Episode 1.6 – 11/22/75: Lily Tomlin
Now here’s a standout episode from Saturday Night Live‘s first season, featuring Academy Award-winning actress and comedian Lily Tomlin. Tomlin sings, she dances, she does funny voices and characters – including a few she debuted on the groundbreaking NBC variety show Laugh In, a program which easily paved the way for SNL. Tomlin’s a funny funny lady and here she was at her prime. This should be good.
Chevy opens the show doing his Gerald Ford impression, which is already starting to get old but the audience eats it up. The best bit is when, out of nowhere, Chevy’s head falls forward and smacks the desk where he’s sitting. I assume you’re not laughing now unless you’ve already seen this sketch, which proves to me that physical comedy does not translate very well into writing. It’s funny how Chevy Chase was one of the best parts of the show the first couple of episodes. Now, he needs to show that he can do more than pratfalls and smiling at the camera to prove his worth. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t last more than a season and a half.)
Tomlin’s monologue got a chuckle or two from me. She reads from a book where she writes down little observations she’s made about New York and New Yorkers. Funniest lines include:
“I wonder what it would be like if we all became what we wanted to be when we grew up. I mean … imagine a world full of fireman, cowboys, nurses and ballerinas.”
“Being a New Yorker is never having to say you’re sorry.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if all those people who roam the streets of New York talking to themselves were paired off so that they could walk around in couples and look like they were having a conversation?”
Tomlin’s comic timing is genius and the New York audience loves her. She ends her monologue with a song and dance which is kind of weird. The lyrics to the “song” begin “Cheer up, New York.” I get it now. In 1975 current events, New York was on the edge of bankruptcy. The city’s plight has been a topic of conversation since the show’s start and was actually the basis for Chevy’s Ford skit at the top of the show.
No wonder SNL took off the way it did in its first season. New Yorkers must have needed a laugh. The city was broke.
Without going into a sketch by sketch recap, I’ll only say that the rest of the show is pure gold. There’s another Land Shark sketch (aka Jaws III), which at this point has become a hilariously absurd fan favorite. The punchline of this episode’s Land Shark skit is especially good, in which it breaks the fourth wall by having the shark pose as a one of the show’s producers, interrupting the show and telling Tomlin and John Belushi over the intercom that the sketch has gone on too long and they have to end it. Tomlin and Belushi break character and Tomlin is told to exit through a stage door, where the shark is waiting for her. I love Land Shark.
My personal favorite part of this episode, however, is a series of reoccurring sketches with Belushi as Beethoven. They all begin the same way, with Gilda Radner (playing Beethoven’s wife) and Laraine Newman trying to get Beethoven to eat something. As Belushi plays the piano oblivious to Radner and Newman, Radner gets in his face. “YOU HAVE TO EAT!” she yells to her deaf husband, which never fails to make me laugh.
“Good morning!” Belushi replies.
After the girls exit, Belushi continues to noodle around on the piano – the faces he makes as he fishes around for a melody are really funny – and eventually we get the punchline as he breaks out into a ragtime song in the first sketch, Ben E. King’s Stand By Me in the second or a Ray Charles number in the third (complete with sunglasses and Radner and Newman singing backup). Like with Belushi’s Joe Cocker imitation, the fact that Belushi such a good singer really makes this work.
There’s a few slow moments in the show. Some of Tomlin’s characters resurrected from her Laugh In days were probably appreciated by audiences at the time who knew her from there, but they seemed kind of out-of-place now. Overall though, Episode 5 of Season 1 is a good time from start to end. Even the Muppets are tolerable by involving Tomlin in the sketch and having the sketch end with her singing a duet of I Got You Babe with one of the monsters. It’s cute and me wonder why they didn’t have the guest of the show interact with the Muppets initially — after all, that’s what made The Muppet Show good.
Musical guest, by the way, is Tomlin singing the big band standard St. James Infirmary with SNL music director Howard Shore (yes, that Howard Shore – as in Oscar-winning film composer Howard Shore) leading the SNL band, dressed as nurses. Shore wrote the SNL theme. His appearance here is weird, but fun, and reminiscent of the old Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (if you’re a child of the 1980s) or the Squirrel Nut Zippers (if you’re a child of the 1990s). Tomlin’s a great singer too.
If you’re looking for an introduction to old-school Saturday Night Live, this episode’s a good start. It’s got a little of everything and everything works. What more can you ask for?
Next: 1.7 – 12/13/75: Richard Pryor