Fridays: The SNL Ripoff That Nearly Surpassed the Original
In 1979, ABC ordered an SNL show of its own. No variation; a straight copy. Same live format. Same type of cast. Musical guests. Fake news. Like Lorne Michaels before them, producers John Moffitt and Bill Lee scoured clubs and improv groups for talent. (Moffitt wasn’t new to the process: he’d been Lorne’s first choice in 1975 to direct SNL, which Moffitt turned down.) On April 11, 1980, Moffitt and Lee unveiled their LA version: Fridays. Even the name was abbreviated theft.
Fridays faced numerous obstacles. Most of SNL’s original cast was still on the air, prompting negative comparisons. Critics were unkind, to the degree they gave Fridays any attention. An early sketch about a zombie diner, though tame today, lost them several affiliates in only their third week. Plus, the cast had to gel on the air. Unlike the original SNL, where many of the actors and writers had worked together at Second City and the National Lampoon, the Fridays cast were a disparate group. There was little shared history. Awkward growth pains were evident.
Yet this worked to their advantage. Fridays had nothing to lose. This freed them to try pretty much anything. Whereas SNL displayed a certain control, reflective of Lorne’s demeanor, Fridays pelted the audience with whatever they could grab. Sometimes the sketches seemed formless, rushed, half-digested. Death, drugs, celebrity, religion, and political corruption were the main topics. Recurring characters like a gay monster mime or a little boy torturing his toy soldiers were barely coherent. If SNL was classic rock, then Fridays was decidedly punk.
Ratings slowly climbed. Lorne left SNL, replaced by Jean Doumanian. This gave Fridays added oxygen. Doumanian’s cast was even greener than theirs. The writing dour, obvious, flat. Doumanian’s SNL crashed on the runway. Fridays soon surpassed it in the ratings. The imitation overtook the original. Many critics reversed their initial disdain. Doumanian’s replacement, Dick Ebersol, flew to LA to entice several cast members to jump to SNL. None did. It was a point of pride — they felt that their show was better.
By this time, Fridays had developed a distinctive voice. Focus sharpened, confidence rose. The cast finally relaxed into their roles. The writers widened their satirical interests, dealing with topics that SNL would never touch. Pieces set in Salvadoran refugee camps. Torture centers. Iron Curtain undergrounds. PLO bunkers. Short films about the hell of war. Live musical numbers with Ronald Reagan in the Rocky Horror Show, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in Central America, Popeye the Sailor fighting fascists. The audacity of it was amazing. They also tried semi-dramatic bits. A week after John Hinckley shot Reagan, Fridays answered with this:
And just as Fridays was hitting its stride, ABC sunk it.
Ted Koppel’s Nightline, which grew out of the Iran hostage crisis, pulled in high ratings four nights a week. ABC wanted Nightline on Friday night as well, pushing Fridays from an 11:30 start to midnight. This was a death warrant. Though the show kept growing creatively, its ratings began to slip. By March 1982, Fridays was finished. In two years, it covered the gamut of late night television. There hasn’t been an American sketch comedy show like it since.
The cast, which beautifully evolved together, deserves mention: Mark Blankfield, Maryedith Burrell, Melanie Chartoff, Larry David, Darrow Igus, Brandis Kemp, Bruce Mahler, Michael Richards, and John Roarke. Rich Hall was the first and only new addition. Tom Kramer’s films were funny, odd, at times poignant. Larry David and Michael Richards also wrote, along with future Seinfeld scribes Larry Charles, Elaine Pope, Bruce Kirschbaum, and future Curb Your Enthusiasm director Bryan Gordon. Indeed, whatever remains of Fridays can be found in their subsequent efforts.
Today, that boils down to the two Larrys: David and Charles. The latter is a writer/director who collaborated with Sacha Baron Cohen on Borat, Bruno, and the upcoming The Dictator. Charles also directed numerous episodes of Curb, perhaps the purest form of Larry David’s humor. It was on Fridays where David developed his brand of misanthropic aggression. Then it seemed out of place, a style of comedy that made you more uncomfortable than happy. Looking back it’s clear that David was ahead of his time. He even wore a puffy shirt in a piece, an exact replica of which was the center of a classic Seinfeld episode.
Considering the history and people involved, you’d think that Fridays would be available on DVD. But its most famous alumnus has blocked this. Everyone else connected with Fridays wants to see an official set (though I’m told that Michael Richards goes back and forth), yet Larry David won’t allow it. Everyone has their theories as to why, but the general consensus is that David, noted for his control over his material, is balking because he’ll have little should Fridays be released. Given his loyalty to his former colleagues, many of whom appeared on Seinfeld or worked on Curb, David’s resistance seems strange. It also seems fitting. Fridays remains the sketch show that time forgot.
Here are few reminders.
This piece, featuring John Roarke and Michael Richards, again shows how Fridays flirted with serious emotions, something you don’t see much of in contemporary sketch comedy.
Simple absurdist concepts were also part of the Fridays mix. Here an unsung medical pioneer, played by Larry David, receives his due.
Finally, perhaps the most celebrated Fridays sketch: Andy Kaufman breaking character and derailing a live show. Kaufman’s behavior throughout this episode was erratic, baiting the audience, acting as if he didn’t care. Of course the whole thing was planned, though only a handful of staff members were in on it. When head writer Jack Burns physically confronts Kaufman, the floor crew thought it was real. As did much of the country. It put Fridays on the map.
Dennis Perrin is the author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.