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In which we laugh and laugh and laugh. And love. And drink.

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Location: Portland, Oregon

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Sunday, February 27, 2005

A brief rundown, of historical interest

On the first Saturday Night Live, which was called "NBC's Saturday Night" in those days, 1974, the format ran as such:
the legendary first sketch, in which John Belushi plays a foreign man of some sort learning English from Michael O'Donoghue-"We are out of badgers; will you accept a wolverine?"-Then the monologue from George Carlin, the first guest. He doesn't make "topical" jokes about his latest movie or teevee show, since in those days, he wasn't allowed anywhere near either of those.
They dive over to a fake commercial, just like they do now.
They come back, and one of the two (!) musical guests, Billy Preston, does a number.
Then, another sketch, measuring in at under three minutes, I'd wager.
Andy Kaufman does that thing where most of the audience clearly doesn't get it, but they'd like to think so.
Then, another monologue from Carlin; observational comedy that would later give rise to people like Jerry Seinfeld, however you feel about that. He gives it over to a lesbian Canadian folk singer (Janis Ian). The close-up camera is hand-held, shaky. You can hear someone open and close a door. Feedback. It feels so much more real than it does now, where they put on any old shithead that has a hit on top 40 radio.
They go to another fake commercial, in which Chevy Chase has Mr. Mike by his side, doing a parody of the old Geritol "My Wife; I think I'll keep her" commercial, suggesting that they are gay.
Weekend Update follows: Chevy Chase pioneers the line, "I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not." During this, there is an inexplicable news item about a series of deadly slashings at the Blaine Hotel. They go to yet another fake commercial, in which they point out that all guests of NBC's Saturday Night stay at the fabulous Blaine Hotel.
They go to another really short sketch, and then Jim Henson's Muppets, not seen on TV since the late '60's, and two years before they have their own show, perform. Frank Oz's voice saying, "Cheer up, things could be worse." A film by Albert Brooks follows.
Things definitely got worse, to be sure. Now, the show is built almost entirely around bad return characters and genuinely unfunny catch-phrases, ran giddily into the ground, ad infinitum. I mean, George Carlin starting a joke with, "Did you ever dial a number and forget who you're calling?"(he also pioneers the oft-pirated joke about both "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence" being oxymorons) isn't anything revolutionary per se, but at least it isn't some incredibly senile shit that someone told them to say, to forward somebody's marketing or political agenda. It was before political humor went entirely to the joke (always simplistic, rarely funny), without any thought of making a point.
On a somewhat larger level, you're not gonna see non-mainstream musical artists (Billy Preston would have been a star of some recognition, Janis Ian a near-unknown), or indy film anymore. I suppose that that's not really SNL's job, but mind you, who said that they have to be stupid, either?
On the first one, they also introduced the Killer Bees.
George Carlin makes the joke that "they're only searching you at airports now; soon enough it'll be a lot more places". A comedienne I've never heard of named Valri Brumsfeld does stand up, late in the show. She's not especially funny, but could be Amy Poehler's mom, easily.
They engage in a lot more absurdist humor (the segment in which they hit the street in a flatbed truck, with a sign that says, "Show Us Your Guns", and everybody from Granny to an entire wedding party brandishes firearms). People like Al Franken and Richard Belzer show their faces on TV for the first time.
I'm gonna try to do a posting after my teevee gig on Wednesday, but I ain't makin' any promises. I'm usually just in the mood to drink myself into a damn puddle after that thing, though I no longer have the will or the strength to do so.
George Carlin comes back out, towards the end, and makes fun of organized religion at length, which would never happen now, since we're all so much nicer to each other and wouldn't want to hurt anybody's feelings. Billy Preston follows.
I sat in on a production bitch fest the other day for the teevee show. Discussions about things that had gone wrong-largely the fault of digital compression done at network level, not ours, I thought-quickly degenerated into a great deal of silly chest-thumping by these silly asses who comprise the talent on the show. They're all funny guys; just don't get them going about their many years in the business, and how they know what they're doing, and don't want to work with a bunch of amateurs. After it is revealed to them that the audio on the first episode has been erased from a hard drive with no backup, we all start quickly getting into legal shit. Beyond here, it gets irretrievably ugly.
I ask the main actor on the show afterward whether or not he has copyrighted his character. He is under the impression that he has been doing it so long that he has rights to it, no matter what. I said, "So there's such thing as common-law copyright?"
A few moments before, he and the production company I sort of work for had been talking about who had rights to what royalties in case Comedy Central (say) bought the rights. I felt like I was watching a negotiation session conducted by ants, discussing their current plans to terra-form the planet Mars.
On the first Saturday Night, there is a cast member named George Coe, who does all the voice-over work on the fake commercials (of which there are four). "Triple-Track. Because you'll believe anything." Don Pardo still does the intro and outro, though. There's a really funny one in which Coe talks about "the growing market for late-night fake trade school ads has led to an enormous job market for people who want to answer phones." Prophetic.
Watching Janis Ian back then is really strange. It would have been clear as day to me at the time that any Caucasian woman in the mid-'70's sporting that suit and afro was a lesbian. She neglected to make any public statement on the subject until the late '90's, when it was rather after the fact. Watching her raw honesty and obvious shyness, it's like watching Chan Marshall fall apart, by design or otherwise, now.
At the end, Carlin pimps his new album, shyly (if it were now, he would have spent the entire show doing so), then gives the freedom fist salute.
Everyone in the credits is listed as 'Bud'. Lorne 'Bud' Michaels, Anne 'Bud' Beatts, Al 'Bud' Franken (and his largely forgotten partner Tom 'Bud' Davis), etc.
Good Lord, look at the time. Why did you let me stay up so late?



Blogger Alder Park said...

Carlin sold out to Sullivan. He then grew bitter because of it. His folly was to cloud his mind with dust; the establishment never forgave and will never let him forget.
I wander by the guide of Ra Richie. I cover myself with dark shades of blue, green and gray to become a only a piece of the tapestry to the few who notice me.
When I wander I need to see. Revelations in the dark are too often just fleeting shades.
Reflection of observation is the focus of my journey. If my expression of these observances sicken you I will be on my way, no longer to trouble you.
Open your eyes in the ancient light Richie my new friend.

11:56 AM  

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