'Saturday Night' Snippets

Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri struck comedic gold as the desperately unhip and scarily intense Spartan Spirit cheerleaders on NBC's
Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri struck comedic gold as the desperately unhip and scarily intense Spartan Spirit cheerleaders on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." (Nbc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007

How refreshingly unpretentious it would be if each "Saturday Night Live" clip show were called simply "Another Saturday Night Live Clip Show." But the two-hour special airing in prime time tomorrow carries a hefty moniker: "Saturday Night Live in the '90s: Pop Culture Nation."

How's that again? Never mind; it's time for another two hours of clips and reminiscences about the endearingly durable TV institution that, since 1975, has helped make NBC the leader in late-night programming.

The '90s seem more than a decade long as recounted here, partly because so much was happening at "SNL" -- mass firings ordered by myopic NBC management, for instance, and angry columns from some TV critics calling for the show to be canceled.

Lorne Michaels, the show's creator, executive producer and inextinguishable guiding light, talks about the strange demands for "SNL's" head on a platter. He says the baby boomers who had always considered the show "theirs" were upset to find their teenage kids watching it. Michaels, who has always believed that "SNL" should stay as young as possible, hired younger writers and performers, and they spoke a different comic language to new generations of viewers.

Don Ohlmeyer, the former NBC executive who demanded that Michaels fire Norm MacDonald as anchor of the "Weekend Update" segment, shows guts in agreeing to be interviewed and attempting again to defend his action. But one of the alleged reasons for Ohlmeyer's rancor isn't really discussed: that the executive, a close friend of O.J. "If I Did It" Simpson, didn't like MacDonald's devastating Simpson jokes.

One problem for "SNL" in the '90s was that NBC prospered mightily in prime time. That's traditionally when boneheads in executive suites get restless and are most likely to meddle. Today, with NBC earning the worst prime-time ratings in its history, Michaels and his cast are largely left alone. The cast is about half the size it was in the '90s, however, another victim of NBC budget-slashing.

Kenneth Bowser, producer and director of the special, does a fairly good job of mingling interview bits with excerpts from sketches, but it's still frustrating that no sketch is allowed to run its course, that virtually everything is truncated. Some excerpts make sense only if you remember the sketch from its original airing, like recurring shots of Alec Baldwin as a scoutmaster attempting to seduce scout Adam Sandler. (Baldwin always has had a way with kids.)

Baldwin is also among that select group who've hosted the show at least 10 times. He pops up in interview clips, as do Chris Rock, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey (now producing and starring in "30 Rock"), Cheri Oteri (also seen on tape doing her terrific Barbara Walters impression for a parody of "The View") and Will Ferrell, who's enjoying one of the most successful and, in its way, satisfying post-"SNL" film careers.

Sandler was among the cast members whom NBC executives wanted fired in the '90s; he, of course, has gone on to a fabulously lucrative movie career as well, proving again that network executives know nothing. Chris Farley and Phil Hartman, who both died tragically, are fondly remembered in anecdotes and clips -- Farley, naturally, doing his big-bellied motivational-speaker routine, complete with its dire warning about "living in a van down by the river," and his big-finish swan dive onto a coffee table.

Hartman's Bill Clinton is a joy to see again (even though master impressionist Darrell Hammond does a superior imitation); but his excessively mean-spirited Frank Sinatra is better forgotten. Worthily reprised is the kookily hilarious "Jeopardy!" spoof with MacDonald as Burt Reynolds and Hammond as a fiendishly irascible Sean Connery.

What's the most crucial difference between an "SNL" episode and one of these clippity specials? When you watch the regular show, the musical acts are on long enough for you to go to the bathroom. On the special, though, groups such as Pearl Jam, Green Day, the Foo Fighters and Nirvana fly by in snippets, mere iconic decoration and signs of the time.

However much one might complain about the show's writing or performances, television is always a happier and wickeder place when "Saturday Night Live" is in session.

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