Host: Karen Black
Musical Guest: John Prine
Cast: Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner – i.e. the “Not Ready For Primetime Players”
Karen Black, an actress who has appeared in films such as Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, and who has been nominated for awards, served as host for this episode. As a “legitimate actress,” she did not offer much in the way of comedy and did not infuse the broadcast with much energy, though she played some competent characters during her appearance. I think that is the struggle for Saturday Night Live in general over the decades; some hosts don’t know how to cope with or field live/sketch comedy, so their appearances are more awkwardly executed than others who have more ingrained comedic talents. She didn’t do a bad job; she just wasn’t very funny.
The “Wheelchair” cold open. Jane Curtin announces Chevy Chase’s triumphant return to the broadcast after being out for injury for some weeks, and though she was getting rather accustomed to the Weekend Update chair (she started receiving letters, you know), she warmly introduced Chevy Chase who is then wheeled onstage in a wheelchair by John Belushi. Without much ceremony, though, Belushi dumps him out of the chair and off the stage. Unfortunately, they must have missed their marks, as there was a pregnant pause, and then Chevy said “Live from New York” in the dark. That’s why the name was changed to Saturday Night Live, y’all.
Karen Black’s monologue was supposed to be about mothers through the ages, charting the evolution of mothers through time while paired with absurd drawings that were Terry Gilliam-esque in appearance. She brought her then-toddler Hunter on stage with her, though, and the darling boy stole the show, going for her breast, for obvious reasons, and climbing all over her, clearly as bored with her monologue as the rest of America probably was (including this futuristic viewer).
The “Baba WaWa at Large” sketch. In this sketch, Gilda Radner dons her best Barbara Walters, with the scintillating speech impediment in tow. During her show, she interviews Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, played by Laraine Newman. In this sketch, Baba didn’t want to focus on the serious issues affecting the nation of India but, instead, wanted to make slightly insensitive remarks about Indira’s clothing and body markings. It wasn’t the best of these sketches, but Gilda’s impeccable execution of the Baba WaWa speech foibles as well as Laraine’s fastidious characterization made for a fun segment.
The “Debate ’76” sketch. In a continuation of lampoons of the presidential election of 1976, begun during the Lily Tomlin episode, Chevy Chase, in his not so good impression of struggling then-President Ford, and Dan Aykroyd doing then-challenger Jimmy Carter, engage in a second debate. Karen Black plays the moderator, Ann Wrabel, and our panel from the Lily Tomlin episode returns, including Jane Curtin playing Liz Montgomery, who reports on women in politics; John Belushi playing Marilyn Kraus, who reports on transsexuals in politics; and Garrett Morris playing Earl Rowland, who reports on blacks in politics. The hands-down funniest moment of this sketch is when Ann Wrabel invites everyone to sing the national anthem. The first triumphant notes of the “Star Spangled Banner” play over the loudspeakers, and Chevy’s Ford shouts that he can name that tune in four notes, though he waffles on the actual tune when moderator Ann refuses to acknowledge the game. This debate was a bit tamer than the last one, considering that Chevy was allegedly injured during the last of these; he didn’t fall, for example. Also, the questions weren’t as incisive in this go-round, but watching these two men perform these impressions is always good fun.
Folk singer/songwriter John Prine served as musical guest for this episode. I had never heard of him prior to watching this show, and he reminds me of a poor man’s Bob Dylan, during the sixties when Bob’s entire repertoire was folk singing. He sang “Hello In There” and “The Bottomless Lake” during this episode.
Chevy Chase triumphantly returns to Weekend Update as well. He begins to do an impression of Jiminy Cricket for his lady friend over the phone by singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” before he realizes that the camera is upon him. He introduces the segment by saying, “I’m Chevy Chase, and I don’t like you.” Many of the jokes center on the swine flu, including the unintended deaths caused by the vaccination for this disease. This was apparently quite the health scare in 1976. In any event, Chevy reports that Spanish officials have requested a vaccination for Generalissimo Francisco Franco, though he is not as worried about the possible side effects of said vaccination. At one point during the segment, Chevy Chase delivers an entire story to the side camera, even though the front camera is what is active. The jokes were a bit mild during this Update, but it was nice to see him back behind the desk. He’s much more of a mug for the camera; Jane Curtin was so conservative and deadpan, at least in these early runs. She got better.
The “Mr. Bill Show” film featuring “Mr. Bill Goes to a Party.” Mr. Bill always makes me laugh, but I think it’s a callback to childhood for me, since he became something of an omnipresent character, sort of like the Muppets. Mr. Bill is tortured by Mr. Hands again while getting ready for a party. The punchline, though, is when he arrives for the party, the host opens the door to look for him only to have inadvertently stepped on him. The next we see Mr. Bill, he is flattened and stuck to the host’s shoe. “Oh noooo.”
The “American Coinage” performance, which features Garrett Morris, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and John Belushi singing odes to American coins. Garrett Morris sings “Pennies from Heaven” a la Sammy Davis Jr.; Chevy sings about nickels; Dan about dimes; and Belushi sings a soulful ballad to quarters while overlay credits suggest that Belushi may be robbing everyone of their loose change. It was mildly absurd, otherwise harmless comedy with a slightly acidic twist. Like lemon. Unfortunately, it also stood for the closing moments of the show; the credits did not feature a live sendoff with the cast standing onstage. It was a little weird.
Less Successful Moments
The “Green Cross Cupcakes” commercial. In this commercial, Karen Black plays a housewife who serves her husband, played by John Belushi, some cupcakes with green crosses on them. She proceeds to inform him that the cupcakes have been tested on rats and determined to be cancer-free, leading Belushi to decide to eat as many as he wants by stuffing whole cupcakes into his mouth. A scientist, played by Chevy Chase, appears and deadpans that there is no scientific evidence linking cupcakes to cancer, but Karen’s housewife simply opines that with so many scary things in the world, it’s nice to know that “cancer free can be so delicious.” There was something off in the delivery here, and if it weren’t for John Belushi doing something sort of trademark John Belushi, it would have really been lost. Karen’s housewife was a little creepy, and there was a moment showing a laboratory with rats in cages and guys in radiation suits. The punchline landed flat for me. Also, I don’t like rats.
The “Love Russian Style” sketch features Karen Black as Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. Dan Aykroyd plays her aide, Gregnovich. First, John Belushi appears as a peasant who goes on and on and on and on about being a peasant in Russia. Boring, though Dan Aykroyd sings a melancholy accompaniment to the tale to set the mood. Then, a servant played by Gilda Radner tells the Empress that her secret lover is in her bedchamber. Well, as it turns out, her secret lover is a horse named Snowball who talks like Chevy Chase talking like Mr. Ed. Again, I think it crossed the line of being too absurd, and I did not want to see anyone making out with a horse. Poor horse.
Most Valuable Not Ready For Primetime Players
(1st) Chevy Chase, for making a triumphant return to the broadcast by falling, playing President Ford not so well, and sitting behind the Update chair as well as for his decent Mr. Ed impression, despite the creepiness of the sketch that featured it. He also has a lovely singing voice when making melodies about nickels.
(2nd) Dan Aykroyd, for his equal-to-the-task Jimmy Carter; for his also lovely singing voice featured in “Love Russian Style” and “American Coinage;” and for his fascinating if not entirely funny characterization of a grown-up high school nerd/loner in the “Reunion” sketch, which found him catching up with a former cheerleader/homecoming queen, played by Jane Curtin, at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and trying to convince her to remember him as the President of the AV Squad. It was one of those sketches you can’t really laugh at, but he was so immersed in the character, you couldn’t not watch.
(3rd) John Belushi, for being unafraid to toss Chevy Chase out of a wheelchair; for his lackadaisical questioning during the “Debate ’76” sketch; for inhaling cupcakes in the “Green Cross Cupcakes” sketch and saving it from infamy; and for his smooth and dulcet song stylings about quarters in the “American Coinage” sketch.
Garrett Morris, not to be left out, for his Sammy Davis-esque rendition of “Pennies from Heaven” (since we all know the man can sing). The men have it again.