Based on Warner Bros.’s faith, Galfas put the ‘Mats on a shortlist of acts for the show — without having seen the band play live. “That,” said Galfas, “may have been a mistake.”
Having helped shift the comedic and cultural zeitgeist with his original group of Not Ready for Prime Time Players, Lorne Michaels left SNL in 1980. The program had continued — first, briefly and near-disastrously, under producer Jean Doumanian, then with the steadier guidance of network pro Dick Ebersol. Though Ebersol’s SNL had showcased a stable of stars like Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal, by 1985 its ratings were nearly half of Michaels’ final season.
Michaels’ own golden boy status had been severely damaged the previous year when his prime-time NBC program, The New Show, was canceled midseason. “I had won big and now I was losing,” recalled Michaels. With NBC’s president, Brandon Tartikoff, threatening to cancel Saturday Night Live, Michaels felt duty-bound to return and try to revive its fortunes.
The show’s eleventh season team included a mix of first-generation SNL writers and producers, hot young actors (Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr.), veteran performers (Academy Award nominee Randy Quaid), and rising stand-ups (Dennis Miller, Damon Wayans). The opener had featured Sire Records supernova Madonna as host and musical guest. The premiere was a ratings winner, but a critical loser: “This was comedy the way Hiroshima was comedy,” jibed a reviewer. By December, ratings were plummeting again, and NBC was hinting at canceling the show once and for all. “Everyone was on pins and needles, every week,” said Galfas.
In early January, NBC chairman Grant Tinker was asked for his assessment of Saturday Night Live. “It’s a hard job to keep a show like that fresh and alive. … I’d like to give it the benefit of the doubt,” said Tinker ominously, “for a little while.”
As 1986 dawned Bob Stinson’s drinking escalated, and his involvement with the Replacements became even more strained. The band had effectively recorded Tim as a trio. Now Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars were rehearsing without him on a regular basis.
With Bob in tow, they did return to the stage on January 11 at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro. The one-off gig was a tune-up for an East Coast tour scheduled to commence later in the month. When the group arrived back home from Chicago, they got word that a last-minute slot had opened up on Saturday Night Live. The Pointer Sisters, scheduled for that week’s show, had to cancel. The band was going to make their national television debut, fittingly, as replacements.
Harry Dean Stanton would host the January 18 edition of SNL. One of the more offbeat choices in the program’s history, the fifty-nine-year-old character actor was enjoying a late-career surge thanks to hip directors like Wim Wenders and John Hughes. The episode would also feature controversial stand-up comic Sam Kinison as a special guest, as well as the Replacements — a potential powder keg of a lineup.
The ‘Mats arrived in New York on Wednesday and did a run-through at NBC’s studio 8H Thursday morning. It was clear from the outset that this was not the wild-and-crazy SNL of the seventies. “They’d stocked the dressing room with breakfast stuff — fruits and juices,” recalled Peter Jesperson. “Bob wanted beer. And the people at SNL were really, really appalled by this. I had to go down and find a store in Rockefeller Plaza and get a six-pack.”