NBC’s Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975, it wasn’t just funny – it
was exciting. To begin with, it was live, and despite the fact that it
depended almost entirely on sketch comedy, an anything-can-happen current
gushed from the screen like Niagara Falls.
The vibe was so fresh and different, the sensibility so much more than mere
hip, that its young audience adopted it and took it home as if it were a
least at first, the sketch comedy was biting and unexpected – and the show’s
music followed suit, with a mix of musical guests that ranged from the
fringe element to the impressively unpredictable. Even it’s theme song,
sophisticated and sax fueled, is vibrant and edgy and pulse-quickening, the
musical equivalent of being alive from New York.
show’s history is generally well known after its thirty-plus-year run: it
experienced a roller-coaster ride of good and bad and awful; but ultimately,
it took on the identity of a rag-tag underdog, a survivor. It was good in
that it never gave up, even when everyone expected it to; bad in that it
could get lazy or uninspired and be completely unapologetic about it.
What’s worse, SNL sunk its ass into the sofa cushion as television
caught up with its sensibility. Rather than fight for its market share, it
became lazy and often indifferent, depending on a tiresome catchphrase or a
much-used running gag to keep it going, as MAD TV roared up from
Currently, what’s missing more than anything is the spontaneity of the
original sense of we-do-what-we-want. For instance, if in 1975,
Broderick Crawford hosted just because it was a funny idea, in 2005, Ashlee
Simpson is a musical guest not because it is a funny idea but because she
has an album to promote.
Simpson aside, you can almost always count on interesting musical choices,
and that music is actually performed live. Here, celebrating a sampling of
its first twenty-five years of musical guests, is a razzle-dazzle
assortment. For a show that does not pretend to appeal to the masses, there
seems to be a little bit of everything for everybody (or almost everybody).
Of course, we are spared much (does anyone remember the Ice Cubes, or, for
that matter, Mary MacGregor?)
What’s more, you get a near-definitive history of American popular music
during the last quarter of the 20th century, from The Grateful
Dead and Elvis Costello (who, in the spirit of live television, literally
stops the music and decides to change songs midstream, in a classic moment)
to the lesser, more expiration-date-oriented excitement of The Backstreet
Boys and Garth Brooks. Plus, you get to see Mick Jagger evolve (or devolve)
decade by decade, as he makes both musical and comedic appearances every ten
years or so.
Paul Simon hosted the second show of the series, he gave SNL the hip
credibility it needed to surge ahead musically (yes, in 1975, Simon was
still a hitmaker). He reunited with former partner Art Garfunkel (singing
their 1969 classic, “The Boxer”) and the talent floodgates immediately
opened. We get to revisit this wonderful performance, as well as Simon
singing “Still Crazy After All These Years” in a turkey suit (hilarious
then, just nostalgic now).
see Billy Joel, in his brash confidence and youthful brilliance, perform
“Only the Good Die Young” live, you know that history is being made before
it is made. And when comedy cross-pollinates with the music, you are there:
John Belushi doing Beethoven doing Ray Charles; John Belushi doing Joe
Cocker with Joe Cocker; even Bill Murray as Nick Winters, the lounge
singer, singing, “Star Wars/Nothing but Star Wars…”
Comedy clips are included on the DVD, since they are so integral to the
music performed. Most classically, producer Lorne Michaels offers The
Beatles a check for $3,000 if they agree to reunite on SNL (he says,
“If you want to give Ringo less, that’s up to you.”). We laughed then
because it was hilarious and we laugh now because it strikes our sentimental
need, but we also wonder if Lennon and McCartney (who reportedly watched the
sketch from Lennon’s apartment in the Dakota) would take Michaels up on his
offer. Talk about live spontaneity. And what can be more musically comedic (SNL
style) than “King Tut,” performed by the first stand-up
comedian to reach
rock-and-roll adulation, Steve Martin.
excitement of the first five years had very much to do with music: Gilda
Radner as punk rocker Candy Slice was as funny as it was memorably musical,
and Andy Kaufman is sealed in our cultural consciousness forever, just by
channeling Elvis (22 million viewers can’t be wrong).
the original cast (and producer) left the series in 1980, SNL never
quite revived its Event status for musical guests. Not that The Talking
Heads, Queen and Sting were anything to sneeze at, but the novelty most
certainly wears off by the mid-80s (plus, the DVD seems to steer clear of
the years 1980-1984, when the show all but crashes and burns). Joe Piscopo
and Eddie Murphy perform as Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder, and Martin
Short (as Ed Grimley) dances with Tina Turner, but no one will step forward
and say that appearances by The Bangles and The GoGos constitute appointment
the 1990s, the series scoops up the musical ball once more, as rock and roll
catches up with SNL’s original brand of youthful cynicism. R.E.M.
rightfully opens the decade with “Losing My Religion,” while Sinead O’
Connor stirs a controversy by ripping up a photo of the Pope. Nirvana (“Rape
Me”) makes an appearance here, as well as the über-slacker Beck (“Where It’s
At”) and the slacker-ettes Alanis Morissette (“Hand In My Pocket”) and Jewel
(“Who Will Save Your Soul”).
pure cheese value, you can enjoy The Spice Girls (“Wannabe”) and even
Madonna (“Fever”), but you’ll be surprised at how good Hanson (“MMMBop”)
and Ricky Martin (“Livin’ La Vida Loca”) actually sound and entertain live.
In fact, don’t leave the party until you’ve heard En Vogue perform “Free
Comedy perks up again during the 90s, as Chris Farley interviews Paul
McCartney (“Mmmm-member The Beatles? That was awesome.”), Adam Sandler leads
the audience (including McCartney) in song, and Phil Hartman makes us howl
at just about anything he does.
five-disk DVD is rich in performance and perfect for a party. Hosted by
SNL alumni both great (Martin Short, Cheri Oteri) and near-great (Chevy
Chase, Jay Mohr), you’ll easily be reminded that, although you may not think
of it often, this institution was – and is – a small but memorable part of
your musical life.
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Posted: December 26, 2005.