Lorne Michaels produced or executive produced all but five seasons of Saturday Night Live; the gap bridges the original “classic” five-year run of the show and the often lambasted but underrated 1985-86 season. For various reasons these five seasons are relatively underrepresented in reruns and the assorted compilations Michaels’ production company has assembled over the years. Aside from Eddie Murphy’s breakthrough sketches and the all-star cast of 1984-85 that included Billy Crystal, Martin Short and Christopher Guest, most of these shows have fallen into relative obscurity.
The 1981-82 season, while not considered a great year for the show, was a rebirth for SNL. Taking over the show after Jean Doumanian produced twelve generally reviled episodes, NBC executive Dick Ebersol took over the show and actively sought Lorne Michaels’ blessing to continue; he also attempted to bring back as many original writers as he could to the show, although only succeeding in getting back Michael O’Donoghue (installed as a producer with Bob Tischler), Marilyn Suzanne Milller and Rosie Shuster. Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo flourished even in the Doumanian shows and were kept to anchor a new cast. Three new featured players were brought on board from Second City to replaced the fired Ann Risley, Gilbert Gottfried and Charles Rocket: from Toronto and late of SCTV, Tony Rosato and Robin Duke (an 11th-hour replacement after original pick Catherine O’Hara was scared off by O’Donoghue), and from Chicago, writer-performer Tim Kazurinsky. A long writers’ strike after Ebersol’s first show in April 1981 meant he could fine-tune the show and make further changes, dropping two more Doumanian castmembers (Gail Matthius and Denny Dillon), adding Christine Ebersole and Mary Gross, as well as bumping writer Brian Doyle-Murray back into an onscreen role.
There were a lot of things unique to the 1981-82 season. The practice of opening the show with “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” was stopped entirely, while announcer Don Pardo was fired in favor of the late NBC announcer Mel Brandt, the voice who announced that shows on NBC in the 60s were in living color. Monologues were also done away with for the most part and replace with a “talent entrance”, the host posing with the entire cast on the main stage. The show would revert back to its classic format the next season, hiring back Don Pardo and phasing the opening phrase back in.
I’m going to be posting reviews of episodes from this season in chronological order. I see the season divided into three parts: the run where O’Donoghue was on board is the strongest part of the season, and after he was fired over the Christmas break there was a tremendous drop in quality. The show did get a bit of its creative energy back after March, although it had become a blander, safer show than the original series. The next season was more consistent in terms of quality and built upon this upsurge.
I’m going to try to get this all done before the next season starts. It’ll be fun to rewatch the season. Here is a tentative schedule (always subject to change):
October 3, 1981: (no host) / Rod Stewart
October 10, 1981: Susan Saint James / The Kinks
October 17, 1981: George Kennedy / Miles Davis
October 31, 1981: Donald Pleasance / Fear
November 7, 1981: Lauren Hutton / Rick James & The Stone City Band
November 14, 1981: Bernadette Peters / Billy Joel, The Go-Gos
December 5, 1981: Tim Curry / Meat Loaf
December 12, 1981: Bill Murray / The Spinners, 1982 Whiffenpoofs of Yale
January 23, 1982: Robert Conrad / The Allman Brothers Band
January 30, 1982: John Madden / Jennifer Holliday
February 6, 1982: James Coburn / Lindsey Buckingham & The Cholos
February 20, 1982: Bruce Dern / Luther Vandross
February 27, 1982: Elizabeth Ashley / Daryl Hall & John Oates
March 20, 1982: Robert Urich / Mink DeVille
March 27, 1982: Blythe Danner / Rickie Lee Jones
April 10, 1982: Daniel J. Travanti / John Cougar
April 17, 1982: Johnny Cash / Elton John
April 24, 1982: Robert Culp / The Charlie Daniels Band
May 15, 1982: Danny DeVito / Sparks
May 22, 1982: Olivia Newton-John