Archive for March, 2015

SNL: Bring back the anarchy!

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , on March 9, 2015 by Todd

Belushi

It’s hard to believe Saturday Night Live has been around for 40 years.

I think I was in third grade the first time I watched SNL. If memory serves it was summertime and I was, at least for a few months, free to stay up till the wee hours of the night, when strange and wonderful things often found their way onto the TV screen.

The first SNL sketch that caught my attention was John Belushi’s Samurai Delicatessen, in which the show’s first breakout star prepared sandwiches for customers using the ancient power of his razor sharp sword. I think that was followed by the recurring skit where a clever shark knocks on people’s doors pretending to be a repairmen, door-to-door salesmen, or candygram messenger. Even to a kid raised on horror comics and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this was bizarre stuff. I was hooked.

While I loved the off the wall comedy sketches, some of which were wildly inappropriate for a kid my age (apparently young minds weren’t quite so fragile in the 1970s), the moments I truly looked forward to were when the SNL musical guest of the night would come out to perform.

It’s been said before, but the cast members on SNL during those early days were the equivalent of comedic rock stars, with all the manic, self-destructive energy of their ’60s musical heroes. The bands that appeared on the show reflected that spirit, as well as the wide-ranging musical tastes of the cast members and SNL creator Lorne Michaels. Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Patti Smith, ABBA, George Harrison, Chuck Berry, The Kinks, Willie Nelson, Devo, Sun Ra, and the Rolling Stones all appeared on SNL between 1975 and 1978. There was also one fairly mind boggling episode that featured Levon Helm, Dr. John, and The Meters on the same stage.

willie nelson snl

At some point, the distinction between the comediennes and the musicians began to break down entirely. When Joe Cocker was the SNL musical guest in October 1976, Belushi joined him on stage, doing his dead-on, spastic limbed Cocker impersonation to hilarious effect.

In the same way that the early comedy sketches felt like they could go off the rails at any moment, the musical performances shared that same anarchic spirit. This was truly ‘live’ theater, and the realization that things could go horribly wrong at any moment made the payoffs all that more special. For every transcendent performance by the likes of Elvis Costello or, a decade and a half later, Nirvana, the shows history is also littered with truly terrible musical moments, like the Rolling Stones’ oblivious, out of tune 1978 appearance.

keith snl

And then, of course, there were the Blues Brothers, the pseudo, is-it-fake-or-not soul band concocted by Belushi and fellow SNL cast member Dan Akroyd. The idea produced one classic movie, a forgettable album, and several regrettable attempts to recapture the magic of the first film without Belushi, who died of a drug overdose in 1982.

Belushi’s death marked the end of an era for SNL, one that was fueled as much by recreational substances as youthful creativity. After a brief renaissance in the early 1980s thanks to Eddie Murphy, the most subversive, dangerous show on television simply ran out of gas.

And yet, somehow, it survived. Today, SNL still has moments of comedic greatness (pretty much anything with the recently departed Bill Hader qualifies) but all too often the sketches feel perfunctory and uninspired. The musical numbers have also suffered from that same lack of spontaneity in recent years, with slick, attractive entertainers seemingly more concerned with matching their performances to their prerecorded vocal tracks than with anything resembling blood and guts transcendence.

Live music, like good comedy, should be a high wire act without a net, where everything is risked in order to pull off the seemingly impossible. If SNL can locate that spirit once again, I’ll be more than happy to stay up past my bedtime to tune in.

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