by Brendan Wahl
Whew, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these.
So now that Season 35 is all over and done with, what better time to go back to the classics with Season 2 of the venerable institution and the returning Lily Tomlin as its guest host.
Lily is and always has been a talented comedic performer. Despite the talent in making people laugh, she also proved herself as an adept dramatic actress in later years, but in the seventies, she was just a lovable goofball named Lily Tomlin with tons and tons of characters that she did regularly.
Joining Ms. Tomlin is James Taylor, the mustachioed easy-listening crooner with a guitar and a story to tell. Taylor would go on to make five more appearances as musical guest but since 1993, he has not been seen or heard from at Studio 8H.
We also have the ‘season premiere factor.’ SNL fans know what I’m talking about. This means that on average, season premieres are generally not the strongest of episodes for the long-running comedy program and are usually met with certain feelings of slack from the cast and writers after a long summer break. But has this been true from the beginning of the show? Let’s take a look!
1. Lily’s Arrival (5:53)
Starting off the season with a meta piece, Chevy and Gilda await the late arrival of their host, who shows up with entourage in tow (complete with a wine-pouring midget), mispronounces castmembers’ names, and shoos away any scripts brought to her. Along with a very amusing gag involving a studio guard and the self-references to the show’s rising popularity, this is a pretty great start to the season. And yes, Chevy still manages to squeeze in the fall. A-
2. Monologue (1:38)
Lily does a very quick monologue, detailing her trip down to Studio 8H for a bit and then getting a quick wine refresher from Pepe when she thinks the cameras cut. B-
3. Debate ’76 (9:00)
Wow, this one is a classic to be sure. Ruth Clusen (Tomlin) holds the first presidential debate between President Ford (Chase) and Governor Carter (Aykroyd) with three media representatives (Belushi, Curtin, & Morris) questioning them. From Ford’s stumblebum antics to Carter’s flip-flopping on his answers and mentioning Watergate, this is one of the earliest and finest political sketches on the show. A+
4. James Taylor sings “Shower The People” (4:10)
After a cute introduction from Tomlin (with a hair-dryer and in the midst of a costume change), Taylor sings one of my favourite songs. Yes, it’s better than Fire and Rain. A
5. Weekend Update with Chevy Chase (Part I)
Chevy revisits his trademark quips on Generalissimo Francisco Franco with hilarious results. Not to mention Chase’s remarks about Idi Amin receiving a species change operation and Richard Speck getting eleven centuries off his jail sentence for good behaviour. Laraine Newman reports from the Blaine Hotel where tenants are being afflicted with Foreign Legionnaire’s Disease (where people break into a long string of foreign jibberish before dropping dead). Belushi plays the manager of the hotel in a piece bordering on cutesy, but it’s funny enough I suppose.
6. The Phone Company (1:04)
One of Tomlin’s characters, Ernestine, acts as a phone company operator who really couldn’t care less whether your calls get through or not. Besides, they can’t even handle the technology themselves anyway. A-
7. Weekend Update with Chevy Chase (Part II) (total: 7:22)
Chevy remarks that the JFK Assassination case is now re-opened, but the rest of the news is interrupted by a call from Emily Litella (Radner), who proceeds to comment on “five crustaceans hijacking an airplane.” It’s a good edition of Update, overall. B+
8. The Muppet Morgue (4:36)
Popping out of the shelf cabinets, the Muppets realize they’ve been put into storage and try their best to convince Tomlin to help get them back onto the show. Their whistling abilities could use some work though. Good-bye Muppets, nobody will miss you. C+
9. James Taylor sings “Road Runner” (2:51)
Picking up the pace more than the first song, Taylor sings an old Jr. Walker tune and despite his strange clapping/tambourine portions, this was still an enjoyable tune. B
10. Tess & The Salesman (8:03)
Another of Tomlin’s creations make an appearance here as social weirdo Tess DiSenzo invites a vacation home salesman (Morris) over to her house but it ends up that the visit is just because the poor lady is looking for company. In a pattern that would be repeated quite a few times in the early years of the show, this sketch is played for laughs but they are more subtle and nuanced. There is an inert sadness to this character and you almost feel sorry watching this one-act unfold. It’s also rare to see Garrett get this much exposure. A
11. James Taylor sings “Sweet Baby James” (3:00)
This is another high note for Taylor, as he slow-rocks the hell out of this classy tune. It’s also very minimalist as it is essentially James at center-stage with just a guitar in hand. It should be noted that Don Pardo’s voice introduced James here rather than our host, which often happened in the early years as well when it came time for the last musical performance. A-
12. Film: We Asked Judith Beasley (4:58)
Mark this as number three for Lily’s characters to appear on the show, as Judith Beasley (“not an actor”) demonstrates several things with television products much to the delight of a demented TV spokesperson (Aykroyd). It’s a hilarious parody of those commercials where “real people” comment on the greatness of a particular product. The things Judith must do get increasingly ridiculous to the point where she must enter a hotel room with a strange man, take her clothes off, and perform the Antler Dance. A
13. Women in Literature (2:23)
Featuring the journals of Elna Sullivan (Newman), our narrator (Aykroyd) guides us through the “fascinating” entries including a trip to the Eiffel Tower and dinner with Picasso. The simplistic natures of the entries is the joke here and it gets a bit repetitive, but it was okay I guess. C+
14. Film: Television Viewer (3:32)
Taylor Mead makes his third appearance in a Gary Weis film, this time gushing about the genius of Paul Lynde and the Miss America pageant. Taylor is oddly charming and while this is not as funny as the film involving his cat, it still manages to evoke some smiles. B
15. Lily, James, & the Cast sing “The Antler Dance” (2:23)
To close out the show, our host, musical guest, and the cast demonstrate the “Antler Dance.” Paul Shaffer joins in on the vocals (thank god ’cause Lily was dying out there a bit) and everyone dances around looking ridiculous. It’s silly, but it’s all in good fun. B
Instead of the usual goodnights, everyone is still doing the novelty dance and Lily gets the entire audience to stand up and join in. It makes for an interesting way to end the second season premiere of Saturday Night Live.
So what can be said about the premiere?
It was a pretty good show all in all. Lily held up her end of the boat and did as well as she usually did as master of ceremonies on this show. Utilizing three of her characters in funny sketches and being a good counterweight in the “Debate ’76” sketch, Lily proved that she’s a strong comedic presence and quite a capable actress as well, which she proved in the “Tess & the Salesman” sketch.
James Taylor was a very good musical guest as usual (I find quite a few season opener musicians are good) and delivered three songs that were each quite different from each other and allowed for a very delectable palette of what Taylor is able to bring to the stage.
As for the cast, it seems that the only one that was somewhat snubbed was Jane Curtin as everyone else seemingly got a moment where they were able to be the center of attention. Don’t worry, Jane. Your time is next week.
Host Rating: B+
Musical Guest Rating: A-
Show Rating: B/B+ (okay, so I’ve had two of these in a row. Sorry, too close to call.)
NEXT WEEK: Television producer Norman Lear hosts with musical guest/scatman Boz Scaggs.