All About SNL: Live from LA

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 8.06.31 AM

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.

Advertisements

I’m Rubber, You’re Glue

GETTY-81775017-650w-600x480

I was listening to talk radio this week and heard Ann Coulter referring to Pres. Obama as a monkey three times in 3 minutes.  Then I heard Rush Limbaugh calling the Obama policy in Syria Operation Shuck and Jive twice in just one minute.

Normally I don’t pay attention to this kind of stuff or these kinds of people (that’s hate-speakers, not conservatives) because, well, I’ve learned over the years we have a limited time on Earth and really should pick and choose who and what we spend our time on.

But to not pay attention to this sort of thing is also absolving your responsibility as a thinking member of society.   That’s not right and it’s insidious.  And the more you ignore the more it becomes a kind of allowable “norm” people can get away with.

George Carlin famously talked of the seven dirtiest words you can’t say on television, all of which you can now say on cable and some of which you can periodically get away with on the networks. (They are: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits – all of which you can say in a blog!).  Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and a long list of many others also challenged us with language that could be deemed offensive.

Don Rickles, the last of the old school Rat Pack-related comedians from the bygone Vegas era of entertainers, pioneered a variation of this kind of thing in the most mainstream way in the sixties when he evoked racial epithets for pretty much any ethnic group you can think of.   But part of his success was being an equal opportunity offender – no group, including his own, was safe.   Andrew Dice Clay tried another brand of this humor two decades later in the eighties by personifying the most chauvinistic black-leathered jacketed working class asshole from the boroughs or Jersey or anywhere else you can think of.  But he quickly faded away, mostly because he almost solely went after women in a very ugly way and partly because he committed the cardinal sin – he wasn’t nearly as funny as his predecessors (Note: ADC portrays a defanged version of this character in Woody Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, a performance that probably works a lot better for those who don’t remember the Diceman’s original act).

What do you do with all this?   Are words, in themselves, offensive?  Why could Richard Pryor (and now Chris Rock) say the “N” word but when I say it, it takes on another meaning.

It’s all about context.  And intention.

I shudder to even post this image.

I shudder to even post this image.

Moreover, why do Windbag Rush and Annie the Terrible purposely use their offensive terminology in order to provoke favor with like-minded thinkers and non-thinkers alike who are salivating for some new form of socially acceptable hate speak?

It’s all about changing the Norms of Context.  And it’s very, very, very intentional.

Also this week, Soviet president Vladimir Putin chastised the US in a NY Times op-ed piece for daring to talk about American “exceptionalism,” concluding with this thought:  We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.  Well, that sounds good but some months ago Putin began strictly enforcing new laws that allow his government to exorbitantly fine and arrest anyone who engages in homosexual activity, or even publicly approves of any sort of pro-gay activities.  Gays can’t marry, adopt or, if they’re vocal about it, teach (Note to Self: Cancel my trip to Russia).  So there goes his written plea for equality for all of God’s creations– right out the Kremlin window and right behind anyone listening to a Bette Midler album.  This also begs the question of what he plans to do with Atheists – who don’t ask the Lord for any sort of blessings because they don’t believe a God created anyone.  One shudders to even consider the punishment for that.

Forget about context and intention.  You now can add truth and hypocrisy to the list.

There are ways to think about our differences and there are ways to exploit them.  More importantly, there are many ways to express them.  Not all, but many people who are in the public eye are smart enough to know exactly what they are saying.  Certainly there is the occasional gaffe and arguably there is nowadays a whole class of speakers who just wander into the spotlight and are uninformed.  But you and I usually know who they are.  And we certainly know that’s not who we’re speaking about here.

Ya'll talkin' bout me?

Ya’ll talkin’ bout me?

When Putin, Coulter, Limbaugh, Carlin, Clay and all the others speak they know EXACTLY what they’re saying and why.  They choose their words for particular reasons because it is their living to do so.  They get (or got) paid handsomely for it.  And as such, they’ve earned an answer when they go over the line.  This is also the case for people in your life, or those within earshot adjacent to your life.  They’re not getting paid but they’re occupying your space and opening their mouths.  At last check, the US (not Russia) was essentially a freedom-of-speech-loving country where you not only get to say anything but get to be answered back within the confines of the law.  Hate speakers don’t get to have a one-sided conversation as they call you out for being too politically correct while they hide behind the mantle of free speech.  The latter cuts both ways.  If they have the right to speak as they do (and they do), we all have the obligation to call them out when we believe their heinous words and thoughts are polluting the environment in which we must live – both literally and figuratively.

That’s why comedian Richard Belzer was totally justified to call Ann Coulter a fascist party doll in 2006 when he threatened to walk off of Real Time with Bill Maher as Maher began to introduce her.  He was reacting to a myriad of Coulter statements that came before this appearance, stuff like My only regret is that Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) didn’t go into the NY Times building or that the 9-11 widows are reveling in their status as celebrities…I have never seen people enjoying their husband’s deaths so much.

Of course, all of those were said several years before we had our first Black president so Ms. Coulter, a best-selling author in the tens of millions, has had to up her game.  How do you answer an educated person who knowingly likens the most famous Black Man in America (nee the WORLD) to a phrase that was commonly used and drawn in the antebellum South to describe the Simian nature of their former slaves???

An American artifact from 1900.

An American artifact from 1900. That would be 113 years ago…

The correct answer is not:  she doesn’t deserve an answer.  The correct answer is to tell the Ann Coulter in your life, or the one you overhear, exactly what you think – in a word, or phrase, or something longer (and perhaps, preferably, with something sharper).

Don’t take this for a second to mean that we’re letting Mr. Limbaugh off scot-free.  If these are truly our public airwaves, what do you now say to someone who uses the term “shuck and jive” to describe a Black president’s policies?  As Mr. Limbaugh understands, that’s a phrase that came into being when black slaves sang and shouted gleefully during corn-shucking season and evolved in common usage as way to indicate Black people who were clowning and lying.

Obama’s a sla-ave, Obama’s a sla-ave, O- ba-ma’s the N word, O-ba-ma’s the N word…,

you can hear Limbaugh taunting.

Well, you can now see why current Senator Al Franken had no other choice than to write:

Rush Limbaugh’s a big fat idiot, Rush Limbaugh’s a big fat idiot!

But that book was almost 10 years ago and Rushbo has gone into entirely new territory here.  What do we, or anyone, say back to him now?

tumblr_m265s1Gktq1rqfhi2o1_500

I’m waiting….

No – the correct answer is not to ignore him.  Not for this.  Not in this case.

tumblr_m6v9lhdl2x1qdytfk

Certainly, we all make our own choices in these situations.  In 1993, the only African American female Senator in the history of the US Congress was Carol Moseley Braun.  (Note: Ms. Moseley Braun served as a senator from Illinois, a seat Barack Obama would 10 years later be elected to).  This week, The Rachel Maddow Show reported on a much repeated story of what happened in the Senate elevator at that time when ultra conservative and virulent racial separatist, North Carolina’s five term (that’s 30 years) senator, Jesse Helms, found himself riding up in the elevator with Sen. Moseley Braun.  This very white senator from the South looked this very Black senator from the North straight in the eye and began singing “Dixie” (Oh, I wish I were in the land of cotton…)” in the elevator, turning to Utah Sen. Orin Hatch and saying “I’m gong to make her cry.  I’m going to keep singing Dixie until I make her cry.”

Yes, this is a true story and it took place in the nineties.  And no, it is not about Mr. Helms being a product of another time and place.   It is about a particular type of viciousness that needs to be addressed in the moment – or after – not by turning your cheek but by turning into the punch and retorting in some way that you see fit.  In the case of CMB, she decided to respond by looking straight back at him, saying: ‘Sen. Helms, your singing would make me cry if you sang ‘Rock of Ages.”

You go, Carol.

You go, Carol.

Incidentally, this encounter was supposedly prompted by Sen. Moseley Braun successfully leading a fight on the Senate floor the previous month to defeat an amendment by Helms that would allow the renewal of the patent on the Confederate flag insignia by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Get the point, yet?

Have times changed in 2013 when a person thought to be a minority (Pres. Obama) chooses to live or govern in a way that a particularly vocally virulent person in the public eye thought to be in the majority (Mr. Limbaugh? Ms. Coulter?) doesn’t want them to live or govern?  Clearly not.  And what about then Senator Moseley Braun’s response?  I, for one don’t think it went nearly far enough.  But the deafening silence to Coulter and Limbaugh’s remarks seems to indicate we’ve backtracked from there to a strategy of no answer necessary.

It would be nice to think this is because we’ve come far since then and incidents like these are fading into the woodwork.  But I don’t think so.  In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite.

For years I had my own response to people like Sen. Helms, who all through his terms (which only ended in 2001) refused to fund AIDS research and was virulently anti-gay  (e.g. homosexuals are “weak, morally sick wretches”).  As I watched him trying to defund gay artists of any kind from the National Endowment of the Arts (and the entire NEA itself) at a time when I was also watching many gay friends and acquaintances die left and right from AIDS, I signed petitions against him, wrote letters and gave money.

1990_artificial

And — in my bathroom for years hung this famous Robbie Conal poster that read ART OFFICIAL with Helm’s hideous image drawn below it.  It served as a reminder to me and everyone who ever stepped in front of, on, or near my toilet that Sen. Helms was totally full of shit.

Hey, we all do what we can.

Note:  I’ve purposely left out of the conversation Sarah Palin, who has used monkey, shuck and jive and many other terms to describe the first Black president.  This is because Cruella (as Aaron Sorkin so aptly labeled her several years ago) has a dwindling audience and now falls into the don’t waste your limited time on Earth category. Well, unless it allows us to bring back Tina…

Tina-Fey-Sarah-Palin-SNL-2007