"We're both silly," says Bill Lee on behalf of himself and his partner John Moffitt. "We're hysterical." The question is, are the two producers silly and hysterical enough to pull off "Fridays," their forthcoming late night comedy series on ABC?
The show premieres tonight at 11:30 on Channel 7 opposite Johnny Carson after the local news. And yes, it is obviously and indubitably an attempt to duplicate for ABC what "Saturday Night Live" has done for NBC. "Saturday Night Live" opened up television to new kinds of comedy, new scope in satire, new young audiences previously cool to TV, and new advertisers anxious to reach the nearly 18 million viewers who watch it each week.
"Saturday Night Live" really blazed the trail that made a show like this possible," says Lee, 43. "Hopefully, we'll be an extension of that and blaze trails of our own."
"We didn't go out looking for a John Belushi or a Gilda Radner," says Moffitt, 46. "We found people who are their own comedians. What we're doing is comparable to but not similar to 'Saturday Night Live.'" True, that makes no sense, but then, these guys are hysterical, remember?
"We just say, 'Why not have another good comedy show in late night?'" says Moffitt. "When you had a Red Skelton show, you also had a Jack Benny show, and nobody said one was copying the other. We want to be just as good as 'Saturday Night Live' and hopefully better."
Moffitt and Lee have a staff of eight writers all under 30, and a tribe of nine resident zany madpersons to perpetrate mirth from Los Angeles, some of it live and some of it on tape. "A pilot for the series has been kicking around all season while ABC made up its mind; it includes sketches like a religious disco show (with "Donna Samaritan") and a vivacious prima-donna puppet who snorts cocaine.
Just as on "Saturday Night Live," there'll also be a weekly mock news report, "Friday Edition." But Lee says this is really a sop to ABC's new late "Nightline" news show, which is seen every night except Fridays. "It's only fair we extend it to Friday," says Lee. We're calling it, 'A Time Slot Held Hostage -- Day 1.'"
Cheap wisdom has it that "Saturday Night Live" is past is palmy days and into the winter of discombobulation. Some say the program's comedy isn't as fresh and zingy as in past seasons and that it certainly hasn't been helped by the defections to big-money Moviedom of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
"Well, I think it's held up as well as any show like that can hold up under the type of pressures a show like that has," says Lee. "The fact that people have left has hurt it, but on the other hand it's given people like Jane Curtain and Bill Murray a chance to develop. I don't think there's much they haven't done, and it's going to be hard for us to come on and be different, because no matter what we do, someone will say, 'I remember when "Saturday Night Live" did that.'"
Moffitt says that "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels wanted him to direct the series when it started on NBC, but he turned the offer down. As it turns out, the director Michaels did hire, Dave Wilson, proved to be brilliant and practically perfect. In addition to "Saturday Night Live," he directs of all things the Miss America Pageant on NBC each year.
But Moffitt says he and Michaels are still friends and that "I make sure he gets a good seat each year at the Emmys."
Whatever people may be saying about "Saturday Night Live," and its alleged decline in quality, the fact is that more people watch it than ever before. The program's rating shave increased a staggering 145 percent since its first season (1975-76). Recently, a repeat program hosted by Kris Kristofferson got almost double the rating it received when it was first shown, in July of 1976.
With the success has come not only tons of revenue for NBC -- figures the network predictably refused to divulge -- but also culture hero status for the show and its stars. Part of this derives from the maverick nature of the program and the way it tilts at sacred windmills.
Naturally Moffitt and Lee are going to try to be as cheeky, irreverent and naughty as the network will allow. It pretty much goes with the territory.
"We don't have just one censor as signed to this show," says Lee. "We have an Army! We have got a legion out here! They're obviously nervous, and rightfully so. New York is basically handling the show, so everything we write has to be sent back East to be cleared. There are lots of frantic phone calls in the middle of the night and some very strange telegrams."
"They do have different standards for late night," says Moffitt. "They've thrown in the towel somewhat. I guess they figure that most of the people who might be offended are asleep by then. They let us be more hard-hitting and controversial. You have to change the standards for that hour and the audience we're trying to reach."
"We're still fighting over words like 'erection,'" says Lee. "We're raising a lot of chaos around here. Right now, it's a draw between the censors and us. At least no one's hit anybody on the head yet."