Robin Duke: Despite a strong start, Duke seemed to have a slightly rougher go this year than her fellow female cast members for a couple of reasons. She didn’t have the advantage that Mary Gross and Christine Ebersole had from anchoring SNL Newsbreak, where they would be allowed a) significant screen time and b) the privilege of appearing as “themselves” which makes it easier for the audience to connect to a performer. She had a few shows where she was barely featured (James Coburn, Johnny Cash, Robert Culp) and also visibly missed a cue in a sketch. Still, I find it hard not to root for her or enjoy her performances. She reminds me quite a bit of either Cheri Oteri or Almost Live’s Nancy Guppy, two other sketch comedy performers of similar physical qualities and ability to pull off more manic and fearlessly abrasive characters. Duke also does these small little details in sketches that really add to her enjoyability once you notice them (the change in vocal tone in The New Celibacy coming to mind).
Christine Ebersole: A one-seasoner who had some outstanding moments on the show (particularly musical numbers and the acting challenges of a Marilyn Suzanne Miller piece), and not having a bad performance anywhere. Even her tenure on SNL Newsbreak was adequate at the very least. Once the show started getting away from the musical numbers and the sadder slice-of-life material, Ebersole just seems to be a support player. A very good one, mind you, but it felt like the changed creative direction of the show was selling her talents as a performer short.
Mary Gross: It seems Gross had the opposite year of Duke’s on some level because in her first few shows she still seems very green and her performances lack the confidence that the other two have, but she would quickly come into her own. Towards the end they had her cast more successfully as a ditzy persona (add in a little bit of delusion and that is where Gross rocked), but I also felt that she really did well with sarcastic delivery, and they tapped into one of her other strengths the next year (manic mode, hints of which can be seen in the Blythe Danner monologue) when she would start rattling off the lists of things that piss her off. She would grow into the most well-rounded female performer of the Ebersol era.
Tim Kazurinsky: Kazurinsky seems the most likely of this cast to be able to mesh with one of the Lorne Michaels seasons’ casts, because there was a sarcasm and bite to some of his commentaries on SNL Newsbreak that was sorely lacking elsewhere. Kazurinsky’s specialty is slightly weird, obnoxious characters (kind of like Robin Duke: they both also excel at old geezers), but can be a straight man and also benefits from being able to play off the other cast members’ reactions in a sketch (must be that Second City training). ”I Married A Monkey” kind of had diminishing returns but Kazurinsky is the only one in the cast that could make that idea work because of this.
Eddie Murphy: The performer that shone brightest this year was undoubtedly Murphy, who the previous year had started off without any lines in his first show; the next season, he would lead off the first real sketch of the year and by the end of the season would be getting significantly more audience noise in the opening montage. He may not have been an impressionist quite at the level of Piscopo, but Murphy could just appear on home base as himself and you would know something funny was going to happen. He wasn’t quite at the level of fame as he would be at following 48 Hrs, and it is interesting seeing him playing support in a sketch alongside Robin Duke or Tim Kazurinsky.
Joe Piscopo: Piscopo was dominant this season, largely benefiting from the recognition he received as a bright spot the previous season. I would actually argue that Piscopo was a more dominant presence this season than Eddie Murphy: both were in a class of their own but Piscopo seemed more woven into the fabric of the cast at times. Looking back, Piscopo was a good, if somewhat overrated performer: his solid Frank Sinatra and Saturday Night Sports were able to bring the audience to life, and he was a very effective sketch performer, but sometimes an impression would merely be passable and there are times when he wouldn’t necessarily be as funny as some of the lesser acknowledged cast members. Still, 1981-82 was undoubtedly Joe Piscopo’s year as well as Eddie Murphy’s: a document of the time before Murphy would begin to eclipse him the next year.
Tony Rosato: Rosato ended up being the biggest surprise for me; his short tenure on the show in the time when SNL was “The Joe and Eddie Show” made it easy for me to overlook him, and I had written him off based on a few of his more cartoonish roles (usually as a wacky Italian but once as an Indian). However, I found that he was solid in sketches and could do a wide variety of roles. Late in the season I figured out he was 1981-82′s Jason Sudeikis: a confident performer who usually delivered whether it was carrying a sketch (Table Talk, The Vic Salukin Show) or in a support or bit part, faring best when he was either playing a gregarious sleaze or the reality anchor in a sketch. Rosato was fired after this season reportedly because he was not one to shy from challenging Dick Ebersol, and never got his due as a cast member, but managed to keep busy as a supporting actor. Sadly, he is more known in recent years for his mental health issues and a miscarriage of justice that led him to spend several years in prison.
Brian Doyle-Murray: Doyle-Murray has the reputation of being one of the weakest news segment anchors SNL has ever had, largely because SNL Newsbreak was nowhere as well-written as the best Weekend Updates, relying too much on lengthy crawls and photo montages to fill time. His delivery was underwhelming but he served as an “anchor” for both the news and the show, but only really started appearing more prominently in sketches after the March hiatus (notable exception: the Bill Murray episode). Not really a great cast member by any stretch (more of an ascended writer), he would do better as a character actor.
Tim Curry / Meat Loaf & The Neverland Express: Tim Curry was by far the best host of the entire season and was able to bring the show up to a certain level just by showing up, but this show also shows a more confident cast and writing staff starting to emerge from the shadows of the original show and decide that they can come up with something just as good. Even so, this is Curry’s show through and through from the Mick! variety special to the Zucchini Song.
Bill Murray / The Spinners, The Whiffenpoofs of Yale 1982: A little underwhelming considering who’s hosting, but Murray does bring a jolt of cheer to the show which overall was without any true bad sketches. ”At Home With The Psychos” is O’Donoghue’s last attempt at asserting himself on the show, and while it was a compromised version, was a good sketch for the self-styled “Reich Marshall” to go out on.
Danny DeVito / Sparks: SNL gets itself a new “great host” after a year filled with more than a few bookings of questionable fit and relevance: Danny DeVito has the most enthusiasm of any host in a long time. The show also has its best show after a few odd or lackluster outings and this feels like the hint of the what the show would become the next season.
John Madden / Jennifer Holliday: Surprisingly, Madden wasn’t weighing down the show too much, and in fact provided the funniest moment all night with his locker room story. This show just generally felt like they had lost a lot of their creative wind when Michael O’Donoghue was fired and had yet to regain their bearings. Most of the material was forgettable at best (the surprisingly melancholy Solomon & Pudge and the recasting of Tom Snyder as kiddie-show host being the exceptions) and the cast seemed to be having a bad night as well.
Robert Conrad / The Allman Brothers Band: The first post-O’Donoghue show wasn’t much better than the second. This benefits from having the meta-sketch about overexposed characters and an excuse to have Tony Rosato bring his Lou Costello out of mothballs, but there are a few reasons why this show was so weak. First, Conrad was a bad host that was front and center in quite a few sketches. Second, between a mess of a 10-minute sketch, a 12-minute sketch that didn’t quite justify the length, and three performances by the Allman Brothers Band (featuring Gregg in very rough shape), it was apparent that they were struggling to fill 66 minutes of airtime. I’ve said this in my review too, but Conrad and the Allmans seem to be the kind of booking that cemented that SNL was no longer as cool as it was a few years before.
Donald Pleasence / Fear: I had to choose between this and Robert Culp as my third place choice. Culp was more all-around mediocre and weighed down heavily by a long, terrible sketch, but this episode was more of a mess. Yes, you had some daring moments such as the Vic Salukin Show (easily the most fucked up thing that made it to air that season), and it benefits from having Michael Davis make a return appearance, but Brian Doyle-Murray solo on Newsbreak is painful, Pleasence was easily a worse host than Culp, and the whole episode seemed disorganized and felt like an uneasy compromise between the kind of show O’Donoghue wanted to do and the kind of show Ebersol found acceptable.
Ebony & Ivory: Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy at the same level and the top of their respective games. Deservedly a classic and one of the token Ebersol-era clips that always seem to make the compilation specials. It mixes topicality with great impressions, but just feels like an inspired idea from the get go. The execution couldn’t be better as well.
Mick!: A supersized sketch carried by Tim Curry’s impression of the Rolling Stones’ frontman, with significant screen time for a lot of the cast. Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat and Joe Piscopo’s Sinatra also drop by.
Tuna Melts & Typing / The Party (tie): Marilyn Suzanne Miller filled a niche in the show that really hasn’t been featured in the show in the last 25 years with her low-key, bittersweet one-act plays. Her style would eventually be forced out of the show (she was gone by year’s end) but both these sketches have to be her work. I couldn’t decide which was better: Tuna Melts & Typing creates two very real characters and is just a beautiful sketch all around, while The Party is a sketch that reveals itself halfway and has an excellent payoff.
Honorable mention: Any appearance by Michael Davis would usually end up being a highlight of the show he was featured in.
Sunken Submarine: Let me say once again that I hate this sketch, easily the biggest turd of the Ebersol era by a long shot. The sketch has the lethal combination of a 10-minute-plus running time, a dead audience, an endless string of material that just fails and an atmosphere of desperation to be funny throughout. Whatever the Doumanian eras’ weaknesses are, they never let a sketch bloat so long as this one did. The set also didn’t seem to help matters, as the longer you spent time watching the sketch, the more you really wanted to get the hell off that sub and just drown already.
Wild Wild Wild West: Dreadful for a lot of the same reasons Sunken Submarine was: very long running time, an unresponsive audience, too many diverse elements that fail to combine into a cohesive whole (really, an atom bomb?). Actually, come to think of it, both of them featured a lackluster host (I’d say Conrad was more painful to watch than Culp), and both had the main laughs come from Eddie Murphy. It doesn’t help the women ended up playing prostitutes, the old cliché role for a woman in sketch comedy (at one point, Velvet Jones calls out “Sing, you hos!” I wonder what was going through the female cast’s mind when they were doing this sketch). This had a few more funny moments than Sunken Submarine (from Tony Rosato) and had an ambitiousness that was commendable, but overall, it just played as a mess onscreen.
Mafia Name Giver: Aside from a few clever in-jokes mainly aimed at Second City fans and SNL buffs, I still can’t tell what the point of this sketch is. Besides a general pointlessness to it, the sketch was weighed down by everyone just seeming off (Tim Kazurinsky speaking in an irritating high voice, Robin Duke actually blowing her cue in the live show). It was down to this or “Papal Tour”, and while I find that 9-minute plus sketch painfully boring, it did have more coherent concept and a decent enough performance from Joe Piscopo.
Dishonorable mention: Andy Warhol’s TV: These weren’t long enough to make any significant dip in the quality of episodes but at best, they felt like hipster wanking, with the atmosphere of “Andy Warhol’s in it so it must be good” rather than actual entertainment value. I have a feeling if Andy Warhol agreed to shoot one of him talking about his favorite pinecones while taking Number 2, it would have still made it on the air.
Best musical guests
Rick James & The Stone City Band: Before James’ behavior and legal problems made him a punchline, he was a hell of a performer. His two numbers are some of the tightest, funkiest R&B the show’s ever had.
Jennifer Holliday: ”And I Am Telling You That I’m Not Going” ended up being a cockroach of a song that just. will. not. go. away (largely due to the prevalence of people thinking that singing that song automatically makes them a good singer) but you can’t deny that Holliday’s performance was not only the highlight of an otherwise bad show but of the season as well.
Luther Vandross: Two outstanding performances that demonstrate his full talent as a singer.
Worst musical guests
The Go-Go’s: The band’s playing seemed amateurish and sloppy. Even Belinda Carlisle considers this the worst performance they ever did, largely because she admits to being very fucked up on coke and booze that night in her autobiography.
The Allman Brothers Band: A band long past their commercial decline at the time of their appearance, and despite a better than average second number, didn’t seem to be at their best that night.
Miles Davis: Just in comparison to some of the others, and largely because he himself seemed to be having an off night despite his sidemen doing well. His rough physical shape made him saunter stiffly around the stage, and he had his back to the camera often.