Lately I’ve been watching some random old Saturday Night Live episodes. I wanted to vary my comedy palate and was very curious about the mid-1980s, when whole seasons went down as disasters/failures/freak experiments. There were sudden and strong urges to brush up on my useless TV history. A few wine-soaked hours on Wikipedia will do that to you.
I was reared on seasons 1 through 5; my familiarity with all things SNL between 1975-1980 is deep and everlasting. But I only had a passing exposure to the 80s and 90s, mostly through my “Best Of” VHS tapes: Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Adam Sandler. Apparently a lot of shit went down after Lorne Michaels went on his little walkabout in 1985. There are whole stretches of the show that never get recognized in nostalgic montages, because all the writers were idiotic sellswords and the show was being run like a carnival sideshow.
I have this really bizarre fascination with Season 11. That’s 1985-1986. No one watched it and no one remembers it, because it wasn’t funny at all. But can you please take a look at the cast?
You seeing what I’m seeing? Robert Downey Jr. Joan Cusack. Anthony Michael Hall? Randy Quaid? Who is this group of misfits and how on earth did they force chemistry, night after night?
It’s weird because some of these actors are obviously gifted, and would go on to have interesting and important careers. But none of them had any improvisational comedy talent. Not even RDJ — he’s a wonderful ad-libber, but his eyes are too wounded to bring the light laughs. I’ve been watching episodes of this season here and there, and it’s so fucking painful. It’s like some horrible alternative reality, or a bad dream I had after too much weed and Chipotle. These actors don’t know how to play off one another and work with an audience.
In truth, it was probably Lovitz and Nora Dunn who saved the show and carried it through this very dark time. God bless Jon Lovitz. Seriously. He’s a sidekick who can flawlessly glue together an effective joke whenever necessary. Nora Dunn, too — she was the Jane Curtin of her era, a straight man who played the hard edge of femininity with no apologies.
I also find it really interesting that this season featured both Terry Sweeney and Danitra Vance. Terry was the only openly gay cast member in the show’s history until Kate McKinnon boarded the ship in 2012. This was 1985! Terry got a lot of shit from both the cast and the writers and found it to be a toxic working environment. Poor dude.
And Danitra was also gay, but not out. She kept her sexuality a secret until almost the end of her life. She was the first black female repertory player, and her skills were sorely underutitilized. She constantly played maids and whores and was never given full rein to exercise her jubilant improvisational style. Along with most of this cast, she left at the end of the season.
So this has been a completely useless post. I just find this particular moment in the show’s history so fascinating. Until my next pop culture revelation, I guess? T-minus three hours.