on the show like Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy, who was one of the youngest cast members, even a little younger than Pete Davidson is now. But then there were also casts where people were in their thirties and forties, and more established like Billy Crystal and Martin Short and Michael McKean in the 80s.   But in most ways it always was and is a contemporary show. I mean that certainly has always been the challenge – how do you appeal to both audiences.   Both a younger audience and to as many other people as possible.

C: One way is to hook a younger audience and keep them as they get older. I guess I fit in that paradigm given that I went to a dress rehearsal of the show at the end of the first season when Lily Tomlin hosted and Chevy Chase pretended to be the Jaws shark delivering a Candy-gram.

Before Katy Perry's Left Shark there was.... LANDSHARK

Before Katy Perry’s Left Shark there was…. LANDSHARK

ST: Wow, you are old.

C: No comment.

ST: But I’m also old now and I still watch the show too.   I think another way they attract younger viewers is with the musical guest. Now because I’m old there are musical guests that I’ve never heard of but what they’re hoping is that people will be tuning in for them, young people particularly.

C: I couldn’t imagine my parents or people in their fifties or sixties watching the musical acts or comedy we were watching back then.

ST: Well, at the beginning it WAS a show for baby boomers. The idea was definitely appealing to that specific demographic of people and I think with the musical guests, this was before MTV and there were a lot of musical acts they had on that you just didn’t see on television very much.   There were more mainstream people like Paul Simon but also performers like Gil Scot-Heron, Loudon Wainwright III and Esther Phillips. Even Janis Ian, though she had a hit record, you didn’t necessarily see someone like her on TV.

Iggy is that you?

Iggy is that you?

C: That’s true. She was the Iggy Azalea of her day if you took away Janis’ songwriting ability and sensitivity and added, well, I’m not sure. Care to chime in?

ST: You’re on your own there.

C: There ARE so many outlets to see everyone now so it’s not quite the same. Even with comedy and political satire. Stuff like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in some ways did supplant SNL among younger audiences. Though not entirely.

ST: A part of it has to do with viewing habits. Those are daily shows broadcast every day (Note: That’s why they’re daily shows) and they peaked when DVRs came into popularity. Also, they’re attached to a network like Comedy Central – it was branded to that generation. SNL is considered to be an older generation in terms of branding because it’s on NBC. But still, it has younger audience appeal. Comedy Central is more something they tune into automatically when they come home. They also tend to think of Jon Stewart as a voice of their generation.

C: Even though he’s in his early fifties.

ST: It’s more about the idea that he is on Comedy Central. Which is their channel. Plus, he’s been doing the show for a lot of years. He was in his thirties when he started.

Just a wee lad then

Just a wee lad then

C: Why do you think SNL has been able to stay on the air for 40 years? I can’t think of anything else other than maybe Meet the Press…

ST: And some soap operas. Well, it’s the longest running comedy on television but when you say that you can’t think of it as being like a sitcom. In this way, what the show was always able to do was kind of reinvent itself – become an updated version of itself – and it usually did that because of the talent and because of the writers. Also, just the format of the sketch-variety show kind of lends itself to it. It would not have worked if all the people who were the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players stayed on the show. It just couldn’t.

C: Which is not to say the ratings were always high or that every season worked.

ST: Yeah, they had trouble throughout most of the 1980s. It wasn’t until Lorne Michaels came back that it started to become more popular again. But when he first came back they were struggling and they put in very young cast members like Robert Downey, Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall and it didn’t really work. They tried Billy Crystal and the others earlier and went with experience and it improved but he was only really on for a year. Probably because it was far too much work for him.

Mr. Marvelous

Mr. Marvelous

C: And for very little money. Why continue on the show when it opens up so many other opportunities for you? That is certainly the case now when so many cast members leave and become movie stars.

ST: Though not everyone does. It really depends.

C: Yes, it’s tricky and unpredictable. You had people like Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray and then Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler. Followed by Will Ferrell and now, in some sense, Kristen Wiig.

ST: And Jane Curtin became a big television star as well as Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Also recently, they have also starred in movies. But then there were a whole tier of people who might not have become major movie stars – like David Spade and Chris Farley, or Joe Piscopo and Dana Carvey – who did star in some films. Billy Crystal was a movie star. Christopher Guest went on to direct all of his movies. And let’s not leave out Senator Al Franken.

From one desk to another

From one desk to another

C: A political star. I still can’t get over that. Though I’m not unhappy about it.

ST: He will be relieved.

C: I hope so. I can be dangerously scathing. Which brings me to how people enjoy loving or hating SNL. It really seems to be all over the place depending on who you speak to, though mostly I think the reaction is pretty positive, not to mention nostalgic since most of us tend to remember the sketches and characters and performers we did like so fondly.

ST: Well, everybody loves to say, ‘oh, the show was so much better back in the day,’ but back in the early years people were a little bit more forgiving because it was a newer show. Also, there were always a lot of things that didn’t work, often on every show, I saw that doing research for the book. You tend to block those out, though. But the sketches that do work – those are the ones that live on and that’s kind of what we remember the most. And there are a lot of those.

C: Are some eras just funnier than others?

ST: I think the show tends to ramp up around election years and depending on who is president. Sarah Palin was like the Golden Goose in terms of comedy when she was running for election and Tina Fey’s impersonation…

Tina-Fey-as-Sarah-Palin-are-we-not-doing-the-talent-portion-GIF-from-Saturday-Night-Live-SNL

C: You never felt she had to change much of the real Pailn dialogue.

ST: She didn’t! The sketch where Amy Poehler played Katie Couric interviewing her is almost verbatim! But I mean, the Bill and Hillary Clinton years – Bill Clinton was a great person to impersonate. And Will Ferrell doing Bush lends itself to comedy. It also depends on what’s going on in the world. Barack Obama can be parodied but he’s not like Bill Clinton who is bigger than life.

C: What is one of your favorite political sketches?

ST: Well, I like the one where you have Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush having tea at the White House when the Reagans are leaving…

Click here for the full video

Click here for the full video

C: And Nancy Reagan’s is grasping on to the furniture for dear life in an attempt not to leave and you see security dragging her out. It felt so real! But I have to admit I found it hard to laugh at some of the Dubya sketches with Will Ferrell saying strategery. Even though it was really funny it was hard to laugh because of how true and sad the whole thing was.

ST: You’re really bringing down the room.

C: You’re right. Clearly, if I were a sketch I’d be cut. One of my absolute favorite sketches, I have to admit was the first Debbie Downer where Rachel Dratch starts breaking up in close-up. I still makes me scream.

ST: Part of the reason that one was so memorable is that there really isn’t a sketch where everyone is breaking up. In that one, everybody is losing it. I think six or seven people.

C: What are some of the memorable ones for you?

Word Associate with Chevy and Richard

Word Associate with Chevy and Richard

ST: Well, probably the best and most famous was the Chevy Chase-Richard Pryor sketch that was about racism. It was written by Richard Pryor’s writer Paul Mooney because they felt that Pryor’s humor was not going to represented on the show.

C: That is one of mine too. It’s less funny than wonderfully true and real satire. I also LOVE Dan Aykroyd playing Julia Child cutting her finger while preparing a chicken and bleeding to death onscreen.

ST: If we’re going to go there I have to mention The Claudine Longet Invitational Ski Tournament where people competing get shot by her while skiing down the slope.

C: I remember they had to apologize for that one. And for those who don’t know about it, they can look it up.

ST: I also loved The Sweeney Sisters.

C: Oh My God, Clang, clang, clang went the Trolley. Now you have me thinking of Delicious Dish and Shweaty Balls. Not to mention Maya Rudolph doing Donatella Versace – GET OUT!!!!!!!! Your favorite all time performer – the most unfair question?

ST: Hmmm, I guess it would be Gilda Radner.

The Queen

The Queen

C: No fair, she was mine!

ST: The characters she did – Roseanne Rosannadanna and Emily Litella, as well as the Judy Miller Show. They were just very real. And we should also say she had people like Alan Zweibel and Marilyn Suzanne Miller writing specifically for her – that’s why she got so many characters on.

C: I loved Lisa Loopner – the nerdy girl – and her best friend Todd, who Bill Murray played. Especially when he gave her “noogies” and she couldn’t stop giggling. I think I probably related.

Toddddddddddd

Toddddddddddd

ST: Probably?

C: You were supposed to say – ‘oh no, I can’t imagine how you would relate!’

ST: That was not one of the lines I was given.

C: Best host? I know this one is also unfair.

ST: Hmmm. I would say Steve Martin. His type of comedy seems to best fit the show because it tends to be in smaller bits.

... and the King

… and the King

C: Or when he did stuff like the King Tut song, which actually became a hit on the radio. It was sort of like the precursor to viral videos like Lazy Sunday. For me the best host in recent years is probably Justin Timberlake.

ST: He’s sort of the perfect person because aside from being musical we had no idea that he was truly funny. It was unexpected and he was game for anything. Lorne Michaels has said some of his favorite hosts were sports guys because they’re fearless. They’re used to giving their all and don’t care how they look. I mean, who thought Peyton Manning would be funny?

C: Or Charles Barkley. Favorite character? Mine is Stefon. I can’t help it.

ST: Part of the reason Stefon was so good– aside from how great Bill Hader was doing him – was that it was extremely well-written. The amount of items and dialogue John Mulaney, who wrote the sketches, would come up with allowed Bill Hader to not only be great but break up because they’d add one or two things to the list when he’d be doing the show live that he didn’t know about.

Stefon-Final

C: There’s something about people breaking character in the right way that never fails. So who are some of your faves, other than Stefon?

ST: I’d have to say – The Sweeney Sisters and Roseanne Rosannadanna. I also thought in terms of characters, Mike Meyers did some of the most incredible work.

C: Rather than discuss them perhaps we should end with them. Since apparently his Dr. Evil is partly based on Lorne Michaels – who started SNL to begin with.

"Allegedly"

“Allegedly”

ST: Mike Meyers has said that isn’t true. That just vocally it only sounds like him because they are both Canadian. But it is his favorite character.

C: Well, I’ve learned something new. You are a fountain of information.

ST: Are you being snide?

C: Me? Certainly not. I am not an SNL character. Yet.

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Word/Play

If your parents never told you that you are your worst enemy they should have.  (My Mom did and look how much it’s done for me!).  Nothing, nothing – not all of the unfairness in the world or the injustices you might face at the hands of your friends, co-workers or the industry you work in (yes, even the entertainment industry is included) can sink you faster than yourself.  And if you find yourself sinking and are still playing the blame game you might as well tattoo a big neon Titanic sign across your ass because truly – you will wind up so far down below the bottom of the ocean that not even James Cameron’s newfangled crane/camera technology and a slew of nimbly written and expensive press releases plus a year of community service will be able to excavate you to dry land.   At the very least you’d have to join a church, synagogue or mosque, do a year or two out of the public spotlight and write a book and, let’s face it, who has time to consider all of that.

We’re speaking of course of the debacle this week that is called Brett Ratner and Herman Cain.  I use the royal “we” as an homage to Mr. Cain – who seems intent on continually speaking about himself in the third person as if he were the title of a new reality show and not, simply, starring in a real life version of one.

(Charles Foster) Cain

As for Mr. Ratner, the purveyor of the gay slur (“rehearsals are for fags” – I guess I can use the word because I like to rehearse), and kiss and teller of his mastery of oral sex (oy…) and avoiding STD’s to Howard Stern on the radio, he seems to have been banished from the Royal Hollywood Kingdom for the time being by who really knows whom (I suspect more than a few MAJOR Hollywood director/producers dialed him directly) and says he will be helping in the synagogue of GLAAD as a way to stop anybody who speaks or represents said rehearsers in movies the way he referred to them.  For my money, I’d prefer he’d just stop talking and not make it any worse for us rehearsers but hey, that’s probably why I’m not in a position of power or even someone with consultation rights.  Still, I will offer that a better strategy is to just go away and make a good movie but “good,” as all of the rest of us learn as each day of the media circus goes by, is truly in the eye and ear of the beholder – rehearser or not.

For the one or two who don’t know what the hell we’re (royal, again) speaking about, here goes.  U.S. Presidential candidate and former Godfather Pizza founder Herman Cain was accused this week of sexually harassing one  two  three  FOUR women in the nineties (that is at blog press time).  Brett Ratner spouted his use of the homophobic slur this past week while trying to promote his new movie at the Arclight for no reason at all other than, well, he did.  But that wasn’t all — for dessert he kissed and then voluntarily told about his exploits with women in and out of the bedroom on Siruis Radio.  Even though the industry looks at the Stern show on SIRIUS as a bit of a non cost effective audience disappointment and anything but serious, the remarks eventually did land on the ears of enough influential people by the end of the week in the Motion Picture Academy (obviously not Stern listeners, though Stern ironically himself does qualify for membership in the Academy as the star and writer of his 1997 film “Private Parts”) to give Mr. Ratner the final push over the cliff as the producer of this year’s Oscar show.

The latter gave me pause as an “out” rehearser because I couldn’t help but wonder why Academy president Tom Sherak was willing to stand behind Mr. Ratner after his offensive comment about those of us who like to “prepare” (nee rehearse) but yet when he talked grossly about his sex life he was put in the inevitable position of resigning.  Is it worse to talk publicly about your sex life than it is to malign a particular social or ethnic group with a 4-letter slur?  Obviously.  Somewhere in the Academy rule book it must state that using a mean word about the rehearsers in the business is a hand slap but talking about the size of your private part and/or your prowess as a non-rehearser is a fireable offense.  Hmm.  Not sure I would have called it that way but it could account for the sorry state of most studio movies nowadays.  (Perhaps if us rehearsers were a little more represented things might be different.  Not necessarily better but different, which in itself might be at least a momentary blessing).

Who has one thumb and is a huge jerk? THIS GUY!

The drama that is (Charles Foster) Cain continues this week in light of vehement denials and a perhaps planned public press conference with at least two and possibly four of his accusers on some public stage or forum for the no doubt benefit of the public.  In his own press conference several days ago, Mr. Cain, as is his right, categorized one of his accusers as a “troubled woman” and lamented that there were forces that wanted to stop a “businessman by the name of Herman Cain” from being president.   That businessman/presidential candidate’s cigarette smoking campaign manager then separately accused Politico, the publication that first broke the unsavory story of one of Cain’s sexual accusers, of having an axe to grind because it employed the son of said accuser but the following day that allegation was proven to be false and the employment disproven.  As to the sexual allegation, Mr. Cain said he would be happy to take a lie detector test to prove his innocence but then added he’d only do so if he finds it necessary.  Hmmm.  Is it necessary?  I guess I’ll leave it up to you.  Oops, I misunderstood.  I guess the decision is really up to him – whether it be his first or third person doppleganger – (Herman or Herman 3.0)

Everyone has the key to that lock

The bottom line from all of this WORD/PLAY is a lesson that keeps popping up again and again ever since Al Gore invented the Internet and Ted Tuner started 24-hour Cable News.  NOTHING. IS. PRIVATE. ANYMORE.  (Not even your parts).  You can’t speak publicly, online, or even act slightly oddly privately with another living being or recording device of any kind present and not expect it to rear its ugly head and attack you with octopus tentacles that will grab you and put you behind the public 8 ball.  Adult males seem to have a particularly difficult time with this concept.  As if they’re operating from some 20th century paradigm of privilege and have not yet caught up with the fact that the rest of the world is OCCUPYING their zone, too.  Yeah,  AS IF!

We know how this mystery ends...

It’s been difficult for the Chair (that’s me in the third person) to understand all the hysteria about Facebook privacy settings because the Chair has been able to perceive that it wouldn’t take much for any one of its students who are unable to drink in many states (but able to go off to war) to certainly invade not only its privacy but its, well…everything.  Fine.  They can have it all.  Because The Chair will thus live its public and private life in an honest, truthful and respectful way and let all the proverbial chips fall where they might.  As for me in the first person, my Dad is and always has been a gambler (literally!) and gave me this advice long ago.  He didn’t go to college, never produced a megahit movie and doesn’t live in Allan Carr’s old house (check the Ratner real estate records).  He also certainly won’t be running for president or running a Washington, DC lobbying firm (that’s what the Restaurant Association was, guys) or even be founding his own pizza company (he hates cheese) any time soon either.  But as far as life lessons go, he was always right on the money, as gamblers tend to be.  And — as I and my third person Chair can assure you — that’s not just word play.

************************************************************************

THIS JUST IN…

… EDDIE MURPHY, RATNER’S CHOICE FOR OSCAR HOST THIS YEAR, JUST RESIGNED.  AND BRIAN GRAZER, OSCAR WINNER FOR PRODUCING “A BEAUTIFUL MIND,” HAS BEEN NAMED AS HIS REPLACEMENT…

LATER BREAKING NEWS…

… THERE COULD EVEN BE A HERMAN 4.0 AFTER HERMAN 3.0 CONDESCENDINGLY CATEGORIZED FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER AND CURRENT CONGRESSWOMAN NANCY PELOSI “PRINCESS NANCY’ IN HIS RECENT WEDNESDAY REPUBLICAN DEBATE PERFORMANCE…

LATEST BREAKING NEWS…

…BILLY CRYSTAL HAS JUST REPLACED EDDIE MURPHY, A PERFORMER WITH HIS OWN CHECKERED PAST WITH US “REHEARSERS,” AS THE NEW OSCAR HOST…

GEEZ…WHO CAN KEEP UP WITH THIS STUFF!!

More updates as they become available!