Episode 1.4 – 11/8/75: Candice Bergen / Esther Phillips
Live from New York, it’s Episode 4 of the inaugural season of Saturday Night Live! – and things are looking up for the Not-Ready-For-Primetime players. While there have been some shining moments from SNL’s inaugural cast, like John Belushi’s Joe Cocker imitation and Chevy Chase’s frequent physical humor, cheap laughs have been the status quo – the kind of humor that may have been risque and cutting edge back in 1975, but comes across as cheap today.
Luckily for our fearless group of funny folks, Episode 4 is another step closer to the tried and true SNL format we know today with a focus more on allowing the cast to put forth their comedy styling, integrating the host into sketches as appropriate and using the musical guest as an opportunity to give the audience a chance to relax their funny bones and the cast a chance to change costumes and maybe catch a smoke or, in Belushi’s case, maybe a little something extra. (Although, to be fair, it wasn’t just Belushi partaking in the backstage drug antics. I recommend Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller if you’re interested in all the juicy details.)
This week’s episode is hosted by Candice Bergen, who – to this young man – is best known for being the title character of the CBS television show Murphy Brown, a pop culture fixture of the late 80s and early 90s. At the time, I was too busy with Nintendo and Legos to watch a grown-up show like Murphy Brown, so I’m more familiar with Bergen’s more recent work on Boston Legal, where she played veteran attorney Shirley Schmidt, the yin to William Shatner’s yang. However, at this point in time, Murphy Brown and Boston Legal were still to come. Before any of that, Bergen was a big ol’ movie star – the daughter of model Frances Bergen and famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, whose little wooden pals Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd entertained children worldwide throughout the 1940s and 1950s (and scared the crap out of children like me throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Ventriloquist dummies … <shiver>) Candice Bergen’s star had fallen a bit since the early 1970s when she starred in films like 1971’s Carnal Knowledge, so – as the first woman ever to host SNL – this was her chance to show that she had some comic chops and was more than just another pretty face/ventriloquist’s daughter.
The show opens on a stage on which a podium sits. Hail to the Chief plays as Chevy Chase enters wearing a tuxedo. Chase runs into an American flag and text appears reading “This is not the President of the United States, but he thinks he is” appears at the bottom of the screen, letting the audience know that this is what longtime SNL fans will recognize as Chase’s legendary impression of President Gerald Ford. By impression, it’s really just Chase falling down a lot and bumbling lines. It’s funnier than it sounds. The gag stems from a June 1st, 1975 incident in Austria in which Ford slipped on a wet ramp. At one point, there’s a funny bit where Chase as Ford refers to Saturday Night (Remember SNL had yet to adopt the “Live” moniker) as Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell was a variety show that was airing on ABC and was very similar to Saturday Night. As fate would have it, Saturday Night with Howard Cosell which featured a hot young comedian named Billy Murray, wouldn’t last more than a year before it was canceled, allowing Saturday Night to take on the new title of Saturday Night Live for its second season.
As a whole, the sketches – and there’s plenty of them — are quite good. Even the opening monologue and Albert Brooks’ short film is funny – the same can’t be said about those friggin’ Muppets.
For the opening monologue, Candice Bergen comes out dressed like … Charlie McCarthy? I don’t know if that’s intentional. In the middle of her monologue, John Belushi comes out dressed as a bee. I guess technically that makes “the bees” the show’s first reoccurring character. The expression on Belushi’s face is pretty funny. Chevy Chase comes out to swat John Belushi with a newspaper. Bergen objects, but Chase does it anyway.
Brooks’ short film is a series of promos for fake NBC shows. There’s “Just The Three Of Us,” a sitcom about a man who lives with his girlfriend and another woman, in which the entire premise revolves around him trying to convince his girlfriend to have a threesome with their roommate. Then there’s “Black Vet,” about a African-American Vietnam war vet who returns from the war to work as a veterinarian.
Other noteworthy sketches include the first-ever “Black Perspective” sketch, in which African-American Garrett Morris interviews Caucasian Jane Curtain, a controversial black author and the debut of fan favorite, Land Shark aka JAWS 2.
Did I mention that Chevy Chase debuted his “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” catchphrase on this episode as well?
Sure, we still have the Muppets and the commercial parodies fell flat, mostly due to the fact that they haven’t aged well (the commercials, that is. Surprisingly, the Muppets have actually gotten better over time) However, all in all, Candice Bergen’s debut was a hit from top to bottom, featuring a wide-range of sketches that highlighted all of the Not-Ready-For-Primetime players. The humor was risque and relevant, venturing into touchy subjects like race and gender. And Bergen played a great straight-man, er … woman, a perfect contrast to the zaniness surrounding her, which is probably why she’d return to host in just another six weeks – as would special guest Andy Kaufman, despite not being on his A-game this week. Kaufman came out as Foreign Man and told a few jokes, then got embarrassed, then played the bongos. And that’s about it.
Musical guest Esther Phillips, who performed the disco hit “What a Difference a Day Makes” would not be invited back. I, for one, am relieved.
The Good: Bergen, Chevy, Land Shark!
The Bad: Esther Phillips’ vibrato from hell, Stupid stupid stupid Muppets
The Weird: Andy Kaufman, whose Foreign Man character was more irritating than funny
Next: 1.5 – 11/15/75: Robert Klein / Abba, Loudon Wainwright III