Bergen, Curtain, and Radner: Saturday Night Live's Second-Ever Christmas Special Lacks Dumb Blondes
Despite the drunken antics and sexist attitudes of their fellow cast members, it’s the women who brought the laughs in Saturday Night Live’s second Christmas special
Saturday Night LiveAirtime: Saturdays, 11:30pm
Cast: Candice Bergen, Frank Zappa, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Lorraine Newman, Gilda Radner
Subtitle: Candice Bergen / Frank Zappa
Air date: 1976-12-11
The other day, I found myself embroiled in an argument with my father-in-law concerning the intellectual abilities of Marilyn Monroe. He said she was above average in the smarts department, and I said she probably wasn't. At first, his main warrant for this absurd claim was that we should take a look at her husband, because Arthur Miller wouldn’t marry a dummy. Setting aside for a moment both the problem of judging a woman by her man, and the problem of trusting Arthur Miller's character judgment at all, I told my father-in-law that I know hundreds of writers and would lay good money that every single one of them would jump at the chance to marry Marilyn Monroe with utter disregard for how stupid she might be. For some reason, he continued to pursue this line of shoddy reasoning, featuring Joe DiMaggio and then JFK, as if it were only a question of ethos, and surely one of Monroe's men had enough of it that we should accept his love for her as proof of what she had upstairs.
The second round occurred the following morning, when I found my inbox stuffed full of articles that he had researched and forwarded to me, all testifying to the brains behind the broad. Fair person that I am, I skimmed each of these articles before concluding that they were of insufficient evidence to prove his point. Some of them just said she read a lot of important books like Moby Dick; others gave personal anecdotes involving deep conversations she is supposed to have had about her career ambitions. My father-in-law eventually gave up trying to convert me, which left me free to ponder two more useful questions. Namely: why did I care whether Marilyn Monroe was smart, and why was I so unwilling to give her the benefit of the doubt? Feminism means never judging a woman’s brain by her vagina, right?
I care about Monroe's IQ for two reasons. First, because she became an iconic American thanks to her outer beauty. Everybody was dying to know what was underneath that surface, but a few of us might like to put her on a celebrity pedestal the better to hear her voice, as opposed to the better to look up her skirt. Second, because she died of acute barbiturate poisoning at 36 years old. Dying young on purpose, or in an overdosing accident, requires a special skill set that tends not to loop in a great deal of participation from the brain. But hey, let’s keep blaming fate, not Marilyn. It’s a better tragedy if you do.
So if we give her the benefit of the doubt, we’re trapped with a version of history where a woman who was empowered by both her body and her mind could’ve had all the success of which she dreamed so ambitiously, but instead allowed herself to be subjugated to the position of sex symbol, until coping with the emptiness inside herself required so many drugs that she torched her own rise to stardom and died in the weakest way at the least opportune moment. She isn't exactly Joan of Arc, you see what I’m saying? Better we should believe she was a little too dumb to handle it, and she just lost control over her own trajectory. It’s too ugly to think Marilyn Monroe was a picture of the consummate professional, full of intellect and common sense, who nevertheless cracked. Let us start her out at a little bit of a disadvantage, because if she was the total package and couldn't maintain, what chance do the rest of us idiots have?
Talking about Marilyn gets me down, man. I always end up blotting it out by shifting gears to Blondie. Now Debbie Harry has smarts! Plus, she looks just like Marilyn Monroe. In the beginning, that’s all people could see about her. Debbie was adopted, too, and the timing of things matches up to a remarkable degree, such that it’s not too hard to see why urban legends posited one was the mother of the other. The lead singer of a band could ride that wave of public conversation for a long time; at least three-quarters of the way to fame. What an easy band to photograph! Never mind that they maybe kind of sucked at first, because this band had star quality. Don’t you just want to rip them to shreds? Look at that zebra print dress!
From the beginning, Debbie Harry was in charge of herself. She gleefully and often campily capitalized on her own sex appeal to drive the band’s image into record sales. The CBGB regulars cold-shouldered them a bit, whispering about how they were sell-outs before Blondie had really sold anything at all. But you could see how the standard American male was going to buy in in a big way, once you wiped away the drool hanging out of their collective mouth. When Blondie’s debut album dropped in December of 1976, nobody in America bought it. The band bought out its contracts and reissued the record a year later, when it once again failed to catch on. Their second album came three months later, and the third just seven months after that. At that point, America realized Blondie was serious.
Or did they realize she was not serious? I’d like to give Blondie full credit for importing irony to the music business. No other band in rock history has so aggressively and winkingly exploited its own titillating image to achieve world domination. With every lyric, Debbie Harry is smiling at you, only for you to understand a moment later that she’s actually laughing at you. Every song has a serious reading and a smart reading, and it’s so consistently well-balanced that we can feel safe attributing actual brains to Debbie Harry. She produced an imminently sellable, salacious band concept. Even today, you still see hordes of gay men at Blondie shows because they are proficient at reading the language of ironic distancing.
Meanwhile, millions of standard American males were duped. They had worshiped her, and she cared nothing for them. Take Lester Bangs, whose contributions to rock criticism are a clear as a bell. Bangs had been a huge fan of Blondie’s debut. He was preaching the gospel of Debbie Harry all over the place, but the more work the band did, the more Bangs began to feel as though he’d missed something. By the time their third album was out, Bangs was on the rampage, writing a quickie hundred page fan bio of Blondie in two or three speed-fueled days of fever dream. It was supposed to be an authorized biography, but ended up like an ex-boyfriend’s crazed public service announcement about the Peggy Sue that dumped him.
Bangs was jilted to discover that Harry was her own boss, and in misconstruing the emotive capacities of her singing as earnest and serious, he was shamed by the sudden realization that she had a tricky sense of humor. He conflated passion with earnestness. He fell for the joke. She was therefore smarter than him, and he felt threatened. So Bangs retaliated with a public screed, a burn notice that Blondie was a soulless piece of commerce. Fortunately, the angry misogynist rant read just like what it was, and Blondie sallied forth unscathed with the lesson of that whole ordeal tucked quietly into her back pocket. Harry has been rocking steady for 40 years, and who the hell remembers Bangs?
The standard American male is raised to privilege a specific language, rife with belches of chauvinistic drivel and surrealist detours that, when boiled down to its essence, most closely resembles John Belushi’s samurai sketches from NBC's Saturday Night. Sure Belushi was a genius, but he was also a pig who wouldn't give full voice to bits during a table reading if he knew that those bits were written by a female staff writer. He thought women fundamentally lacked the capacity to be funny, let alone rise to his level. Belushi was poised to be a big deal at the end of the second year of Saturday Night Live, primarily because Chevy Chase had just exited and Bill Murray had not yet arrived. So the season two Christmas Special should’ve showcased every talent Belushi had. Yet, skit for skit, the women are the ones who’re crushing it.
The episode’s hosted by Candice Bergen, who was doubling down after having nailed the season one Christmas Special. She was the first woman to host the show, the first person to host it twice, as well as a fashion model who happened to help organize the McGovern campaign. She once pulled a prank with Abbie Hoffman that shut down the New York Stock Exchange. The smarts are right there on her sleeve, but she’s also beautiful. So Saturday Night Live skips the traditional on-stage intro in favor of walking the camera over to Bergen's locked dressing room door. Jane Curtain knocks gently and after a few minutes of girl talk, uncovers the fact that Candy is too nervous to do the intro because all she can think about is her unrequited love for scoundrel John Belushi. Belushi struts around the corner trailing a cigar and white tails, coaxes her out from behind the door and onto a nearby set where they reenact the end of Casablanca. So schlubby Belushi gets to be Bogart, and this terrifically capable young lady has to act like she’s weak in the knees for it.
Then Dan Aykroyd as Jimmy Carter explains that’s campaign promises are meant to be broken, so the American people shouldn’t expect too much from him. He is sitting on a hay bale and munching on a bag of peanuts. In the next scene, he’s a huckster pitching the Santi-Wrap, which is a red and green toilet seat cover that you put on Santa’s lap before you sit down. Santa’s extremely drunk and disorderly, and is played by Belushi. Then Frank Zappa plays "I’m the Slime", which is beyond question the weirdest musical guest situation available at the time, until he plays "Lagoon" in the second set and garners a special place in Saturday Night Live history for having his song interrupted by an impromptu appearance of Belushi’s samurai character. The song has nothing to do with the character; Belushi may be a musician, but he is not demonstrating any real musical ability when his character disrupts the song. The band, unfazed by a sudden complete change of plans because they do, after all, work with Zappa, begin to follow the samurai’s lead, and do so with musical precision for over a minute before Zappa resumes control of the situation.
So far, we have Belushi playing one of few stars huge enough to dwarf the charisma of Candice Bergen, a very sloppy Santa Claus, and a dangerously interruptive character based on exaggerated cultural stereotype. But it gets worse! Belushi also plays himself, in a sketch where Bergen puts the word out that Belushi needs a place to go for Christmas because his girlfriend has kicked him out for being a dog. Belushi says that his only requests for his adoption are that he go to a home where the holiday dinner is stuffed with drugs, he’ll have a new car at his disposal, and maybe an under-aged daughter with whom to pal around. Why can't he just go home with Bergen? Half an hour before, she'd said she was pining away for him. It was so obviously untrue that trying to extend the premise wouldn’t last another scene. To try that joke the first time was already to risk beating it to death or finding it dead on arrival. Bergen just keeps playing the straight-woman to Belushi's jokester. She also plays it for Aykroyd’s Irwin Mainway in the recurring "Consumer Probe" sketch where he is the purveyor of a variety of terrible and dangerous toys for kids that she patiently attempts to debunk to no avail.
At no point during any of this macho flexing does Candice Bergen break character and laugh at anything these men say to her, but she famously lost her shit during her one scene with no men in it. She and Gilda Radner were doing a public service promo for the Right to Extreme Stupidity League -- which apparently has no men in it? Radner is playing a super dumb girl, and Bergen is slightly and smartly coaching her through their moment, right up until Bergen forgets which of them has which name. She uses her own character’s name on Radner, immediately realizes her mistake, and instead of fumbling for cover, she bursts out laughing. She doesn’t even bother trying to hide it or collect herself. She laughs for a full minute longer while Radner turns to the camera and finishes the scene in between her own adorable crack-ups. They are having so much fun at nobody’s expense but their own. The scene went fine and ended up with more chuckles than the Extreme Stupidity League could’ve collected on its own merits, in which the sole premise is that extreme stupidity should be considered "a God-given American right".
Radner seldom had to play the straight-woman because she was just too funny. Her most famous character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, was predicated upon the idea that women are dumb and first aired in a segment called "Hire the Incompetent". But before that there was Emily Litella, a frumpy old deaf lady who mistakenly took issue with a variety of non-issues in her Op-Ed portion of the long-running "Weekend Update" segment. The Christmas Special was Jane Curtain's fourth episode as official anchor of "Weekend Update", and it was Emily Litella’s first appearance in the sketch since Chevy Chase bailed out. At the end of her mistaken rant and subsequent recant once she realizes the issue is UNICEF and not "unisex", Emily looks over at Curtain and asks “Miss Clayton" why she hasn’t been invited to be on "Weekend Update" that often anymore. Curtain smiles coldly into the camera, gives Radner's arm a squeeze, and suggests she work on funnier bits than "unisex". Litella says she'll try. Curtain says good. Litella smiles into the camera and calls Curtain a bitch. Thunderous applause, and the scene ends with Litella leaving while Curtain shoots eye-daggers at her back.
These daggers may or may not be real. Certainly, they are convincing. But let me not mistake passion for earnestness. Surely Jane Curtain and Gilda Radner loved each other as dearly as sisters, holding fast to their bond as two very funny ladies trapped in a sea of coke-addled beer-bellies at what is supposed to have been the pinnacle of personal success at the epicenter of comedic history. Radner and Curtain were so different, so utterly singular in their shared moment. Gilda could do voices and characters, really warm and silly people. Curtain was always doing parts that were just some version of herself, a smart cookie with good instincts and a no-nonsense attitude that forced her into the straight-woman role. Kind of a feminist and kind of a leftist and pretty unkind about the boozy atmosphere at Saturday Night Live, she was so good at not breaking character that just as in that first bit with Litella, it was often very difficult to tell if Curtain was kidding.
Putting her on "Weekend Update" was a no-brainer. No matter how unusual or hilarious the news was, she could report it without cracking. She is the original queen of deadpan, keeping cool in the face of ridiculous emotional outbursts like Aykroyd regularly beginning to make some point by first declaring, "Jane, you ignorant slut!" In the Christmas Special "Weekend Update" opener, Jane and her husband have not noticed the camera is rolling. He is begging her to quit anchoring for housewife-ing, and she says she has to earn their living so he can keep sitting around working on his alleged book project. Jane Curtain was the first lead female anchor on "Weekend Update"; it would be 20 years before SNL had another one.
For me, the oddest moment in the episode is the Gary Weis video. If I’m not mistaken, the two bedrock criteria for airing something on SNL are that the segment be funny and that the segment be relevant. Funny because "live" and relevant because "Saturday night", right? And yet, here is three minutes of documentary film about Diana Nyad, the 25-year-old marathon swimmer who did her thing around the island of Manhattan in just under eight hours. It’s not remotely funny: it‘s inspirational and motivating; all in all, quite serious. It’s also not exactly tied to this particular Saturday night, since Nyad's Manhattan triumph had occurred way back in the fall of 1975 (October 6, to be exact -- which also happens to be my birthday. I remember being startled by my own feeling of how cool it was that she’d accomplished this profound and weird non-sequitur on my birth date, the unusual joy of knowing my special day aligns with a gorgeous irrelevance like that). The video fades to black as Nyad concludes, "for, after the pain, the cold, the hours, the distance, after the fatigue and the loneliness -- after all this, comes my emergence. And my emergence is what it’s all about".
At age 33, I'm just trying to get a handle on my emergence. Then again, you know what John Belushi and Lester Bangs were doing at my age? Dying of drug overdoses! Meanwhile, every single one of the blondes I’ve discussing is still going strong -- except Marilyn Monroe, which must have implications for her intellect.