As writers and performers, the tall, gawky Davis and the short, frizzy-haired Franken couldn’t have been more ideal for the assignment at Radio City. They shared a dark, cynical sense of humor with the Dead (among the rightly revered SNL skits they’d written were Aykroyd’s Julia Child–bloodbath bit and Bill Murray’s “Nick the Lounge Singer”), and both were Deadheads: Davis in particular had been to many shows starting in the early seventies. Thanks to him, the Dead had appeared twice on SNL, first in 1978 and then 1980. To kill time between sets, what better than skits featuring both comics? “If it hadn’t been for Franken and Davis,” said manager Rock Scully of the plans for Radio City, “I doubt the Dead would have done it.”
The anniversary shows would officially kick off with a long run of gigs at the Warfield. Backstage at the Warfield, before the first acoustic-set run-through at that venue, Dell’Amico witnessed band members wandering into Garcia’s dressing room and expressing wariness about playing with- out electricity for the first time in so long. “It seemed like everybody was skeptical about the acoustic thing—they all thought it was crazy,” says the director. “‘Why are we doing this?’ But it’s something Jerry wanted to do, and he was laughing.”
Franken and Davis flew in from New York to tape segments in advance, letting the Warfield stand in for Radio City. The duo’s knowledge of the Dead and its music as well as the musicians’ willingness to goof on themselves couldn’t have made a better match. “Jerry’s Kids” lampooned Jerry Lewis’s muscular dystrophy telethons but with acid casualties; a pretend dressing-room visit by Franken and Davis allowed Bob Weir to mock his fondness for his hair and blow dryers. Holding a microphone, Davis walked into the men’s room at the Warfield to see whether people were “doing drugs,” barged into a stall, and found one stoner, played by a Dead employee, throwing up (barley soup substituted for actual vomit). Other skits were rampant with drug and penis jokes, and Jerry Garcia mocked his own physical deformity by holding a box that contained his finger. “They made fun of themselves whenever that opportunity came up,” says Dell’Amico of the process of sketch writing for the show. “They’d say, ‘Go for that.'”
The skits pretaped at the Warfield were uniformly riotous, but someone at the Rockefeller Corporation, which owned Radio City Music Hall, wasn’t so taken. One Dead staffer found herself frantically retyping scripts at the last minute with minor but telling changes. On the grand Radio City stage one day Dell’Amico and Franken were deep into rehearsal for a skit in which Franken, in thousands of dollars worth of makeup, would be impersonating former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. With drummer Bill Kreutzmann joining in, Davis would “bust” the faux “Kissinger” for secretly taping the shows.
While they were practicing, “a phalanx of four men in black suits and carrying briefcases” watched by the side, according to Dell’Amico. The director was told to stop filming because the men—Radio City lawyers who supposedly represented the Rockefeller family—wanted to shut down the skit. As it turned out, Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller were old friends. “I said, ‘They can fuck off,'” Dell’Amico says. “And that was that. I think they looked at the paperwork and said, ‘They’re right, they’re renting this room.’ If you’re working for the Dead, you’ve got muscle because of the money coming in the door.” As Dell’Amico predicted, the skit aired in its entirety.