Open on Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in ‘Psycho,’ standing behind the counter of a seedy motel office. On the walls are stuffed birds, including an owl with spread wings.
Norman Bates: (pleasantly) Are you tired of slaving away in a dull, dead-end job? Fed up with mere paychecks that never stretch quite far enough? Hi, I’m Norman Bates, for the Norman Bates School of Motel Management, here to explain how you can be your own boss while earning big money in this rapidly expanding field. Best of all, you learn at home, in the privacy of your own shower. . . .
One of five NBC ‘Saturday Night’ cameras is getting a tight shot, here, of Tony’s amiably psychotic twitch. . . .
…Yes, a diploma in motel management can be your passport to security. Are you motel material? Let’s find out with a simple quiz. Question one: A guest loses the key to her room. Would you: (a) give her a duplicate key, (b) let her in with your passkey, (c) hack her to death with a kitchen knife? Question two: Which of the following is the most important in running a successful motel: (a) cordial atmosphere, (b) courteous service, (c) hack her to death with a . . .
Here, of course, Norman Bate’s mother (Tony in his Psycho falsetto) summons him “for an important phone call, just one of the dozens I get every week as a qualified motel manager. Coming, mother.” And the kliegs of NBC’s New York studio 8H dim on Perkins’s hack-Janet-Leigh-to-death-with-a-kitchen-knife smile, on a bit so neatly, inanely conceived and presented that Saturday Night‘s studio audience and its 22 million freak watchers beyond the Hudson are already integrating the key line into their conversations.
Eventually, though, Saturday Night (here forevermore SN), will coin more freak phrases and bend more thought, comic and otherwise, than Rowan and Martin dreamed possible. The audacity of its concept and execution, when played full out, alter not so much the visual and audio centers as the central nervous system itself.
And this show was broadcasting live. Its studio audience was actually laughing (and sometimes not when expected to) at the same time you were, unheard of, now, in an age of taped TV, except at the Rose Bowl or Miss America pageant. No one had been prepared for it: the first minutes of the first show offered no title, credits, music, only what looked like a professor’s study containing Michael O’Donoghue, maybe the most inventive of SN‘s dozen or so writer/actors (a precise count’s not possible because SN‘s actors write and vice versa), bearing himself as a language instructor. Enter John Belushi, the dark, heavy, foreign-looking member of SN‘s Not Ready for Prime Time Players (later he was Brando in their memorable Godfather satire). Michael says, “Good evening.” John shouts, en accent, “Good EVENING.” That’s repeated back and forth several times. Consulting his watch, Michael says, “Let us begin, repeat after me: I would like.” John: “I would like.” Michael: “To feed your fingertips.” John: “To feed your fingertips.” Michael: “To the wolverines.” “To the wolverines!” Michael: “Next, I am afraid we are out of badgers.” Each phrase repeated: “Would you accept a wolverine in its place?” Next, “Hey, Ned exclaimed, let’s boil the wolverines. . . .”
Spent by this exertion, they both fall dead, and the show’s begun. If you saw this and tried, the next day, to convey it to nonsmoking nonwatchers, you cut yourself short with, “Well you had to see it.” Most of SN can’t be conveyed properly after the live fact.
When you wait for SN‘s instigator, 31-year-old Lorne Michaels, the first time outside his offices high in Radio City and he hurries past in the jeans and old cord jacket he usually wears, bearing a sandwich in a white bag, he could be from NBC’s mailroom, or delivering from the deli. In no way does he appear charismatic, even when you enter his large 17th floor executive suite, not actually a suite but emphatically executive, a big corner office (in TV it’s significant who gets corners), with views of both St, Patrick’s Cathedral and Saks. On his executive desk are a pop art spilled-glass-of-milk and an antique, toy NBC-TV remote-broadcast truck. Next to the video cassette outfit, one bulletin board holds a complex map of the week’s show in sequence, another contains letters from famous admirers, like the one on stationery imprinted Steve & Eydie. The latter was written after an early show’s satirical “Salute to the Coast Guard,” which listed a number of people whom dolphins are smarter than. Yes, Steve and Eydie agree, dolphins are smarter than us! They do not exactly request here to guest host SN, though now a host of names would swim the Atlantic to be allowed to.
There’s time to ponder this because Lorne’s on the phone with the White House. Though SN doggedly makes sport of the president, Ron Nessen wants very much to be guest host this week. But it is Wednesday and he’s still unsure whether the president can spare him. Lorne’s demeanor toward Nessen exactly matches his demeanor toward everyone, as though he has determined that, because of his position, his pleasantness will not become graded according to anyone’s status.
“Nice guy, Nessen,” he offers. This is read, as is so much around SN, inscrutably. “Hmmm? No, I’m not panicked whether he’ll come or not. I mean, I am. The show’s written around him. This time of the week, we’re always in a state of controlled panic. He’ll come.” In that, there’s a sense of willed results which is startling.
Mention of Nessen reminds one to ask why, during a recent show’s running gag titled “A President’s View of Marijuana” – in which you see only Chevy Chase’s hands on a presidential desk rolling first a square joint, then a triangular one, finally mashing a rolling machine in frustration – why an introductory “Hail to the Chief” wasn’t used?
“No, no, that would have killed the gag’s subtlety.” Oh. One’s suggested “Hail to the Chief” because of the persistent complaint that if eyes were diverted from the TV screen the instant the “President’s View” logo was flashed, the point of the joke would be lost, you’d see only a klutzy joint roller. Stoically, Michaels shrugs, reflecting what will seem, in days following, a prevailing SN attitude, that subtlety’s all, that here a gag is never milked, as it is in conventional TV, that if viewers are in the least square, dense or inattentive, fuck ’em.
“The first time Chevy did Ford,” Lorne is saying, “it was because I love cold openings, no predictable introduction, except that we didn’t have one and it was Friday night. As usual, we were pacing his office, desperate. Chevy suddenly said, ‘Let me do Ford in the opening.”‘ (The way Lorne describes it implies that the renowned Chevy Chase fall was born, for SN, at that moment, but it actually evolved by mistake two years earlier, when Chevy was first writing for network TV, for the Smothers Brothers. “Tommy Smothers used to come into the writers’ room,” Chevy later explains, “very worried. He’d ask, ‘What’s wrong here?’ I’d say, ‘You’re not doing anything that surprises anybody,”‘ and with a sleight of hand so offhand you’ve missed it, Chevy knocks over the glass of Courvoisier beside him on his desk. “‘See, that surprised you,’ I told Tommy. ‘You’re not startling anybody anymore, do “The Fall of the Week!”‘ The Smothers would say, ‘What??’ So I’d say to them, ‘Can I have a word with you?’ and then fall over their entire desk. The unexpected.”)
“So a great deal of what Chevy does now, solo,” Lorne’s saying, “I see for the first time during Saturday Night‘s dress.” SN does two shows every Saturday, the first a full-dress and camera rehearsal before a live audience about nine o’clock, and a second, live, aired performance at 11:30. “Sometimes I don’t know at all what Chevy will do till we’re on the air. He and Herb Sargent and Alan Zweibel, who work closely with him on ‘Weekend Update,’ are changing copy right up to air time. Chevy’s very improvisational, sometimes he submits a whole script to me that’s just one page with the words: ‘me being funny.’ Fine, the show is built on this, faith and chance, which are verboten in traditional TV.” The latter’s a phrase he’ll use repeatedly with vast, amiable condescension.
Encouraged to, he begins at page one of his life, and leisurely, for a couple of hours, he recounts it. But it can be summed up as follows: born in Toronto, he went to good schools there, writing, producing, directing and acting in school shows since before puberty. The summer after he graduated from the University of Toronto, he lived in a London flat with John Head, Howard Shore and Rosie Shuster Michaels, who are now, respectively, SN‘s talent scout, music director and writer/wife of Lorne Michaels. CBC radio and television in Toronto employed him endlessly as writer/actor/director/producer but he got restive, moved south to perform his own material at New York’s Improvisation Club, which later nurtured Freddie Prinze, Richard Pryor and Bette Midler. “I had these very young messianic feelings about comedy then, I thought it should be of use, I’ve since learned it’s basically for cheering you up.” Jack Rollins, manager/Svengali to Woody Allen, caught Lorne at the Improv and hired him as a writer. “My first monologue for Woody was like a lot of stuff which crosses my desk now, about, I think, an eye doctor who only treats Cyclopes. We, my partner Hart Pomerantz and I, would sit in a room with Woody, the best comedy writer in the world, and talk ideas, and I thought, wow, this is what show business will always be like.”
But ten years passed before it was like that again. “Woody didn’t really need me, he was teaching me.” Joan Rivers asked Lorne and Hart for monologues, eventually paying Lorne about $150. He acquired an agent at William Morris: “Dave Geffen, who was just then getting into music, he got us work writing an NBC series called The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. Our fare’s paid to Hollywood, I’m given an NBC office there, wrote like crazy, every day network people came in. I’d ask, ‘How’s the show look?’ They’d say, ‘Great, great!’ One day I drive onto the NBC lot, my parking spot’s gone, the nameplate’s been removed, in my office there are workmen measuring. ‘Two guys can fit in here,’ they are saying.” The series, of course, had been canceled, but “the night they finished the first show, they actually had a champagne party. I still thought I’d really written something, Another writer said, at this party, quietly, ‘Don’t you know it’s shit?’ This was a profound lesson, my first – how easily, in television, you can be seduced.”
Candice Bergen appears, smiling, at Lorne’s office door, then vanishes. “People who’ve done the show,” Lorne explains, “Candy, Lily [Tomlin], they keep coming back, dropping in, it’s fun here, etcetera. Anyway: while in L.A. I also wrote Laugh-In, not much, one season.”
His war against traditional television really began then, in a motel in Toluca Lake. “That’s where the Laugh-In writers wrote. Separately. You were doing this taped show, working six to eight weeks in advance, the process was, is, that of any big TV variety show: you handed in what you’d done to a head writer who then rewrote it to fit the star’s style. Look, that’s a very valid form of TV production.” He mimes an extensive yawn. “But it was of zero interest to me.”
About this time, he asserts venomously, it was announced to Laugh-In‘s staff that Richard Nixon would appear on the show to do his now infamous “Sock It to Me?” “Paul Keyes, one of Nixon’s speech-writers, was then Laugh-In‘s head writer!” Lorne was ready to leave anyway: another kind of TV had occurred to him, a comedy variety show in which the writing would bend to neither a star’s schtick nor any preconceived format, a free-for-all in which various writers would always express themselves: “I envisioned this show in which all these individual styles were gotten across as purely as possible, with me clearing away the network and technological barricades. This is why Saturday Night must stay a live show, I’ve fought for that, to keep it theater, a pure communication between writers, players and audience. . . .”
Here, Chevy Chase, in an old shirt and sneakers, enters the office to mime the unzipping of his fly, peeing on the executive desk, and exiting with dispatch. Smiling indulgently, Lorne simply continues. “I went back to Canada.” He and Rosie bought a house in Toronto where, he asserts, he had planned to live forever, working for the CBC. But L.A. remembered him, and he was offered the writing of a Burns and Schreiber summer TV show. It brought him west again, to other offers, and to live on the Strip, in the Chateau Marmont, where repainting never quite obliterates the lingering odor of grass. One afternoon he met Lily Tomlin. Their meeting lasted seven hours. “We’d been fighting the same battle alone: when technical people said, ‘You can’t do that because we can’t shoot it right,’ she’d ask, ‘Why?‘ She was obsessed, dedicated, to infusing TV with something resembling wit.”
For her special in November 1973, Lorne concentrated on writing closely for Lily. Though a network executive called the show “a $360,000 jerk-off,” it won an Emmy which was, for Tomlin, another giant step and, for Michaels, his crucial first. He could not yet automatically command a table at Elaine’s, but Tomlin was asking him to coproduce her next special, Shirley MacLaine was calling about her nightclub revue, and Flip Wilson was on the phone about his next project. Just as Lorne is now: Nessen’s calling back. The SN players, wondering, though not visibly concerned, whether or not their host’s showing up, wander in – Gilda Radner, who does, among myriad characters, Emily Littella, “Weekend Update” ‘s querulous critic who questions all the media attention given to the preservation of “our natural racehorses, other horses need attention,” and “Soviet jewelry, it’s no better than ours,” and “presidential erections, not a fit subject for the little ones.” She’s followed by Laraine Newman, who can impersonate anybody, notably Beauty Author Luciana Avedon, of the Camay commercials. Seated in a sleek, contemporary coffin, she smilingly asserts, “I was a hideous teenager, with fur on my ears and webbed fingers. Now I am young and beautiful. How? It is here in my Beauty Regimen book. How I drink the blood of Girl Scouts and Brownies. How I eat the face of young virgins. It even tells how I have all my bones replaced with those of cheerleaders and pom-pom girls. Buy my book or I steal your lungs. . . .”
Lorne’s office door is rarely closed, no one attempts to speak quietly here or is noticeably deferential toward him. They come and go freely: Garrett Morris, the black player who’s shown sticking pins in a Chevy Chase doll. Danny Aykroyd, who’s only 23 but does the brilliant Nixon impersonation. Actually, he and John Belushi write a lot of the material together, besides acting, but the network contracts department wants only so many people billed as writers. Besides Lorne and Chevy, nine are – Michael O’Donoghue, Anne Beatts, Tom Davis, Al Franken, Rosie Shuster, Tom Schiller, Alan Zweibel, Marilyn Miller and Herb Sargent. Lorne worked with or knew all of them before hiring them; several contributed to things like the National Lampoon (O’Donoghue and Beatts were editors), Marilyn Miller contributed to Mary Tyler Moore’s show, Rhoda and Lily Tomlin, and Herb Sargent, the most seasoned and taciturn of them all, wrote Anne Bancroft’s Emmy-winning special. More than 500 actors were auditioned for the rep company, but the only one chosen who Lorne hadn’t already known or worked with was Jane Curtin, the one who does the “straight” satirical readings, such as her narration, with Chevy, during “Update,” of the Claudine Longet Ski Tournament, in which, just before all the skiers fall, rifle shots crack over the snow. (“Oh, Chevy, Claudine’s gun went off again, by mistake, no, I think that time she’d been cleaning the gun and fired it accidentally And that time, Chevy, Claudine had been showing her gun to a friend and . . .”)
Not everyone’s come into Lorne’s office, but those gathered emphatically enjoy one another’s presence; there’s copious laughter, kidding, shouting, prodding, cuffing, embracing. When the noise obliterates his telephone, Lorne tolerantly motions them out, to gather in the larger rehearsal room across the hall for the group interview we’ve planned.
It seemed a good idea, this show being the ensemble effort it is; now, though, you almost, but don’t, encourage them to postpone this session if they need the time to rehearse. It’s struck you by now that at this point in the week, something, anything, ought to be happening to prepare for Saturday, with or without Ron Nessen. Why doesn’t anybody seem at least dubious, or even slightly pressed for time? Certainly Lorne doesn’t: though it’s late afternoon, he determinedly concludes his own story before joining the others. While he’s still languishing in Lotusland, Herb Schlosser, NBC’s president and chief operating officer, hires Dick Ebersol, who’s even younger than Lorne Michaels, to supervise late-night programming, and what Ebersol envisions, late at night, is a comedy show by and for the young.
This isn’t as innovative as it sounds; NBC knows from its endless surveys that a huge audience, the 25- to 40-year-olds, don’t watch prime time but do tend to stay home weekends, especially if they have good dope contacts. Offer them a head show, one to get high before, during and on, as high as its actors clearly are. Neither NBC, Lorne nor Dick Ebersol puts it just that way, of course; Lorne simply asserts that nowhere in videoland had he ever encountered an executive “with my same reference points, my humor, my resistance to TV formulas, my obsession with . . . spontaneity.”
It remained, however, for Lorne to do his real virtuoso turn, to convince board rooms full of NBC VIPs, who still bought Brooks clothes and ingested nothing more controversial than Valium, vodka and Kaopectate. “I expected to hear from them what they’d always said, about nobody understanding me in Iowa. But they didn’t say anything. The wilder my ideas got, there were still no ‘nos.’ The final meetings were in, my God, New York, the anxiety capital of the universe. Still all I was getting were nods. I was getting a promise of 17 shows and they hadn’t even seen a pilot! I was saying, ‘We will always be experimenting, on the air, responding to our own mistakes.’ I said, ‘Show ten, not show one, will be the show to watch.’ And Herb Schlosser actually replied, ‘I’ll watch show ten.”‘
He’s got to call Washington once more before our mass meeting, he announces courteously. Courteously, one leaves, to wander NBC’s halls, to think. One has already observed rehearsal, dress and live performance of Tony Perkins’s guest week, and the excitement of being close to these undeniably special people who create SN has palled just enough to assume – not quite correctly – that you’ve perceived pretty fully their troubles. Which are pretty much what you’ve been hearing from astute, impartial SN watchers. “Sure, they’re funny, but not consistently enough. . . . Their mistakes aren’t nearly as cute as they seem to think. . . . Too much of the time they’re just jacking off. . . . Are too many people telling them they’re clever? Three shows every 30 days, can’t they edit themselves better, time themselves better in advance?” Lorne himself has remarked that of all their shows, he really approved of maybe four. Though he won’t specify which, Tony Perkins’s is apparently not among them. Why shouldn’t it have been? Perkins, professional, flexible, obviously delighted to be part of something so off the wall, has worked with a polished satirical style that ought to have perfectly matched SN‘s. However (a) the opening monologue SN wrote for him was long and unpointed, (b) though the Norman Bates Motel School bit was fine, it was followed by an endless, strained sketch about the bad Psycho imitations moviemakers have forced him to do, and (c) he was forced into elaborate exchanges with the Muppets, whose leaden gaucheries rend SN‘s comic fabric so cruelly one does wish them hacked to death with a kitchen knife.
Neither do the problems end there. As usual, two valuable time slots are given to a guest vocalist, such as Betty Carter on Perkins’s show. As a jazz/blues interpreter she’s seen better days, but even that’s not the point; if the object is variety, why not always hire a singer with a satiric sense, like Loudon Wainwright or John Prine? And certainly Perkins himself could have been more thoughtfully, more extensively used. Chevy Chase is deservedly the star the show has made him, hilarious reading even the straightest lines straight-faced. But should his “Weekend Update” have taken quite so long, and should one of Perkins’s sketches, about a sheriff’s office operating the local teen hop, which read beautifully in rehearsal, be hacked, at the last minute, almost to death because the program ran eight minutes long in dress rehearsal? So the abominable “traditional” TV’s taped; would SN so drastically compromise its integrity by taping just the difficult sketches and then editing flaws? In the Central and Western time zones, the show is seen taped – if live, it would have to run in prime time – and Lorne, et al, are very proud of the fact that a strictly unedited tape of what’s happened live that night in New York is shown. So would it finally be so despicable to take out the turkey feathers? God forbid, of course, that SN should ever function with the factory precision of, say, Carol Burnett, but is the notion of SN‘s writers starting to write at 10 a.m. Mondays, as Burnett’s do, really so prostitutional?
When queried about this, Lorne’s explanations are curiously incomplete. Audiences, he asserts, like the Muppets, no matter who else around here doesn’t. Audiences like the comedy broken by music, and you can’t always get the Loudon Wainwrights, because of their schedules, and because the budget around here isn’t the Pentagon’s. The show costs much more to do in New York than in L.A., there aren’t the big sound stages here, the sets have to be built in Brooklyn and transported. And guest stars, whose regular fees SN can’t pay, aren’t usually available before rehearsals start, and the writers don’t get sufficient time to know them or perceive the full range of what they may do best within SN‘s context. “And the writers don’t get in early Mondays because they know they’re going to work into the night all week. Sure, I ask for the material done by Tuesday, but there’s always some formal excuse why it isn’t. If people have gone off Sundays, to, uh, live their lives, whatever, and have gone without sleep and schlep in here Mondays wrecked, you can’t expect of them instant brilliance.” He doesn’t say it, but you feel here he’s felt it pedestrian of me to suggest that the Muses may be coerced into scheduled materialization. “Tape? No way! Live laughter from an audience is real, it’s theater. With tape you’ve got to fake it, postsync it, it sounds dead, canned, like laugh tracks.” For the first time detectably defensive, he concludes, “Look, what’s occurring here already is a fucking technological miracle – that we have not slipped back into being ‘television.’ If anything’s fucked us up in recent weeks, it’s been the press. It was Eden here for close to six months, there were no ego free-for-alls, then certain performers started getting all this press mention. Sure, it’s caused tension. Maybe this group interview we’re going to have will air some of that. . . .”
Not bloody likely, it turns out. In the big rehearsal room, where nearly everyone’s gathered, you quickly sense a resistance to the meeting; lately they’ve been trying hard, Lorne’s explained, not to take themselves too seriously. Nobody in this room wants to sound to anybody else too glib, for the press. Also, you sense they’ve all got plenty to say that’s not to be said in front of Lorne Michaels.
Silence. “Jesus, what a bunch of dildos,” somebody offers good-naturedly. Gilda Radner cooperatively begins, “There is this, that nobody can stop you, like, they can never say, ‘Cut, start over.”‘ She talks through a laugh, as if on speed, but it’s only her high good humor. “It’s pure theater, but for this audience of 22 million! Incredible! Like, we’ve all done theater, but for 22 million? You can’t think about ’em. It’s exactly like being onstage, you concentrate on character, you don’t count the house, the camera eyes cannot speak 22 million to you, but somewhere in your head you know they’re there, you’re reaching so many with your work. Right as you do it! For an actor, there’s nothing like that, incredible!”
But Laraine Newman has spread herself on the floor, her lips caressing the tape recorder’s mike. In her nasal newsperson voice she says, “Actually, Gilda’s right, Tom, the little eye does not, nawt, speak 22 million to you. . . .”
“Actually, Tom, the show is taped, the live thing’s all a big lie.” A writer’s cut in with that.
“Wrong! It’s the most fun you can have with your pants on.”
“Actually, Tom, it sucks, and we all, in reality, hate each other.”
Danny Aykroyd sings, in light-opera parody, “Tom, we came here, from all over this great land, Garrett’s from Lou-i-siana, Gilda, she’s from De-troit, there’s a couple ‘a Canucks in this big video bar-rel!”
Chevy hasn’t laughed during any of the above, he’s looked mostly abstracted. Watching him the past week, it’s crossed your mind that he’s not a happy man, or at least that he’s too easily taken lightly. Tony Perkins, listening to Chevy play the piano during a rehearsal break, has remarked, “God, he even does that well. He’s the kind of personality they’re always watching for in this business. Incredibly attractive.” True. Then what, other than the malevolence directed toward any seemingly brash new star, has conditioned you to suppose him shallow, except that (a) you’ve not really talked to him alone, and (b) his continual sanitization of himself, of his own ego, has not at first been easily comprehended. Also, you’ve heard too many SN watchers complain that he’s “funny, yeah, but he looks so self-infatuated.” Being around him, however, you’ve sensed that he could be, besides the smartest of SN‘s staff, its most thoughtful, most complex member.
What he interrupts with, gently, is: “Tom, you can’t expect to conduct some kind of group encounter here. What’s really wrong here, nobody’s about to say it in this room. There’s a lot of stuff. We all know, for example, that too many things which play stunningly in dress rehearsal often bomb in the live show. As the Green Giant says, there’s this moment of perfection at which things must be picked, and we don’t hit that moment often enough, too often we’re playing something very well in dress, knowing it will never be this good again. For one thing, we’re getting too confident. When you get the great laugh in dress, you’re too secure in it, throw it away, then, live, it bombs.”
Lorne cuts in rapidly. “Chevy, that’s often just a simple matter of timing, we can correct that.” And he changes the subject to the matter of the “‘soft pieces, which are stylish and quirky but don’t get assured laughs, sometimes because we haven’t chosen the right week to do them. There’s a lot here we write and do hold until it seems topical – like ‘Dance to the Nation,’ where Betty Ford’s doing a dance-advice show. That piece only works if she’s done something that week. As opposed to a ‘hard’ piece, the sure laugh, like John as the ‘Update’ weatherman. . . .”
At the conclusion of “Weekend Update,” Chevy courteously introduces “our chief meteorologist, John Belushi,” for the seasonal weather report. In a vaguely Tom Snyderesque wig, John begins, “Well, another winter’s almost over, and March, true to form, has come in like a lion and, hopefully, will go out like a lamb. At least, that’s how March works here. But in Norway, for example, March comes in like a polar bear and goes out like a walrus. Or take the case of Honduras, where March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a salt-marsh harvest mouse. Let us compare this to the Maldive Islands, where March comes in like a wildebeest and goes out like an ant. . . .”
He’s getting very febrile here, on the edge of mental collapse. Chevy tries to interrupt, to no avail. “. . . How unlike the Malay peninsula, where March comes in like a worm-eating fernbird, and goes out like a worm-eating fernbird – in fact, their whole year’s like a worm-eating fernbird! There’s a country where March hops in like a kangaroo, stays a kangaroo for a while, then it becomes a slightly smaller kangaroo, then for a couple of days it’s sort of a cross between a frilled lizard and a common house cat, then it changes back into the smaller kangaroo and then it goes out like a wild dingo! And it’s not Australia! You’d think it would be Australia, but it’s not!”
Chevy continues to try to stop him, but he’s totally out of hand now. After mentioning the nine different countries where March comes in like a frog and goes out like a golden retriever, John has a heart attack and succumbs under the “Weekend Update” newsdesk.
The mass meeting has disintegrated by the time “Dance to the Nation” ‘s merits and shortcomings are considered, and Chevy and most of the others have quietly exited. It’s clear now the SN people ought to be talked to, or eavesdropped upon, separately, or in small groups, but that doesn’t happen immediately. For one thing, Ron Nessen does show up, and one remains very peripheral to his show. “We’re not endorsing any candidate, of course,” Lorne’s stated, but the Nessen week, though funny enough, appears to be either SN‘s blatant Washington asskiss, reciprocation for everyone being asked there for dinner the week before, or a thorough duping by the White House of SN, which produces on Saturday a long slow-motion replay of Nixon’s Sock-It-to-Me. Ford himself has lots of spots (taped) on the show; never has a president so benevolently blessed, in front of millions, those who make sport of him. It’s disquieting to watch, and you expect the next week, starring Raquel Welch, a funny, camp, professional performer, to be an oasis.
It is and it isn’t; in a way, it’s a repeat of Tony Perkins week. Welch, closely scrutinized, seems the soul of happy cooperation. Like Perkins, like Dick Cavett, who dissents only with Lorne’s obsession with live work vs. taped (“For a long time there I did do taped shows which looked and sounded live, it’s not that impossible to pull off, I don’t think audiences really think about, know or feel the difference”), like Buck Henry, who speaks of SN as does a young father of his first son, Raquel Welch is genuinely exhilarated, riding this maverick, and when you talk to her in her hotel after the show, she’s clearly pleased with it. And she’s decidedly no dummy. “It was all my idea to be on there, I saw just a swatch of it one night flipping channels. Next day I called my manager and said I’d seen this mad thing and didn’t know what it was, but if they were looking for a guest, I’d love to. Lorne came to see me, I told him that more than anything, I’d like to come out in blue jeans and not be this idiot screen goddess, you know? Just hang loose and get down a little. I told him that, unfortunately, I didn’t have any prepared stuff, like Lily Tomlin or Richard Pryor, but I could see he had great writers, and I hoped they’d want to have fun with this joke I’ve had to live with, the sex-symbol number. Which is funny to me. I did tell Lorne, ‘Tit jokes are fine, but if we do too many, I know from experience they’ll just sound mocking to, you know, Middle America, and women in general. They’ll get too childish, end up boring.”‘
No, they didn’t do too many, “Truthfully, I liked what happened around there, the final result was good. I had no intention of trying to take over the show as a star. I’d seen that the whole point of me being on there was to work with the company, express myself in a way people haven’t seen me, but to keep the presence always subtle, you know?” Pause, frown. “I do think the next time I do it, and I’d like a next time, that Lorne and the others will know me a little better, be more confident that I can do comedy, which I’m not sure he was. . . .”
Canny Raquel: Though Lorne doesn’t say so, he wasn’t, and neither were the rest of SN. You’ve talked to them separately; their cavils they don’t much want quoted, individually, but some of them do seem markedly restive. Nobody can stomach the Muppets, really, or the dull guest singers. “Lorne’s still too locked in to a variety format, no matter what he says,” somebody grumbles. The consensus is that the players, when they’re working together as comic actors, not celebrityguest pawns, could hold the whole show by themselves. This is probably true; they are, en ensemble, that good. But guest names, as Jane Curtin concedes, are important, for things like ratings and to draw the hinterland viewers and just for breathers, between laughs.
Gilda Radner’s more expansive. Of the lady players, she’s had the best public response; privately, she’s the most articulate, and bewildered. “Sure there are tensions around here,” she starts. We’re in a room close to Lorne’s but she doesn’t lower her voice. “There are ego problems every day, just like a family has problems, y’know? The Emmys are swell, but they aren’t going to ease tensions. You know what does? Like when I’m upset here, I cry, we all cry in front of each other. When I’m mad at Laraine I yell at her, when Chevy’s on my nerves or I feel jealous of him, I tell him. We all do this around here, it gets rid of the evil. Also, we all make each other laugh all the time, which is what makes the audience laugh, which is why the show’s a success. The format’s not new, and Sid Caesar was live – it’s the quality of the minds here, but with the creative flow comes an ocean of neurotic energy. I said to somebody the other day, everybody who works here’s a baby, and like children, we’re all still going through kid changes. Michael O’Donoghue, he has a good sketch idea, he runs out of his office jumping, clapping his hands in the air, like a kid who’s just discovered a turtle in the backyard! Then we all go in to Lorne and dance it out for him, like showing your dad your new party dress, like you go in to your mommy and say, ‘Hey, I found this stone outside that’s a diamond.”‘
Though she can talk nonstop, Gilda’s also a listener, a real one, and you find yourself telling her that to grasp the full focus of SN has been remarkably tough. Nodding, she says, “Tom, it’s because, for one thing, while we’re all kids here, nobody’s a sheep, there’s no one performer who couldn’t carry a whole show by himself, no one of our writers that couldn’t do a major project alone. There’s so much individual strength here, it’s driving everybody slightly nuts. We’re all saying, ‘Wait a minute, I’m a team player but I’m not, I’m an individual!’ There’s weeks when I feel like the star here, the next week it’s suddenly like I’m in the chorus line. For all of us, that’s a real difficulty to live with. This show’s not an ideal situation for an actor. Partly it’s just the nature of TV. You get so creatively frustrated! You do a scene once, it’s gone forever, you have no way to perfect your art. Or, like, I love doing Emily Littella, I’d love doing her every week, but they tell me, ‘Let it rest awhile, they’ll get sick of it,’ and I swear, a part of me dies, even though they are right. And if we’re good actors, and aren’t realizing our potential as actors on this show, then, yeah, something is wrong. . . .”
How about the fact that, except for Chevy, she’s gotten more audience response than anybody on SN? Even Gilda’s frown is attractive. “Yeah, but. . . look, first, the job itself has a way of keeping you incredibly repressed. Since I’m only using a fraction of the ability I have, since I’m just giving, here, a little taste of it, the attention I do get I don’t feel I deserve. Not for this work. If I’m getting known, I have an incredible problem about it anyway, I thought about this. Know what it goes back to? School. No kidding. I’m from Detroit, went to the University of Michigan, there was this sort of big diagonal outside on the campus where all the kids sat around. And I was petrified to walk through the diag. I’d go four blocks out of the way to avoid that. I was afraid I’d be noticed. And talked about, that somebody’d say, ‘Look at her outfit.’ And: I was just as much afraid I wouldn’t be noticed! Okay, so now, I go out on the street, some days lots of heads turn, it’s ‘Hey, Gilda, hi, Gilda, I love you on the show!’ Some days I love it: it’s why I wanted to walk through the diag! Other days I want the four blocks to walk out of the way. . . .”
Her grin’s a lamp snapped on in a dark room. “Confused, right? A kid neurosis: I know I can make people laugh; at the same time, I have no special technique, I don’t study a character. Doing Barbara Walters, on the show, I didn’t do hours of research on her, I just tried to pick up on what I thought was the one thing that’s funny about her, her vocal thing.” And she does it, straight-faced. “‘This is Bawbwa Wawa, today ouw special guest is a famwous speech thewapist who’ll teach me how to pronounce the name Harwy Weasoneh.’ It was my idea to do the bit. And I don’t have to think about those bits. I often feel guilty, ’cause I know actors really have to study, they’re supposed to take it seriously. . . .”
Decidedly, John Belushi does. Of all the players, he’s the most vocally seditious. Around the show, the idea of pretending to fire the Muppets, or taking pretend gunshots at them, has been discussed, but just for comedy. John, more than anyone, would like them fired in reality, and relishes the notion of shooting them with real bullets. Also, Lorne and Rosie Shuster created the concept of the players dressed, in many sketches, for no discernible reason, as bees. Mention that, and John pounds his desk with a fat fist. “What we are, man, is actors. And this show’s good when we’re working together, all of us, in a sketch, as comic actors, playing off each other, with each other, not reading cue cards, like we have to, but memorizing the lines in advance, making eye contact, not dressing like fucking bees! You cannot put an actor in a bee costume and say, well, that funny dress will make up for the weak writing. Sure, they’ll laugh at the antennae once or twice, after that, forget it, it’s repetitive shit, I hate the fucking bees!”
We’re alone in the little office he shares with Danny Aykroyd. Even when he shouts, which he often does, the sounds of Illinois gently alter his vowels. Born in Chicago, Belushi grew up in Wheaton. “No, nobody in my family was in show business or anything, they were just, you know . . . people.” Like a number of the SN people, he doesn’t seem to want to talk much about home, the past, and you don’t press him. “I guess I always wanted to act, I did, like, from junior high on. Why? Well, I was into sports, high school football and all, because it was a way of getting two things I wanted: attention and girls. And acting was another means to the same end.”
Maniacal grin. The night he went into the city from Wheaton to see the Second City troupe firmed up his plans, “Great, man, they were funny and smart, I didn’t know actors were both. And they were acting, it knocked me out.” He got somebody to ask if Second City would let him audition, they said no. “Who the fuck is he? was the reaction.” But he stayed on, hanging out in Chicago, and eventually backstage at Second City. “Sometimes at one or two a.m. they’d let me walk on in an improvised bit, finally a lead guy left and I started doing main parts.” He stayed two years, then was called upon to write and act in National Lampoon’s Lemmings, at the Village Gate, New York. His incomparable Joe Cocker imitation, which stopped the show, was really what started him on SN. Bring up his current employment and his face progresses through a series of remarkable, somber mutations.
“Look, I think that now, we, the players, have become, well, bigger than some of the stars who’re booked as hosts, Like, after we won the Emmys, the first show happened to be Buck Henry’s second host spot. When he was first on, people said, ‘Who’s he?’ TV audiences didn’t know from him. But after we won the Emmys, that show with Buck was the highest rated show of the year. So were they there to watch him, or us?”
Of course SN now has, more or less, a star in-residence, doesn’t it? The smile is not a grin. “Well, NBC loves Chevy. Plus, he’s very good. Look, I Love Chevy, ever since Lemmings, we were in that together, Chevy’s good actor. I think he’s better in sketches than in all those bits as this Chevy Chase persona; in acted comedy as opposed to presentational crap. But Chevy holding the show as star, I don’t think it’d work. It sure wouldn’t be the same show. I know I want in no way to become Carl Reiner to his Sid Caesar. Once we bend to a fucking star system here, everything changes.”
Paradoxically, change in SN is what continually rings in John’s monologues, like a well-wound Westbend. “Some of the continuing bits now, we’re just jerking off over and over. What I see now is taking the whole show as it is, throwing it out, and coming back with a whole new concept! Get rid of all the old standard characters, the stale stuff, catch phrases!” He doesn’t specify but he means Gilda’s Emily Littella, Jane Curtin’s slick interviewer, even “Weekend Update.” “Lorne’s pressured, because, sure, the network, like always, wants to go with a winner as is, but fuck ’em, we’ve got to build on what we’ve learned this year, see how far we can reach. Like when I did Captain Kirk in the Star Trek takeoff, I had to turn this dumpy little body into William Shatner, commander of the Starship Enterprise, and I spent, sure, a couple of hours in makeup, but man, I did it!” and he does it, moving in the small room, doing Shatner’s cool walk magically. “Makeup doesn’t do it, man, you gotta act it. Maybe here we can become total actors. But you can’t, if the next fucking moment you got to get into a fucking bee costume. I want to burn those fucking bee costumes! We’re not little windup animals. If that went on and on here, sure I’d leave. The fucking guest number – listen, every one of the players sings great, Gilda, Garrett Morris, Danny, everybody, so instead of bringing in, like, Esther Phillips, why can’t one of the group sing? If there has to be this host, I’d like to see each one of us doing it, in rotation, one week’s host is Chevy, next week Gilda, next Laraine, right? The Emmys give us the leverage to carry that. . . .”
But while SN is still saddled, for nonartistic reasons, with guest-star hosts, shouldn’t they be considered more profoundly? John and others of the staff rightfully resent the Richard Pryor show, as Pryor insisted on bringing along his own writers and entourage, to lard the evening with his now tiresome ethnicity, and Paul Simon more or less turned his night into a Paul Simon concert. But Candice Bergen, who’s hosted SN twice, was genuinely funny. especially as Catherine Deneuve, the Chanel bottle attached to her head. (“It ees not easy being Catherine Deneuve. You theenk it ees a funny joke to be a beeg, beeg movie star who is so beautiful like me, Catherine Deneuve? I must get up early in ze morning even eef I was to ze party wis Omar Sharif. I must be photograph for Vogue magazine. I must fly all ovair ze world and stay in ze luxury hotels, and sometimes zey do not even have ze mineral water. I hate being Catherine Deneuve!”) It’s startling, and sad, when one of the players says, “My God, movie stars, what does Candice Bergen put on her passport? Actress? Except she can’t do that much. Writer? But she doesn’t do that very well. Comedian? That could get her in trouble with the State Department.”
A similar attitude prevails regarding Raquel Welch, who’s been fine in, for example, an Anita Bryant orange-juice commercial parody. “What’s a Florida sunshine girl like me doing in Beirut?” she asks, being tied to a post to be shot by a firing squad. “Spreading the good word about orange juice! Sure, there’s a war, strife and bloodshed in the Mideast. Internal chaos can be such a hassle. But even this wartorn country enjoys Florida sunshine!” Her reading of “such a hassle” is funny enough to carry the sketch by itself, but the bit doesn’t make it onto the air. As usual, Saturday’s dress rehearsal doesn’t end until ten. Instantly, Lorne, who supervises every moment of the show behind the cameras, closets himself with Dave Wilson, a slightly older, seasoned professional who’s billed as SN‘s director but is actually its technical expert, in charge of finding, with Lorne, the smoothest ways to quickly cut the 10 to 20 minutes the show’s run overtime in dress. By 11 or so, Lorne’s gathered the cast and writers in the Green Room to fire off an incredible number of complex cuts and changes they’ll be doing live in half an hour. (“Chevy, speed the opening, it’s running 2 minutes, 30 seconds, rush the fall. Garrett, Gilda, they can’t get a mike boom to you on the first sketch, you’ve gotta shout the lines. Danny, your music cue’s cut, Raquel’s first speech is cut, Danny, your speech on page 15’s cut, Gilda, cheat more to the door, John, the following affects the future of civilization as we know it, with Raquel you’ve got no single shot, only a two-shot, which won’t happen unless you’re exactly beside her there.” Etcetera.)
The actual show, however, is rewritten until it’s unwieldy, and doesn’t get the laughs it should. This is also true of the sketch in which Raquel plays Jane Russell to Danny Aykroyd’s Howard Hughes – he’s designed an aerodynamic bra for her –and the one in which Raquel’s a sexy Nurse Ratshid in a Cuckoo’s Nest movie sendup called One Flew over the Hornet’s Nest, with the rest of the cast dressed as bees. Backstage, you’ve noted, before the week’s even begun, a certain negative resignation. Though everyone’s careful Raquel shouldn’t feel it, the attitude is “What’re-y’gonna-do, we’ve-got-this-movie-star.”
Something Lorne said, abruptly, uncued, during the group encounter, has stuck in one’s head. “This show was conceived as a starting place for people. Like off-Broadway, from which, inevitably, people want to move uptown. Writers here will get tired of writing for a live audience. Performers will want things where more . . . discipline’s involved. Sure, those people will move on. I have to decide whether to keep the show changing for the needs of those who’ve originally created it, or just let those people leave to do other things. The show is only valuable as long as the people here get off on it, get out what they have to say. As soon as anybody starts staying because of loyalty, or some similar fucked reason . . .”
Pause. All eyes are on him. Sadly he adds, “I think we’ve been through our grace period, doing just a show we’d all enjoy watching. But when you’re trained in that other TV system, this is . . . Jesus, such exhilaration, the simple fact that we exist.”
What this has been is a sort of plea for no one present to out grow him quite yet. Still, it’s happening, and he knows it. It’s struck you that after weeks of research, SN still remains somewhat a conundrum, and that the answers to its questions, perhaps ultimately unanswerable, might lie with Chevy Chase.
“You could come over to my house to talk,” he offers. To quote Chevy accurately is to make him sound obsequious, which he never is. You have watched for this. What he is is friendly and accessible by nature. He’s aware that his presence is personable and disarming, has probably always known that, and always distrusted it. At least he does not visibly use the knowledge to his advantage, except, perhaps, before an audience. “You could come over here, except it’s just a mattress, really. I live here, you literally have to live this show, it has to become home,” and he blesses the room with his glass of Courvoisier. The walls of his office, placed strategically closest to Lorne Michaels’s though a sixth Lorne’s size, are hung with an awful picture of Tom Snyder, satirically signed, in Chevy’s own hand, “Keep up the good work,” and one of Chevy shaking hands with President Ford – except the photo’s been embellished (by SN‘s artists, at Chevy’s request) with strange Middle Earth graphics and the faked signature, “Sincerely, Gerald Fuck/Fart/Ford.” And he’s framed his astrological chart, which shows, besides his birthdate, October 8th, 1943, various planets diametrically opposed.
“So how you doin’?” He asks this because one has sat silently a few moments. He knows that his grin, too, is compelling, and maybe untrustworthy. As with Lorne, you start by asking him to be autobiographical, which doesn’t much stimulate him. “I was married very young, when I was 24. Divorced, there’s nothing more to say about that. Except that I’ve been with a girl who lives in L.A. for quite a while now. Sure, we’ve talked about marriage. Talked. Tom, I hope you won’t print this. Her name’s Betty Ford. No, her name is,” and he spells it painstakingly, “Jacqueline Carlin.”
Playing with pencils, he states that his father’s an executive at Putnam’s, the book publisher; that his parents separated when he was young and both remarried and had more kids; that he grew up mostly with his mother, in New York, “upper middle-class, WASPish, a sort of hectic, wired growing, fast and slow at the same time. I always wrote. Went to a lot of schools, do you really care? Okay, P.S.6, Dalton, Haverford College, Bard, various graduate stints, pre-med, education, English, meanwhile playing in several rock groups, keyboard and percussion. Somewhere in there, I actually got a degree in audio engineering. Truth. I sang, wrote, directed, produced and acted in Groove Tube, the film, and did all the same things for Lemmings, the Lampoon off-Broadway show. I was thinking about acting then. I really wasn’t when I wrote for Alan King, just after Lemmings, or when I wrote for the Smothers.” Here he pulls from a file cabinet beside his desk a foot-thick pile of pages. “That’s what I wrote for the Smothers that did not get done. I proliferated there, it was cathartic. I thought writing was all I would ever do.”
But people kept seeing him under the kliegs. “In L.A., these agents kept trying to sell me to TV as, I dunno, Baretta or something, there were a billion of me out there. Yeah, it did shoot down the ego somewhat, I guess I did want it. When I met Lorne that night on line for that movie, I was hot that night, pretty funny, and I responded to him, you know?” When Lorne asked him to do SN, though, it was strictly as a writer, and he didn’t instantly accept. “I’d already learned how to deal, I kept upping my price, and upping it, to, yeah, a figure higher than the other writers’. Still I didn’t take it, because I had said to Lorne, ‘I want the option to perform some of what I write.’ And he’d replied, ‘No way, you’re an unknown acting quantity to me, I’m hiring a rep company to act, you write.’ So I took it on that basis, but I was with Lorne while he auditioned all the actors, helping him decide. He made everybody do a sort of screen test for the show, and asked me to do one too. Which led to his asking me to do ‘Update.”‘
His face twists sardonically, acknowledging the you-asked-for-it aspect of his current dilemma. “Listen, I am sure as hell not asking for sympathy here. I know fucking well I won’t get any, either. There are these people who’d kill to be where I am now. What would I tell you, getting an Emmy, even as a supporter, means nothing? Balls. I liked it a lot. I don’t think it’ll make a difference beyond where I am, I mean, it’s leverage, in the business, but I do not think an Emmy will spoil Chevy Chase. Any further. I did not know what to say, accepting it, that’s the truth. The acknowledgment, the acclaim, I sure as hell never discouraged it, this ‘star’ number that’s happened. But what I still am is a writer, and because of this other thing, the writing’s getting fucked, I’m not turning out anything like what I did at first, I’m suddenly this commodity.”
Here he waves a letter from a lawyer who’s proposed suing somebody who’s making Chevy Chase T-shirts without authorization. “As Lorne said to me this morning, ‘You’re now putting in six to seven hours a day being Chevy Chase whether you like it or not.”‘ Everybody’s aware the network does like it immensely, and would be quite at a loss if Chevy suddenly decided not to appear on SN. Its wishes aside, he’s not really entertaining that notion. “Shit, you’re drawn to this attention, you wouldn’t be human otherwise, but Christ, I don’t even like actors. From the start it’s been so fucking important to me to communicate, as a writer, my vision of life. As an actor you’re just doing somebody else’s, I also hate the fact that acting’s the most tenuous, gratuitous profession imaginable. I hate how self-indulgent actors become, that they lose all perspective, you’re unable to see yourself anymore except as what agents and the press tell you you are, you no longer feel. And, the worst, that you lose the ability to listen. Jesus, listening, you know this, it’s central to writing, and you’re no longer doing it, it’s all me-me-me and you’ve stopped listening to your wife, lover, children. Christ, this is a nightmare Orwell never dreamed of. Not listening equals not understanding equals not feeling, and when that happens, fuck it, you might as well hit the grave.”
A secretary’s entered diffidently with NBC publicity photos for him to autograph and he is clearly embarrassed that this should happen while I’m present. He tries to laugh. “Tom, I swear, I did not plan any of it. Being a television star, and – Jesus! I can’t believe I just used those words, that asshole cliché! When I have spent the last ten years as a writer commenting on that cliché shitting on it, satirizing it. So how long can you poke fun at it after you’ve become it?”
Because he is, again, genuinely troubled, as opposed to dramatically, you wish to ease him; however, you remark here that, having observed hundreds of actors, it seems probable that the cliché called stardom is, for better or worse, something which occurs as if destined, that asking for it or not ultimately has little to do with it happening. He listens to that carefully, and considers again.
“You think that? Yeah, I know what you’re trying to say. Something is happening like that to me, resist it, it happens anyway. I can feel that, the vibes are there. What am I going to do about it? I don’t know. First, we’ve got part of the summer off, I’ve now got to get away from here, see if I can get enough perspective back. What’s humor, written humor, any humor, but a sense of perspective, priorities, values? Jesus, meeting Ford, you saw the ultimate cliché there, you’re looking 50 milligrams of Valium in the eyes, he’s totally sublimated by tradition, he cannot do what I’ve got to do, step back from this, see if I’ve got any perspective left.”
And if he hasn’t? He’s silent for a while, studying the wall to his right which separates him from Lorne Michaels. “Look, my contract here ends this September 15th. From the beginning, I wanted it that way, no way would I be locked in on paper for five years, like a lot of the people here are. And in September, yeah, I could be gone. I’d go, for one thing, if this show doesn’t keep changing. I cannot continue being typed here as just this funny newsman character, or a fall guy. I still love the fall, it’s started feeling stale to me, burnt out, like my writing here, but it’s still tempting, you know? At the same time, the only thing interesting about comedy is surprise. So I leave whenever this show becomes Laugh-In. Or Saturday Night. As soon as it becomes safe. I don’t mean safe in the sense that we don’t get the hell started earlier in the week, early Monday, or do the show alternate weeks, maybe then we’d have time to do it right. I have been fighting for that.”
He glances to his right again. “I know what I would like to happen: that I’m smart and sane enough to use what’s happened here to me correctly. For leverage. To get . . . power. Shit, I don’t like that word much either. Hitler was first to understand that word in a media sense, all those huge loudspeakers, when he addressed the masses, like the musicians at Woodstock. What I mean by power is that of a man who’s writer, performer, director and producer, and if I can get, through what I have now, all those things at once, then maybe what I had to say back there when I started all this could get translated into a valid, valuable finished product. That is my point, assuming I’m making one.”
Sure, by now, he’s had offers from elsewhere, lots of them. And his objective can’t happen here, there’s already present one commander-in-chief. “Listen, when you write about all this, don’t be hard on Lorne. He is, underneath, truly a teddy bear you wanta hug.” Chevy is smiling. “Oh, Christ, what the fuck am I doing here, being interviewed? Listen, everything I said to you just now is a lie.”
He has meant this to be funny, and it is. The plaintive knocks on his door have become more frequent, and he must go, to be a commodity, within one, for now at least.