Sunday, February 19, 2012

Saturday Night Live 1-16: Anthony Perkins

By this point in its first season Saturday Night Live (at this point still called Saturday Night or NBC's Saturday Night) had become a phenomenon.  It drew attention, like MAD Magazine did in the 1950s, at least in part for being the only game in town for idiosyncrasy and subversiveness.  This was the era before cable, when everything on television was focus-grouped to death and aimed at a mass audience -- so to see something so obviously low-budget, with an offbeat sense of humour and an almost personal edge, in an inhospitable timeslot.  It was maybe the first show to cultivate the kind of insider atmosphere that contemporary favourites like It's Always Sunny or Community rely on.  Gags continued from week to week, and others were based on the show's established formula -- if you were just tuning in for the first time, a line like "Good evening, I'm not" makes no sense, but if you're familiar with the show it's a hilarious show on Chevy Chase's usual Weekend Update intro.

But at this point the show was expanding beyond its low-budget cult audience, and already transforming into the starmaking institution we know it as today.  The Not Ready For Primetime Players, who originally seemed to just be time-fillers in between guests, were now becoming stars in their own right.  This extends to the opening credits: whereas earlier the actors' names just flashed quickly on screen, now everyone gets their own chryon and their name announced, each one given the same billing as the guests.

At this point a show as knowing and audience-focused as the early Saturday Night Live was had to address this newfound fame.  The opening segment, in which an extended skit ends in Chevy Chase taking a scary fall and then welcoming everybody to the show, increasingly becomes metafictional, with the "out of character" actors talking about the upcoming fall.  In the opening segment this week we have Chase addressing allegations that the show relies on a lot of filler to fill out its 90-minute timeframe (a fair complaint), and doing so in as longwinded a manner as possible.

This is actually a pretty subtle joke, at least by 70s-television-standards.  Nothing Chase says seems like deliberate filler, so it takes a little while to notice his longwindedness -- but once it does, it's much more funny than the simple irony of the joke would suggest.  And then Chase does the fall in mid-speech, which is as usual a masterpiece of physical comedy.  This is what made SNL a show that could appeal to a mass audience as well as a cult one -- and perhaps what made it so easy to transition into a show targeting the mainstream -- it would talk circles around the obvious cheap laugh, make it a source of meta-humour, but in the end give you the cheap laugh, in this case a low-comedy pratfall, anyway.

I'm not going to go through the show segment-by-segment like I did for Jimmy Fallon last week, mainly because I'm not insane.  Instead, I want to talk about the main categories the segments break down into.  The first one, which can be pretty safely filed away in a corner, is the musical guest.  Although it quickly became more or less a sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live was originally conceived as a kind of variety show, and the musical segments would be a key part of this -- witness the second episode, which was mostly devoted to a Simon & Garfunkel reunion.  However, they seem out of place in this version of the show, the kind of filler that Chevy Chase jokingly admitted to in the opening.

Despite this, they've remained an essential part of SNL's makeup, and are even more often than not what generates buzz for the usually bland modern edition (e.g. Lana Del Rey's panned performance from a couple weeks ago).  A part of this is just its convenience as a venue to launch or promote music, but in a way it also appeals to the zeitgeist-embodying (or zeitgeist-forming) nature of the show.  Going through these older episodes involves a tour of the B-list musical stars of 1976, some hidden gems (Janis Ian!) others justly forgotten (this week's guest, Betty Carter, more or less falls into this category.)  For better or for worse, the musical guests of Saturday Night Live are great at preserving the pop-cultural detritus of a previous year in amber.

The celebrity hosts are a similar part of this zeitgeist, although they seem more scattershot on this first season, composing of everything from comic greats (George Carlin and Richard Pryor have both stopped by at this point) to out-of-work actors.  Every host seems to treat the show a bit differently: some treat it as just another performance, others as a chance to goof off out-of-character.  In both cases tonight's host, Anthony Perkins, falls into the latter category.  Perkins is of course famous for portraying Norman Bates in Psycho, but that was 16 years prior to this episode, so at this point he's in permanent "Whatever happened to..." category.

Perkins' presence is mainly an excuse for the show to do a bunch of Psycho jokes, although he does have a funny opening monologue -- a boring thank-you speech where he periodically does something weird, like peel off a bandage mid-speech or eat a fly.  This is another instance of the show insisting on patience from its audience, making them wait a long time for a fairly subdued joke, like the creepy happiness Perkins expresses at feeling the bandage pull his hairs out.

Of course, it's still not particularly highbrow, but I can't help but think that today Perkins would be jumping on a couch and laughing maniacally by the end of the sketch.  He performs in several of the show's sketches, and while he's not a great comedian, he does seem to be having fun -- and that's infectious.  The genuine joy of performance is something that commercial TV rarely captures, and that may be part of what made Saturday Night Live such a hit.  While he may not be the most memorable host, Perkins fulfilled the roll of the guest host, which is giving each episode a sense of individual identity and specialness -- something that's quite important, given how repetitive the comedy sketches can be.

Far from hurting the show, this repetition is a source of its humour.  Once again displaying remarkable patience, Saturday Night Live is content to make the same joke several weeks in a row, until they vary it to hilarious effect -- or just keep repeating it, making it funnier each time, such as news anchor Chevy Chase announcing every week that Francisco Franco is still dead.  (Most of these recurring or repeating jokes occur in the context of Weekend Update.)  Of course, not every instance of this works -- the repeated fake ads, or the formula of the Muppet segments[1] come to mind -- but it's still a remarkable formal innovation, one that hasn't really been taken up and developed further over the years.

Of course, the comedy is what everyone came for.  What's notable more than anything is the variety of humour on an average episode of the show: there are political jokes, broad gags like movie parodies and physical humour, risque sexual jokes (a sketch about Gilda Radner hiring a dominatrix to clean her house), home-movie strangeness, and stupid puns.  And yet somehow, it all has a distinct voice behind it, one that's just a little weird but not too weird that it isn't approachable, and that utterly refuses to take itself seriously.

It's possible to see in the early Saturday Night Live the roots of all of today's cutting-edge comedy -- Weekend Update has transformed into The Daily Show, the more bizarre segments into Tim and Eric, the hyperactive pop-culture jokes into Community, and so on and so forth.  And it accomplishes all of this without any radical formal innovation or even exceptionally great jokes.  Instead it introduced a new aesthetic -- cheap, personal, and weird -- that has proved an enormously fruitful one.  It's sort of insane how much modern comedy owes to a half-hearted attempt to program Saturday nights in the 1970s.

Next Week: "I'll get some overalls and some earthworms."

[1] Oh yeah, there were Muppets on here too.  Jim Henson created grotesque adult-oriented Muppets for the first season of the show, but they didn't really catch on, and were quickly axed.  The Muppet segments weren't terrible, but they were kind of sitcommy, and didn't really jive with the weirdness going on around them (and for the Muppets, that's saying something.)  This is reflected metafictionally in this episode, as the Muppets go around campaigning for airtime and other roles, and finally seem to get it... only for the credits to roll.  At this point Saturday Night Live was on such a roll that it could even make lemonade out of its failures.

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