Host: Norman Lear
Musical Guest: Boz Scaggs
Cast: Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner – i.e. the “Not Ready For Primetime Players”
Norman Lear, television’s super producer from the seventies and eighties, who was responsible for such classics as All in the Family, One Day at a Time, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Maude and many others, served as host for this episode. He’s not much of an actor, though, and was rarely funny, though he was affable and game to try. He provided a few good straight men, as you’ll read below.
The “Chevy in the Hospital” cold open. Chevy Chase’s committed portrayal of Gerald Ford in the previous episode’s “Debate ’76” sketch, which featured him in a few spectacular falls, resulted in injury, according to his willing substitute, Gilda Radner. As a result, among the Not Ready For Primetime Players in this episode was “The Voice of Chevy Chase,” instead of Chevy himself. The Voice only appeared once; at the top of the show, Gilda explains Chevy’s condition and how the show must go on and how she’s willing to perform the fall of the week in Chevy’s stead, which presumably involved tumbling off a stepladder that Gilda kept climbing to “fix a broken light.” Chevy calls Gilda on the telephone from the hospital, allegedly, and urges her not to go through with it, calling the feat too dangerous, but Gilda is determined. On his second phone call, he convinces her to make the phone receiver “walk” on her desk and fall over the side instead, at which point, he calls out “Live from New York,” over the phone style. Personally, I wanted to see Gilda fall, not because I wanted to see her get hurt, but because she was really good at physical comedy too. Also, delivering “Live from New York” over the telephone just loses something.
The “Norman & Actors” film. In this film, Norman Lear convinces some of his dearest friends, mostly actors from his shows, including Caroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Sherman Helmsley, Isabel Sanford, Bea Arthur, Bernadette Peters, Richard Crane, and Nancy Walker, to provide testimonials about how he is a kind and loving and caring producer, despite tabloid fodder to the contrary, while behind his back, they make faces and threaten him with various bodily harms. In one portion of the sketch, Helmsley and Sanford, better known as the Jeffersons, talk about how Lear is an easygoing boss who is not a task master, only to reveal themselves shackled at the ankles to balls and chains, apparently like slaves. The seventies: so unafraid. Bea Arthur, once Maude and later Dorothy Sbornak on The Golden Girls, has a bucket of water thrown over Lear’s oblivious head as he prattles on about how touched he is by the outpouring of sentiment in his direction. Mostly, the fun from this sketch was in seeing all of these actors in their prime and alive states.
Pop and soul singer Boz Scaggs sang his hit “Lowdown” and a song called “What Can I Say.” Apparently, he was a member of the Steve Miller Band briefly. Mostly, the songs sound like a combination of disco and funk.
In place of the beleaguered Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin makes her debut as Weekend Update anchor, a role she would fill regularly when Chevy Chase departed the show after the second season (spoilers). She starts by talking to Chevy’s never-seen girlfriend or hot date, who he is seen cajoling into different naughty conversations at the top of each Update by suggesting that the mystery woman has the “wrong number.” Jane’s introduction is more straightforward than Chevy’s: “Hello, I’m Jane Curtin with the news.” Her Update is filled with deadpan deliveries and witty barbs concerning the 1976 presidential election and newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who made headlines at the time. We are also treated to a live remote by correspondent Laraine Newman, who, having been resurrected from her bout with foreign legionnaire’s disease in the previous episode, agrees to report from Times Square regarding the “New Year.” She opines that the Square is unusually quiet for a New Year, until Jane points out that it is the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, and that this holiday is celebrated privately within the home. At one point, Jane stumbles over her delivery and directs a big raspberry toward the camera. The best joke of the segment centers on Speedy Alka Seltzer, who came out of the medicine cabinet as a bicarbonate (this is on the heels of Elton John reporting himself as bisexual at the time). The story is filled with the best kinds of puns, to the extent puns can be the best of even puns, before Jane signs off with the traditional, “Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow.”
The “Chevy’s Girls” performance. In the best segment of the episode, the three ladies of Saturday Night – Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, and Gilda Radner – in t-shirts marked “Chevy’s Girls,” sing a doo-wop ode to Chevy Chase, which includes references to how they worship and stalk him and hope his girlfriend would die and how when he falls each week, they hope he would fall for them. It was cute and a lovely “get well” sentiment, apart from most of the lyrics, and so apropos of Saturday Night.
The “Wife Abuse” sketch. In this sketch, John Belushi plays an attorney, and Gilda Radner plays a battered wife who is going to testify against her abusive husband in court. Belushi’s attorney is prepping her, and when she can’t muster any emotion to bevy her testimony (she tells her story of violence and abuse in a complete droning monotone), he hits her to try to make her cry, inciting Gilda’s excellent physical comedy. Norman Lear then enters the scene, playing the managing partner of the law firm. After forcing Belushi’s attorney to apologize to Gilda’s victim, he attempts to demonstrate what Belushi’s lawyer is asking the victim to do, but he doesn’t pass muster either, and Belushi starts beating on him. Except! The sketch goes meta; Belushi starts wailing on Lear, while Gilda tries to hold him back. “John, John, you can’t do that, he’s an important producer!” “Eh, he’s not our producer,” quips John Belushi. And scene.
The “Peace Talks” sketch. In this sketch, John Belushi reprises his impression of former Vice President Henry Kissinger, exiled to Rhodesia as ambassador during the Ford administration. The sketch starts with him giving a press conference to discuss peace talks in Rhodesia. He then enters a chamber. Garret Morris plays Joshua Nkomo, an African head of state who is negotiating a cease fire with Ian Smith, played by Dan Aykroyd, across an imposing conference table. Norman Lear plays Charles W. Robinson, an apparent aide to Kissinger. This sketch is funny for two reasons. First, Aykroyd is playing this stuffy, upper-class twit with a precious British accent who waxes endlessly about diplomacy while calling Nkomo all manner of names, like “gorilla lips;” similarly, Nkomo lobs them back, mostly revolving around the idea that Smith is a “pig” or a “pork face.” In order to solve this dilemma, which includes a testy negotiation over the length of the proposed cease fire, Kissinger encourages everyone to become involved in a group sing, hitting on peace-loving anthems like “All You Need is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance,” among other feel-good favorites. In the end, the two officials are so tired of singing, they acquiesce to signing anything, and Kissinger jumps up and down like a schoolboy saying, “I did it again!” before returning to the press with a signed page out of a Playboy magazine. Absurdity, see.
Less Successful Moments
The “Snakehandling O’Sheas” sketch. For this episode’s “WTF” award: John Belushi plays the patriarch of a family of snake handlers who live in the greater Pittsburgh (or maybe it’s Philadelphia) area. He’s also a union representative fighting for a raise at a local steel plant. His wife, Jane Curtin, plays some manager of the company who has her husband arrested by their gay son and sheriff Barney, played by Dan Aykroyd. Their daughter, a nun played by Laraine Newman, returns home to ease tensions among her family, but nothing seems to be effective until they start holding and chanting at snakes as a family unit. This absurd TV concept is allegedly produced by Norman Lear, who hears a pitch for it at the top of the sketch. I’m not sure what it was I was watching; I do know that I missed the comedy in the sense that I didn’t find it funny. Of course, they were also using live snakes, and that’s just a turn-off for me. Seriously, the sketch might have fallen into the “too absurd” category, and yes, it is possible to be too absurd.
Most Valuable Not Ready For Primetime Players
(1st) Jane Curtin, for saddling up to Weekend Update so deftly and for being one third of an amazing trio of “Chevy’s Girls.”
(2nd) Gilda Radner, for being willing to soldier on with the “fall of the week” in Chevy’s absence, despite his protests; for being another important third of the trio of “Chevy’s Girls;” and for doing her best to stop John Belushi from all-out murdering Norman Lear in the “Wife Abuse” sketch.
(3rd) John Belushi, for not managing his anger in a funny way in the “Wife Abuse” sketch and for his silly, singing Henry Kissinger in the “Peace Talks” sketch.
Laraine Newman, for rounding out the three “Chevy’s Girls,” for being a snake-charming nun (whatever else that sketch meant), and for spectacularly misunderstanding Rosh Hashanah.