DVD boxed sets of television shows are all well and good for compiling recent favorites or Nick at Nite marathon fodder, but the archival potential of the medium is truly captured by the full-season sets of Saturday Night Live now rolling into stores about twice a month.
Paradoxically, SNL has long been a presence in reruns, via half-hour and hour-long truncations, but is rarely seen in its full, unwieldy, often overlong glory. Watching the DVDs, you half-expect to catch glimpses of actual grainy ‘70s commercials, as on someone’s old VHS bootlegs, alongside the fake ads for Hey You one-night-stand perfume and Swill mineral water (dredged from Lake Eerie).
The third-season set in particular captures the show at a popular and creative peak; as such, it should be required viewing for anyone who returns to the perennial Saturday Night Live complaint that the sketches don’t know when or how to quit. Indeed, many sketches move at a more leisurely pace than almost anything the show’s current incarnation has aired in years—often to a punchline-free ending. But several Coneheads adventures are refreshing in their brevity.
Some of the slower-paced material features the usual recurrence of characters and catchphrases, by turns lovable and tiresome, but many of the one-off bits betray a surprising domesticity. Sometimes, as when Bill Murray and Laraine Newman play a couple bickering over whether to attend a party, or when Gilda Radner and host Madeline Kahn become single girls rambling over vodka, the sketches vaguely resemble short stories or one-act plays. It seems possible, then, that SNL influenced the stranger aspects of modern sketch comedy (think of any Kids in the Hall sketch that seems more like an experimental film) as much as it contributed to the crowd-pleasing mainstream.
There are other instances of the comedians reaching outside their prescribed roles, like a punkier version of the showbizzy variety show. Rock ‘n’ roll (a familiar comedian fixation) and other music forms are a focal point throughout; it’s fascinating to see how music-oriented the show was in its earlier years, not only in its willingness to give musical guests a third song or bring on additional guests of their own, but in the sketches and short films. In one of the latter, Madeline Kahn does an old-timey musical number against the crowded, bewildered backdrop of New York. It’s a charming piece, if not exactly biting satire.
Another pokes fun at Roy Orbisen (played by John Belushi) for his trademark shades and rigid stage presence. The sketch manages to find room for a near-full-length performance by Belushi of Pretty Woman, with several minutes of more overt comedy material on either side.
Later in the season, the Blues Brothers appear for the first time and annihilate the comedian/rock star line completely. In fact, their debut episode—the third of the season hosted by Steve Martin, and unofficially considered the single best in the show’s history—is practically a concert film, with Martin contributing his classic “King Tut” song (at the time, I gather, sort of a parody of commercialism; it has since aged into vintage Martin absurdism) and participating in a half-lovely, half-amusing dance number with Radner. These flights of fancy elevate this “classic” season above the many (and often underrated) seasons that followed.
Then again, I recall Maya Rudolph and Tracy Morgan displaying a similar interest in oddball song and dance in their day. Maybe the old-versus-new comparisons can only be settled after another 20 or 30 sets are released.
If this non-inaugural set is any indication, future seasons will be packaged handsomely on the outside, and sparsely on the inside. The only Season 3 extras are Things We Did Last Summer, a 45-minute mock-documentary following cast members during their supposed summer vacations following Season 3, and a quick wardrobe test with Belushi. Summer goes on a bit too long, like other shorts by director Gary Weiss that turn up during these early years, but it’s notable for individual cast members’ interpretations of long-form deadpan.
Though the special’s sole writing credit goes to Don Novello (best known as Father Guido Sarducci and, like Weiss, a satellite of the show’s regular crew), the performers’ sensibilities seep through, as well: Radner shows manic absurdity, charging a dollar a head for tours of her apartment; Murray utilizes his poker face as he quits comedy to play minor-league baseball (Laraine Newman, meanwhile, reflects her role on the show as an underappreciated oddball; her segment depicts a Tahiti vacation-turned-nightmare, complete with giant centipedes and gangs of nazis). These excursions prompt questions about what other archival extras could’ve been included: talk show appearances, interviews, and so on.
Of course, the episodes themselves provide hours upon hours of, well, let’s say “variety”, rather than anything as uniform as “entertainment”—the hit-and-miss eclecticism that can make marathon viewing a chore is also exactly what completists crave from these sets. But with all of the classic episodes and all of the talented participants, surely a few commentary tracks could’ve been assembled.
The “King Tut” episode, especially, feels like a missed opportunity. At very least, why not recruit some comedy nerds to debate whether it is truly the best 70-minutes in the show’s history, or, during other historic episodes, discuss the first appearance of Lisa Loopner, or Judy Miller? Then again, maybe it’s the ultimate tribute to the perpetual yet erratic presence of SNL that a possible series high is treated as just another week, just another show.