They've closed down the Greek diner that sold only cheeseburgers and Pepsi. Lisa Loopner and Todd DeLaMuca may be married and living on welfare for all we know. The Samurai Delicatessen is out of business, Roseann Roseannadanna has retired, Chico Esquela has headed for the showers, Nick Summers is lost in the Catskills.
"Jane, you ignorant slut." "I'm Chevy Chase and you're not." "Base-a-ball been berry berry good to me." -- all that stuff is nostalgia now. Last spring, "Saturday Night Live" died. All the writers' and performers' contracts ran out, and the creater of the show, producer Lorne Michaels, left.
Tonight, "Saturday Night Live" is born again -- or so NBC hopes. Following a smasheroo that developed into a virtual subculture can't be easy, but the new show is coming to the air more like the Saturday Night Fights; already the new performers, writers and producer are bruised and embattled. One of the new writers spent only a few weeks on the staff before being fired, and now he says he's worried that while "SNL" may remain a commercial hit, it might violate the bond that the original show built up with its audience.
"There was a compact between the show and its viewers," says Peter Tauber, 33-year-old author of "The Last Best Hope." Tauber wrote a memo to the new producer, Jean Doumanian, before she fired him, warning that if the new show betrayed the confidence developed by the old, if it didn't retain its stance of being "a spit-in-the-eye of television," then "our audience will get angry and hoot us off the screen."
The old "Saturday Night Live" not only opened up new commercial terrain in late-night TV, it also managed to convince its mostly young viewers that this was one TV show not produced by the same jerks who produced all the other TV shows.
It was television for the millions of television babies who don't trust television.
Tauber says from his New York apartment that he is not bitter and doesn't want to torpedo the new show. But he fears the new show will be like a kiddie version of the old, aimed at a younger audience and merely exploiting the good will generated by the original program.
"The show may succeed in NBC's terms," Tauber says. "It delivers 30 million viewers, NBC gets $40,000 for a commercial, and all that, but when the show started, the average age of its viewers was 26. Now it's 21. It's one thing to reach out to a younger sensibility, but many of the new writers bragged to me that they had never seen the old show."
He says the new writers include rich tots fresh out of Harvard and Princeton -- "very establishment, 'nice' kids" -- and that the new players are "by and large stand-up comics without much acting or improvisational experience." He says one and all are "staggering blindly into the new season."
Doumanian blames Tauber for all the nasty stories about backstage disarray at "SNL" that have been peppering New York newspapers lately. "Peter didn't fit in, I realized I had made a mistake, and I very nicely told him it wasn't working out," Doumanian says.
When the original "Saturday Night Live" went on the air, it didn't just take viewers by surprise with its irreverent satire and outlaw attitude. Michaels once said that NBC brass had no idea what kind of show they were getting: "They thought it was going to be a TV version of 'Up with People,'" the squeaky-clean, right-wing revue.
But neither was the show an instant success, either commercially or artistically, as last week's rebroadcast of the first program (of Oct. 11, 1975) showed. Things hadn't quite jelled -- the show relied too heavily on musical guests and host George Carlin -- yet anyone could see it harbored the spark of something different.
Gilda Radner, a cast member from the beginning to the end, said recently, Lorne's most intelligent move was demanding a guarantee of 13 shows from the network, because we didn't get good until about the 10th show." The program benefited from its inconspicuous spot in the schedule, however; nobody expected a late-night show on Saturdays to be any good. The new regime is not so lucky, arriving with a barrage of press fanfare and great expectations of longtime viewers.
"Of 30 million viewers, 20 million will have a latent hostility," says Tuaber. "They'll be seeing on that stage the eight dead bodies of their own friends -- the old cast. I don't think we can underestimate that hostility."
Among the charges floating around is that NBC higher-ups, especially president Fred Silverman, are keeping a tighter grip on "SNL" this time, hoping to have the cake of profits and not to have to eat the frosting of controversy.
"I think Freddie really wants the show to succeed," says Doumanian, "and because he doesn't know how it works, he's left me alone." Doumanian concedes the budget has been trimmed. Originally it was supposed to come in at $110,000 per week ("It never did," says Michaels) but toward the end was heading for the $1 million mark. The unknowns Michaels had hired five years earlier had become high-priced stars.
With a new cheap assemblage of untried writers and actors who want to become stars themselves (yawn), the cost has plummeted. As for the allegedly watchful eye of the network, Doumanian admits NBC is being "a little bit cautious" but says Michaels was subjected to "a ridiculous amount of surveillance" in his early days, too, and that NBC regards the revised version as a totally new show.
Michaels himself, now knee-deep in movie and development deals, wants to stay out of the fray over the successors. "I'm thinking of going to another country for the next couple of weeks," he says. "I don't wish them any ill, but that's one of those statements that will never be believed." He was not happy about NBC's decision to rerun the first program; "I suppressed that for years."
Bill Murray, a former and rambunctious cast member, is angry about the badmouthing of the new edition; he is a friend of Doumanian's (as is filmmaker Woody Allen). He says the backstage gossip is nobody's business. "To call the show 'disorganized' is ridiculous," he scoffs. "It was never organized in the first place. Jean Doumanian is the Dallas Green of comedy."
"The show is going to be a success," Murray says. "Like Jane Curtin said, if it works, it's a compliment to us."
"I'd like to believe that the achievement of the last five years will somehow rest and be all right," says Michaels.
"I would never have dreamed of writing for television until I got the opportunity to do 'Saturday Night Live,'" says the disenchanted Tauber. "Other than the National Lampoon, it's the only real, sophisticated satire vehicle with great public exposure. Now I feel like the guy who's been jilted by a mail-order bride, then sees a picture of her and is glad she didn't show up."
Will the new program have the sassiness and bravado of the original, will it still be as topical and satirical? Doumanian answers the question with another question: "With Reagan as our president? What are you -- nuts?" This is her way of saying it will.
"We always pointed at stuff, and we'll continue that," she says. "When I woke up the morning after the election, I was sure I was going to find myself in a police state with flags flying and Reagan's picture hanging from every window." This may be an indication of how sophisticated the satire is likely to be.
At any rate, the torch is passed to a new generation. It now remains to be seen how badly they'll burn their little fingers.