The Night Siskel and Ebert Took Over ‘SNL’

snlfilmfest

Despite the show’s title and producer Lorne Michaels’ decades-long commitment to putting live comedy on network television, Saturday Night Live has always featured plenty of carefully edited, pre-recorded content between sketches. Even during those storied first few years of John and Chevy and Gilda, SNL had room for short films by Albert Brooks, Gary Weis, Walter Williams (of “Mr. Bill” fame), and Tom Schiller. And, of course, the tradition continued into the ‘80s, ‘90s, and beyond, with Robert Smigel, Jack Handey, and Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island crew turning their pre-taped pieces into vital parts of the ostensibly “live” franchise. In recent seasons, the filmmakers-in-residence have been Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett of the Good Neighbor sketch troupe and the production duo of Matt and Oz.

Clad uncharacteristically in a suit and tie, Louis C.K. appeared on Saturday Night Live’s lavish 40th anniversary special to introduce a special tribute to this non-live material, including contributions from Robert Altman, Mike Judge, Jim Jarmusch, and Paul Thomas Anderson. C.K.’s appearance here makes sense, as the comedian, though still best known as a live performer, is also the director and editor of his own FX series, Louie, and has cited editing as his favorite part of the process. That was likely on his mind when he made the following, affectionate but honest speech:

For a lot of people, their favorite part of the show is the short films, which are actually pre-taped and edited ahead of time and perfected. Which makes you wonder, why don’t they just do the whole show that way? They’ve been doing the show wrong for 40 years. I mean, the sketches are nice, but they’re long. They’re pretty long. In 40 years, there’s actually only been 17 sketches on this show. But anyway, these are some highlights from easily the best part of the show by far: the films, not the live part.

Louis C.K. might have gotten along very well with Dick Ebersol, the man who ran Saturday Night Live from 1981 to 1985. Dick held down the fort between the ouster of Jean Doumanian and the not-immediately-triumphant return of Lorne Michaels. The businesslike Ebersol is, to be kind, not a beloved figure among SNL cast members and writers. Books like Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingard and Live From New York: An Uncensored History History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller consistently portray Ebersol as a scheming politician, blatantly favoring Eddie Murphy over the other cast members, to the point that even Murphy felt exploited, and shamelessly overusing recurring characters and catchphrases.

Above all, Ebersol is remembered by his subordinates as a man who loved to be in control, which makes him an odd fit for a live comedy show where, theoretically, anything can happen. One of Dick’s preferred methods of taking the guesswork out of SNL was emphasizing filmed content much more than either Lorne Michaels or Jean Doumanian ever had. As talent coordinator Neil Levy remembers in Live From New York, this was his new boss’s top priority when he took over the show: “The first words out of Dick’s mouth to the writers was, he broke them into two teams at the first meeting and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. I have two ideas and we’re going to make short films.'” All that pesky “live television” stuff would just have to wait. Above all, Ebersol wanted to avoid incidents like the one in which cast member Christopher Guest dropped his script in the announcer’s booth, forcing the show to cut to a title card. While writer Andrew Kurtzman was thrilled by this extraordinary event, the hyper-cautious Ebersol was likely less than enchanted.

The 1984-85 season was Dick Ebersol’s last stand on Saturday Night Live. He bowed out at the end of that year, thus paving the way for Lorne’s return. Eddie Murphy had already left by then to pursue his skyrocketing screen career, and Ebersol had responded by augmenting the SNL cast with experienced comedy veterans: Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest. Billy and Martin flourished under Ebersol’s leadership; Harry and Christopher chafed. Either way, filmed pieces were still high up on Ebersol’s to-do list, and his well-paid “ringers” began recording sketches in the summer of ‘84. As Crystal recalls in Live From New York: “Setting the tone was when we filmed some of the pieces that would become the strongest things for us during the year.”

Perhaps knowing his time on SNL was coming to an end, Dick Ebersol devoted an entire, most unusual special episode to the filmed pieces he so cherished. The Saturday Night Live Film Festival aired on March 2, 1985, hosted by Billy Crystal and featuring wonderfully candid guest commentary from famed Chicago movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, both of whom had appeared on SNL twice before. Critical reaction at the time was positive. In a syndicated piece, TV critic David Bianculli observed: “Although the live segments of Saturday Night Live have been better this season, the show’s most ambitious moments are still found in its taped sketches.” If nothing else, the Film Festival remains a testament to Dick Ebersol’s legacy. He may not have had much of a flair for satire, but he still created an environment in which good comedy, of the filmed kind, was possible.

Displaying the same kind of manic, desperate-to-please energy he’d one day channel while hosting the Oscars, Crystal presides over the special, breaking out his Yul Brenner and Edward G. Robinson impressions during the monologue and popping up throughout the show either as himself or as his cretinous, Noo Yawk-accented characters, Ricky and Frankie. Crystal’s finest moment of the evening is probably a newly-created “Fernando’s Hideaway” sketch in which the title character, a suave, silver-haired Latin lover type, interviews Siskel and Ebert, constantly forgetting which is which. As Crystal explains in Live From New York, the “Fernando” sketches were all improvised, so Gene and Roger are able to speak as themselves in this setting, making sure to get plenty of digs in at David Lynch’s then-recent flop, Dune. Roger gets some salacious applause by mentioning his own, very real screenwriting credits, including Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. Freewheeling Fernando would’ve never flown during the infamously improv-averse Michaels’ reign. But Ebersol clearly trusted Crystal to do this.

The real reason to watch this special, of course, is to see the short films themselves. What makes the episode so unusual is that the filmed sketches are interspersed with honest, unscripted appraisals from Siskel and Ebert. The first little movie of the evening, and also the first of many mockumentaries, is the famous “Synchronized Swimming” sketch with Harry Shearer and Martin Short as two grown men who have foolishly but sincerely devoted themselves to a ludicrous non-sport and Christopher Guest as their very Corky St. Clair-like choreographer. This gets two thumbs up, with Roger Ebert commenting that synchronized swimming “has got to be the silliest sport in the entire history of human competition” and Siskel nominating Guest for “Best Supporting Performance.”

Next up is a clever, nearly wordless bit of absurdist comedy called “Magic Shoes” with Rich Hall as a put-upon grocery clerk and James Belushi as his tyrannical boss, with the former getting revenge on the latter with a very special, very powerful pair of dress shoes. This, too, receives two thumbs up, with Ebert calling it “a masterpiece” with an ending “worthy of a Chaplin or a Keaton.” Siskel likes it, too, even if he doesn’t know if it merits those superlatives. He does comment: “There’s not a wasted shot in it.” The good vibes continue with “Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich and Famous” in which Harry Shearer’s unctuous Robin Leach interviews Katharine Hepburn’s third cousin, a garrulous hot dog vendor played by Martin Short. Chris Guest cameos near the end as Charlie Callas’ nephew, a stuffy Englishman who cannot help aping his uncle’s silly mannerisms. Siskel praises Short’s makeup-free performance and calls for a whole sketch about Guest’s character. Ebert likes the TV in-joke of having Shearer’s nodding cutaways obviously filmed at a different time.

But the special takes a turn toward negativity when “My Name Is Needleman” comes up for review. It’s a sexually suggestive MTV-style music video with Gary Kroeger as a horny Jewish oral surgeon who’s “tired of being a virgin.” Neither Gene nor Roger is feeling it. “I don’t know what it’s supposed to be,” admits Gene. “I didn’t know if they were satirizing MTV or dentistry,” agrees Roger. They’re even less fond of “Prose and Cons,” which satirizes Norman Mailer’s relationship with convicted criminal and aspiring writer Jack Henry Abbott. After being released from prison in 1981, Abbott killed again and was reincarcerated. “Prose” imagines a prison system full of would-be Abbotts, all hunched over typewriters in their cells, trying to become the next literary star. Siskel finds this premise “stupid” and says that if prisoners “can write good books, let ‘em write.”

What’s memorable about “Prose” is not the now-dated sketch itself but the brief appearance of a shockingly young Eddie Murphy as inmate Tyrone Green, who recites a poem called “Images” through the extremely narrow window of his cell: “Dark and lonely on a summer night/Kill my landlord, kill my landlord.” Roger Ebert says that this “was Eddie Murphy’s first film,” not counting 8mm home movies, and that the sketch “could have used more Eddie Murphy and less of the rest.” The “rest” includes a cameo from literary agent Swifty Lazar, one of several guest stars on hand to lend credibility to the fake documentaries.

The second round of sketches gets off to a rough start, at least as far as Roger and Gene are concerned, with another almost-wordless piece of sketch comedy. This one features Tim Kazurinsky, a John Belushi pal whose relationship with Dick Ebersol was poisonous, as a luckless, nerdy hitchhiker who thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he’s picked up by a gorgeous, Rolls Royce-driving blonde, clad only in her underwear. But then she steers the car, Toonces-style over a cliff, and the whole thing ends up being an ad for the Department of Highway Safety. Roger and Gene aren’t amused. “Here is a film that went nowhere absolutely fast,” cracks Gene. They’re more fond of “Alan: A Video Junkie,” an edgy, rather tasteless sketch comparing video game addiction to drug dependence, but they saw it already on a previous SNL appearance. “They knew they would have one in the bag if they put it on this show,” Gene remarks. “Real courageous.” Interestingly, the audience is divided by “Alan,” a sketch that is not shy about making child prostitution jokes. When Ebert first brings it up, the title evokes both cheers and boos from the crowd.

Hands down, however, the riskiest sketch of the evening is an eight-minute-long pseudo-documentary about Negro League ballplayers from the Great Depression era. Now crumbling old men surrounded by memorabilia, the former ballpark greats are played by two white actors, Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest, in full blackface and affecting Alabama accents. Yogi Berra and Dave Winfield cameo. Crystal seems especially proud of this piece when he introduces it during the special, and he speaks highly of it in Live From New York as well. It has Guest’s stamp all over it: There are few obvious “jokes” apart from the ridiculous details of the stories Crystal and Guest tell, such as a promotion called “Smelt Night.” Apart from the racial angle, this is cut from the same cloth as This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman. Siskel and Ebert are divided. Gene admires the authentic-looking filmmaking but faults the sketch for having no real viewpoint on its subject. When Roger points out that it’s just meant to be funny, Gene’s retort is brutal: “Well, I didn’t laugh either.”

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert end their portion of the show with what they call an “x-ray segment,” during which they examine a performer’s career and offer commentary and advice. The subject this time? Fernando. Once again, the two critics are at odds. While Mike Wallace and Barbara Walters were prying confessions out of their subjects, Fernando was flattering his guests by telling them, “You look mah-velous!” Ebert says he notices “a certain sameness of approach” in these sketches. (Of course, A Certain Sameness of Approach would make an ideal title for most SNL episodes.) Gene, however, likes Fernando and finds him much more appealing than Barbara Walters. In fact, he advises the show to “run him to death.” And that, of course, was exactly what Dick Ebersol was doing at the time.

There are a few minutes left in the special, just enough time to air Eddie Murphy’s classic, much-rerun “White Like Me” sketch, in which the young comedian dons peach-colored makeup and a wig in order to portray a Caucasian businessman. Was this an attempt, perhaps, to balance Chris Guest’s baseball sketch, countering blackface with whiteface? In any case, “White Like Me” remains one of the high points of the Ebersol era and holds up extremely well, even three decades later. SNL junkies may recognize writer Jim Downey in a supporting role as an overly-generous newsdealer.

Siskel and Ebert, famously as contentious off-screen as they were on-screen, seem to be having a blast on this Saturday Night Live special. They were talk show veterans by this point, and they helped bring intelligent movie criticism to a mass audience by cultivating their cross-town rivalry and making their discussions as animated and entertaining as possible. Watching them debate these sketches is a bit like watching a fencing match. Sadly, a special like this would be unthinkable for the SNL of 2015, and not just because both Roger and Gene have died. These days, Lorne Michaels is a cagey, close-to-the-vest strategist who is reluctant to acknowledge that his program has any flaws or deficiencies. He knows SNL has plenty of critics out there, and he doesn’t want to supply his foes with any ammunition.

So that leaves the Ebersol-era Saturday Night Live Film Festival as an anomaly: the one episode of the show that truly reviews itself.

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