Dillon made a strong impression fairly early on, carrying a lot of the sketches in the first two shows of the season, having the first recurring character of the season, and bringing needed energy to weaker sketches. There was a little bit of a sameness to her performances that became more evident over the season, but she was a consistent, dependable performer. She gave a lot of her castmates a boost whenever she shared sketches with them (Gail Matthius’ Vickie was better once she had Dillon’s Debbie to play off), and just seemed to exhibit a willingness and commitment in whatever she appeared in. [MVP: Gould, McDowell]
It’s a little disarming to see Gofffried in these shows, with his eyes wide open and not speaking in that famous stilted squawk, and a tad green. Where Dillon jumped in, Gottfried had a tendency to hold back: the legend goes that he didn’t want to use his A-material on the show because he was concerned the network would claim ownership. Gottfried’s performances would end up being the clearest barometer of the Jean Doumanian era: early on, he’s more lively and animated, if a little green, but toward the end of the season, he is a little more sullen and withdrawn. Maybe it’s because he got some of the most thankless jobs on the show that didn’t go to featured players (having to wear the Master Po makeup all night in Carradine, playing a vegetable along the featureds in Dazola, and his nadir: being the corpse in a funeral sketch). Like most of the cast, though, he was not without his moments: he worked well with Dillon as the Waxmans, and I thought his collaborations with writer Ferris Butler were particularly fruitful. [MVP: Kellerman]
Matthius definitely had potential to be a great cast member, and hit the highest highs out of all three female leads, but she also had a few really frustrating moments on the show. Impressions were her weakest point, and despite her efforts, she didn’t really have the ability to rise above some of the material she was given. She had a rough time on Weekend Update as well; fumbling a bit in the early shows, and getting saddled with some of the worst jokes ever written. These missteps seem even more disappointing because when she was actually given good material, she really did well with it: I especially liked Francis Lively, the little girl character she played in “Lonely Old Lady”, and she ended up going out on a strong note with “Same”. I only wonder how she would have fared on a different incarnation of the show. [MVP: Carradine, Harry]
Piscopo ended up being one of the two castmembers that stole Rocket’s thunder this season by demonstrating he was a better fit for the characters and celebrity impressions that the show built its name on in the first five seasons. Piscopo was consistent, well-rounded, and seemed to feel more natural in the prominent roles that Rocket was being schooled for. I’d draw the line at calling Piscopo an MVP of the season: I believe the key to his relative success this year were clear and repeated hooks in his signature bits (SNL Sports and Paulie Herman; Sinatra developed more fully after Ebersol took over), but he was always more of a “safe” performer and didn’t have the kind of charisma that demanded attention like Eddie Murphy would provide, a quality that was desperately needed this season. [MVP: Gould]
I actually thought Risley handled the straighter roles fairly well. Risley never managed to have a recurring character, and there were a few performances of hers that were pretty dodgy (mainly as the hosts of “Dying To Be Heard” and “Was I Ever Red”), but I wonder how much of it was actually her acting style (she’s more of a straight actress) and how much of it was the writers not finding a breakout role for her (she did come close with the Toni Tenille sketch). Some say that she was a poor fit for SNL, but I see a few small glimpses at a potential Kristen Wiig-style performer whose true gift was understatement, although Wiig had the added benefit of being able to write for herself. A key part of success on the show is either writing for yourself or finding the right writer to collaborate with; I don’t know whether Risley had that support for herself.
Doumanian was banking too much on Rocket to be the breakout star: usually when something is pushed so heavily, it only helps build a backlash toward the performer. Rocket was no exception, and he had a few liabilities that probably hurt him on the show: his impressions were weak, and whenever he tried to play big (like his February Updates or even in Billy-Gram), he chewed so much scenery it was distracting. When he dialed it back, though, he was a decent utility player, and his strengths in those roles presage his respectable career as a character actor. Rocket’s true strength on the show, though, was catching people off-guard during The Rocket Report, where a different type of charm emerged than when he was doing sketches. Unfortunately, Rocket became the public face for Jean Doumanian’s mistakes on the show, and that one moment during the Charlene Tilton goodnights overshadowed pretty much everything he did since, even after he took his own life. [MVP: Black]
SNL’s first black female featured player was essentially doing the same types of roles she had been doing uncredited the previous couple of seasons; aside from some increased prominence in sketches for a few episodes, she was still essentially an extra on the show. There is actually one episode where she has less lines that SNL’s resident “old man” extra, Andy Murphy. Despite no longer being in the opening credits, she was kept around as an extra the next few seasons.
Aside from Eddie Murphy, Laurance was the most prominent of the featured players. I thought he was decent as a utility man, and served as a good counterpoint to the more exaggerated performances of Rocket and Piscopo, even if he didn’t make a strong impression on his own. I wonder how he would have done in a pitchman role that usually went to either of those two.
From his first speaking role, Murphy demonstrated why he was full cast material. There were a few appearances of his that betrayed his inexperience (particularly Newsbreak in Harry), but he had a confidence that the others in the cast seemed to lack, and made stronger impressions than much of the cast that had a heavier sketch load. [MVP: Burstyn, Sharkey, Hays, Tilton]
His Bob Dylan sketch in Carradine was the main thing that distinguished him; he might have made a bigger impact if he was given more to do. I won’t hold Ravi Sings against him.
Out of Dick Ebersol’s three full-cast hires, Duke made a smallest impression of the three, getting a band intro, a leftover Jane Curtin role, a decent part in a five-man sketch and a last-minute voice-over in the bag lady film. None of these roles really showed what she was known for on SCTV, and viewers would get a better glimpse of her the next season. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Duke was a last-minute addition: Catherine O’Hara was originally slated to be on the show in her place (and was listed in news articles as late as five days before airtime), but O’Donoghue’s first staff meeting scared her away from the show. O’Hara recommended old friend Duke for the show, and a month later, O’Hara was on the same network with the resurrected SCTV. If the strike hadn’t happened, Duke could have been making an impact as soon as the next show.
Kazurinsky seemed to fit SNL immediately, and ended up dominating the first Ebersol-produced show. Part of Kazurisnky’s strong first outing comes from his prominence in two of the longer pieces, but being a combination writer/performer, and coming from an improv background certainly would have helped. It was John Belushi’s recommendation that got Kazurinsky hired on the show, and Belushi’s instincts turned out to be correct. [MVP: Finale]
Like Duke, Rosato came from SCTV, and like Kazurinsky, he was hired as a writer/performer and made a fairly strong impression in his first show. He and Kazurinsky worked well together in their two main sketches, but he would find a stronger footing the following season.
One of the most successful people to have an incredibly brief SNL tenure, Metcalf’s sole appearance on the show was a pre-filmed “man on the street” piece. I can’t assess how she would have fared if Ebersol kept her on based on that one segment.
Prager didn’t even appear on-camera during her only live show. She has, however, appeared on the show before and after (she was a girlfriend of Tom Davis’ and appeared occasionally as an extra around 1977-78; she and Davis also appear in the Button film next season).
1. Karen Black / Cheap Trick, Stanley Clarke: (Average rating: 3.18/5)
The show where everything seemed to go right. It’s not flawless (SNL rarely is) but the combination of an energetic host, more determined writing and a receptive audience worked wonders. As much as Black and the audience kept things lively, its really the cast and writers’ victory.
2. Bill Murray / Delbert McClinton: (Average rating: 3.11/5)
This is the textbook example of the host bringing a boost to the show. The last four shows were dispirited affairs, and the prior show in particular contained the moment that overshadowed the rest of the Doumanian-era. Murray shows up and infuses what would be the final Doumanian-produced SNL with energy and the sense of fun that had all but vanished in the second half of the season.
3. No Host / Jr. Walker & The All-Stars: (Average rating: 2.88/5)
Ebersol takes over, cleans house (as much as the budget would allow), and makes an appeal to nostalgia with his first show. It’s weighed down by Chevy Chase’s disappointing Weekend Update return engagement, but this one remains consistently watchable if not an all-out return to form.
1. Robert Hays / Joe “King” Carrasco & The Crown, 14 Karat Soul: (Average rating: 2/5)
The string of mediocre-to-bad sketches that come after Weekend Update is the air seeping out of the SNL ’80 tire that they finally were able to inflate the week before.
2. Jamie Lee Curtis / James Brown: (Average rating: 2.22/5)
The first three shows of the season had enough highlights to counteract the weaker material. Here is where the good to bad ratio finally tips to to the other side; while nothing in this show is as bad as “Commie Hunting Season”, a lot of the sketches were underdeveloped and uninspired.
3. Charlene Tilton / Todd Rundgren, Prince: (Average rating: 2.26/5)
A fair amount of OK material here, but the backstage runner that culminates in “Who Shot C.R.” is underwhelming, and the highs don’t really offset the lows enough.
1. The Writer (03/07/81)
Bill Murray is in front but playing it straight, while the new cast gets the fun of acting out the revisions he makes to his story. Just a good sketch done well.
2. Hospital Bed (01/17/81)
Probably one of the saddest sketches the show has ever done, with Gilbert Gottfried’s disembodied voice communicating the thoughts of a stroke victim. It’s punctuated enough with humor to avoid mawkishness, but the writers wisely put the emotion of the scene first.
3. Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood (02/21/81)
The debut of one of Eddie Murphy’s signature sketches, pretty much fully-formed. The audience is on board by the end of the theme song.
Honorable mention: The Rocket Report – Fifth Avenue
Charles Rocket’s signature piece remains the place where his talents were best put to use.
1. Commie Hunting Season (11/22/80)
SNL tries to make a pointed statement about the Greensboro Massacre acquittals; it’s uncomfortable and alienating, but without the humor to redeem it.
2. Ravi Sings (01/24/81)
The only joke in the sketch: a cartoonish portrayal of an Indian musician singing American love songs.
3. Badgers (12/13/80)
A grating, amateurish sketch that hinges on a pun.
Best musical guests:
1. James Brown
His sweat-drenched eight-minute medley of classics is a high point for both the season and the series, especially taking into consideration that the band exceeded their allotted time.
2. 14 Karat Soul
Five young singers with no instrumental accompaniment get one of the biggest reactions from the audience this season.
3. Stanley Clarke Trio
Instrumental jazz-fusion that rocks as hard as any other musical guest this year.
Worst musical guests:
To be honest, I couldn’t really say that there were any truly bad musical guests. Joe “King” Carrasco may have had a rough and raw sound but it was clear the band was going for energy over technique, and the worst I could really say about Ellen Shipley is that she was decent but a little generic-sounding. The other musical guests only really pale in comparison to the stellar choices Doumanian (and whoever else was involved in snagging musical guests) made this year. I wonder how much of the booking strategy was intentional and how much of it was necessity, but this was where the Jean Doumanian show had some of their biggest victories.
Writer tally and turnover:
(*) indicates the writer returned the next season, (~) indicates return to SNL.
Aside from Ferris Butler’s contributions (special thanks goes to Butler for providing a lot of insightful information about the season, by the way), knowledge of Blaustein & Sheffield’s partnership with Eddie Murphy and a handful of other sketches whose writers have been identified, I don’t really know what each specific writers’ voices are in the show and whether any shifts in quality were from writers joining or leaving, or being favored or disfavored. If anyone has more information regarding who was responsible for any sketches, please feel free to drop me a line.
Barry W. Blaustein*
Billy Brown & Mel Green
Full Doumanian run:
Larry Arnstein & David Hurwitz
Mason Williams (head writer, Gould through Carradine)
Jeremy Stevens & Tom Moore (head writers, Sharkey through finale)
Nancy Dowd (Gould and McDowell only)
Sean Kelly (Gould and McDowell only)
Mitchell Kreigman (Gould through Carradine)
Mark Reisman (Harry through finale)
An essay regarding the season as a whole will follow in a subsequent post.