SNL Retro: Miskel Spillman/Elvis Costello (12/17/77)

Posted: March 22, 2011 by Brendan Wahl in SNL Retro Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

by Brendan Wahl

(Season 3, Episode 8 )

You probably read the title of this post and thought, “Who in the hell is that?!” I can almost guarantee that if you do not remember the Anyone Can Host contest way back in 1977 than you would be totally unfamiliar with this episode’s guest star. That’s right. I am, of course, referring to the one and only… Elvis Costello.

But I jest.

In all seriousness, Miskel Spillman was the winner of the Anyone Can Host contest a couple of weeks previous to this episode and would be the one selected as the host for the Christmas edition of Saturday Night Live. She would also remain the program’s oldest host for thirty-two years (damn you, Betty White!) and the only non-celebrity to ever host (that includes Pamela Sue Martin). If SNL has taught us anything over the years it’s that the statement “anyone can host” is CERTAINLY not true.

Joining Miskel is Elvis Costello, who was in his angry youth days at this point in his career. Elvis was actually a last-minute replacement for the original musical guests, the Sex Pistols, who simply couldn’t get visas in time because of their criminal records and related legal problems in the US. Elvis, who was touring North America at the time, agreed to do the show but there was quite a bit of argument over what songs he was to perform on this week’s episode. That will become important later.

Anyway, let’s start this THANG!

The Show:

1. Stoned (1:59)
-Buck Henry, Belushi, Newman

Since he was the one that essentially guided America through the Anyone Can Host contest and introduced the participants, it’s only fitting that Buck Henry make an appearance at the top of the show. In this opening, he finds John and Laraine in the locker room discussing how well their novice host will do. Buck reveals that Miskel is in a sort-of haze in her dressing room and it turns out that it’s all because of Belushi and his monster-powered joints (that “your joints overwhelm even an experienced drug user like myself,” says Henry). Quick, amusing way to start the show. B+

2. Monologue (2:03)
-Spillman, Buck Henry

Sure enough, Miskel makes her way out with fruit basket in hand and Buck Henry alongside her. She looks absolutely elated to be there and of course she’s not a performer, so she’s given very few lines to work with. Every time Buck tries to take the basket, Spillman pulls away and makes glassy-eyed expressions directed towards the audience. When she finally does have some lines, it is so plainly obvious that she is reading directly off the cue cards and her delivery is piss-poor. But I mean that’s to be expected, right? C

3. Meat Wagon Action Track Set (:52)

This amusing commercial parody cleverly mimics those children’s toys commercials with this one being exactly what it sounds like. Includes the scene of an accident, miniature body bag, and the ambulance to take the body to the morgue. Funny enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a real toy. B+

4. American Date The Self-Conscious Association (4:01)
-Belushi, Murray, Newman, Radner

A spokesperson (Newman) presents a dating service for the self-conscious as we see a potential couple (Murray & Radner) attempt to get through a date without being too self-deprecating. When it turns out that the spokesperson herself is not totally cured of her own self-consciousness and that her guest (Belushi) is the complete opposite (he is ridiculously obnoxious!), the sketch really kicks it into high gear. Dan Aykroyd also shows up as a representative for the Really Stupid People’s Amalgamation in a hilarious bit. The sketch also had a Monty Python-like vibe to it and the performances by all involved were pretty terrific. A

5. The Gift of the Magi (6:10)
-Spillman, Aykroyd, Belushi, Curtin, Newman, Radner

We get the first sketch appearance of our host here as she sits next to Jane Curtin, while the Update anchor reads the story of the poor couple who were facing a failing kidney on the part of the wife (Radner). The husband (Belushi) loves her hair and despite the couple’s faith, they could not afford to exchange gifts. This is obviously a comic take on a popular Christmas tale where the husband and wife each sell their prized possessions to be able to give each other gifts, but the only difference is that this has a much darker ending. This was a funny piece and a clever use of Miskel without having to get her to act or anything. I did like her last line, too. B+

6. Elvis Costello sings “Watching the Detectives” (3:56)

Staring intently into the camera, Costello & the Attractions are in top form here as he sings a haunting rendition of one of his big hits at the time. He looks visibly angry here at the song that his label told him to sing. Again, this will become important later on. A

7. Weekend Update with Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin (13:33)
-Also: Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, & Gilda Radner

We get the second appearance of a teaser before Update starts and it’s a pretty funny one with President Carter and the First Lady dressing up for the Broadway musical, Cats. More great Carter-related news items includes a pregnant magazine cover and a discussion involving Menachim Begin that leads into a telephone conversation between Jane and the President himself (Aykroyd). Since it is obviously Danny doing the voice, the reveal of Aykroyd on the phone at the other side of the newsdesk following the call is made that much funnier. Garrett’s commentary was pretty funny as he started by defending an African-American basketball player who supposedly punched a white player during a game, but after showing footage that proves the opposite of his point, he backs up and rescinds his story. Bill Murray stops by with his smarmy self to do a review of Miracle on 34th Street, which he finds a total cop-out because the movie never says whether there is a Santa Claus or not. It’s another example of Murray’s expertise at playing these types of Hollywood phony characters and I love how this commentary reveals that he still believes in jolly old St. Nick. Directly after Bill takes off, the Dancing N returns and wants to be revealed. Danny finally takes the N off and it’s Emily Litella, who makes her first appearance since last season. She does a commentary on the “sssst landing” and it’s the same ol’ thing she usually does, but Jane’s subsequent freak-out afterwards is hilarious. After capping it off with a funny bit regarding Idi Amin being chummy with the Son of Sam killer, we close out on a pretty strong edition of Update. A

8. Sartresky & Hutch (6:52)
-Spillman, Buck Henry, Aykroyd, Belushi, Curtin, Morris, Murray, Newman

Well, here’s a pretty conceptual piece. Spoofing the 70s cop drama (which would’ve been on the air still at this point), this piece finds Hutch (Belushi) teamed up with the philosophizing Sartresky (Aykroyd), named after Jean-Paul of course. I’m sure this would go over the heads of tons of viewers today and probably did at the time as well. This “episode” sees the twosome trying to stop a suicidal criminal (Murray) from blowing himself up as well as his wife (Curtin) and his mother (Spillman). Not to mention there is also an amusing piece with Buck making a proposal towards a hooker informant (Newman). This doesn’t work as well as it should have, but it is still funny and is highlighted by Aykroyd’s fantastic comic performance as an existentialist cop. Belushi also comes perilously close to cracking up due to Danny’s antics. B

9. The Franken and Davis Show (4:12)

What starts off as a special visit from Al’s parents (the real deal!) soon degenerates into an insane family ordeal after his mother reveals an embarrassing story involving Al and urination. These bits are usually among the highlights of the episodes they appear in and this one was no exception. While Franken and Davis were great writers, their performance skills were also pretty impressive. Al does dishevelled well and Davis is the man who attempts to calm the storm. A+

10. E. Buzz Miller’s Art Classics (3:43)
-Aykroyd, Newman

We get the debut of two semi-popular characters here as E. Buzz Miller (Aykroyd), sleazebag extraordinaire, introduces some classic paintings involving nudes so that he can point out the breasts on the women. Christy Christina (Newman) joins him and through her giggling and ditzy mannerisms, she doesn’t lend too much to the discussion. Laraine is an absolute delight here though and I loved Christy! Come to think of it, this is Buzz’s second appearance (his first being in Gordon/Berry in Year 2), but the character has evolved a bit since then. B+

11. Elderly Girlfriend (3:30)
-Spillman, Aykroyd, Belushi, Curtin

For the first time all night, Miskel gets her first real opportunity to act as a young college man (Belushi) comes home with his new girlfriend (Spillman). The parents (Aykroyd & Curtin) are more than a little surprised by the age difference between the new couple, but they still don’t react with cartoonish behaviour like you’d expect. A good, calming sketch and Miskel does the best she could possibly do with this role. It was kind of adorable here that Jane pretty much guided her through their conversation too. B

12. Wino Santa (2:38)
-Murray, Radner

A department store Santa (Murray) relentlessly taunts a poor young girl (Radner), who asks for tons of different gifts. Jolly old St. Nick is all too willing to mercilessly torture her by dropping her off his lap and continues to revel in her misery. This was just an example of the chemistry between these two, which would only improve in the years to come. A-

13. The Soiled Kimono (4:04)

One of the all-time classic Mr. Mike bits. Laraine stops by Mr. Mike’s Coral Waters Cafe to beg for a least-loved bedtime tale, but he makes her sing the aria from Madame Butterfly while some words scroll over the screen telling of the ingredients of the drink and of the story behind its origins. Reportedly, Laraine was none too happy about being forced to sing this difficult Madame Butterfly tune, but it results in a terrific sketch. A+

14. Elvis Costello sings “Less Than Zero”… err, “Radio Radio” (2:57)

After playing his hit, “Less Than Zero” for about fifteen seconds, Costello halts his band and launches into a harsh criticism of mainstream radio and television with “Radio Radio.” An infamous moment in SNL history and one of the all-time great musical performances on the show. Apparently, Costello did this after being sent over the edge due to a prank by Aykroyd. A+

Miskel, adorn in an adorable Christmas outfit, thanks everyone for giving her the most wonderful time in her life and brings everyone on stage (including Mr. Mike, papa and mama Franken, and Buck Henry, but of course not including Elvis Costello) to join in on the adulation. Interesting to note here is that the cameras focus on the crew more than the cast on-stage in a way of giving everyone screentime before the Christmas break, I guess. I also noticed here that a set was constructed for a sketch with Dan Aykroyd’s Joseph Franklin character, but it must’ve been cut for time.

So how was the episode? A lot better than you would think. For an episode of a show featuring a guest star with no acting experience whatsoever, this made for a pretty entertaining time and a number of classic bits to be found throughout. With a host who obviously didn’t give a tour-de-force performance, the episode basically became a cast-focused one. There were lots of highlights in that department too. From Laraine’s amazing singing voice to Gilda’s childlike abandon to Danny and John’s solid showings in several sketches again, this was a top notch showing from all involved.

Elvis Costello brought the musical goods here as well, particularly with his second rebellious song and his stares of utter terror that he made in the direction of the camera. Watch out, Dan Aykroyd!

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

  1. […] Miskel Spillman/Elvis Costello […]

  2. Karen says:

    Note the Attractions’ drummer’s “THANKS MALC” T-shirt during “Radio Radio.” Malcolm McClaren was the Sex Pistols’ manager and responsible for their being canceled, which resulted in the Attractions’ being substituted at the last minute. Quite funny at the time if you happened to be a disappointed Pistols and caught the reference.

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