THE COMPLETE 5TH SEASON
Original Airing: 1979-1980
Length: Approximately 22 hours (Each ep roughly 1 hour 8 mins)
Genre: Sketch Comedy/Satire
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: None – although the packaging says they are present!
Rating: Unrated (Some Adult Humor and Drug and Sexuality References)
Release Date: December 1, 2009
Starring: Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner and Harry Shearer, with Al Franken, Tom Davis, Paul Shaffer, Don Novello, Peter Aykroyd and Brian Doyle Murray
Executive Producer: Lorne Michaels
Director: Dave Wilson
Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fifth Season is the full-season DVD release of the late night comedy show’s fifth year, originally broadcast between 1979 and 1980, exactly 30 years ago today. In watching through the various episodes of this season, I am struck that the show is actually funnier than my memory would tell from the original airings, and more solid of a piece than its reputation would indicate. The common wisdom about the 5th year of the show is that it was clearly showing signs of fatigue by this point, particularly with the loss of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd at the end of the 4th year and the loss of the show’s basic edginess. One person has said to me that the real downturn of the show wasn’t at the beginning of the following year (the universally despised “Saturday Night Live ‘80”) but during the 5th season. I can say that it is definitely a step down from the earlier years, and it’s definitely nowhere near the cutting edge, but I have to acknowledge there’s a lot of funny material here. Some of the guest hosts do better than others, and some of the musical guests are a bit lacklustre, but there a lot of real gems here, if you dive in with an open mind. I also have to dispute the idea that with the loss of Belushi and Aykroyd there was an overwhelming focus on Bill Murray. It is true that he is featured in more sketches, but there are also multiple opportunities for Al Franken, Don Novello’s “Father Guido Sarducci”, Paul Shaffer and Murray’s brother Brian to shine in many sketches. But the new face that gets the most time in the 5th year is Harry Shearer. Initially shown as a “featured player”, he is clearly intended as a replacement for Dan Aykroyd, in both writing and appearing as another Man of a Thousand Faces. The difference with Shearer, though, is that his work both more studied and more individual. Aykroyd and the others would usually do a new character or an impersonation of a public figure with nothing more than a wardrobe change and maybe a rinse in the hair. For Shearer, a new character usually meant a significant amount of makeup, sometimes to the point of distraction. (One great example of this is his “Ronald Reagan.”) Given Shearer’s intellect and satirical sensibilities, one would think that he would be an ideal addition to the cast. But it just never gels, and the impression is instead that of someone both trying too hard to fit in, and being frustrated at the situation. By the end of the season, the writing is clearly on the wall that this era of the show is over, and things end on a decidedly bittersweet note with Buck Henry’s final “Goodbye”.
Universal has released the fifth season of SNL on 7 standard definition DVDs, most containing 3 episodes, and the final one containing the final two episodes. As with the earlier seasons, 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 four 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”. The packaging for the 5th season is identical to the 4th season, only with the cover art showing a still from the “Lord and Lady Douchebag” sketch from the final episode. The interior disc holder has the show’s portrait of David Bowie for his appearance in Martin Sheen’s episode. Special features this time around are limited to three scene-specific commentaries. Two are with Buck Henry and one is with Elliott Gould, each to accompany their respective hosting assignments.
So now we dive into the 5th 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 Steve Martin/Musical Guest Blondie – Steve Martin returns to host the first episode of the season, an event which drew the largest ratings SNL ever received, as people tuned in to see what would happen without Belushi and Aykroyd. Harry Shearer starts right off with the characters, and the show mostly coasts through. Blondie performs two of her current hits, although the stage sound of “Dreaming” is several steps beneath the original recording. Some of the sketches start to get more into toilet humor than satire, with one inset commercial featuring Steve Martin in a public restroom with an uncredited Buck Henry to hawk the ultimate anti-bacterial spray. Don Novello’s “Father Guido Sarducci” announces his “Find the Popes in the Pizza” contest on Weekend Update, which retains the same set as the 4th season. (I should note that you can have fun reading the captions under the clocks on this set as the season goes on – they usually change them for every episode, sometimes with hilarious results.) There is also a great bit of black comedy with Steve Martin being stabbed to death outside Larraine Newman’s “Carol King” apartment while she composes “You’ve Got a Friend.” (This predictably results in her singing “All you gotta do is call...” and him yelling “CAROLLL!!!!”) The episode ends with one of the funniest and stupidest SNL sketches of all time: Martin and Murray come out on stage, stare out into the audience and begin pointing and repeating “What the hell is THAT?” in various ways.
Ep 2 – Guest Host Eric Idle/Musical Guest Bob Dylan – Eric Idle returns for his latest appearance on the show, this time hosting with a fever. (The cold opening makes jokes about this, including the presence of Buck Henry, who actually was brought in just in case Idle was too ill to perform.) Idle still pulls off some good material, particularly a bit as a pushy shoe salesman and an appropriately sniffy appearance on Heavy Sarcasm. Andy Kaufman makes an appearance where he challenges a woman to come onstage and wrestle with him. (This was one of the more bizarre directions Kaufman’s comedy took in his last years...) But later in the episode, Kaufman provides his patented Elvis impersonation to an “Ask Elvis” sketch. Harry Shearer does a sketch as his “Tom Clay” pitchman character, hawking used Hotel/Motel artwork.
Ep 3 – Guest Host Bill Russell/Musical Guest Chicago – This is the first episode of the season that really doesn’t have a solid guest host. Russell looks fairly uncomfortable on the stage, and the only sketch to really feature him, “The Black Shadow” is an unfunny parody of the then-current “White Shadow” drama. The episode starts with Bill Murray’s impression of Teddy Kennedy and the latest in what will be a long string of references to Chappaquiddick. There’s a decent Weekend Update and the latest appearance by Murray’s “Nick the Lounge Lizard”, and the whole thing ends with Russell appearing in a sketch about a clothing store called “Barry White’s Big and Tall – That’s All”. You could probably skip this episode and not have missed anything critical.
Ep 4 – Guest Host Buck Henry/Musical Guest Tom Petty– Buck Henry returns as a full-fledged host and things get back on track right away. The cold opening, and theme of the episode, centers on the number of times Henry has hosted the show, and the massive protests supposedly being staged at every NBC affiliate. (Video footage from the front of 30 Rock shows a group of protesters circling with signs that include “Buck Off!”, and then ripping apart a large effigy of Henry.) One sketch early on, “The Mystery of Toad Island” may be one of the oddest ones I’ve ever seen on the show. It’s not a funny ha-ha sketch, but the general conceit – that Buck Henry is visiting an island so inbred that everyone there has taken on attributes of toads and bullfrogs – is really funny in its absurdity. Al Franken turns in a great bit on Weekend Update as a public relations man for a chemical plant. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, then in the midst of their “Damn the Torpedoes” tour, turn in appropriately energetic performances of two of the hits from that album. Things conclude with another 1250am silly sketch – this one finding Buck Henry frantically driving home at top speed to use the restroom, while his passengers scream, stuffed animals on wires are thrown at the windshield and Franken and Davis dive over the hood. This one gets second stupidest award after the one in the Steve Martin opener, but it’s a close second, and it’s equally hilarious. As Buck Henry does his goodnights for the evening, the episode theme is upheld as the cast chases him out of the building and publicly beats him. (Like many episodes in the 5th year, this one comes in a minute or so short, allowing the audience a really long look at the band performing the closing musical riffs.) SPECIAL FEATURE: Buck Henry provides a scene-specific commentary for this episode, mostly in character of his on-stage persona for the episode. He’s usually only speaking during his own scenes, but he does acknowledge that he would be given sketches like “Toad Island” because he was the only host that was willing to do them.
Ep 5 – Guest Host Bea Arthur/Musical Guest The Roches – Bea Arthur proves to be an adept host, fitting in pretty well with the regular cast and appearing in a number of sketches. One of these, “First He Cries”, a fairly nasty satire of Betty Rollins’ book about how she dealt with breast cancer (titled “First, You Cry”) may be one of the bravest pieces ever aired on the show. (Reaction after the show aired was swift and angry toward the show and toward Al Franken for writing it – even after he insisted he was critical of the attitudes in the sketch and after Rollins herself told him she wasn’t offended.) Harry Shearer’s “Tom Clay” character makes another appearance here. Andy Kaufman makes a quick appearance challenging any female viewer to write in to wrestle him, followed by Bea Arthur begging someone to clean his clock. The Roches turn in two memorable performances, both in their singing and in their presentation. One nice inset sketch is another character piece, wherein Paul Shaffer and Harry Shearer play rock opera writers presenting a brand new (and AWFUL) show on the piano to potential backers. Al Franken does a bit on Weekend Update about cockroaches which I admittedly fast-forwarded through as I tend not to enjoy looking at them.
Ep 6 – Howard Hesseman/Musical Guest Randy Newman – Howard Hesseman is another host who does fairly well here, appearing in a number of sketches and looking fairly comfortable doing so. (At the end of the show, he thanks the guys on WKRP for allowing him the flexibility to host SNL in the first place.) Al Franken does a great bit on Weekend Update where he announces the incoming 80’s as “The Al Franken Decade”. And as a reflection of the then-current Iran Hostage crisis, the show includes a sketch called “The Bel Airabs” that has not only not aged well, but is really tinged with a nastiness toward Arabs in general. Harry Shearer has a good bit in the middle as a deejay.
Ep 7 – Guest Host Martin Sheen/Musical Guest David Bowie – Martin Sheen is surprisingly game for the material on the show, and he is a really good sport about fitting in with everyone. (And he does the inevitable Apocalypse Now take-off with good cheer about it.) This is actually a really fun episode, including three performances by David Bowie – the final of which (“Boys Keep Swinging”) has Bowie wearing a puppet cut-out that looks really strange on video. During Weekend Update, Bill Murray offers his movie review of 1941, in which he says the movie stars in alphabetical order, Ned Beatty, Carrie Fisher and Christopher Lee and happily jumps on the bandwagon to call the movie a disaster. Given that the poster on display behind Murray prominently shows John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, there is no mistaking the intent here. After happily savaging the film, Murray then advises the audience to go see Meatballs again instead. In another bit, a mock-commercial for the “Forever Ready” battery, Martin Sheen does his Robert Conrad impression, walks into a bar daring someone to knock the battery off his shoulder, and of course proceeds to get the living stuffing beaten out of himself.
Ep 8 – Guest Host Ted Knight/Musical Guest Desmond Child and Rouge – This was another episode where I didn’t quite feel that the host completely fit in here. Some of his bits do okay, particularly a holiday message from “Bob Copp”. This episode features two nice performances by Desmond Child and Rouge and three mock-commericals for NBC programming featuring Gary Coleman in increasingly outlandish political situations. And this is the episode where Andy Kaufman wrestles another woman onstage, and then refuses to continue the round when it becomes clear that he could actually lose. (From Kaufman’s position, he had already done the announced time and therefore had “won”.) Near the end of the episode, a Tom Schiller film is played featuring Teri Garr, who will host the following instalment.
Ep 9 – Guest Host Teri Garr/Musical Guest B-52s – Teri Garr comes in to play, and does fairly well here, although not on the level of a Candice Bergen or a Bea Arthur. The episode starts with a nod toward Paul McCartney’s arrest in Japan for marijuana possession, with “Father Guido Sarducci” winding up in jail too and being forced to read a statement for the cameras. The B-52s do fine with a performance of “Rock Lobster”, but the stage rendition of “Dance this Mess Around” doesn’t quite come off. The show tries to do a revisiting of the “Bad Playhouse” routine, this time with Laraine Newman filling in for the old Dan Aykroyd position, and Teri Garr leading a truly horrible musical performance for everyone’s delectation.
Ep 10 – Guest Host Chevy Chase/Musical Guest Marianne Faithfull – Chevy Chase returns to the show for the first time since the 3rd season. He opens the show with a trademark fall down a staircase as Gerald Ford, and then makes a point of including Bill Murray in his opening monologue, as a way of patching things up from the fight that happened during his last visit. (On the other hand, it’s interesting that during the goodnights, Murray stays as far away from Chase as possible.) To be honest, this isn’t the greatest of episodes. Chase appears in a handful of sketches, this time staying away from Weekend Update. Some of the sketches, like “Pre-Chewed Charlie’s” once again veer away from edgy humor and into the gross-out realm. And there’s another edition of “The Bel Airabs” for those people who couldn’t get enough of the last one. Chase does an interesting performance of “Sixteen Tons” with Tom Scott, but nothing that really knocks the socks off. Marianne Faithfull on the other hand turns in two effective songs. One major change that happens as of this episode: The show’s opening titles are updated for the first time since the 4th season. The titles now feature a tinted series of frames inside a bar, and as of this episode, Harry Shearer is listed with the cast and not the featured players.
Ep 11 – Guest Host Elliott Gould/Musical Guest Gary Numan – Elliott Gould returns to host once again, this time in a more subdued frame of mind than the more raucous appearances he did earlier in the show’s history. Nevertheless, he appears in a fair amount of the show, and brings at least a level of stability to the various sketches. The running joke in the episode has to do with “Father Guido Sarducci” waiting for Richard Nixon and his wife to come home to their new apartment in New York. Gary Numan shows up to play his hit “Cars” as well as an interesting piece called “Praying to the Aliens” that, for some reason, has subtitles! SPECIAL FEATURE: Elliott Gould provides a scene-specific commentary where he talks about working on the show. It can go quiet for some lengths and Gould is really just watching the show with the viewer, but there is some intrinsic interest in listening to what he does have to say.
Ep 12 – Guest Host Kirk Douglas/Musical Guest Sam & Dave – Kirk Douglas jumps in and actually fairs better than you might expect, including a cold opening where he plays himself as short and undimpled. He adds to this with multiple sketches including a bar mitzvah appearance by “Nick the Lounge Lizard”, and a commercial for “Kirk’s Greatest Kirks”. Sam & Dave turn in two solid performances, including one of “Soul Man” as an obvious dig toward the departed Blues Brothers.
Ep 13 – Guest Host Rodney Dangerfield/Musical Guest The J. Geils Band – Here’s a good episode with a solid host. Rodney Dangerfield certainly understands this kind of comedy, and he does well, including a monologue lifted from his current “I Don’t Get No Respect” material and appearances in various sketches. There’s some great material in this episode, including a “Subsitute Judge” sketch (where the judge is treated like a substitute teacher), and two energetic performances by The J. Geils Band. One oddity in this episode has to do with some technical difficulties that seem to plague Weekend Update this season, where it is clear that either graphics aren’t ready or where Jane Curtin isn’t sure which camera angle is next.
Ep 14 – The 100th Show/Musical Guests Paul Simon, James Taylor and David Sanborn – This is probably the best episode of the season, and it’s a memorable one for the series in general. Michael O’Donoghue makes a return appearance in an opening séance, followed immediately by John Belushi, who both shows up in that sketch to give the “Live From New York” line and appears in one more. That second sketch, “The Minstrels of Newcastle”, is one of the funniest of the entire year – featuring Paul Shaffer, Bill Murray, James Taylor, and even Belushi in a bit that translates a notorious studio recording of The Troggs into a medieval setting. (And this sketch is notorious because in the middle of the many repetitions “flogging” thrown into the scene, Shaffer accidentally drops a different f-bomb!) Another highlight here is an extended, rambling monologue by Bill Murray that is more of a performance art piece about New York than a comedy routine. Weekend Update features Roseanne Roseannadanna, doing her usual work to completely nauseate Jane Curtin and the audience. And Michael Palin appears in an action-packed talk show segment called “Talk or Die”, where the guests literally have to fight for their lives.
Ep 15 – Guest Hosts Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss/Musical Guest The Grateful Dead – Richard Benjamin returns after the success of last year’s episode to one that is okay, but not at the same level of last year or even last week. There’s still some good stuff here, including an “Assertiveness Training” Class led by Prentiss and a Franken & Davis segment called “Khomeini the Magnificent” where the Ayatollah (Franken) gives answers in advance to sealed questions. And for Grateful Dead fans, there are performances of two songs: “Alabama Getaway” and “Saint of Circumstances”
Ep 16 – Guest Host Burt Reynolds/Musical Guest Anne Murray – This is probably the low point of the season, even with an actor as comedic as Reynolds. Essentially, there’s not a lot of interesting material here, with Reynolds usually just playing himself as a vain, self-amused guy. Two sketches, one set in a vomitorium and another replaying Deliverance, just don’t work. And the final sketch, with Reynolds doing his patented Marlon Brando imitation, just doesn’t go anywhere.
Ep 17 – Guest Host Strother Martin/Musical Guest The Specials – Things pick up with this instalment, as Strother Martin is surprisingly effective as a host. (And I’m forgiving the early sketch that lampoons his Cool Hand Luke performance.) The Specials turn in a pair of high energy performances, although the first one (“Gangsters”) features the disturbing image of one of the singers brandishing a tommy gun throughout the song. There’s a fun character sketch about orchestra conductors, as well as a more in-depth take on “Our Town” featuring Martin.
Ep 18 – Guest Host Bob Newhart/Musical Guest Bruce Cockburn and the Amazing Rhythm Aces – Bob Newhart (and his Button Down Mind) are a great fit for the show, as Newhart immediately demonstrates with his monologue, which excerpts some great Newhart stand-up material. Late in the show is the latest Mr. Bill offering, sending the poor guy to the slammer. But the most memorable part of this episode is a notorious appearance by Al Franken on Weekend Update wherein he tells viewers to demand NBC give him a limousine since Fred Silverman gets one. This moment, known as the “Limo for a Lame-o” bit, is what on its own may have changed the future of the show. Before Franken did this, there was a possibility that Franken and Davis themselves may have taken over the show as of summer 1980, and kept the Lorne Michaels flag going a bit longer. But once Franken publicly (and nastily) attacked Silverman like this, NBC refused to let any of those guys take over at the end of the season. It is not too extreme to note that this one bit of nastiness had that far-reaching of an impact.
Ep 19 – Guest Host Steve Martin/Musical Guests 3-D and Paul McCartney - This episode has become known over the years as the one where “Father Guido Sarducci” goes to London and interviews Paul and Linda McCartney live on the air before showing the US premiere of McCartney’s video of “Coming Up”. It also has a few funny Steve Martin sketches, including a take-off of the current reality variety programming, “Real Incredible People” as well as a bit where homeowners are terrorized by burglars who steal nothing but make a mess, and then by their mothers who come in to clean up the mess.
Ep 20 – Guest Host Buck Henry/Musical Guests Andrew Gold and Andrae Crouch & The Voices of Unity – The annual Buck Henry-hosted final episode of the season starts with a Harry Shearer newsflash, followed by an opening monologue where Henry acknowledges that this will be the final episode of Saturday Night Live as it has been known for the past five years. There’s a tinge of sadness over the whole episode, even as the idea is played for laughs. (Henry introduces a group of people as next year’s players, including a person who looks and sounds exactly like Don Pardo...) Several character bits are brought out for the last time, including “Nick the Lounge Lizard”, Roseanne Roseannadanna, Uncle Roy and Chico Esquela. One bizarre moment happens during Weekend Update, when Bill Murray takes a flash photo toward the video camera, and burns a yellow rectangle into the image from that camera for the rest of the sketch. (Murray acknowledges that this was a really stupid thing to do, and that the crew roundly bollocked him for that one.) The aforementioned “Lord and Lady Douchebag” sketch tops the whole thing off with enough of an edge to remind the viewer of what the show is capable of doing. And as an actually serious statement, Henry’s goodnights end with a “Goodnight...and Goodbye” as he leads the cast off the stage and the “On Air” sign is turned off. And with that, the golden age of Saturday Night Live is brought to an end. SPECIAL FEATURE: Buck Henry contributes another scene-specific commentary, this time honestly appraising what was happening with the final episode. He tends to only talk during his scenes, so there are gaps here, but what he has to say verifies what many people have felt about this final episode. He confesses that he’s not happy with his opening monologue, and confirms that he was being completely serious with the way he ended the episode. And he confirms that he made a specific choice never to host the show again after this time.
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 5th 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 5th 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 5th Season is the final “must buy” of the golden age of the show, even though it is more uneven than the prior seasons and has less comedic gold. It is still very funny, even surprisingly so today,given the reputation that it has had over the years. Fans of the original cast will want to pick this up or at least rent it, to see the material held here. And I encourage fans of the show to at least rent this set, particularly if the only version they have seen of it is the one currently on the air.
December 27, 2009.