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Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

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.

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  • Melanie Chartoff

    Love an overview that helps me understand the underpinnings of my own past.

    Dick Ebersol courted me for SNL , but I was too burned out on the consuming, chauvinistic, coked up comedy climate of late nite where the aggression required to get an idea on was life threatening.

    I was proud of much of the innovation, ashamed of the desperation, and an adoring fan of every member of Friday's iconoclastic cast and staff. Hope Larry lets the DVDs out before all the fans who still write me are dead.

    • Agent M

      @Melanie Chartoff … I was 14 when this hit. Though Michael Richard's insanity probably spoke to my sense of humor at the time, I well remember you as the Resident Hot Chick who was actually funny. There's that chauvinism you mentioned…but I was 14! Cheers.

    • Megh Wright

      @Melanie Chartoff Great article Dennis, and Melanie, this is my favorite comment on this site ever. Thanks for the insight.

    • Steve Corner

      Melanie Chartoff? The real one?

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    Love this! I have to look for more clips now. My interest is beyond piqued. I only had the most superficial knowledge about Fridays before this post.

    And Dennis – after I read it last year, Mr. Mike became one of my favorite books.

    The comment from Melanie – an actual cast member – is really awesome too.

  • Doug H.

    Excellent piece…thanks. FYI, Fridays was sold to ABC by Bernie Brillstein, the long-time manager not only of Moffitt and Lee but also of Lorne Michaels, John Belushi and lots of other members of the SNL team. In "Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Live" (the book I co-authored with Jeff Weingrad)we describe how betrayed Lorne felt by Brillstein's packaging of Fridays and the (negative) reaction on SNL to Fridays' debut. Here's one graph from that section of the book:

    Bernie defended his participation in Fridays by saying it was his duty to represent his clients, but almost everyone on the 17th floor considered him a contemptible opportunist for having anything to do with it. Lorne said very little about Fridays to anyone on the show, or to Bernie himself, but to one or two of his closer allies he admitted he was deeply angered and deeply hurt. More than anyone else, Bernie had been Lorne’s father figure through all the years of Saturday Night. Before Fridays, Lorne talked on the phone with Bernie in Los Angeles several times a day. After Fridays Lorne maintained their professional relationship, but their calls slacked off for a while. Lorne’s friends think he basically blocked Fridays out of his mind, “built a Berlin wall around it,” one said.

    BTW, an electronic version of "Saturday Night" has just been published; here's a link to our Facebook page, where we've started to post other tidbits from the book:

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-SNL-Book/312422658791954

  • velveteen71@twitter

    Great article and, as Rebecca said, "Mr. Mike" is excellent work. Read it when it first came out and just finished re-reading it last month.

  • ladyfriend@twitter

    Shameless name-dropping, but I was good friends with Igus's daughter when we were in elementary school. Once when we needed paper to play hangman or something, Darrow gave us a pad of paper with the Fridays logo at the top, telling us the paper was older than we were. When my parents saw the logo later, they were tickled pink and I got a very reverent crash-course in the show. This article is brilliant. Thanks for filling in the gaps!

  • growler

    Such a brilliant show! Why does Larry David have to be such a putz?

  • Nicholas Robinson@facebook

    I always wondered whether that Andy Kaufman things was for real but somehow now you can quickly tell that most of the participants know it's not. Hindsight is great.

  • Al K. Lloyd

    Nice article. I don't remember too much of Fridays except I thought it was funny at the time. A couple of memories are the funny/sexy Ms. Chartoff (who the years seem to have been quite kind to) and some spanish announcer that would intro the musical guests "las musica de la" or something like that. Add my voice to those interested in a DVD/digital download if the masters are still in decent shape.

  • Chris Casino

    This program was a bit before my time but my aunt was a huge fan and I'm very curious to see it on something more than YouTube. And it's Michael Richards who controls the DVD rights from what I hear, not Larry David. I think they should release the DVDs. They actually should have done so when the Seinfeld DVDs were coming out because it wouldn't have been hard to market this show then at all. Mr. David, Mr. Richards, we all have things we're not proud of, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't let people who do enjoy it have it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zanni.giese Zanni Giese

    ..just tell em a lil bird told ya.. DVD release is a go

  • Chaz Turner

    "Fridays" was so very superior to the (by second season) pedantic "SNL," that I can understand why "SNL," the inferior of the two, has kept it from availability. I have several bootlegs of "Fridays" of rather dubious quality which I have procured from…well, dubious purveyors. I read somewhere where some entity named "Shout!" is releasing a sort of "best of" thing. I'll most certainly jump on the thing when it becomes available. My only source of contention with "Fridays" was that, like the inane "SNL," they were disrespectful toward President Reagan. Yeah, I'm an unregenerate Republican…still…John Roarke was spot-on in his portrayals.
    And I have to thank "Fridays" for my very FAVORITE "moment-of-television, 1980" (no, I couldn't have given a rat'$ @$$ "who shot JR"): I had had a very interesting…"contretemps" with a model, about the second week on September, who had grown irate with me because I had shown more interest in Ian Hunter's 3rd solo album, "Overnight Angels" – hey, we were stoned, and it was the 2nd or 3rd time that evening, anyway – than her, running around naked. She angrily got dressed and departed, telling me, "if you can ever find a woman you love as much as that damned rock and roll, blah-blah-blah." That Friday night, my girlfriend was spending the night, and about 11:45 I received a phone call – it was the model who I had "angered," I guess, and she was calling me to "turn th' TV onto ABC – NOW!" I did so, and I beheld Ian Hunter with Mick Ronson perform "We Gotta Get Out Of Here," WITH Ellen Foley, who did, basically, the same thing to IH that she had done to Meatloaf a couple of years earlier. And about 15 minutes later, IH returned and performed "Once Bitten Twice Shy," my 3rd favorite song of all time, and the number than my band used to open with (oh…the first two? "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay," and "Gimme Shelter".) With all my heart, I want to say THANK YOU to "Fridays" for "triggering" that incident.

    • Jeff

      Do any copies you have of the show contain the original commercials?

  • Dark Penguin

    I never really agreed with those who wrote "Fridays" off as an SNL rip-off, because sketch comedy was really big in those days and there was a lot of demand for it. Yet from the way many people talked you'd think there was some kind of law that there could only be one late-night sketch show in production at any given time. Moreover, "Fridays" had much better musical guests. I recently watched the first two or three eps of SNL on Netflix and I have to say Janis Ian and Phoebe Snow were sadly middle-of-the-road choices for a show that was trying so hard to be young and hip.

  • Lee Shafer

    the sound on the musical acts on this show was way better than snl rip jim carroll

  • Mikey

    I remember the last episode when the cast knew the show had been cancelled, weren't very happy about it….and it was live from LA. During the sign-off curtain call, my memory is of a Michael Richards who was most visibly upset about the end and made some comments directed at the network/FCC censors who had taken issue with much of the content. Some rather impolite comments, that, once again, my memory has an image of him mooning the audience as he told the network/FCC to kiss his ass. I've not seen it since, have tried to look it up on the internet to see if anyone else remembers that farewell but have found nothing. I also seem to recall fallout for his antic resulting in a one or two year ban from broadcast airwaves and being fined. But the show is not in syndication, and I've no way of confirming this memory of mine. And I wonder if a syndicated copy of the final program would contain the controversial finish? Can anyone else here (including the author, Mr. Perrin) confirm my memory, or is it distorted by a Nat E. Dred episode of life at the time? Thanks!