Thursday, March 15th, 2012

When 'SNL' Was About More Than Just Jokes

Michael O'Donoghue saw no difference between comedy and tragedy. Making people laugh was easy, low; getting them to think and feel was the ultimate goal. That is, if you were a serious humorist and not some joke writing hack.

Poring through his files while researching my book, Mr. Mike, I discovered numerous surreal or dramatic concepts meant to break up SNL's structure. None were used. Lorne had the hottest comedy show in a generation. "Hard laughs, more of the same," grumbled Michael. After three seasons, he was gone.

I suppose you can't blame Lorne. Who would mess with such a winning, lasting formula? But before SNL settled into its current format, Lorne allowed all manner of comedic expression which made the show unique to begin with. This included pieces and films that weren't intended to get laughs. Indeed, there was a time when SNL could make you cry — from human meaning, not horrible sketch ideas. Once The Coneheads, Blues Brothers, and Roseanne Roseannadanna took center stage, that part of SNL's development was pretty much over.

This creative variety stemmed from the time of SNL's birth. Audiences were familiar with offbeat ideas. Vietnam, Watergate, gas lines, attempted assassinations, and underground terrorist groups exposed Americans to harsher realities, something they were anxious to get beyond (on which Steve Martin wisely bet, making him famous in the process). Assembling talent from alternative venues ensured that Lorne's show would reflect some of these realities, primarily in SNL's first two seasons.

The show was then more theater-oriented. The audience surrounded home base in camera-shot, their reactions part of the bit. Many of the stages were built at audience level; you could see their darkened heads during a sketch, reinforcing the show's intimacy. Booking Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor guaranteed a direct, uncompromising connection. Each helped set an early edgy tone for SNL. But it was the staff who pushed show into interesting areas.

Once Albert Brooks' SNL deal ended, Gary Weis became the show's filmmaker. Unlike Brooks, Weis rarely appeared on camera. He preferred finding odd little nooks around New York, giving average people network access. Weis occasionally provoked, blasting violence in sports, or having a schoolroom of African-American children recite the Pledge of Allegiance, "with liberty and justice for all" uttered by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (played by Garrett Morris), whose murder conviction was a symbol of American racism. Weis also made the most heartfelt film in SNL history, where people greet loved ones at an airport to Simon and Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound." It simply promoted love. Not as a joke, but as a shared human value.

SNL's original writers were a very diverse group, few in number, strong in execution. You recognized a distinctive voice in each sketch. A certain mood. A type of joke. It was before the show was written by committee, countless thumb prints on every page. And while the original mix contained truly singular minds, it was Marilyn Suzanne Miller who transcended the common sketch. In a sense, Miller was a throwback to 1950s live drama, her pieces seemingly part of a larger play. She could be funny, no surprise given her work on James L. Brooks' shows. But it was Lorne who let her explore deeper areas.

Miller's scenes featured people struggling for definition. What humor there was rose from their conflicts, their desires. In one, Dan Aykroyd is a working class man treating his wife, Shelley Duvall, to a cafeteria dinner. Duvall begs for her husband's attention as he rhapsodizes about his custom van. In the time it takes for them to get their food, we learn much about their relationship and empty lives. In another, Tess, played by Lily Tomlin, invites a salesman into her apartment simply to have someone to talk to. As he tries to stay on topic, Tess rambles on about her life, her family, and ultimately her loneliness. The frustrated salesman leaves. Tess shrugs and watches The Three Stooges, eating cereal out of the box.

For me the ultimate Marilyn Miller piece featured John Belushi and Sissy Spacek as a young blue collar couple wrestling with impotence. It's a beautifully written and acted scene. It showed that if given the right material, Belushi could hold his own with an Academy Award winning actress. And like Miller's overall work, no jokes are tacked on for the sake of getting laughs. There's nothing artificial in these sketches. The audience is trusted to make its own humorous connections, to the extent that any exist.

Forgive me if I sound plaintive or nostalgic. This is the SNL I grew up with and that shaped me comedically. I've watched the show during its entire run, with varied levels of interest, and though there have been some sterling moments since the original days, the idea of softer, more dramatic pieces has passed into the ether. Corporate comedy demands endless laughs, regardless of weight or meaning. The more disposable, the better. Anything with heart or emotion is suspect, if not immediately dismissed or mocked.

Too bad. The current cast is certainly capable of quieter, more serious pieces. Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, Nasim Pedrad and Taran Killam would shine in sketches set in less wacky surroundings. Playing those left behind. Kicked to the curb. Forgotten. Despised. There is plenty of alienation to tap into. Perhaps the audience would reject this, conditioned as they are to loud gag fests. But we're still human, despite what the culture tells us. This can be revealed in our comedy. It should.

Dennis Perrin is the author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.

Sponsored Content
  • Jason Farr@facebook

    When has material with emotion and heart been mocked?

    • Dennis Perrin

      @Jason Farr@facebook Based on my contact with the younger comedy world over the past two years. There is tremendous distrust of genuine emotion. A lot of anger and bitterness, which affects the comedy. It's not 100%, but it's prevalent.

    • Megh Wright

      @Jason Farr@facebook Yeah I agree, this doesn't sit right with me. In fact, as a youngster I feel like it's me who is being mocked here, not whoever decides which sketches go on and which get cut, like a "kids these days" sort of thing. I'm sure that's not the intention, but maybe an example or two of emotions being mocked would help me understand that. Either way fascinating read as always.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @Dennis Perrin Great post. The Mike book has been on my Amazon wishlist for awhile, but now I think I will have to up and click it.

      You're right about the emotion issue… perhaps it's a reason why really early episodes of The Simpsons (seasons 1 and 2… paced a little slower, filled with emotion) don't get as much credit as they should. I've been re-watching Season 2 recently on DVD and those episodes are all so much better than I remembered them to be.

    • Megh Wright

      @Ben Worcester Ah, this made this make a little more sense for me. It's not really emotion in general but more of a heartfelt sentimentality, right? In that case I agree, but I guess I never really expect heartfelt moments from SNL. It's interesting to think of the current cast delivering that though.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @Megh Wright Yeah I you could look at it that way, drawing distinctions between emotion/sentimentality. And I think those early episodes had lots of both.

      Small example: at the end of the Principal Charming episode… Skinner breaks down and cries in front of the school after Patty breaks his heart. They hold on his tears for a good while, way longer than you'd ever get in an episode today (of any animated show, for that matter). To lighten, that moment is followed up with a terrific homage to Gone With the Wind: "…tomorrow is another school day." And it just works perfectly.

    • Dennis Perrin

      @Ben Worcester Agreed about the early Simpsons. George Meyer has made the same observation. Those early seasons contained a variety of emotions, not just comic. That's why they still hold up. As for more recent seasons, well . . .

    • Dennis Perrin

      @Megh Wright This wasn't meant as a generational rebuke. There were cruel comedians in my youth as well. But there are real differences between then and now, as far as deeper emotional comedy goes. As I say at the end of my piece, we, meaning all of us, can still write this kind of comedy.

    • Just One Thing

      @Dennis Perrin Sorry, but I'd feel genuine pity for anyone from whom a cartoon evoked sincere emotions. I think you're misremembering what it was like to watch The Simpsons in tne early the days. The main lure was always the element of subversion, not the (no matter how prominent) blunt emotional tug.

      The fault with latter-day Simpsons is SO OBVIOUS. It's the fact that cutaway gags and pop culture references ceased to be funny on their own terms about fifteen years ago. The Simpsons has relied on these, as well as on their aging voice actors, for far longer than even the most liberal of moral authorities would deem decent.

    • Megh Wright

      @Dennis Perrin I guess I just really wish you were wrong, but you're totally right :) Cynicism is in right now, but maybe the comedy cycle will take us back to that someday.

    • Dennis Perrin

      @Just One Thing I own those first seasons, so I remember them very clearly. And yes, subversion was part of the lure. But subversion can take many forms, not just anti-authoritarian.

      Listen to George Meyer talk about those early shows sometime. He speaks about the genuine emotion built into the characters, how not everything was a joke. Since Meyer was the chief architect of The Simpsons, I'm guessing he knows what he's talking about.

    • Just One Thing

      @Dennis Perrin Okay, I known George Meyer was important to early Simpsons, but please justify the statement that he was "chief architect". What about: Matt Groening, Sam Simon, Conan O'Brien, Mike Reiss, Al Jean, Dave Mirkin, etc.?

    • Dennis Perrin

      @Just One Thing Those you name definitely added to The Simpsons' overall texture (especially Sam Simon), but they have and would tell you that Meyer's sensibility shaped the show's humor. He's considered one of the godfathers (along with John Swartzwelder). Meyer has spoken about actually feeling for the characters in a real way, not just as cartoons. That's what I was referring to.

    • William Ham@facebook

      @Just One Thing To you, or anyone, who questions the ability of a cartoon to evoke sincere emotions, I have four words for you: "DO IT FOR HER."

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @William Ham hear hear! to that.

    • Dennis Perrin

      @William Ham@facebook How about the episode with Dustin Hoffman? The whole show is funny and sweet, the ending quietly perfect.

    • William Ham@facebook

      @Dennis Perrin Absolutely. That one was lovely.

  • Dennis Perrin
  • Just One Thing

    This is a very good post. I wonder if I'm the only regular reader of Splitsider…to think that, based on the strength of these SNL-related posts, there could be a very good blog just about SNL.

    Also, you mentioned Nasim Pedradd. humminahumminahummina….SPROING!

  • davidly

    Spot on, Dennis. This's exactly what Del used to say. In fairness to the more recent writer/actors: One is not typically taught to trust more contemplative instincts to the extent they used to be.

  • socalled

    Just watch some of Nasim Pedrad's sketches. They're earnest and heartfelt but at the same time have a gentle satirical quality. Like Bedelia; A teenager who's "rebellious" by "not being rebellious". She' marginalized because her sketches are not cynical and not getting big laughs.

  • http://recursivebee.blogspot.com Patrick Mortensen

    The Gary Weis film is up on his site; it's pretty amazing: http://www.garyweis.com/snl/snl.html

  • Ralph Haygood

    This was before my time, and it sounds better than anything I've seen on SNL, which I've usually found dull. So thanks, Dennis – I'll be checking out some of those early episodes.

  • Ben Douwsma

    I've been reviewing the 1980-81 season on my blog, and I noticed that one of the things that group actually did successfully was the quieter, serious pieces. The "scary old lady" sketch from Ellen Burstyn and "Hospital Bed" from Karen Black. As well, Marilyn Miller had some great overlooked sketches from the next year, such as the one with George Kennedy as the janitor and Christine Ebersole as the secretary.

    • William Ham@facebook

      @Ben Douwsma Hey, you're bjdwsm from the s-n-l.com boards! Cool. (I'm "Jeremy Musk" 'round those parts.) Dig your posts and your blog. An SNL obsessive and, apparently, a Fall fanatic to boot – my kinda guy.

  • Christopher Johnson@facebook

    It is impossible to convey how subversive SNL was in the very early days… Just having something cool to watch after 11:30 on the weekends was novel. There were only four channels of TV, and the whole thing shut down at night… the national anthem, followed by terrifying, dark silence (I was a kid, remember. There's no scary, dark silence anymore). Early SNL was also dark and creepy — I laughed at "Mr. Mike's Least Loved Bedtime Stories", but they weren't exactly "funny". The musical guests could also be pretty challenging back in the day, too — it was the first place I saw Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, DEVO, and the B-52s — all at the very beginning, when they represented something very freaky and counter-commercial. Finally, the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" were exactly that: the first couple episodes just flashed a list of their now-overly-familiar names. It certainly was more than just jokes — but it was always seriously fun. The current incarnation is like those sad Beach Boys reincarnations that have only one original member, the old bitter one who kept the trademark (Lorne Michaels?).