History of Saturday Night Live (1985–90)
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After the success that was the 1984–85 season, then-producer Dick Ebersol attempted to orchestrate a major retool of the show that included placing an emphasis on taped material over live material, which NBC declined. Ebersol then left. The show was almost canceled until original producer Michaels was reinstated. Michaels hired a younger and "hipper" cast that was unpopular with audiences and resulted in a season widely considered abysmal, the 1985–86 season.
Learning his lesson from the previous season, Michaels fired most of the cast and assembled a cast of unknowns for the 1986–87 season that included greats such as Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz. This cast, which would remain relatively stable until the 1990–91 season, would revive the show and make it once again relevant to American culture.
- 1 History
- 2 Season breakdown
- 2.1 1985-1986 season
- 2.1.1 Opening montage
- 2.1.2 Cast
- 2.1.3 Notes
- 2.1.4 1986-1987 season
- 2.1.5 1987-1988 season
- 2.1.6 1988-1989 season
- 2.1.7 1989-1990 season
- 2.1 1985-1986 season
- 3 References
Dick Ebersol left the show after the 1984–85 season when the network refused his request to shut the program down entirely for six months and shift much of the material onto tape, not live broadcast. Once again, NBC briefly considered cancelling the show, but programming head Brandon Tartikoff (who was something of an SNL fan) decided to continue the show and re-hire former producer Lorne Michaels.
Lorne Michaels returns
In some ways, the job Michaels returned to was more challenging than the one he took on in 1975. His most recent effort, the previous season's The New Show, confused critics and was ignored by audiences. Also, the 1984–1985 season had been a critical and ratings hit, generating memorable characters and stand-out performers. Original writers Al Franken and Tom Davis returned as producers, and Jim Downey was appointed head writer. Fans and critics[who?] welcomed Michaels and many of the original producers and writers back, calling it a return to the show's roots.
Michaels wanted a younger cast for the show. He hired Academy Award nominee Randy Quaid, best known for his work in The Last Detail and National Lampoon's Vacation, as well as Joan Cusack and Robert Downey, Jr. Milestones included the first black female regular, Danitra Vance (while Yvonne Hudson was the first black female cast member, she was never promoted to repertory player), Terry Sweeney, the first (and, to date, only) openly gay male cast member, and Anthony Michael Hall, yet another fresh face from Hollywood (at 17, he is SNL's youngest cast member overall), who had appeared with Quaid in Vacation and starred in The Breakfast Club earlier that year. Rounding out the cast were unknowns: stand-up comedians Dennis Miller and Damon Wayans and improv comedians Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz. Don Novello, another member of the old guard, would also return as his popular Father Guido Sarducci character. Miller, who performed in relatively few sketches (and even fewer as the years went by), became anchor of the "Weekend Update".
Michaels later said about the 1985-1986 cast that "[p]erhaps I went too young". Franken said that "[y]ou couldn't do a Senate hearing [sketch] with Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., [or] Terry Sweeney. I mean, those guys aren't senators." With the exceptions of Miller, Lovitz, and Dunn, the new cast failed to connect with audiences.
Ratings were weak and some cast members did not expect the show to be renewed. NBC did briefly cancel the show at the end of the 1985-1986 season, but Michaels asked for another season. He ended the last show of the season with a sketch in which the cast (playing themselves) get caught in a fire, and Michaels chooses to rescue only Lovitz. As the others try to escape the smoke and flames, the show asks "WHO WILL SURVIVE?" and "WHO WILL PERISH?", and advises viewers to "TUNE IN OCTOBER 11th" as a question mark appears next to each name in the closing credits. While the sketch satirized the common use in 1980s TV shows such as Dallas of cliffhanger season endings, it also permitted Michaels to make many changes to the cast. Show writer Robert Smigel later said, "Some of the cast members were kind of mad [about] that sketch. The ones who weren't Jon Lovitz."
Return to form
Of the entire cast, only Dunn, Lovitz, Miller, and featured player A. Whitney Brown returned when the 1986-1987 season rolled around. For his next crop of regulars, Michaels returned to his original tactic of assembling a strong ensemble of relative unknowns, led by Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson and Kevin Nealon. Although the new lineup contained some of the best actresses since the show's early seasons, there were some dramatic behind-the-scenes ego battles, and tensions eventually forced out Dunn. Jackson has been critical of Hooks and especially Dunn, who was romantically involved with Michaels at the time.
The first show of the 1986-1987 season opened with Madonna, host of the previous season opener, telling the audience that the entire 1985-1986 season had been a "horrible, horrible dream", just as Dallas had done a few weeks earlier. NBC gave SNL only thirteen shows to turn it around, but the show rebounded almost immediately.
With the new cast, SNL gained renewed popularity. The 1987–1988 season, was cut short by a writers' strike. Gilda Radner had been penciled in to host the season finale that spring, but by 1989, her cancer had returned. She died in May 1989. Steve Martin, Radner's close friend, was scheduled to host SNL that night. Instead of his planned monologue, he presented a sketch from the 1970s featuring himself and Radner dancing (Martin visibly teared up during the tribute).
The urbane, smooth-voiced Hartman became one of the show's longest-serving cast members. He had previously co-written Reubens' 1985 film Pee-wee's Big Adventure and appeared on his popular Saturday morning show Pee-wee's Playhouse. He left SNL in 1994.
Bolstered by strong scripts penned by the writing team, Carvey's impression of George H. W. Bush was a notable advance on earlier ventures in this vein, and helped set a new benchmark for this aspect of the show's political satire. SNL's strongest period of political parody before this was the 1976-1979 era, when Dan Aykroyd appeared frequently as both former U.S. President Richard Nixon (alongside John Belushi as Henry Kissinger), and then current President Jimmy Carter. While Aykroyd's impersonations marked successful efforts to bring well-known political figures to life on the show, the only other well-remembered political impersonation from SNL's 1970s period (or any other period before the 1986-1987 season) was Chevy Chase's slapstick parody of President Gerald Ford.
Carvey's Bush impersonation was SNL's most sophisticated yet, and together with Hartman's send-up of President Ronald Reagan, they allowed for the most fruitful and successful period of political parody on SNL. Aykroyd returned in guest appearances on the show throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s to impersonate Republican primary candidate Bob Dole, while Jon Lovitz appeared in late 1980s episodes as Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Carvey's appearances as President Bush grew so popular that the former President himself made a cameo appearance in 1994 when Carvey hosted the show.
A major cast development came in 1988-1989, with the mid-season recruitment of young Canadian comic Mike Myers, who, like many cast members ever since 1975, had been recruited from The Second City stage show. A versatile and inventive comedian with a gift for accents and a lifelong love of Monty Python and British comedy, he introduced several classic characters during this era, including "Lothar of the Hill People" and ultra-pretentious German arts show host "Dieter". He also formed a strong partnership with Carvey. Myers, together with Carvey, created and performed one of SNL's most popular recurring sketches, Wayne's World. The sketch would inspire two successful spin-off movies in 1992 and 1993, which in turn led to a plethora of screen comedies inspired by or based on SNL sketches throughout the 1990s.
Nora Dunn made headlines in 1990 when she, along with original musical guest Sinéad O'Connor, boycotted an episode which was hosted by comedian Andrew Dice Clay because they found his misogynistic humor offensive. Then-cast member Jon Lovitz discussed Dunn's boycott of the show in detail during an episode of “The ABC’s of SNL” with director Kevin Smith:
Anyway, it’s the [second to last episode of the season], and Nora, uh, you know, she caused a lot of trouble and she was very hard to get along with, so [SNL] wasn’t going to ask her back, anyway. And it’s the [second to] last show, and she goes to the press and says, I’m not doing this show. He’s against women, and I’m not doing it.
And this is how the press works, and I’m telling you, I’m on the inside of this. They don’t know this story. They don’t know she’s just doing it to get press. It’s her last hurrah. They’re not asking her back on the show.
After this incident, Dunn was fired from the show. The incident led to a series of ugly charges and counter-charges being lobbed between Lorne Michaels and Dunn. Many supported Michaels, feeling that Dunn cared more about garnering publicity rather than standing up for women's rights, but others took Dunn's side and viewed Clay's appearance as an all-time low.
After the 1989-1990 season, Jon Lovitz left the show amicably with the intent of focusing on a film career. These departures marked the first incidents of turnover on the show in nearly half a decade. While Lovitz's departure happened more quietly and without controversy, the Dunn/Clay incident seemed to be a sad forerunner for the turmoil which would dominate the show for much of the 1990s.
This season also had two opening montages. The first lasted only four episodes, and—like the 1984 season—opened with a picture of the Statue of Liberty covered in scaffolding (the statue was under renovation that year in preparation for its centennial celebration). It then showed various still images of New York bordered with several triangular lines and post-card like decorations. Starting with the Tom Hanks/Sade episode on December 14, 1985, a new opening montage seemed to tell a story of sorts of a limo driving through New York, and eventually passing each cast member. At the end, the limo would approach 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and that particular weeks' guest stars would then emerge from the backseat. Another version of the second montage exists that shows a plane landing just before the limo leaves the airport. The music during this opener would be used for almost a decade, with a slight change in 1994, and finally being replaced entirely for the 1995-1996 season.
- Joan Cusack
- Robert Downey, Jr.
- Nora Dunn
- Anthony Michael Hall
- Jon Lovitz
- Dennis Miller
- Randy Quaid
- Terry Sweeney
- Danitra Vance
- A. Whitney Brown (debut: March 25, 1986)
- Al Franken (return: May 24, 1986)
- Don Novello
- Dan Vitale (final: February 8, 1986)
- Damon Wayans (final: March 15, 1986)
- Wayans was fired on March 15, 1986. He was sick of the way the show treated him and camped up a "straight" character so that Lorne Michaels would fire him. However, he was invited to perform a stand-up routine in the season finale episode later that May. Vitale, a little-used featured player who also served as a staff writer, is also let go at mid-season, though Vitale's firing was due to drug and alcohol addiction.
- At season's end Joan Cusack, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Randy Quaid and Terry Sweeney are all fired, while Danitra Vance becomes the only one who quits out of frustration over being put in stereotypically black roles. Although each had his/her funny moments (Sweeney's Nancy Reagan impression was especially popular), critics have accused the season 11 cast of not jelling into a cohesive unit and the writers (some of which would later find success on FOX's The Simpsons) for not providing good sketches for such an eclectic cast.
- This season included the first SNL episode since the "Who Shot C.R.?" episode from the 1980-1981 season to actually feature a continuing narrative thread linking the sketches together. In the opening sketch of an episode hosted by George Wendt, the cast is informed that NBC is turning the show over to respected director Francis Ford Coppola, in a bid for greater artistic merit. A brilliant director of feature films, Coppola turns out to be an incompetent TV director, resulting in a running gag in which each sketch is ruined in various ways by Coppola's bumbling. The cast finally quits in the final sketch when Anthony Michael Hall is injured in a war-sketch after Coppola decides to use real bullets to increase the sketch's sense of realism. During the closing credits, Wendt realizes just how much damage Coppola has done to SNL's reputation: the former producers of the show (actually played by Franken & Davis) have chosen to tend bar rather than continue watching Coppola's travesty.
- Starting with the December 14, 1985, the repertory castmembers are announced first, the guests are announced later, followed by the featured cast members.
- This season has the following cast member milestones:
- Terry Sweeney is the first openly homosexual male cast member. Sweeney is also the first openly gay actor ever to appear on an American television show and the second of two SNL writers from Jean Doumanian's 1980-1981 season to be hired as a cast member in a later season (Brian Doyle-Murray was a feature player for Lorne Michaels who became a writer for Jean Doumanian, then was rehired as a Dick Ebersol cast member).
- Danitra Vance is the first African-American female to be hired as a repertory player (as opposed to season six's Yvonne Hudson, who was hired as a feature player and never progressed beyond that). Vance is also the first (and so far only) SNL cast member to have a learning disability (according to the SNL 30th Anniversary edition of Trivial Pursuit, Vance had dyslexia, which made it hard for her to memorize lines and read from cue cards, though it wasn't made apparent in some cases) the only black, female cast member who is now dead (Vance died of breast cancer in 1994), and was the show's first lesbian cast member. Nearly 27 years later, SNL would hire another lesbian cast member -- Kate McKinnon, who, unlike Danitra Vance, was a Caucasian woman, and, like Terry Sweeney, was openly gay.
- Anthony Michael Hall, seventeen at the time of his first appearance, is the youngest male cast member overall (beating out Eddie Murphy, who was 19 when he joined the 1980-1981 cast, though Eddie Murphy is still the youngest black male cast member hired).
- This season had the following host milestones:
This montage was used for two seasons, and is basically just video footage of each cast member racing the clock to get to what appears to be a casual night club.
- This season begins with a major cast overhaul, giving the show the critical acclaim and Monday morning water cooler chat value that it had in the 1970s. All players introduced in this season become long-running cast members and/or major stars both on and off the show. Even Kevin Nealon remains in the cast for 9 seasons, one of the longest-running stints for any cast member.
- Beginning this season, the show's house band, now fronted by G. E. Smith, was billboarded in the opening credits and moved to behind home base, where they have been ever since.
- Starting with this season, the host's name is announced at the opening's end.
Same montage as the 1986 season with only two noticeable changes: 1) Kevin Nealon is added to full-fledged cast member status in the credits and 2) The host/musical guest photos shown during the montage and bumpers are now in black and white.
- Beginning with this season, the featured cast members are announced first, and the guests later.
- Despite the show's return to glory, there were major events that impeded the show's production. During production of the season premiere, a fire broke out near Studio 8H during dress rehearsal. Despite plans to cancel the show for the week, Steve Martin (the episode host) pushed the cast to perform, making the Steve Martin/Sting episode the only episode without a dress rehearsal. In March 1988, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, canceling many planned episodes, including one originally planned to be hosted by former "Not Ready for Primetime" player Gilda Radner. Radner, however, would never get the chance to host due to her death from ovarian cancer in 1989.
This montage was also used for two seasons, and is just video footage with a light greenish-blue tint, of the cast members "caught" engaging in different tasks around areas of New York, intermingled with various footage of the city. During this season, the now-familiar Saturday Night Live circular logo appears for the first time.
- A. Whitney Brown
- Al Franken
- Mike Myers (debut: January 21, 1989)
- Ben Stiller (debut: March 25, 1989)
- Ben Stiller and Mike Myers went on to become major film stars, but by very different routes. Myers remained on SNL for 6 years, as an increasingly popular attraction, while Stiller left the show in the spring of 1989, and did not become a big draw until the late 1990s.
This season included SNL's 15th anniversary special. Highly self-referential, this special was introduced by a sketch in which Garrett Morris tries to convince Chevy Chase not to introduce the show with one of his trademarked pratfalls, which he had done regularly in the show's first season. (Chase does the fall, but with a helmet.) Tom Hanks' opening monologue poked fun at opening monologues (hinting at a future change in the trend, as the monologue would more and more often be less of a monologue and more of a sketch), while Buck Henry performed a monologue dealing with Steve Martin's inability to perform live (as Martin wailed uncontrollably in the background). The special also poked fun at the publicized fact that Eddie Murphy had refused to appear; he was instead represented by "Eddie Murphy's Entourage." And a tribute to Gilda Radner was edited to make it appear as if Radner was watching from the audience.
Same montage as the 1988 season with little notable changes, except that every episode in 1990 has a '15' in the center of the circle logo, commemorating the 15th anniversary of the show, and the final shot of a glam woman before crossfading to the establishing shot on home base was trimmed.
- Dana Carvey
- Nora Dunn
- Phil Hartman
- Jan Hooks
- Victoria Jackson
- Jon Lovitz
- Dennis Miller
- Mike Myers
- Kevin Nealon
- Mike Myers is bumped up to contract player in February.
- This season has the first real cast turmoil in nearly 5 years, as Jon Lovitz leaves the show for other acting opportunities and Nora Dunn is fired after boycotting the show hosted by Andrew Dice Clay.
- The last three episodes of season 15 mark the on-screen debut of two 1990s SNL cast members Rob Schneider and David Spade, although both of them are uncredited extras.
- "Saturday Night Live in the '80s: Lost and Found". Saturday Night Live. 2005-11-13. NBC.
- Gendel, Morgan (September 30, 1986). "Another Groundling Hops To 'Snl'". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Evans, Bradford (March 22, 2012). "The Lost Roles of Gilda Radner". Splitsider. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Rowles, Dustin (December 8, 2014). "Jon Lovitz Explains The Real Reason Nora Dunn Refused To Appear On The Andrew Dice Clay Episode Of 'SNL'". Uproxx. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Bonaime, Ross (October 27, 2011). "The 10 Most Shocking Moments on Saturday Night Live". Paste. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
- Wright, Megh (October 22, 2013). "Saturday Night's Children: Damon Wayans (1985-1986)". Splitsider. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
- Hartinger, Brent (January 5, 2011). "Interview: SNL's Terry Sweeney was the First Openly Gay Regular on Network Television (and Lived to Tell About It!)". The Backlot. Retrieved April 11, 2015.