SNL Retro: Ray Charles (11/12/77)

Posted: January 14, 2011 by Brendan Wahl in SNL Retro Reviews
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by Brendan Wahl

NOTE: Sorry for the late posting.

(Season 3, Episode 5)

Cue cards. Without these helpful items, most live shows would be completely lost. Even some taped shows would be lost. They are the foundation of many a program and even when it’s not obvious that the performers are glued to the cards or reading directly off them, that is precisely what is going on 90% of the time. Whether you’re Phil Hartman or Rob Schneider, one is always dependant on those cards to make it through a scene without making an ass of one’s self. So, how hard would this be if you were blind?! That question is posed to this week’s host, legendary performer Ray Charles. Of course, Ray had another method and this would involve someone speaking into a device that transmits into his ear to help him along, but think of how this would still probably end up being slightly difficult. Having to repeat someone’s line right after they deliver it on top of having to react appropriately to the other performer seems like a small accomplishment all on its own.

Usually, I would discuss the musical guest too but in this case, Ray Charles is also the musician for this episode (as one might expect that he would be) and surely has brought along many longtime friends to help him out. However, stand-up comedian Franklin Ajaye is booked as a special guest on the show, a trend that SNL would incorporate in the first few years and many, many times in the Ebersol years and the early years of Lorne Michaels’ return to the show.

I can see clearly now, it’s time to start…

The Show:

1. Godfather on TV (2:19)
-Belushi, Murray

Tired of the violence being shown on television, Don Corleone (Belushi) talks to his consigliere (Murray) about how The Godfather portrayed the family in a negative light. During this discussion, the homogenization of television is spoofed a bit too as Murray announces some spin-offs that have resulted from the popular television airing of the film. Quick and funny opening. B+

2. Monologue (1:40)

Ray sits at his piano and says that he did not want to host this tasteless show unless some of his conditions were met like the show being broadcast live from Carnegie Hall. However, the joke is on the producers as Ray announces that he’s not the real Ray Charles and that the real one is, in fact, at the legendary music hall. B

3. Ray Charles sings “I Can See Clearly Now” (3:49)

With the assistance of the Raelettes, Charles opens the show on a big, bouncy note with a terrific performance of an old classic. Ray seems ecstatic to be there and the backup performances by his many friends are quite entertaining as well. A

4. Carter’s Energy Program (1:45)

After a quick introduction by our host, President Carter (Aykroyd) discusses his new energy program and announces that despite his slow, clear, one-syllable explanations, the American public has failed to comprehend the urgency of the energy crisis. Carter adds that because of this, he won’t be able to balance the budget or get re-elected (wow, was he ever right about that one). B+

5. Mamorex (2:23)
-Charles, Morris

The lovely Ella Fitzgerald (Morris) shows off the strength of her vocal chords, which breaks a wine glass. The second time, Ella plays her own voice on Mamorex and this time Ray’s glasses crack. It’s a cute bit, but nothing special. C+

6. The Doody Girls (3:10)
-Murray, Newman, Radner

Following the demise of Howdy Doody (as announced on a previous edition of Weekend Update last season, his widow Debbie (Radner) plans to go on a date so that she can get back in the social environment. Despite the advice of her friend (Newman), Debbie can barely hold it together and everytime the question is posed as to what time it is, she breaks down crying. The performances in the sketch are quite good as they move around effortlessly on strings and just like puppets. Murray also does this perfectly and it results in a pretty dark, but hilarious sketch. A

7. Tomorrow (5:12)
-Charles, Aykroyd

Dan brings back his ridiculously accurate Tom Snyder impression and this time, he interviews legendary musician Ray Charles. Dan’s cadence as Snyder is all over the place, constantly questioning himself and coming up with responses like “Alright, sir” and “fair enough.” His follow-up questions, particularly one in response to Ray’s description of blues music, are pretty damn funny. One would think Charles would be stilted and awkward here but he seems rather comfortable given the circumstances and Aykroyd gives him good foil. A-

8. The Young Caucasians (4:55)
-Charles, Aykroyd, Belushi, Curtin, Morris, Murray, Newman, Radner

The setting is a Memphis rehearsal hall in 1957 and Ray awaits the arrival of a new, young group of white folks preparing to do a version of his hit, “What Did I Say.” Most of the cast portrays this group (except Garrett, of course, who plays Ray’s manager). The real meat and potatoes of the sketch is the group’s whitebread performance of the number and their stilted, awkward body motions as they croon. This was a wonderful sketch and quite possibly my favourite of the entire episode. A+

9. Ray Charles sings “What’d I Say” (3:01)

Immediately following that classic bit, Ray and the Raelettes (along with several other backup musicians) perform one of Charles’ biggest hits and do it the proper way. Ray hasn’t lost a step by this point and it results in another terrific performance. A

10. Weekend Update with Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin (6:17)
-Also: Bill Murray

“And now… Weekend Update with CHEVY CHASE!” Following Curtin’s cluelessness as to who Chevy is, Pardo responds… “Sorry, old script.” Whoa, an O.J. joke from 1977! Both anchorpersons are on their game here as Curtin does a funny bit about Lillian Carter and then with the help of Aykroyd’s foaming at the mouth, she discusses a warning from the health board regarding the telltale signs of rabies infections. Bill Murray stops by to initially review “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but TIME Magazine ruined the movie for him so instead of ignoring it, Murray vomits out a spoiler of the entire film by mistake. The Dancing N makes another appearance this week and this time the bulletin reads “To hell with the bulletin, will you dance with me?” Curtin is all for it, but Aykroyd doesn’t want to discredit their news credibility. Eventually, cooler heads prevail though and the dancing occurs. It’s a shorter-than-average edition of Update but one that is entertaining nonetheless. B+

11. Ray Charles & Friends sing a medley (7:03)

Starting out with a classy introduction of all his musician friends, Ray and the Raelettes leaps into some snippets of some of his most popular songs like “Golddigger,” “I Believe In My Soul,” and “Hit The Road Jack” to name a few. It’s a slam-bang performance and his best one thus far. A+

12. Franklin Ajaye (4:47)

The most whitebread black comedian ever spends his entire time discussing Star Trek and its various quirks and characters. His routine is actually not that great, however, as his material is rather tired and drab. There’s a couple of funny lines here and there, but nothing too amazing. It also looks like he wasn’t sure how much time he had and walks off the stage looking a little pissed (“Hey, are we off?”). C

13. Evelyn Woodski Slow Reading Course (2:03)
-Charles, Aykroyd (voice), Curtin, Morris, Murray

Offering a course for people who are normally speed-readers that gives them the opportunity to enjoy the material that they read. The funniest parts of the whole thing are Bill as a surgeon, who admits that he has been rushing through medical journals and making a lot of mistakes as well as Ray himself complaining about how he used to get blisters on his fingers from speed-reading braille. B+

14. Blackout Burglary (2:26)
-Charles, Aykroyd, Morris

Ray stays in a nice little apartment in the Big Apple, but is interrupted by a couple of guys (Aykroyd & Morris) who attempt to rob it. All of a sudden, the lights go out and when they come back, the baddies are in a heap and Ray is calling room service. It’s a quick bit, but rather harmless. C+

15. Next Week (:27)

Buck Henry makes an appearance to announce that he will host next week along with the five finalists of the Anyone Can Host contest. “America is in a lot of trouble,” sez Buck.

16. Ray Charles sings “Oh! What a Beautiful Morning” (4:28)

Quite a musical episode this week, huh? Marking his fourth musical performance of the night, Ray slows it down a bit for this upbeat tune about a positive day. B+

17. Ray Charles and the cast sing “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” (1:12)

The cast (plus Belushi doing a hilarious Ray Charles impression) lead into a one-minute portion of another classic Charles tune. Not really a rating for this, as it was just an amusing little bit.

18. Mr. Mike’s Monet Painting (2:17)
-Charles, Aykroyd, Belushi, Curtin, Morris, Murray, Newman, Radner

Mr. Mike reveals a Monet painting that they are donating to the Lighthouse for the Blind (of course, there’s nothing there) but the joke is on Mr. Mike himself, as Ray announces that at the party, some big black guys are gonna beat on the head writer and break all his bones. B+

Ray announces that there’s a whole minute left, so he gives out an extended thanks to everyone on-stage with him and closes out the show with a big, bouncy lively tune and lets the SNL Band follow along while the credits roll.

Another superb show, making it two in a row so far after last week’s brilliant Grodin episode. The choice of Ray Charles was obviously a risky one but it seemed to have paid off in spades here as he commanded the helm of a very entertaining broadcast, albeit a very musical one, that proved that even without the sense of sight, Ray could still take part in a comedic institution and even poke fun at himself at times.

The cast was also there to support Mr. Charles all the way leading to some good performances and ample time for pretty much everyone tonight. I guess you could say Aykroyd shone the most possibly, but there really wasn’t anyone left in the dark this week.

Host & Musical Guest Rating: B+
Show Rating: A-

  1. kmnnz says:

    This was one of the very best episodes during that golden 1975-80 period. Ray Charles was a smash, both in his singing and as a comedian. The Young Caucasians skit was a favorite of mine, too.

    Terrific review!

  2. W.B. says:

    The “Weekend Update” set of 1977-78 – especially the bluescreen background – was modeled after, and a spoof on, the bluescreen background on the set of New York station WABC-TV’s “Eyewitness News” as in place from 1975 to 1978. If one sees any vintage clips of “EWN” from the 1976-78 period, you’ll see what I mean. In addition, the “circle WU” buttons worn by Ms. Curtin and Mr. Aykroyd were clearly a spoof of the “circle 7” logo used by the ABC-owned stations and a few of their affiliates (such as KATV in Little Rock, AR).

  3. Graham Dano says:

    “Golddigger” is the name of the Kanye West song that sampled Ray Charles’s 1956 hit, “I’ve Got A Woman”. Better fix your song titles there.

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