Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray,
Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Jeff Giles
e humans are a nostalgic lot, forever pining for past glory days – and perhaps none of us are guiltier of this than “Saturday Night Live” viewers. They have been bitching about the show’s current cast and unfavorably comparing recent seasons to those past for so long that it’s simply become accepted that the show used to be a lot better than it is – even though the seasons and sketches that many fans now think of as classics were widely scorned when they originally aired.
Thank goodness, then, for Universal’s ongoing complete-season reissues of the show, which reach “SNL’s” 1978-79 run this week. Not only do these beautifully assembled sets restore the episodes to their original length (and, in some cases, restore entire episodes), they also provide irrefutable proof that “Saturday Night Live” has always, no matter who’s been in the cast, been pretty much the same show, at least in terms of quality: A few really funny sketches, a lot of so-so bits, and plenty of duds, interrupted with top-tier musical guests.
The fourth season of “Saturday Night Live” found the show at an early peak of cultural relevance, slowly leaving behind its underground subversive roots and developing into the character-heavy franchise it would become. Although flashes of that humor still occasionally surfaced in the fourth season – most notably in a sketch imagining Superman as a Nazi and Buck Henry’s appearances as the terribly creepy babysitter Uncle Roy – much of the show’s cruelest and/or most shocking bits were then, as now, reserved for its “Weekend Update” segments. For example, Jane Curtin described the famous photo of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting a Viet Cong officer by saying that a new shot had been developed for the Asian flu. (The show’s original head writer, pioneering guerrilla comedian Michael O'Donoghue, would have been proud.)
Perhaps the largest difference between the show’s earlier seasons and more recent ones is that, although “SNL” has always been known for its easily repeatable one-liners, the original cast (together for the final time in these episodes) was much less interested in saying funny stuff than in simply creating bizarre situations, as in Dan Aykroyd’s recurring “Danger Probe” sketch. In its first Season Four appearance, “Probe” tosses together John Belushi as a Hare Krishna, Gilda Radner as a mime named Maureen, and Bill Murray and Laraine Newman as the diabolical fiends who intend to torture them. There aren’t really any funny lines, but nobody seems to mind; it’s the kind of skit that gets more laughs as it’s being described than it does while you’re watching it, and “SNL’s” fourth season, like all the rest, is full of them.
There are highlights, of course. For one thing, this season’s musical guests are stellar even by the show’s typical standards: The Rolling Stones appear in the season debut, and thanks to a crappy mix and what appear to be colds of some sort (wink, wink), they’re among the worst of a list that includes Talking Heads, Van Morrison, the Grateful Dead, Rickie Lee Jones, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Peter Tosh and Devo. And there’s plenty of funny stuff nestled between all the duds, including Belushi’s Liz Taylor impression, Aykroyd’s terrifically bloody Julia Child sketch, a pair of Samurai bits, further appearances from the “wild and crazy” Festrunk brothers, Bill Murray’s Roy the Lounge Singer, Father Guido Sarducci, and – of course – the Blues Brothers, not to mention hosts both brilliant (Steve Martin, Buck Henry, Elliott Gould, Michael Palin) and not (Walter Matthau, a visibly bored Frank Zappa and Milton Berle, who was so spectacularly ill-suited to the show that Lorne Michaels barred his episode from appearing in syndication). In other words, for a season that starts with Garrett Morris leading a beautiful tribute to the radio variety shows of the past, and ends with Aykroyd and Belushi leaving their fellow Not Ready for Prime Time Players behind, this run of episodes has everything you could reasonably expect.
Unless, that is, you’re looking for a ton of extras. Like previous sets, Season Four is relatively light on that front, including a few brief interviews with the cast (Belushi and Radner in separate appearances on “The Today Show”) and crew (Walter Williams, the man behind the “Mr. Bill” short films, on Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow Show”). The video and audio are also predictably spotty, but given that we’re talking about material that was taped to video 30 years ago, that’s perfectly reasonable. Whether it’s $70 worth of reasonable is going to be up to you – but just remember, no matter how much you miss the show’s original cast, they were never funny for 90 solid minutes, so unless you’re a truly hardcore “SNL” fan, you might be better off buying one of the many best-of DVDs that have helped us forget all the dead spots.