History of Saturday Night Live (1980–85)
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After the 1979–80 season, Michaels attempted to take a break and appoint writer Al Franken his successor. However, then-president of NBC Fred Silverman passed on Franken and gave the job to associate producer Jean Doumanian, bringing in a brand new cast and mostly new writers, and resulting in the most critically unstable season in SNL's history. Doumanian was fired and replaced with Dick Ebersol, who brought in a new cast, keeping only Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. Murphy and Piscopo became breakout stars and restored the show's popularity.
During the 1983–84 season, Murphy left SNL and went on to foster a successful film career. Piscopo and several other cast members also left after the season, prompting Ebersol to rebuild the cast for the following year with already-established celebrities such as Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest. After a successful 1984–85 season, NBC denied Ebersol a more permanent retool, which led to Ebersol leaving and original producer Michaels returning for the 1985–86 season.
- 1 The early-mid-1980s
- 1.1 Doumanian's season
- 1.2 Ebersol steps in
- 1.3 Dick's show
- 1.4 Eddie Murphy
- 1.5 Another new cast
- 2 Season breakdown
- 2.1 Season 6: 1980–81
- 2.2 1981–82 season
- 2.3 1982–83 season
- 2.4 1983–84 season
- 2.5 1984–85 season
- 3 References
For much of the 1980–81 television year, SNL was in turmoil and many critics, including Marvin Kitman of Newsday and Tom Shales of The Washington Post, wrote the show off as a pale imitation of its former glory. Jean Doumanian took over the show for season six, hiring a completely new cast and new writers, but it was plagued by problems from the start and deemed a commercial disappointment by both critics and in the Nielsen ratings.
Departing producer Lorne Michaels had wanted to make writer and cast member Al Franken his successor. Any chance of this happening under then-NBC President Fred Silverman was gone when, in a Weekend Update segment on the May 10, 1980 broadcast, Franken delivered a harsh criticism of Silverman which deeply angered the network president.
Jean Doumanian was a talent scout for SNL in the early days and was one of the few members of the staff who remained after season five. In Fall 1980, Doumanian accepted the job as the new executive producer. NBC almost immediately cut the show's budget from $1,000,000 (about $2,649,417 in 2010 dollars) per episode to about $350,000 (about $927,296 in 2010 dollars) per episode. Further, Doumanian had only two months to discover and prepare a new cast and crew; she claims she received virtually none of the support that was promised to her by either the network or her staff.
In September 1980, talent coordinator Neil Levy received a telephone call from 19-year-old Eddie Murphy, who had begged the producer to "give him a shot" on the show, but was rejected since "the black cast member had already been chosen." Murphy pleaded with Levy that he had several siblings banking on him getting a spot on the show. Levy finally auditioned him, and recommended him to Doumanian. Doumanian, after seeing Murphy's audition, advocated for him with the network, and Murphy was cast as a featured player.
New cast for 1980
The first episode, renamed "Saturday Night Live '80" in the opening credits, aired Nov. 15, 1980 and featured an all-new cast – Charles Rocket (groomed to be the new break-out star), Denny Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius, Joe Piscopo, and Ann Risley rounded out the new cast. Yvonne Hudson was hired as a featured player and became SNL's first black female cast-member. Elliott Gould had agreed to host the first episode.
The Elliott Gould episode
Contributing to the sense that season six was doomed, in the first sketch the cast shared a bed with Gould and introduced themselves – Charles Rocket proclaimed himself to be a cross between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, and Gilbert Gottfried (prior to adopting his signature screechy, obnoxious voice) referred to himself as a cross between John Belushi "and that guy from last year who did Rod Serling, and no one can remember his name" (referring to Harry Shearer).
At the end of the show, Gould stood on stage and quickly introduced himself to the cast one more time by first name and declared "We're gonna be around forever, so we might as well..."
The Malcolm McDowell episode was notable in that Eddie Murphy made his non-speaking network television debut in a sketch called "In Search of the Negro Republican". Pushing for a larger role in the show, Murphy delivered a successful "Weekend Update" commentary in the following episode (hosted by Ellen Burstyn) and garnered more appearances in subsequent episodes. He was made a full cast member by episode seven.
"Who Shot C.R.?"
On February 21, 1981 the show featured a parody of the "Who Shot J.R.?" craze from the soap opera Dallas. In a cliffhanger titled "Who Shot C.R.?", cast member Charles Rocket was "shot" in the last sketch of the episode, after a running gag in which other members of the cast shared their grievances about Rocket with one another. Onstage for the goodnights, Dallas star and that week's host Charlene Tilton asked Rocket (still in character and sitting in a wheelchair) his thoughts on being shot. "Oh man, it's the first time I've been shot in my life", he replied. "I'd like to know who the fuck did it." The cast, along with some of the audience, reacted with laughter and applause.
This was not the first nor last time the expletive would be uttered live on SNL but Rocket's epithet, unbeknownst to him, would cost him his job. Almost the entire cast and crew lost their jobs on the show. After Bill Murray hosted the following episode, the next episode scheduled for March 14, 1981, which would have been hosted by Robert Guillaume and had Ian Dury and the Blockheads as the musical guest, was canceled and put on a monthlong hiatus to retool the entire show.
Ebersol steps in
By 1981 SNL had been overtaken in the ratings by ABC's derivative Fridays These factors gave the impression that NBC might cancel the show. SNL was given one more chance when Dick Ebersol was hired to replace Doumanian. He was responsible for hiring Lorne Michaels that year, and now was given the task of saving the once-acclaimed show from cancellation.
In his first week, Ebersol fired Gottfried, Risley, and Rocket, replacing them with Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, and Tony Rosato. At the end of the season, he would eliminate the rest of the 1980 cast except for Murphy and Piscopo. Ebersol originally wanted to bring in John Candy and Catherine O'Hara from SCTV; Candy turned down the offer and Rosato joined instead. O'Hara initially accepted, but she changed her mind. Robin Duke was added to the cast when O'Hara suggested her instead. Emily Prager and Laurie Metcalf joined as featured players, but were not retained after their first appearance.
The unfinished season
Ebersol's first show aired April 11, with appearances by Chevy Chase on Weekend Update, and Al Franken asking viewers to "put SNL to sleep". Ebersol, wanting to establish a connection to the original cast, allowed Franken's mock-serious routine on the air.
Ebersol had promised Al Franken and Tom Davis that in addition to appearing on the April 11 show, they could host the next week. During the following week, with a writer's strike looming, Franken and Davis wrote material and mailed it to themselves so that their postmark could be used to prove they did not violate the strike. After seeing copies of the material, Ebersol (never a fan of Franken & Davis') caved to the writer's strike and called off the rest of the season, promising the duo they could host the season premiere that fall. As the summer ended, Ebersol, confident in his new cast, decided he no longer needed a link to the original cast. Franken claims Ebersol never returned his calls, and Franken and Davis never hosted SNL. Al Franken wouldn't return to SNL until four years later, as a featured cast member.
Other episodes cancelled due to the strike were scheduled to air on April 25, 1981 (with host Dan Aykroyd, former cast member), May 9, 1981 (with host Steve Martin, an SNL favorite) and May 23, 1981 (with another frequent SNL host, Buck Henry).
1981–82 season set-up
By fall 1981, Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy were the only performers from Doumanian's cast to appear on SNL for season seven. Murphy became a break-out star under Ebersol, and his soaring popularity helped restore the show's ratings. He created memorable characters, including the empty-headed former child movie star Buckwheat and an irascible, life-size version of the Gumby toy character, complete with life-size star ego. Murphy also performed an uncanny impression of Stevie Wonder (Wonder sportingly hosted in 1983 and appeared in a fake ad for the "Kannon AE-1" camera, which is "so simple, even Stevie Wonder can use it".) Piscopo was also popular, renowned for his Frank Sinatra impersonation, as well as his characters Paulie Herman and (with Robin Duke) Doug & Wendy Whiner.
Other new cast members for the 1981 season included Christine Ebersole, Mary Gross, and 1979 featured player Brian Doyle-Murray, who ran the Weekend Update (under the title Saturday Night Live Newsbreak & Current Affairs) desk for one season. Also returning were Second City veterans Robin Duke, Tim Kazurinsky, and Tony Rosato, who had debuted April 11. Tired of recently losing key players to NBC (such as Cheers George Wendt and Hill Street Blues' Betty Thomas), the Second City top brass directed Ebersol around the corner to the Practical Theatre Company, where he hired Gary Kroeger, Brad Hall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who later married Hall) to join in the fall. Second City alumnus James Belushi, the late John Belushi's brother, arrived three shows into season nine due to stage commitments in Chicago.
Ebersol ran a very different show from Michaels had in the 1970s. Many of the sketches were built less on "smart" and "revolutionary" comedy that was abundant in the early days and followed a much more "straightforward" approach. This shift alienated some fans and even some writers and cast members. Ebersol was eager to attract the younger viewers that advertisers craved. He dictated that no sketch should run longer than five minutes, so as not to lose the attention of teenagers.
Having come from the ranks of management, Ebersol was adept at dealing with the network. Later in his tenure, he was handling much of the business aspects and day-to-day production affairs, leaving producer Bob Tischler in charge of most of the creative facets of the show.
Unlike Lorne Michaels, Dick Ebersol had no difficulty firing people. Among the first casualties after the 1981 season were Rosato (who later said that the firing was the best thing to ever happen to him, as he felt that the show's atmosphere encouraged his drug addiction) and Ebersole, who got the axe because of her frequent complaints that the women on the show had little airtime and what they did receive cast them in sexist and humiliating light. Michael O'Donoghue was fired in the middle of season seven after repeated arguments with Ebersol over the creative direction of the show, and because of his abusive treatment of the cast.
With the release of the film 48 Hours, Murphy's star began to eclipse the other cast members. Murphy's co-star in the film, Nick Nolte, was scheduled to host the show, but canceled at the last minute. Ebersol offered Murphy the chance to host, a move that Piscopo would perceive as a major slight. Piscopo would later claim that Ebersol used Murphy's success to divide the two erstwhile friends and play them against one another.
Another new cast
In February 1984, Eddie Murphy left the show. His appearances for the remainder of the season consisted of sketches he had pre-taped in September 1983. Duke, Piscopo, Hall, and Kazurinsky were not invited to return after season nine. Piscopo was offered a chance to guest host during season ten, but declined.
Upon the departures of Murphy and Piscopo, Ebersol, having lost his key players, began rebuilding the cast for season ten, enlisting what is in retrospect known as the "All-Star" cast. Along with veteran players James Belushi, Gross, Kroeger, and Louis-Dreyfus, Ebersol added, for the first time in the show's history, well-known names to the repertory. This new cast included Soap star Billy Crystal; Martin Short, who had made a name for himself as Ed Grimley (a character he would bring to SNL that year) on Canada's SCTV; Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer (who was also a cast member in 1979) from The Credibility Gap and This Is Spinal Tap; Pamela Stephenson from Not the Nine O'Clock News & Superman III; and Rich Hall from HBO's Not Necessarily the News.
Billy Crystal became the show's break-out star. Crystal had been scheduled to appear in the first SNL in 1975, but walked when his airtime was whittled away during rehearsal. Already known for his stand-up comedy and even more for his role as Jodie Dallas on Soap, Crystal became the show's latest sensation, bringing the catch-phrases "It is better to look good than to feel good" and "You look mahvelous!" (both uttered by his "Fernando" character) into popular culture.
Harry Shearer would depart after the January 12, 1985 broadcast, citing "creative differences". Shearer would later remark "I was creative...and they were different." Shearer would go on to greater fame as a cast member of The Simpsons in which he voiced several characters including Mr. Burns and Principal Skinner.
End of the Ebersol era
At the end of the season, Ebersol requested to completely revamp the show to include mostly prerecorded segments. Short, Guest, and Hall had tired of the show's demanding production schedule and showed little interest in returning for another season, leaving Crystal the only "A-cast" member available for season 11. Like Michaels at the end of season five, Ebersol made it known to NBC that he would only return to SNL if the network would take the show off the air for several months to re-cast and rebuild. Another idea was to institute a permanent rotation of hosts (Billy Crystal, Joe Piscopo, and David Letterman) for "a hip Ed Sullivan Show".
After briefly canceling the show, NBC decided to continue production only if they could get Lorne Michaels to produce again. Ebersol and Tischler, along with their writing staff and most of the cast, left the show after this season (those who wished to stay, such as Billy Crystal, were eventually not re-hired for 1985), which closed the book on an inconsistent, yet memorable, era in SNL history.
Season 6: 1980–81
Two opening montages were used for this season. During Jean Doumanian's tenure, it opened with a shot of the Statue of Liberty whose torch suddenly lights after a few seconds. Using "paint-over" type transitions, it then cuts to various images of New York with neon lights embellishing each picture. Some of the subjects included were a taxi cab, a pair of drag queens, Chinatown, Studio 54, a punk rocker, and Times Square. Dick Ebersol, however, apparently wanted a more simple opening.
For the one episode he produced this season (April 11), the original SNL opening theme music used for the first five seasons returned to accompany a different shot of the Statue of Liberty, followed by various still images taken from around New York displayed one after another. The cast is introduced using all new pictures, and plain-white block lettering reveals their name at the bottom of the picture. This opener was only used on this episode.
- Murphy goes from a recurring cast member to a contract player in February 1981. At 19 years old, he was the youngest male cast member on the show until Anthony Michael Hall was hired in 1985 at age 17. He is still the youngest African-American male cast member ever.
- Emily Prager, one of the replacement feature players hired by Ebersol for his first episode, is now the only person credited as an SNL cast member who never actually appeared on the show.
- Denny Dillon, Gail Matthius, and Joe Piscopo are the only actors to appear in all thirteen episodes in this season.
- This is one of the three shortest SNL seasons, the others being 1987-1988 (also thirteen episodes) and 2007-2008 (12 episodes). All of these seasons were cut short due to the Writers' Guild of America going on strike.
Another "simple" opening from the Ebersol era, and the only montage with Mel Brandt, an NBC staff announcer, doing the voice-over in place of Don Pardo. This opener was used more-or-less from season seven to nine. It began with shot of a lady lighting a cigarette, then consisted of various grainy, black-and-white video footage of the gritty, yet glamorous New York City night life (including shots of dance clubs, the interior of a gay bar, a man practicing karate moves in a subway car, the outside of a triple-X movie theater, a police dog barking, street vendors, rainy smoky streets, etc.). Despite being rather bland, it did, however, have what is considered one of the better opening music themes of the show, which would be used (albeit in various incarnations) for virtually every episode under Dick Ebersol's tenure.
Because "Live from New York" is not yelled, announcer Brandt says, "And now, from New York, the most dangerous city in America, it's Saturday Night Live." After the opening ended, the announcer says, "and now ladies and gentlemen, live from New York, the cast of Saturday Night Live" (only for the 10/3/81 episode) or "and now, ladies and gentlemen, live from New York, your host..." (used for the rest of the season).
- Brian Doyle-Murray leaves at the end of the season and Christine Ebersole and Tony Rosato are fired.
- This is the only season which does not feature the traditional "Live from New York..." opening. Instead, the cast appears with the host in a group shot, then runs off to prepare for their various sketches while the host delivers the monologue (much like a Second City stage show). This was the only season not to feature Don Pardo as announcer. Those duties were largely handled by Mel Brandt, with veteran NBC News announcer Bill Hanrahan filling in on the December 5 and 12, 1981 editions. In addition, Weekend Update is renamed SNL NewsBreak. The first two changes were made at the behest of Michael O'Donoghue as part of his attempt to radically re-vamp the show (among other suggestions rejected by Ebersol was taping the show entirely with hand-held cameras). The effort didn't impress viewers and both the traditional opening and Pardo returned a year later. The Weekend Update name, however, would return only with Lorne Michaels in 1985.
Virtually the same montage from 1981, with a few minor changes: Don Pardo returned to do the voiceover; the opening shot changes from a woman lighting a cigarette, to a construction worker lighting his cigarette with an acetylene torch; further, the cast photos are different from the previous year, with a chalkboard NYC skyline background. Also this season the classic "Live From New York..." intro was re-introduced into the opening skits.
- Robin Duke
- Mary Gross
- Brad Hall
- Tim Kazurinsky
- Gary Kroeger
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus
- Eddie Murphy
- Joe Piscopo
- "Weekend Update" underwent another name change, this time to "Saturday Night News". Anchored by Brad Hall.
Recurring characters and sketches
Brad Hall hosted Saturday Night News throughout the season. Recurring characters featured during this season include The Whiners, Mister Robinson (host of a parody of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood), and Buckwheat.
Same credits as the 1982 season. The addition of Jim Belushi is the only notable change, and the background of his photo is noticeably different.
- James Belushi (debut: October 22, 1983)
- Robin Duke
- Mary Gross
- Brad Hall
- Tim Kazurinsky
- Gary Kroeger
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus
- Eddie Murphy (final: February 25, 1984)
- Joe Piscopo
- James Belushi, a young improvisational actor and the brother of recently deceased former SNL star John Belushi, joins the cast with the third broadcast of the season.
- Murphy leaves after the February 25, 1984 show; Piscopo, Duke, and Kazurinsky depart on their own terms, and Hall is fired at the end of the season.
A highly unusual, but fan-favorite opening montage. In addition to flying hot dogs, we scroll right to reveal each "giant" cast member towering over the New York skyline, and interacting with various objects along the way in a complete one-camera shot. From 1984 to 1986, the Statue of Liberty was being renovated in preparation for its 100th anniversary; SNL acknowledged these renovations by showing the statue surrounded in scaffolding during the opening credits for this season and the next.
- James Belushi
- Billy Crystal
- Mary Gross
- Christopher Guest
- Rich Hall
- Gary Kroeger
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus
- Harry Shearer (final: January 12, 1985)
- Martin Short
- Pamela Stephenson
- This season has more pre-taped segments than any other SNL era, before or since.
- Larry David, former cast member of ABC's Fridays and future co-creator of Seinfeld and creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm, is hired as a writer during this season. Only one sketch that he had written was ever aired, and it was in the last five minutes of the show, where the "weaker" sketches are usually scheduled. David quit his writing job at SNL mid-season, only to show up to work a few days later to act as though nothing had happened and stay through the rest of the season and even remained on the payroll until he was formally dismissed at the end of the season. This event was later used by David as inspiration for an episode of Seinfeld.
- Shearer departed in January 1985, though he remains credited for the entire season (the continuous nature of the opening montage prevented his image from being removed).
- Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, Saturday Night, Beech Tree Books, 1986, p. 412
- Bruce Handy (September 1999). "The Pee-wee Herman Story". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 2007-02-06.
- Hill and Weingrad, p. 376.
- Hill and Weingrad, p. 416.
- Hill and Weingrad, p. 437.
- Hill and Weingrad, pp. 391-392.
- Ben Douwsma (12 August 2011). "Classic SNL Review: November 15, 1980 – Elliott Gould / Kid Creole & The Coconuts". Existentialist Weightlifting: Grumblings on the Arts and Pop Culture. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
- "SNL Transcripts". Retrieved 24 September 2016.
- Hill, Doug; Weingrad, Jeff (1986). "Chapter 34: The Look of the Eighties". Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. Beech Tree Books. pp. 431–440. ISBN 0688050999.
- Wallace, Charles P (April 12, 1981). "Script Writers for Films, TV Vote to Strike". Los Angeles Times archive. Retrieved 2009-08-24.
- "Kannon AE-1 Sketch Script". Season 8: Episode 19. snltranscripts.jt.org. Retrieved 2005-11-10.