'SNL in the '80s': The Last Laugh On a Trying Decade

Tomorrow's special includes clips of Eddie Murphy.
Tomorrow's special includes clips of Eddie Murphy. (Nbc Universal)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 12, 2005

If you can remember Doug and Wendy Whiner, Terry and Julia Sweeney (no relation) and the squirrelly nerd who married a monkey, you qualify as a truly devoted fan of "Saturday Night Live." Those and other memories -- dumb, dim or dimmer -- will come creeping back from the past tomorrow night when NBC presents "Saturday Night Live in the '80s: Lost and Found," an entertaining talkumentary about the venerable comedy show's second decade.

The two-hour special, a procession of talking heads, sketch snippets and remnants of vintage musical numbers, is a sequel to a special that aired in February and celebrated the show's first five years -- its best period, partly because the show was so fresh and feisty.

By contrast, "SNL" began the '80s with a complete breakdown, its original cast and producer having doused the "On Air" light and walked out -- hence the "Lost" in the title of the special, which airs at 9 p.m. on Channel 4. Having reached rock bottom, "SNL" could sink no lower, and as the decade lurched on, it heaved and ho'd, ebbed and flowed, and was regularly pelted with the proverbial critical brickbats.

"SNL" was pulled apart at the seams, reinvented, deconstructed, recast, briefly canceled by programming genius Brandon Tartikoff and, finally, reclaimed its place as TV's funniest and bravest hardy perennial.

At this point, I have to interrupt myself. Even more than the first special, "Lost and Found" conspicuously covers much of the same backstage lore as recounted in "Live From New York: An Uncensored History of 'Saturday Night Live,' " published in 2002. The authors were James Andrew Miller and -- me.

For this reason, many, if not most, of the stories in the documentary have a certain familiarity to me. Kenneth Bowser, who produced, wrote and directed, ran into the same big roadblock that frustrated the book's authors: Eddie Murphy, the biggest star ever to emerge from the show, declined to participate. He's talked about but does no talking of his own.

In addition to having others laud Murphy, Bowser includes micro-moments from great Murphy sketches -- Murphy as Gumby, Murphy as Buckwheat, Murphy as "Mister Robinson," and Murphy as James Brown prancing around a hot tub. Murphy's inspired exuberance easily survives the intervening years; the camera didn't just love him, it worshiped him. Murphy and pal Joe Piscopo are credited with saving the show from cancellation.

Jean Doumanian, the unlucky and underqualified young producer who took over from Lorne Michaels as executive producer of the series, is also absent from the documentary. Although everyone agrees she failed, Doumanian has her defenders, among them wacko comic Gilbert Gottfried, who complains that the media attacked her too viciously. The great Bill Murray also has kind words for Doumanian and, gentleman that he is, dared to defy the other old-timers and returned to host Doumanian's show.

In one excerpted sketch, he talks about mean things critics wrote. "My favorite . . . is, 'Vile From New York,' " Murray says. Thank you, Bill. I wrote that when reviewing the premiere of the Doumanian version in 1980 (she lasted 10 months).

Dick Ebersol, now president of NBC Sports and mastermind of its Olympics coverage, took over from Doumanian, having been present at the creation of "SNL" in the '70s. He was the NBC executive in charge of late-night at the time and, given a mandate to create a weekend comedy series, he hired Michaels. Bowser, however, made a strange editorial decision in telling this part of the story. While someone is saying that Ebersol had a knack for keeping network brass away from the show, we see photographs of NBC executive Tartikoff hanging around Ebersol's office, as if to contradict what's being said.

"SNL" continued to attract bright young talents even when its reputation foundered, although those talents weren't always given a chance to shine. Writer Larry David (not interviewed) couldn't get a sketch on the air, and actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, recruited from a Chicago improv group, recalls her three seasons on "SNL" as confused and frustrating. In later years, David would co-create, and Louis-Dreyfus would co-star in, "Seinfeld," the series that proved that even a sitcom can be a masterpiece.

Ebersol decided to go for broke with the 1984-85 season, putting together a high-priced all-star team that included Billy Crystal, Martin Short and Christopher Guest. That version lasted one funny-but-peculiar season. Then Lorne Michaels returned, in 1985, and eventually turned it back into "Saturday Night Live."

Strangely, the documentary doesn't deal with the death of "SNL" founding father John Belushi in 1982. And how odd that in a two-hour survey of the '80s and a show that satirized them, there's ne'er a glimpse of Ronald Reagan, or of Phil Hartman's slick and witty impression of him. The ultra-versatile Hartman would meet a tragic end in the '90s.

Considering that the '80s were thought to be a bad decade for the show, one sees a great many comedic gems: Francis Ford Coppola spoofing himself by directing his own auteurist version of the program; Short as the babbling Ed Grimley, worshiper at the shrine of Pat Sajak (who even knew he had a shrine?); Dana Carvey as the Church Lady, as a burned-out Elton John and as Dennis Miller while sitting next to Dennis Miller at the Weekend Update desk; and Crystal as gossipy lounge lizard Fernando (mercifully minus the still-tired "You look mah-velous" catchphrase).

We briefly see the ultra-talented Damon Wayans, but he isn't mentioned; nor do we hear the legendary tale of how Michaels, who recoils in horror from firing anybody, loudly fired Wayans one night while the show was on the air. Bowser's problem was, obviously, an excess of good stuff, even from a decade widely considered bad. Thus one of the encouraging, amazing things about "Saturday Night Live": Even in its darkest, dankest hours, even when it teetered on the brink of extinction, "Saturday Night Live" never ceased to surprise.

And when it did, it wasn't just funny. It was joyous.

Saturday Night Live in the '80s: Lost and Found (two hours) airs tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 4.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company