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Charles Grodin’s bizarre SNL episode embodied his brand of meta-comedy

Charles Grodin appears at a 1994 news conference for his talk show. (Marty Lederhandler/AP)
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“This Chuck Grodin guy is really making me nervous,” John Belushi tells Gilda Radner at the beginning of an October 1977 episode of “Saturday Night Live.” The show’s host has been absent much of the week and missed the dress rehearsal, Belushi complains. “He doesn’t know TV, you know. I mean, he doesn’t smoke dope. He’s just not one of us.”

Charles Grodin enters, having presumably blown off the rehearsal to purchase gifts for the cast, including a shaving kit and a travel alarm clock. He’s surprised to learn that the show has an audience and is performed live.

Many SNL episodes have versions of this routine, with the host chatting backstage with cast members early on about how the television magic comes together. But Grodin, who died Tuesday at 86, keeps the conceit going throughout the show as he stops sketches in their tracks, trips over his lines and comments on the performances, the whole time hoping to perform a song “to express how I feel about life.” The episode was emblematic of a looser, more experimental SNL era, but also demonstrated aspects of Grodin’s comedic persona: his confounding mix of boyish affability and faux-rudeness, or self-deprecation and self-obsession, sometimes in the service of questioning the institutions around him.

“I just got the idea that that would be funny,” Grodin said of the episode’s premise in a 2009 interview with the A.V. Club.

What makes it work is that he counterbalances his incompetence with politeness. In the monologue, he plays the clueless out-of-towner. “I wish I’d had more time during the week to rehearse and really work on the skits with all the gang here,” he says, “but how can you come to New York and not see at least a couple of Broadway shows?” He disrupts Belushi’s samurai dry cleaner to call him “such an incredible character.”

Later, while wearing an Art Garfunkel wig, he sings “The Sound of Silence” alongside musical guest Paul Simon, without knowing the lyrics, before a frustrated Simon exits — and Garfunkel later appears to demand he remove the wig. (The episode is interspersed with some non-Grodin sketches, including one, perhaps not coincidentally, touting an SNL “Anyone Can Host” contest.)

Adding to the confusion is that it’s a Halloween episode. “I didn’t expect to see you in these costumes,” he says to the Killer Bees, recurring SNL characters. “Are you playing children dressed up as bees or are you bees playing children who are dressed up for Halloween? Am I supposed to believe that you’re real bees? I mean, I don’t really know how to relate to the whole bee thing.” After the bees opine on the nature of their “etymological masquerade,” Belushi goes off on Grodin. “This is my art,” he says, his bee antennae dangling from his head. He calls Grodin “the lamest host we’ve ever had,” then storms out. Grodin turns to Radner and says, “What a powerful presence he has.”

Obituary: Charles Grodin, versatile actor and master of deadpan humor, dies at 86

The show’s commitment to such an absurd premise has only one rival, a 1986 episode that was ostensibly hosted by George Wendt, but where Francis Ford Coppola continually interrupts sketches to give direction. Grodin’s performance was convincing enough that some believed he was banned from the show. Though as he told the A.V. Club, “They asked me to do it again, but I chose not to, because I can do two things: I can learn a script, or I can improvise. But you can’t improvise there, because it’s all done to time, and you can’t learn a script, because they’re changing it, changing it, changing it, so you’re pretty much forced to read teleprompters, and I just didn’t want to do it again.”

Grodin brought a more prickly form of this meta-persona to his infamous late-night appearances with Johnny Carson and David Letterman. At one point he brought on an attorney, threatening to sue Letterman for libel; at another Grodin told him, “I have very little tolerance for talk-show hosts.” Grodin upended conventions on his own CNBC show, rebuffing guests from plugging their work, at one point saying, “Nobody cares what anybody has coming up next.”

It all seemed to stem from an instinct to call attention to show business structures by stepping outside of them. In 1971 he was fired from an off-Broadway play, and then wrote a play about a director of an off-Broadway play who worries he’ll be fired. He once starred in his own play called “Price of Fame.” In his late-night appearances he would reference that he was unappreciated — which, of course, he was, having “never received the recognition he deserves,” Roger Ebert wrote of his film “Midnight Run.”

“My book, ‘It Would be So Nice If You Weren’t Here,’ is essentially about how to deal with rejection in show business. This book about rejection was rejected by every major publishing house in New York,” he wrote in the New York Times in 1990.

Grodin frequently constructed a semblance of what was real, such as the life-size fiberglass animals he kept in his Connecticut backyard. Thirty years after his character in “The Great Muppet Caper” was entranced by the film’s leading lady, he “revealed” that the crush carried over into reality, penning a 2011 essay titled “My Night With Miss Piggy.”

In interviews, Grodin alluded to his tendency to challenge presumed expertise. “I don’t accept what people say,” he told the A.V. Club, and when asked the source of this impetus, he noted that his grandfather was a Talmudic scholar. He often seemed fixated on the difference between knowing and not knowing. “I feel one of the big flaws everywhere, probably since the beginning of time, is that people speak up and say things, and they’re not really right,” he said in that interview, adding, “I know I don’t know about most things, but I’m trying to find out.”

It’s fitting that his only SNL episode was all about not knowing what he’s doing.

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