Release Date: December 2, 2008
3 ½ ½
Starring: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner, Al Franken, Tom Davis and many guest hosts
Executive Producer: Lorne Michaels
Directed by: Dave Wilson
Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fourth Season is the full-season DVD release of the late night comedy show’s fourth year. This is the final season of the show to include Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as members of the regular cast. My recollections of this season from 30 years ago were of the series being at its creative peak before the inevitable fall. Watching the episodes again, I’ve realized that the show was already beginning to come down a bit at this point. While there are many great sketches and characters presented throughout the season, there is a feeling in many shows of having been over the same ground a few times too many. Sketches like “Olympia Cafe” and John Belushi’s explosive “Weekend Update” commentaries have by this point become a bit tired. Belushi himself is not as engaged this season, which is understandable due to his film commitments calling him away for much of the time. Writer Michael O’Donoghue, known for his dark and nihilistic material, is no longer part of the show. At the same time, this season sees the appearance of several new characters, including Garrett Morris’ Chico Esquela, Dan Aykroyd’s Fred Garvin and Gilda Radner’s Candy Slice. And in addition to some great topical humor, there are some great musical performances sprinkled throughout. So the bloom may be a little off the rose, but this will still be a necessary purchase for fans of the classic years of the series.
Universal has released the fourth season of SNL on 7 standard definition DVDs, most containing 3 episodes, and the final one containing the last two episodes along with three interview snippets with Belushi, Radner and “Mr. Bill” creator Walter Williams. As before, the episodes are presented in their original full frame aspect ratio, from the master videotapes. My comments about the video and audio quality from the earlier seasons continue to apply here: The video quality is a good but not spectacular combination of vintage videotape and ragged film footage. The sound quality is a simple 2.0 mono mix that makes the voices clear and doesn’t try to do anything else. This season set, like the first two years, presents the episodes without the cast photo bumpers other than the final one before the goodbyes. The regular segues to commercials have been included, so that we tend to go wide to see a gag title for what’s “Up Next”. As of the fourth season, the gag audience captions are no longer happening. As of this season, both Aykroyd and Murray remain clean-shaven throughout the year. The packaging for the 4th season is identical to the 3rd season, only with the cover art showing an earlier season’s appearance by Murray and Radner’s Nerd characters. The interior disc holder has the show’s portrait of the Rolling Stones for their appearance in the first episode. While the earlier seasons included various inserts of booklets or photos in the package, nothing is included here except the discs.
So now we dive into the 4th season. As with my earlier reviews of SNL, I’m dispensing with my usual divisions regarding special features and concentrating instead on the contents of each episode. THERE ARE MANY SPOILERS HERE, but this is to help fans of the show easily locate some of their favourite sketches and gags. I’ll take each disc in order. All the regular episodes are presented in full-frame with the aforementioned 2.0 soundtrack.
Ep 1 - Guest Host/Musical Guest The Rolling Stones – Things get back underway right off the bat with the cast singing out the NBC three-tone melody as a song. The episode is ostensibly hosted by the Stones, in a now-legendary meeting between the superstar rock band and the comedy show known by some as “The Beatles of Comedy”. As it is, the Stones’ performance on the show consists of a sketch appearance by Mick Jagger in the latest Aykroyd parody of Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” program, and a cameo by two of the Stones in the latest “Olympia Cafe” sketch, followed by the band’s performance of “Beast of Burden”, “Respectable” and “Shattered”. The band plays alright, but Jagger’s voice is thrashed and hoarse and it’s a fairly low-energy performance. The show’s opening monologue is actually an appearance by Mayor Ed Koch to present John Belushi with a certificate in his honor. (This routine, with Belushi complaining about having to return to the show from the world of features, is prescient of what will happen at the end of the season when he and Aykroyd leave the show.) The most memorable moment here is the notorious Nerds sketch where repairman Aykroyd famously hikes down his pants and squats around the refrigerator in a suggestive manner. As of this episode, the opening titles now feature double portraits of the cast. The “Weekend Update” set has been adjusted again, now featuring vertical rows of clocks behind co-anchors Curtin and Murray. One fun element of the season is seeing what city names are listed on the clocks, as they change each week. (One week, all the clocks read “Warsaw”.) As of this season, Bill Murray is promoted to co-anchor of “Update” with Jane Curtin, and the segments now include “Bill Murray’s Celebrity Corner” where Murray conducts an interview via live feed from the anchor desk.
Ep 2 – Guest Host Fred Williard/Musical Guest Devo – Fred Williard makes a game effort as guest host to fit in with the cast, but while the effort is commendable, it still feels like a kid in the schoolyard trying to make it with the “cool kids”. There’s a great opening bit with Bill Murray’s “Honker” character popping up in the audience and thinking he’s at the Yankee game. There’s a fun sketch featuring Belushi as an aging stuntman repeatedly blowing the big stunt of the movie, and a fresh appearance by Aykroyd’s Irwin Mainway. And there’s a memorable “Mr. Bill” film, with the character being taken on a tour of New York where first his dog Spot gets run over, and then he discovers what happens when you fall off the top of the Empire State Building. Devo cooks in their appearance here, starting ironically with their take on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and then returning with both their introductory film and their signature line “Are We Not Men?” (One of the video cameras has some problems with the bright yellow HAZMAT outfits that Devo wears, but other than that there are no problems.)
Ep 3 – Guest Host/Musical Guest Frank Zappa – This episode may be a good example of trying to have too much of a good thing. After Zappa’s delirious musical appearance in the 2nd season, they apparently decided to bring him on as a host as well as a musical guest. His musical performances are still top notch, and Belushi’s samurai once again joins the band for one song, but Zappa’s sketch appearances are disappointingly broad. At the same time, there’s a great Franken and Davis political routine about mudslinging that gets funnier and meaner the longer it goes on. Don Novello’s Guido Sarducci makes his first of many “Weekend Update” appearances for the season. And there’s a great conceptual sketch about people turning their house into a makeshift prison for convicts.
Ep 4 – Guest Host Steve Martin/Musical Guest Van Morrison – Steve Martin returns and picks up where he left off the last time. His opening monologue features him getting Bill Murray to do tricks in order to get a cracker treat, only this falls apart when Martin fails to give Murray the requisite cracker after a trick. There’s a great bit during “Weekend Update” of Murray’s Celebrity Corner doing an interview with Garrett Morris’ Diana Ross. And there’s a really funny routine of “Looks at Books” with Curtin interviewing the scarred author of the book “Mauled” about his concerns about his experiences with grizzly bears. The closing sketch of the show gets cut off before it can finish, but Martin promises to do it again “in February” when he is to host again. (As it turned out, Martin didn’t host again during the 4th season, and the sketch remains unfinished to this day.)
Ep 5 – Guest Host Buck Henry/Musical Guest Grateful Dead – Buck Henry turns in his first appearance for the season, once again bringing back several of his favourite routines. To them he adds the pedophiliac Uncle Roy the Babysitter. There’s also a great bit with Murray’s Celebrity Corner interviewing John Belushi’s chicken-centric Elizabeth Taylor. A new sketch, the “St. Mickey’s Knights of Columbus meeting” introduces Garrett Morris’ Chico Esquela, to whom base-a-ball has been very, very good. And there’s also a new Rovco commercial for its horrifying “Chinch Ranch”. Topping it off is a trio of songs with the Grateful Dead.
Ep 6 – Carrie Fisher/Musical Guest The Blues Brothers – Carrie Fisher pops up on the show, initially doing her jokes in costume and hair as Princess Leia, but that quickly goes by the wayside and the real fun begins. One great new idea is the Loud family, wherein everyone shouts their dialogue at each other. The Blues Brothers turn in another trio of songs, starting with their take on “Soul Man”, with Garrett Morris’ introduction and their entrance presaging one of the routines from the film that will come in another two years.
Ep 7 – Guest Host Walter Matthau– Walter Matthau does his best to be a part of the hijinks, but feels fairly stiff in his appearance here. On the other hand, his presence inspires the cast and writers to do “The Bad News Bees”, complete with jokes about “buzzing off”. Matthau also appears in the latest “Olympia Cafe” sketch as a pushy Coke salesman who gets the restaurant to switch from Pepsi to Coke. One memorable moment here is that Matthau has Garrett Morris sing a beautiful Mozart aria as his musical break before announcing, “and now back to the regular crap.” “Weekend Update” includes a mention of the death and funeral of San Francisco’s Harvey Milk, only using footage of the funeral of Mao Tse Tung in China.
Ep 8 – Guest Host Eric Idle/Musical Guest Kate Bush – Eric Idle returns to the show and makes a good episode look effortless. This may be the best episode of the season, given all the material here. Idle starts off with a monologue sketch about not having a monologue due to the writers all being too drugged up to give him one. The show includes Dan Aykroyd’s Telespsychic Ray character and his infamously bloody “Julia Child” routine. This episode makes Morris’ Chico Esquela a sports commentator on “Weekend Update” and introduces Gilda Radner’s punk singer “Candy Slice”. Add to that Murray’s Celebrity interview with Radner’s Valerie Harper, another appearance by Aykroyd’s Irwin Mainway, and two spellbinding performances by Kate Bush.
Ep 9 – Guest Host Elliott Gould/Musical Guest Peter Tosh – Gould returns to host the show, and starts things off with a duet with Garrett Morris. There’s a shocking Rovco commercial for flammable Xmas trees, a return to the “St. Mickey’s Knights of Columbus” and the introduction of the large-posteriored Widettes. There’s also an appearance by legendary radio personalities Bob & Ray. And there’s a great pair of performances by Peter Tosh – on the first of which, he’s joined by an energized Mick Jagger. (And Jagger doesn’t try to steal the show; rather, he just has a good time singing with Tosh.)
Ep 10 – Guest Host Michael Palin/Musical Guest The Doobie Brothers – Michael Palin returns to host for the first of two appearances this season. This episode’s “What If” segment answers the question what would have happened if Superman had been a Nazi. (The timing of the sketch is clearly based on the then-current film with Christopher Reeve.)
Ep 11 – Guest Host Cicely Tyson/Musical Guest Talking Heads – Cicely Tyson appears to upbrade Garrett Morris for appearing as her in drag during her opening monologue. The episode also features return appearances by the Widettes and Nick the Lounge Lizard, as well as two performances by the Talking Heads, five years before Stop Making Sense.
Ep 12 – Guest Host Rick Nelson/Musical Guest Judy Collins – Rick Nelson hosts and performs as his own musical guest for much of the show, although Judy Collins does one performance. The episode features return appearances by Candy Slice and Chico Escuela.
Ep 13 – Guest Host Kate Jackson/Musical Guest Delbert McClinton –Kate Jackson makes an appearance, initially spoofing her work on “Charlie’s Angels” as part of a Fred Silverman undercover operation to sabotage NBC for ABC. (This was at a time when NBC was in real ratings trouble and SNL had a lot of fun beating up Silverman about it on a regular basis) Andy Kaufman makes an appearance with a bongo team that, um, yodels.
Ep 14 – Guest Host Gary Busey/Musical Guests Eubie Blake and Gregory Hines –Gary Busey appears, fresh from being nominated for The Buddy Holly Story, and is appropriately dressed down by Belushi, who’s smarting for NOT being nominated for Animal House. Busey goes for broke in this episode, appearing in as many skits as he can playing the most extreme characters possible and then performing a ragged but exuberant “Stay All Night”. And there’s a trio of songs performed by Gregory Hines with the legendary Eubie Blake. This is the episode that features Bill Murray interviewing Mr. Ed’s widow during “Weekend Update”. The interview nearly doesn’t come off due to a REALLY uncooperative horse, but Murray and Laraine Newman manage to improvise their way through the bit. As a result, Jane Curtin actually breaks character and starts giggling before “Weekend Update” can mercifully end. (According to Alan Zwiebel, this idea happened around 2am the night before the show...)
Ep 15 – Guest Host Margot Kidder/Musical Guest The Chieftains – Margot Kidder appears for St. Patrick’s Day, starting with a monologue where the mostly Irish crew has clearly done too much carousing to be able to do the show. This ep marks the first appearance of “Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute” (about 25 years before Garvin would go on to fame and fortune making the Alien 3 production featurettes on the ALIEN QUADRILOGY. This is the ep that has the legendary superhero sketch with Murray as Superman and Belushi as the Hulk. Appropriately, the musical guests are the Chieftains.
Ep 16 – Guest Host Richard Benjamin/Musical Guest Rickie Lee Jones – Aside from starting out with an acknowledgement that Belushi will not be on this week (by having a skit with an NBC “temp” offering to fill in for him), this is a solid instalment, with Richard Benjamin working well with the cast along the likes of Buck Henry. This episode features the “Pepsi Syndrome” parody of The China Syndrome, complete with an appearance by Rodney Dangerfield to tell us just how big the President has become... This episode features a breakout pair of performances by Rickie Lee Jones (“Chuck E’s in Love”) that are reputed to have established her in the mainstream community. (Belushi’s only appearance here is in a repeat of the commercial for “Little Chocolate Donuts”.)
Ep 17 – Guest Host Milton Berle/Musical Guest Ornette Coleman– John Belushi returns for this instalment, hosted by Uncle Milty. Berle’s opening monologue is an unfortunate sign of the distance between Berle and the people he’s working with on this show. It’s a litany of the kind of jokes that the show tried to stay away from – material from a generation before SNL, that the show’s writers were in fact trying to rebel against. Berle does okay in some of the sketches, including an appearance with the Widettes and a “Launch Pad” sketch before segueing into his interpretation of “September Song”. One sketch with Gilda Radner features spit-takes by Berle that angered Lorne Michaels enough to help convince him to keep this episode out of syndication. On the other hand, this episode does have the final confrontation between Aykroyd’s Irwin Mainway and Curtin’s Joan Face, this time over Mainway’s Kiddie Fun World, which is loaded with somewhat hazardous rides for children. (My favourite is “Crack the Whip”, in which children are put in a burlap bag tied to a derrick that swings them around until the rope breaks and the children are flung into a nearby lake!)
Ep 18 – Guest Host Michael Palin/Musical Guest James Taylor – Michael Palin returns for his second hosting assignment for the season. Aside from three performances by James Taylor, this one also has a fun bit with Akyroyd’s Tom Snyder out for a Mother’s Day dinner with Jane Curtin doing her impression of Aykroyd’s Snider. Palin gets appropriately mobbed by the cast in the goodnights and knocked to the floor.
Ep 19 – Guest Host Maureen Stapleton/Musical Guests Linda Ronstadt & Phoebe Snow - Maureen Stapleton guest hosts here, with her sketches primarily focusing on smaller character pieces between her and Gilda Radner. Ronstadt and Snow deliver two song performances and also appear in the latest Nick Rivers extravaganza. (Nick sings “You’re No Good” to Ronstadt and is then appropriately punched out cold by her bodyguard.)
Ep 20 – Guest Host Buck Henry/Musical Guest Bette Midler – The annual Buck Henry-hosted final episode of the season starts with a “Mr. Bill” segment of the poor Playdough man being brought to the performance of SNL, which leads to him almost saying the opening line of the show before being sat upon. So the audience gets to actually hear a high pitched scream of “Live From New York, It’s Saturday NOOOOOO!!!” This ep features the final Samurai sketch, this time a visit to “Samurai Bakery” and the final “Olympia Cafe” sketch. There’s an appearance by Franken & Davis, this time playing off the idea that Al Franken has joined the Hare Krishna group and shaved his head. This sketch appropriately ends with Davis cutting off Franken’s remaining pony tail and then being beaten senseless by Franken. The goodnights for this episode are replaced by an appearance by “master impressionist Michael O’Donoghue” who gives his interpretation of Elvis Presley. Of course, that interpretation assumes that the King is having steel needles plunged into both of his, well, eyes. So while the cast happily waves goodnight and goodbye for the year, we can see O’Donoghue thrash his way off the stage and into the audience.
The rest of the seventh disc is taken up with the special features:
Today Show Interview with John Belushi (7/27/78) (2:13, Full Frame) – This is two minutes of Gene Shalit’s interview with Belushi from summer of 1978. The section excerpted here has to do with Belushi’s constant travel back and forth between features in other parts of the country and SNL in New York.
Today Show Interview with Gilda Radner (4/14/80) (5:03, Full Frame) – This is five minutes of an interview conducted with Radner near the end of her final season on SNL. Subjects covered include the creation of Roseanne Rosannadanna and her encounter with Barbara Walters after she had been doing her Baba Wawa character.
Tomorrow Show with Walter Williams (Mr. Bill) (4:45, Full Frame) – Here’s about a 5 minute interview by Tom Snyder of the creator of the Mr. Bill movies shown on SNL during its first few years. This interview is interesting both for the portrait of Mr. Bill’s creator (who acknowledges that his character got on the show in the first place as part of a competition by people making home movies and sending them in to the show), and for the ability to see the real Tom Snyder that Dan Aykroyd had so much fun lampooning.
Trailers – (6:04, Full Frame) Here are quick previews for DVDs of the television series “Quantum Leap”, “Monk”, “Eureka”, “Heroes: Season 2”, “Life”, “The Incredible Hulk” and “30 Rock”.
As with the earlier seasons, the packaging indicates there are English subtitles, but I was unable to activate them on any disc. For the third time, if anyone can find them, please post a response.
VIDEO QUALITY: 3/5
Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fourth Season is a full-frame presentation of the best video master available. As with the earlier seasons, what you see here is what you saw when these episodes originally aired. And the point here is just to be able to see these episodes uncut. I seriously doubt that anyone is expecting anything more from 30 year old videotape masters.
AUDIO QUALITY: 3/5
Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fourth Season is presented in an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix that gives the original audio as was heard when the shows aired back in the day. The voices are clear and the music comes through nicely. As with the earlier seasons, this isn’t really the set for discussions about high end audio – it’s just nice to hear the original shows in their original format.
IN THE END...
Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fourth Season is another must buy for anyone who is a fan of the original “classic” years of the series, possibly the final “must buy”, depending on fans’ allegiance to Belushi and Aykroyd. It’s certainly a must rental for anyone who hasn’t seen these shows before. As I said with my review of the earlier seasons, I’ll leave it to the many fans to dissect all this and let us all know which areas I have missed. And I encourage everyone to try to see these shows, particularly if the only version of SNL you have seen is from the last few years.
One final note: I have seen reviews online that attempt to equate these early SNL season sets with the current show on the air. In at least one case, the writer has opined that the early seasons were just as problematic as the show has been in the last several years – the idea being that the show has somehow always been the same over the years and that people’s view of the early years as better is influenced by the “Best of” compilations that have been released. There is some truth here, which I have tried to point out with specifics in my reviews of the past three season sets. But that isn’t to say that the Saturday Night Live on the air today has much in common with the original edition. Yes, the show has a sketch comedy format, including a musical guest and a parody of the latest news headlines. Yes, the show starts with a cold opening followed by the signature line and a monologue by the episode’s guest host. (Although during the Ebersol years, this actually didn’t happen every season.) Yes, the show has mined current affairs and politics for laughs ever since it began. But this is only describing the bare bones of the show. The actual writing of the sketches and the performances by the cast have changed considerably since the show’s birth 33 years ago. The original edition of this program can properly be considered a response to the late night comedy shows it followed. The original edition was made by comedians who brought a counterculture aesthetic to television, including the attitude that they wouldn’t wait for the audience to get the jokes. By the end of the 5th season, this era had run its course. The next five years mostly saw Dick Ebersol keep the show running, albeit with a different sensibility than he and Lorne Michaels had begun it. In 1985, Michaels returned to the show, and has stayed there ever since. To date, he has produced the show for 28 of the last 33 years, with a five year break early on. The Lorne Michaels that produces the show today has a different perspective and a different sensibility than the man who initially began the program. And the writers and performers that have come and gone over the years have each brought their own perspective to the show. For myself, the original edition, particularly in its first three seasons, is the freshest and most effective presentation of SNL on record. Things definitely improved during the Dana Carvey/Phil Hartman years, but, again, there was a very different sensibility to those years. Some of the episodes don’t work as well as others. The fourth season shows some mileage on it and the fifth one endures the loss of two of its key players. But even with that, these initial seasons showcase a unique and exciting program, one that influenced other TV shows and movies for years afterwards. Comparing the current edition of the show to its origins isn’t fair to the current players or writers, and is simply inaccurate. As a final note, I’ve also read the note that SNL has always had bad sketches on in the final slot (meaning the 10 to 1AM slot). This is also not true. The character of Roseanne Roseannadanna first appeared in a sketch at this time. The infamous lobster attack on Studio 8H happened in the 1250A slot. The infamous “Mr. Mike” bedtime stories regularly happened in the 1250A slot. In the 80’s, the characters of Hans & Franz were introduced in that slot, as was the public access TV show “Wayne’s World”. Sorry to ramble a bit on this subject, but I grew up with this show, and I feel a need to keep the record straight.
December 6, 2008.